15 Athletes Who Have Lost Their Magic
The career arc of a professional athlete is substantially different than that of almost any other profession. Most people have decades to forge a career, building on their education and stepping-stone jobs, ideally peaking in their 50s before slowing it down in their 60s.
Success for athletes comes fast, generally peaking in the mid-to-late 20s—assuming it comes at all. The slower the burn, the fewer big-money contract years, which is a pretty big deal when most careers are over before the age of 40.
Although greatness has been known to span decades in certain athletes, this type of intense professional trajectory means that stars often flame out as rapidly as they rise. Making magic isn’t easy and almost impossible to sustain.
Here are 15 athletes who have seemingly lost their magic.
Drafted out of Michigan No. 46 overall in 2007, the slow and steady Steelers struck gold once again with defensive end LaMarr Woodley. He showed potential in his rookie year before breaking out with three consecutive standout seasons from 2008-10, missing just one game along the way.
Over the next three seasons, Woodley’s production declined sharply, with injuries keeping him out of 14 games over that period. In 2009, he had 50 tackles and 13.5 sacks, compared to 20 tackles and five sacks in 2013. The Steelers, who blamed Woodley’s lack of conditioning for his decline, released him in March.
Despite his decline, Woodley was recently named one of ESPN’s Top 100 defensive players for the upcoming season. Maybe he’ll surprise and rebound in a big way, but Woodley has two major factors working against him:
1. He’s going to turn 30 this November; and 2. He was signed by the Raiders, a team that is not known for recent success stories.
After two promising seasons with the Timberwolves, Spanish point guard Ricky Rubio was poised for a breakout year last season. It was a breakout that, unfortunately for Minnesota basketball fans, didn’t quite pan out.
Although Rubio played 82 games for the T-Wolves and did actually improve modestly from his low point in January, he admitted that he wasn’t feeling comfortable and was struggling to get back to being himself—a player whose presence on the court is known for extending beyond his solid, not stellar numbers on the stat sheet.
Said Jon Krawczynski of Yahoo! Sports:
Even when [Rubio] wasn't starting his rookie season, the arena would crackle when he stepped to the scorer's table to check in and his teammates' eyes would widen in anticipation of passes that came from impossible angles. It was still there last season when he returned from a torn ACL in December, even though his body took some time to ramp back up to the NBA's pace of play.
Two years later and coming off a lukewarm season, Rubio has attempted to leverage the departure of former teammate Kevin Love into an early extension and a max contract. It's a deal that, if it gets done, will be more representative of the T-Wolves sad state and lack of other options than absolute faith in Rubio.
At 23 years of age, Rubio still has a promising future in the NBA, but he has yet to prove his play can live up to the expectations that come with a max deal. That kind of money has been known to sink ships.
There was a time, not all that long ago, that Revis Island was the most exclusive destination in the NFL. Cornerback Darrelle Revis was once the overwhelming consensus best at the position, and he used the leverage that provided him to either hold out or threaten a holdout in no less than half of the six seasons he spent with the Jets.
After years of being at the mercy of the annual offseason ego-stroking, in April of 2013 the Jets traded him to Tampa Bay, where Revis was once again rewarded with a lucrative new contract. This one was a six-year deal worth $96 million, though smartly offered no guaranteed money.
Much like his last few years in New York, which collectively never lived up to the promise of his first three, Revis’ first season with the Buccaneers was ultimately his last, as he once again failed to live up to all that self-generated hype. After being released in the offseason, Revis signed a one-year deal with the Patriots, who have mastered the win-win scenario.
Despite any delusions he may be operating under, a 29-year-old Revis is no longer the best cornerback in the NFL, and he never will be again. If he succeeds in New England, they’ll have the inside track on locking him up for a few more quality years. If he fails, they’re only out the money they would’ve paid Aqib Talib over one season and are free to move on.
In July of 2014, news broke that New York Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia would undergo season-ending knee surgery. The arthroscopic nature of the surgery makes his timetable for a spring return possible, but Sabathia’s recent revelation that he plans to play for five or six more years makes you wonder how realistic the whole thing is.
After four standout seasons with the Yankees—three All-Star selections and one World Series—Sabathia hit a tipping point in 2013. His ERA was a (then) career-worst 4.78, and he struggled mightily, as the Yanks missed the playoffs for just the second time since 1994. This season was nothing but career worsts, with his ERA bloating to 5.28.
Although GM Brian Cashman has said publicly he’s hopeful about his pitcher’s prospects next season, Sabathia is only signed through 2016—with a "not gonna happen" $27 million option for 2017. Having struggled with weight problems and coming off the worst season of his career, 34-year-old Sabathia would be lucky to have a taker for his diminishing returns for three years, let alone another six.
