Injuries are “a part of the game.”
Nevertheless, they ruin careers.
Throughout the NFL’s long, rich history, dozens of promising prospects or budding stars had their careers cut way too short because of an injury.
But which NFL players best exemplify the “What If?” element of sports history?
Check out this list to find out.
As a quick disclaimer, this list isn’t going be only comprised of first-round picks who barely got on the field or a Rookie of the Year who blew out his knee at age 24.
A Hall of Famer can still qualify, provide how truncated his career became.
And while plenty of high draft choices (Charles Rogers and Ki-Jana Carter for example) had careers ruined early on, they never really accomplished much prior to crushing injuries. These 25 players were already on their way to stardom.
Team: New York Jets
Achievements: Team leader in sacks, 1990
One of the most infamous injuries in NFL history, Byrd was paralyzed late in 1992 after colliding head-first with teammate Scott Mersereau.
The 25-year-old wasn’t yet a star or even a Pro Bowler. But he had led the club in sacks two years earlier (from the defensive tackle position) and was second on the team a year later.
In his first three seasons, he recorded 27 sacks, more than Kevin Williams, John Randle or Cortez Kennedy did in their first three seasons.
Team: Pittsburgh Steelers
Achievements: AFC Leading Rusher, 1992
Jerome Bettis is the man most closely associated with Bill Cowher’s “smashmouth football.” But it was actually Barry Foster, the Steelers back in Cowher’s first season at the helm, who holds the Steelers' single-season record for attempts and yards.
In 1992, the 24-year-old rushed for 1,690 yards on an NFL-high 390 carries. He topped the 100-yard mark 12 times that season and only lost out on the NFL rushing title by 23 yards.
A year later—in the middle of another great season—Foster sprained his ankle and missed the remaining seven games.
He rebounded with a great start to the 1994 season, but sprained his knee midway through the year.
Again he rebounded to play great in the stretch run, but was traded in the offseason, then cut. He failed a physical later that season and was forced into retirement.
Teams: Philadelphia Eagles, San Francisco 49ers
Achievements: Two Pro Bowls, One All-Pro
There was just something about Eagles running backs last decade: Westbrook, Duce Staley, Correll Buckhalter.
But Westbrook was clearly the most talented of the bunch.
Despite repeated knee injuries and concussions from 2004-08, Westbrook averaged over 80 rushing yards per start, caught loads of passes and scored 66 touchdowns in 85 starts.
Had he been able to stay healthy, he would have been a good bet to snap Thurman Thomas's record of four consecutive seasons leading the NFL in yards from scrimmage.
Teams: New York Giants, Cleveland Browns, Philadelphia Eagles
Achievements: Two Pro Bowls, Two All-Pro, Two Super Bowl rings
One of the most popular players on the New York Giants during the 1980s, Bavaro was a dominant pass catcher his first four years in the NFL, catching 211 passes for 3,051 yards from 1985-88.
But he missed most of 1989 with knee problems, and a year later suffered through the Giants Super Bowl season with both knee and shoulder injuries.
He spent all of 1991 on the IR and didn’t miss a game the following two years, but was never the same player. Bavaro racked up more yards in his All Pro 1986 season (1,001) than he did in his final three, away from the Giants.
Team: Jacksonville Jaguars
Achievements: Five Pro Bowls, Three All-Pro
Here’s a case of a great player who might be considered “the Greatest” and a Hall of Famer had injuries not cost him a handful of seasons in his prime.
Beginning in his second NFL season, Boselli went to the Pro Bowl every year of his career until late September 2001, when he suffered a shoulder injury that cost him the entire season.
The 29-year-old would never play again.
If he had been able to play just a few more seasons, he’d likely have been enshrined in Canton and been mentioned in the same breath as Anthony Munoz, Orlando Pace and Jonathan Ogden.
Teams: New England Patriots, Miami Dolphins
Achievements: Team leader in rushing, 1998
Certainly, letting superstar running back Curtis Martin leave via free agency hurt the Pats following the 1997 season.
