Injuries are the great unknown in sports. We don't know when they will come, who they will hit, and how devastating the long term effects will be.
On the one hand, we have Sam Bowie, whose foot injury completely ruined his career.
On the other hand, we have Michael Jordan, who recovered perfectly from the foot fracture that cost him his whole second season.
As a sports fan, it is downright terrifying to consider all the memories possibly lost if Jordan hadn't been able to run as fast, cut as quick, and jump as high. Nike would still just be a Greek God and Gatorade a Florida fad.
Which is why I consider the career-altering injury the saddest thing in sports.
Watching the post-injury player is like watching a three-legged dog. You start to tear up. You want to look away. And all you can think, "What a shame..."
In honor of anybody who has ever blown, torn, or shattered an essential body part, this is a list of the ten biggest what-if career-altering injuries of the last 25 years.
Apologies to Bill Walton, Mark Prior, and Grant Hill.
I was very close to putting all three on the list, but when it came down to it, I valued the excitement and potential of the player in question more than their effectiveness.
Walton never was explosive enough in the first place to get me out of my seat, even at UCLA.
Prior pitched like a robot, which was not a bad thing for wins, but if he hadn't gotten injured I don't think I would have seen anything I hadn't seen before.
Hill was the hardest omission, especially because that Magic team with McGrady could have been truly special. Hill was also pretty damn fun to watch (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dhd5SWS8u4Y).
I guess I just don't think Hill would have ever done anything spectacular we would still be talking about today. He wasn't unique.
The Killer Crossover.
Everyone has that athlete whose moves and mannerisms they try to emulate. Tim Hardaway was mine.
The crossover has been used since basketball began.
But nobody had ever done it like Hardaway.
Maybe that's because he always did it the same way, time after time, past defender after defender. Always crouched low, through the legs from right to left, then back in front from right to left, and to the basket for a lay-up.
From 1989-1993, Hardaway was an absolute blur on the court, using his crossover and low center of gravity to weave in and out of defenders. He would have been an absolute terror under today's "no-touch" NBA rules.
During this time, he made the All-Star team three times, Second Team All-NBA once, and Third Team All-NBA once.
Then the injury gods struck.
Hardaway tore his ACL and missed the entire 1993-1994 season.
Ironically, you could argue that Hardaway was a more effective basketball player after the injury. He actually made First Team All-NBA in 1997 with the Heat.
But no could argue that he was infinitely less exciting.
The Heat vs. Warriors highlights comparisons speak for themselves:
Ron Gant is easily the most obscure name on this list.
Need proof? I couldn't even find a video of him on Youtube.
Gant came up with and starred on the Atlanta Braves from 1987-1993. He was an integral part of the first three of 14 consecutive division championships for the Braves.
To me, Gant was a throwback to the old days of baseball when athletes—not just ballplayers—played the game.
With both raw power and blazing speed, Gant combined the two most exciting attributes in baseball. He could do everything.
In fact, Gant is one of only four players in baseball history to put together back-to-back 30 home run, 30 stolen base seasons. The other three were Willie Mays, Bobby Bonds, and Barry Bonds.
Unfortunately for baseball, an athlete of his caliber would probably be in the NFL right now if he had been born 10 years later.
So why is Gant not mentioned in the same breath as a Griffey or Bonds?
Well, first of all, he was more Bobby Bonds than Barry Bonds with a lifetime OBP of .336.
Second of all, coming off a 36 home run, 117 RBI, 26 stolen base season, Gant was dumb enough to break his leg in an ATV accident just as he was entering his prime.
Gant sat out the 1994 season and recovered enough to hit 29 and 30 home runs in 1995 and 1996.
However, the mixture of the broken leg's effects and aging drained much of the excitement from his game.
Anyone watching couldn't help but feel that before the injury his career was still arcing up, but by the time he returned he had missed the apex and was already cascading down the backside of his career.
It is a shame we didn't get to see that 1994 season from Ron Gant (albeit a short one because of the strike).
There is nothing I like more in basketball than the power dunker.
The kind of guy who doesn't just dunk the ball for two points, but dunks the ball for two points and the soul of anyone who happened to be standing in his way.
Before Amare Stoudemire (who had his own career-altering injury), there was Antonio McDyess.
Let's take a look.
Pre-injury McDyess is the what a power forward would look, move, and dunk like in the modern game if God were really trying.
McDyess was a lithe 6'9", 245 pounds, who was thick enough to handle his own in the post, but athletic enough to race past guards in the open court.
More about excitement than substance, McDyess still generated a few awards from First Team All-Rookie in 1995-96, to Third All-NBA in 1998-99, to his first and only All-Star berth in 2000-2001.