Henrik and Daniel Sedin
It’s probably not entirely fair to always lump identical twins Henrik and Daniel Sedin together like this, but after nearly 15 years in the NHL, neither of Vancouver’s forwards have yet to really distinguish himself independently of the other. They’ll turn 34 in September.
Much like the Canucks team that has been led by them for over a decade, both Henrik and Daniel are well known regular-season warriors who come up short when it counts—i.e. the playoffs. And like that same Canucks team, the Sedins peaked in 2011 and have been on the decline ever since.
After losing to the Bruins in a brutal Stanley Cup Finals series that stretched seven games, the Canucks won a total of one playoff game over the next two years and failed to even make the postseason this past year.
Over that period, the production of both the Sedin brothers has fallen off a cliff. Injuries have finally become a factor, and their overall points have been cut in half. Given their age, this is a trend unlikely to reverse itself.
Largely boasted by the presence of LeBron James and Chris Bosh in recent years, the Heat’s Dwyane Wade has been on the decline since the 2008-09 season. That season, he achieved career bests in points, minutes, and assists per game—the 79 games played was also a best.
Considering D-Wade was just 26 years old at the time, fans in Miami probably expected a few more peak years. Unfortunately, Wade’s chronically enfeebled knees have dragged his game down with them and caused his star to fade before its time.
In addition to losing the helping hand of James, Wade (now 32) is coming off a season of career worsts in points scored and minutes played per game. It’s hard to imagine any scenario in which Wade returns with the same magic for which he was once known.
With 10 professional wins under his belt, eight with the PGA, it’s stunning to see how far 30-year-old Dustin Johnson has fallen since his breakout season in 2010. He began that year with a win at Pebble Beach, then at the U.S. Open in June he placed fifth. Johnson added a FedEx Cup playoff win at the BMW Championship that fall, finishing the year fourth on the PGA Tour money list.
Since 2010, Johnson has seriously contended for three different majors, his closest call being a second-place finish at the 2011 U.S. Open. In 2013, his whirlwind romance with (now fiancee) Paulina Gretzky, the daughter of hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, made substantially more headlines than anything he did on the course. Mostly due to her party-girl lifestyle and penchant for posting provocative photos online.
This year has not been better. Despite another solid performance at the U.S. Open, in July Johnson announced a leave of absence, which is rumored to be a six-month suspension for a positive cocaine test. Although the PGA is notoriously secretive about suspensions, widespread reports that Johnson had cavorted with no less than two tour wives certainly haven’t helped his voluntary absence claims.
Johnson is young enough to rebound from his current struggles, but it’s no sure thing given the sharp trajectory of downfall. Once the future of golf, at this point Johnson looks like nothing more than a cautionary tale.
While he was never threatening to be the next Peyton Manning, for three straight seasons quarterback Josh Freeman was one of the few bright spots for a Buccaneers team that just can’t ever seem to get its act together. Drafted out of Kansas State No. 17 in the 2009 NFL draft, he became a full-time starter in 2010, leading Tampa Bay to a 10-6 record, their second-best showing since ’03.
In Freeman’s first two seasons as a starter, he averaged more than 3,500 yards, 20 touchdowns, a 62 percent completion rate and a quarterback rating of 85. Those numbers put him very comfortably within the Top 15 QBs in the NFL, outperforming seasoned veterans like Ben Roethlisberger, Jay Cutler and Brett Favre.
In 2012, Freeman topped 4,000 yards and threw for a career-high 27 touchdowns, but the Bucs failed to make the postseason once again, and the coach that drafted him was fired. Despite the promise he had shown, Freeman was released last October and signed with the Vikings as a free agent. He was so terrible in his one outing in Minnesota that he never saw the field again—for a team that went 5-10.
In April, he signed a one-year deal with the Giants, who released him six weeks later. Freeman went from a first-round pick on the rise to completely unemployed in less than two years. Although he may find sporadic work as a backup, the 26-year-old’s star has officially flamed out.
In no other sport are athletes more richly rewarded for what they have done in the past—rather than anything they may offer in the future—than baseball. In March of 2010, Phillies 30-year-old slugger Ryan Howard, coming off four straight stellar seasons, signed a five-year contract extension worth $125 million.
His numbers instantly declined. A power hitter who averaged almost 50 home runs in four seasons from 2006-09, Howard has averaged 22 in the four seasons since—a number buoyed by the exclusion of 2014. He’s battled injuries that have kept him out for long stretches at times, with sinking batting numbers that have now reached career lows.