But since they received a first- and third-round pick, it didn’t seem to cripple the New England offense. Especially since it used that first pick to draft Georgia star Robert Edwards.
The former Bulldog lived up to his high selection, rushing for 1,115 yards and nine touchdowns as a rookie.
But Edwards and his infamous entry in a beach-side flag football game ruined his career. He tore his knee, nearly had his leg amputated, and missed the next three NFL seasons.
Edwards heroically returned to the field in 2002, with the rival Miami Dolphins. He even scored a touchdown in his first game back.
But that was his last year in the NFL.
Team: Cincinnati Bengals
Achievements: Team leader in rushing, touchdowns, 1988
Elbert L. Woods contributed much more to the Cincinnati Bengals and the NFL in general than just the “Ickey Shuffle.”
He was the feature back on the 1988 AFC Central Champions and led the NFL in yards per carry, and thanks to his 72 carries, 307 yards and three touchdowns in three playoff games, the Bengals nearly won their first Super Bowl.
But Woods tore his left ACL the next year and missed almost all of 1989 and part of 1990. The next season, he tore his right knee and his career was over.
Teams: New Orleans Saints, Cleveland Browns
Achievements: Two Pro Bowls
Oh those cursed Cleveland Browns. Horrible luck drafting just isn’t the only reason they’ve struggled so much the past decade. They’ve also been terribly unfortunate when it comes to signing free agents.
In the spring of 2006, they signed 26-year-old LeCharles Bentley, a Cleveland native and two-time Pro Bowler with the Saints.
But on the first day of training camp, he tore his knee and was forced to miss the entire season. He would need four surgeries over the next two years and nearly lost his leg because of a staph infection.
He was cleared to play in 2008 but was unable to return to the roster.
Bentley retired that year after never being able to suit up for the Browns.
Teams: Baltimore Colts
Achievements: Four Pro Bowls, One All-Pro
The 1954 Heisman Trophy winner from Wisconsin had an immediate impact on the NFL. As rookie, he led the league in rushes, yards and touchdowns.
He would earn a Pro Bowl spot in each of his first four seasons and score the famous overtime touchdown in the 1958 NFL Championship Game.
But after playing in 70 consecutive games, he tore his Achilles late in the 1960 season. Not coincidentally, the Colts lost all three games without him, scoring just three touchdowns during that stretch.
The following July, he retired a few weeks after his 27th birthday.
Achievements: Two Pro Bowls, Two All-Pro
No doubt John Randle was a great player and a worthy Hall of Famer. But don’t forget the achievements of the man whom he replaced.
A first-round pick out of Washington State, Keith Millard had a remarkable few years. He recorded 11 sacks his first year, and 10.5 the next season.
By 1988 he was an All-Pro, and thanks to 18 sacks, won the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year award.
But four games into the next season, he tore his ACL during a win over Tampa Bay.
Another knee surgery was needed the following September and he missed all of 1991.
The Vikings traded him the next spring but he only played 18 more games the rest of his career.
Team: Indianapolis Colts
Achievements: NFL Defensive Player of the Year, 2007
When Sanders was healthy, he was every bit as an impact as Ed Reed or Troy Polamalu. The moment he returned to the field in 2006, the Colts' defense became Super Bowl-bound.
He was a great pass rusher, great in coverage, and a ferocious hitter.
But since his great 2007, because of more foot, knee and ankle injuries, Sanders has only able to play in nine games.
The Colts had no choice but to cut him last month, and he signed on with the Chargers. But the chances of him becoming a Pro Bowler again seem pretty slim.
Team: New York Jets, Los Angeles Rams
Achievements: Five Pro Bowls, Super Bowl MVP
Namath is a Hall of Famer and a true icon in NFL lore. But no one would put him in the class of “greatest ever” alongside Joe Montana, Johnny Unitas, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and the others.
Certainly his high interception numbers—220 and only 173 touchdowns—are part of the reason.