More importantly, he was the most exciting dunker and shot blocker in the NBA outside of Vince Carter for a four or five year period.
Unfortunately, McDyess then suffered a ruptured patellar tendon early in the 2001-2002 season, and in a common theme, was never really the same player.
Like Tim Hardaway, you could probably argue that he was a more effective player post-injury.
But who cares about effectiveness and winning?
I still miss the McDyess who dunked over, around, and through any player in his way.
Imagine if Sandy Koufax had only been dominant for 15 starts instead of six seasons before his arm gave out.
Hyperbole or not, that is the unfortunate situation we are looking at with Francisco Liriano.
Starting in May of 2006, Liriano began an incredible run of starts in which every game was another chance at a personal record. Remember, he was just a rookie at the time.
From May 19-31, Liriano went 3-0 in May with a 1.13 ERA.
From June 11-July 8, Liriano won a personal-best six consecutive starts with a 1.23 ERA.
On June 16, he surpassed 10 strikeouts in a game for the first time with 11.
On July 2, he did it again with 12 strikeouts.
On July 23, he did it again with 10 strikeouts.
On July 28, he did it AGAIN with 12 strikeouts.
Then quicker than you can say Hall of Fame, Liriano went on the disabled list with a strained ulnar collateral ligament. Even more excruciating is that he appeared to be okay and came back to pitch again in September.
But two innings in, he was getting ready to make a call to Tommy John and his good friend Dr. James Andrews. He hasn't been the same since.
Whether Liriano was a first half wonder or the next Sandy Koufax, we'll never know.
Now THAT is disappointing.
You will be hard-pressed to find an athlete in the five major sports (including soccer here) whose defining moment came earlier than Michael Owen.
At the ripe age of 18, Owen literally burst onto the world stage by slicing right through an entire world class Argentinian defense and scoring one of the greatest goals in World Cup history.
The dribbling sequence and shot lasted all of seven seconds.
And in that seven seconds, Owen went from English up-and-comer to THE next star in soccer.
Let's have a look:
Owen carried his World Cup momentum over into his next season with Liverpool. Using his otherworldly pace and outstanding dribbling skills, Owen weaved his way in and around English Premier defenses for 23 goals in 40 games.
However, and there is always is a however in this countdown, Owen went down with a hamstring injury on April 12, 1999.
After that, the hamstring injury bug never really stopped biting.
This is a slight exaggeration because Owen did go on to win European Footballer of the year and World Soccer magazine player of the year in 2001.
He also continued to score goals at a prolific rate with 16, 19, 19, and 16 goals in consecutive seasons from 2000-2004.
But the injury did plague Owen throughout his career.
You never knew when that hamstring might pop again. And I don't think Owen did either.
And that's the key point.
I never shook the feeling that after his first hamstring injury, Owen had lost just enough of his explosiveness, pace, and-most importantly-fearlessness that we never again got to see the Owen who appeared in the '98 World Cup.
It is disappointing because most soccer fans thought we would be seeing that seven seconds many more times over the next 10 years.
Instead, we really only got it once.
I firmly believe that Frank Gore was, if not the next Barry Sanders, then Reggie Bush with size.
Playing as a true freshman on the 2001 undefeated national champion Miami Hurricanes, Gore carried the ball 64 times for 565 yards (8.83 YPC average) and five touchdowns.
How does that compare to the other not one, not two, but three NFL running backs on that incredible Miami team?
Clinton Portis carried the ball 240 times for 1,304 yards (5.43 YPC) and 11 TDs.
Willis McGahee carried the ball 69 times for 321 yards (4.65 YPC) and three TDs.
Najeh Davenport carried the ball 23 times for 54 yards (2.3YPC) and three TDs.
The stats speak for themselves, and so does the video below. See 6:14-6:46.
Unfortunately, Gore gave us as short a glimpse of his magic as anyone on this list.
In spring practice the following year, Gore suffered an ACL tear and missed the entire 2002 season. Even worse, Gore had already beat out Willis McGahee for the starting position.
Gore went on to have a successful career at Miami and has even been a Pro Bowl running back in the NFL.
Despite the success, Gore was a different player after the surgery.
Gone lacked the jump-out-your-seat explosiveness from his freshman year.
Want evidence that we missed out on something special? Ask Miami's strength coach, the same man who has coached Edgerrin James, Portis, and McGahee.
"You wouldn't have known Willis McGahee the way you know him now until Frank got hurt," Miami's strength and conditioning coach Andreu Swasey says of Gore, whom some considered to be better, before his injuries, than McGahee and Clinton Portis when they were together at Miami. "He was already loaded as just a freshman coming in. Everybody at that time would say Frank was the overall better back even though he was the youngest. (Instead) nobody got a chance to see the real Frank Gore."