Now at age 34, it’s safe to say Howard’s magic is officially gone, but at least he’s keeping things interesting. As noted astutely on the Phillies blog TheGoodPhight, he’s currently on pace for one of the worst 90 RBI seasons in history. Despite batting career lows, somehow Howard is still driving in runs, not that it’s helping Philadelphia out of the NL East basement.
Swiss tennis great Roger Federer enjoyed one of the most successful nine-year stretches for an individual athlete in the history of sports from 2003-12. In 2009, he surpassed American Pete Sampras, who had previously held the Grand Slam record of 14—he now has 17. Three years later, he edged out Sampras again, this time for the record for the most weeks at No. 1 in the ATP rankings.
Federer’s dominance at Wimbledon over the course of his career is particularly noteworthy, having won in 2003-07, 2009 and 2012. In August of 2010, Scotland’s Andy Murray suggested Federer had already lost some of his magic, and in November of 2013 Serbia’s Novak Djokovic was less diplomatic, calling his once formidable adversary older and slower than he remembered.
Just three years ago it looked like nothing would ever slow Federer’s roll, but time has caught up with him as quickly as the greats before him. Since 2000, only two players have won a Grand Slam at an older age than Federer was in 2012—Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, each of whom won just one. And Federer is now two years older than Agassi was when he won his last.
Texans running back Arian Foster went undrafted out of Tennessee in 2009. After a relatively uneventful rookie season, with an impressive yards-per-carry average, Foster broke out as a No. 1 back in 2010, averaging almost five yards per carry and more than 1,600 yards for the season.
Foster’s stats dropped off the following two seasons, but he still maintained solid numbers through 2012. Last year, he missed more than half the season with a back injury, and this year he’s back with a ridiculously bad attitude, directed at the media for no reason whatsoever—unless his ridiculous sense of persecution counts as a legitimate hardship.
Apparently Foster pondered retirement during this past offseason, which shouldn’t inspire a lot of confidence in his future stock. And his future stock is literally relevant, because in 2013 he actually sold shares of himself as part of a ridiculous business venture.
As is often the case, the expectations from fans are directly linked to the salary of a given player. In March of 2010, the Twins signed hometown hero Joe Mauer to an eight-year deal worth $184 million—a contract that pays him around $24 million annually.
At the time, the 26-year-old catcher was coming off a career year with 191 hits, 28 home runs and a .365 batting average, all of which are still his high-water marks five seasons later. Mauer has been nagged by sporadic injuries, and struggles at the plate have made him the frequent target of home-crowd boos.
Mauer really struggled in 2011, which was his worst until this season. Although he seems to have finally ditched the injury bug, his batting stats across the board are career lows. And the Twins, who have won just one playoff game in the last decade, are occupying the basement of the AL Central.
The suddenly sharp trajectory of Mauer’s decline has been weighing on him. He told Minnesota’s Pioneer Press that frustrations have mounted because he’s “feeling pretty good” at the plate. Yikes. If this is Mauer when he’s feeling good, the Twins are in some real trouble.
A few years ago, there were more than a few media outlets/players eager to proclaim the Nets’ Deron Williams the best point guard in the game. (One, Two, Three, Four). Most often judged against the Clippers’ Chris Paul, who is one year younger than him, Williams confidently declared himself the best in the league in April of 2010.
A case for Williams could certainly be made at the time—he was, at the very least, certainly in the discussion as the best in the NBA through the 2011-12 season. At that point, the Nets, in transition and moving to Brooklyn, prioritized Williams as the future of the franchise, signing him to a five-year contract worth just under $100 million.
A deal like that always comes with sky-high expectations, which Williams hasn’t lived up to. His stats have declined over the last few years, particularly last season, when nagging ankle injuries made him a sporadic presence in the lineup at times. Even when Williams was available, he often appeared slow and lacking in confidence.
Given the promise he once showed, it’s hard to count Williams out entirely. But having turned 30 over the summer, he’s reached an age that suggests the trajectory of his statistical output is unlikely to change dramatically.
Once considered a lock to at the very least challenge PGA legend Jack Nicklaus’ record 18 majors, 38-year-old Tiger Woods has been hopelessly stalled at 14 since his stunning U.S. Open win at Torrey Pines in 2008.
Although Woods showed some flashes of his old self in 2013, this year has been an abject disaster. Not only was a tie for 25th place his best finish of 2014, it was his lowest earning year to date, with just seven starts, zero top-10 finishes and five cuts.
Because golf is a game that could easily allow him another decade of play, there’s a chance that Woods may magically recapture a sliver of his old mojo at some point. However, it’s likely to only come in bursts, if it even comes at all.
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