There's nothing worse in sports than a "what if." You know—the player who turns in a few incredible seasons before injuries abruptly end his career.
Chicago Bears running back Gale Sayers is a prime example. Sayers earned five first-team All-Pro selections before injuries ended his career after just 68 games.
Yet Sayers may not even be the biggest example of a player whose career was drastically derailed by injuries.
That would be former Green Bay Packers wide receiver Sterling Sharpe.
Sharpe started all 16 games his rookie season, catching 55 passes for 791 yards and a touchdown.
In his sophomore season, Sharpe became the best receiver in the NFL not named Jerry Rice. He set franchise records with 90 catches and 1,423 yards, and his 12 touchdowns were the second-highest total in the NFL.
Sharpe earned Pro Bowl honors in 1990, his third season, by catching 67 passes for 1,105 yards and six touchdowns. But he suffered through a disappointing 1991 campaign in which he failed to top 1,000 yards for the first time since his rookie season.
In 1992, a 23-year-old named Brett Favre was given the starting job at quarterback. After years of playing with mediocre quarterbacks such as Don Majkowski, Mike Tomczak, and Anthony Dilweg, Sharpe finally had a talented quarterback.
He responded with one of the greatest seasons by a wide receiver in NFL history.
He caught 108 passes for 1,461 yards and 13 touchdowns. Sharpe became just the sixth player to win the receiving Triple Crown—leading in receptions, yards, and touchdowns. His 107 receptions broke the single-season record of 106 set by Washington Redskins receiver Art Monk in 1984.
In 1993, Sharpe broke his own single-season reception record by hauling in 112 passes. He became the first receiver to top 100 receptions in consecutive seasons, and his 1,274 receiving yards and 11 scores ranked third in the league.
For the first time in Sharpe's career, the Packers advanced to the postseason, where they faced the Detroit Lions in the wild card round.
Sharpe turned in one of the most memorable performances in postseason history, catching five passes for 101 yards and three touchdowns. His third touchdown was a come-from-behind, game-winning 40-yard reception with just 55 seconds remaining—which made him just the ninth player to catch three touchdown passes in a single playoff game.
The Packers were eliminated the following week by the eventual Super Bowl champion Dallas Cowboys—despite a magnificent performance from Sharpe, who hauled in six passes for 128 yards and a touchdown.
In 1994, Sharpe concluded one of the greatest three-year stretches by a wide receiver in NFL history. He caught 94 passes for 1,119 yards and 18 touchdowns. His 18 touchdowns were the second-highest single-season total in NFL history.
Sharpe suffered a severe neck injury during the 1994 season and was forced to retire at age 29.
In his eight-year career, Sharpe played in all 112 games. He caught 595 passes for 8,134 yards and 65 touchdowns.
When he retired, only three NFL players averaged more receiving yards per game (72.6). Only eight players had more career receptions and touchdowns.
From 1992-94, Sharpe's average season looked like this: 105 receptions, 1,285 yards, and 14 touchdowns.
While Sharpe was blessed with Favre as his quarterback from 1992-94, Favre had yet to blossom into a superstar. In fact, in each of the three seasons following Sharpe's retirement, Favre earned the Most Valuable Player award.
Let's imagine that Sharpe had continued playing with Favre. He would have posted absolutely eye-popping receiving totals. He might have broken Jerry Rice's single-season records for receiving yards and touchdowns.
If he had duplicated his three-year totals from 1992-94, his career statistics would look like this: 909 receptions, 11,988 yards, and 107 touchdowns.
And he would still only be 32 years old!
Let's credit Sharpe with, at minimum, four more seasons at approximately 80 percent of his peak value, meaning that his average season from 1998-01 would look like this: 84 receptions, 1,028 yards, and 11 touchdowns.
His updated career statistics: 1,245 receptions, 16,100 yards, and 151 touchdowns.
He would rank second in NFL history in receptions, yards, and touchdowns.
It's difficult to project, but Sharpe may have even performed better. He may have played past age 36.
One thing is for sure. As long as he stayed a Green Bay Packer, he would have had one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history throwing to him 16 games a season.
He would have earned a Super Bowl ring after the 1996 season and would have played in another Super Bowl in 1997. In fact, he might have been the missing piece that would have propelled the Packers over the Broncos in Super Bowl XXXII.
Who knows? Maybe if Sharpe hadn't suffered a career-ending injury, the Packers could have turned into a dynasty in the late 1990s.