And that's too bad.
The Russian Rocket.
The Fastest Soviet Creation Since Sputnik.
Pavel Bure is the fastest hockey player that I have ever seen.
In fact, he is the only hockey player I have ever seen who is noticeably faster than everyone else on the ice. There was hockey player speed. And then there was Pavel Bure speed.
Bure entered the NHL in 1991-92 with the Vancouver Canucks and instantly became one of its greatest stars. He scored 34 goals his rookie season, followed by back-to-back 60 goal seasons from 1992-94.
No one knew at the time that that was the last full season we would see of this version of Pavel Bure.
The strike-shortened season in 1994-95 wiped out much of that season for Bure. Then, on November 9, 1995, Bure suffered (what else?) a torn ACL and was sidelined the rest of the season.
Like many athletes on this list, Bure was effective both before and after his career-altering injury.
But no matter how many goals he scored, you could never watch Bure again and not think, "Remember when he used to just blow by everyone?"
Above all, a mark of Bure's excitement before his knees went out is the question below.
Given the chance to see one game of Pavel Bure and one game of Wayne Gretzky for entertainment purposes, wouldn't you choose Bure's speed and puck handling over Gretzky's creativity and passing?
Or is that just hockey blasphemy?
Pre-injury Anfernee Hardaway was the closest thing the NBA has had to Magic Johnson since he retired.
Except Hardaway could dunk.
That just about sums up why he is number three number on this list.
Like Magic, Hardaway was an extremely tall point guard at 6'7" and 220 pounds, but with the ball-handling and passing skills of someone much smaller.
While not in the same league as Johnson as a passer, Hardaway was arguably better in every other respect. Hardaway possessed more athleticism allowing him to play above the rim and had better shooting skills on his jump shot.
Hardaway's pre-injury career reads off like a Hall of Famer.
First season - Rookie of the Year Runner-up
Second Season - First Team All-NBA, NBA Finals appearance, All-Star Game Starter
Third Season - First Team All-NBA, All-Star Game Starter
Fourth Season - Third Team All-NBA, All-Star Game Starter
Not only that, but his series of spins and weaving forays to the basket, alley-oop dunks, and no-look passes made him possibly the most entertaining basketball player in the world at the time.
Of course, NBA fans know what happened next.
Hardaway suffered a serious knee injury in his fifth season and never regained his explosive athletic abilities. He would never again make an All-NBA team or even an All-Star team.
The cancellation of his entertaining commercial series with Chris Rock said it all. This wasn't the same guy anymore.
The MNF game against the Seahawks.
Running along the outfield wall.
The All-Star Game home run.
Running a 4.12 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine.
To me, the most amazing thing about Bo Jackson is that he is one of the few athletes who is completely and utterly defined by moments rather than statistics.
How many career home runs did Bo have? Nobody knows. (141)
How many career NFL touchdowns did Bo have? Nobody cares. (16)
This is all a fan needs to see:
That to me is the lasting legacy of Bo Jackson.
From 1987-1991, every time Bo stepped on an athletic field he presented the possibility of doing an athletic feat that no one had ever accomplished before. The fact that he offered that potential in two different sports makes it all the more unbelievable.
Then January 13, 1991 happened.
Jackson was never the same following the severe hip injury, although he did return to play a few major league seasons.
And we haven't seen anyone like him since.
This is probably going to piss off a lot of American sports fans.
A soccer player? Ahead of Bo Jackson? Damn right, and I am not even saying that to get comments.
Just please watch this video:
This was Ronaldo at his absolute peak before the first of three serious knee injuries robbed him of the sheer explosion, speed, and agility that separated him from any soccer player and pretty much any athlete I have ever seen.
I play soccer, so I am a little biased. But I really don't think that is the issue here.
Both Bo Jackson and Ronaldo possessed athleticism that made it look like they were the big kid playing among little boys. Both could run right by you, run right through you, or run around you. Both scored so many long touchdown runs and breakaway goals it made it look like a pee-wee league.
So why did I choose Ronaldo?
Because Ronaldo possessed the Barry Sanders gene and Bo Jackson did not. Bo didn't really juke anybody. He just destroyed them.
Ronaldo could not only destroy you, but also make you look like a fool.
The most interesting thing about Ronaldo is that it would be hard to tell he ever suffered an injury based on his statistics.
Pre-Knee Injury - 101 goals in 114 appearances in four seasons prior to his knee injury.
Post-Knee Injury - 102 goals in 164 appearances in nine seasons after his first knee injury.
However, the possibility that he would do something that you had never seen before was gone.
And that is just sad.