But so is the fact that he missed most of the 1970, 1971 and 1973 seasons, as his already gimpy legs started to give out even more.
A healthy Namath probably would have been able to avoid all those interceptions and might not have been cast out of New York in 1977.
Team: Pittsburgh Steelers, Kansas City Chiefs
Achievements: NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, 2001
A decade ago, Bell was a star in the making. In 2001, he recorded nine sacks and was all over the field for the Steelers' top rated defense.
A year later, he suffered the dreaded “high ankle sprain” in the preseason and was repeatedly hampered by the injury all year.
In the team’s playoff win over Cleveland, Bell had an epic game, but re-injured the ankle and was unable to go the next week against Tennessee.
The following preseason a knee injury slowed him down but he again survived the entire year and had a fine season.
But a groin injury in 2004 kept him out most of the year, he was cut the following offseason and, after three subpar years in Kansas City, was retired at age 29.
Team: Atlanta Falcons
Achievements: Four Pro Bowls
A steal in the third round, former Auburn back William Andrews became one of the NFL’s elite rushers during the early 1980s. He averaged over 1,200 yards each of his first three seasons and, after the strike-shortened 1982 campaign, finished second to rookie Eric Dickerson for the 1983 NFL rushing title. He was also a great threat of the backfield, catching 81 passes for 735 yards in 1981.
At age 28, he was already the franchise’s leading rusher with over 5,700 yards on the ground.
The following training camp, he was tackled by teammate Thomas Benson and needed major knee surgery and missed the entire year.
Nerve damage that stretched to his foot cost him all of 1985 as well.
He returned in 1986, but only touched the ball 57 times and was out of football the following year.
Team: Cincinnati Bengals
Achievements: NFL completion percentage champion, 1969
A local hero—he played college ball for the Bearcats—Greg Cook was Paul Brown’s first round pick following their expansion season of 1968.
Learning under Bill Walsh (and beating out Sam Wyche for the starter’s job), Cook threw six touchdowns as the Bengals jumped out to a stunning 3-0 start.
But a shoulder injury suffered a week earlier slowed his progress (although he threw four touchdowns in a 31-31 tie at Houston later that year) and the Bengals won just one more game that year.
The shoulder continued to bother the NFL’s Rookie of the Year and he needed surgery (this was before the days of arthroscopic) the next August and missed all of 1970.
Additional surgeries over the next two years kept him sidelined all of 1971 and 1972.
He made a surprise recovery to make the team in 1973 but only appeared in one game and was out of football at the end of the year.
Teams: Minnesota Vikings, Miami Dolphins, Oakland Raiders, Detroit Lions
Achievements: Three Pro Bowls
Maybe with Randy Moss and Cris Carter, any quarterback in the NFL could throw dozens of touchdowns in a season: Jeff George and Randall Cunningham were able to do so.
Still, Daunte Culpepper surpassed both those predecessors beginning in 2000.
That year, his second season, he started all 16 games, led the NFL in touchdowns and threw for over 3,900 yards.
He bounced back from a knee injury in 2001 and a tough campaign the next year to become one of the NFL’s elite passers. Had it not been for Peyton Manning’s great 2004, C-Pep probably would have been the NFL MVP.
But he suffered a horrific knee injury in 2005, lost his mobility, and only appeared in 24 games the rest of his career.
Team: Detroit Lions
Achievements: Three Pro Bowls
A decade before Barry Sanders became an icon, the Lions had another Heisman Trophy-winning running back (from a Sooner State school) that wore No. 20 and dominated the NFC.
In his first two years, Billy Simms averaged over 300 carries, 1,350 yards, and 13 touchdowns. And after the strike-shortened 1982 and a relatively sub-par season a year later, Sims returned to his Pro Bowl level in 1984.
That year he had 687 yards and four 100-yard games in the first half of the season.
But in a 16-14 October win at Minnesota—in which he rushed for 103 yards on 22 carries—he sprained his knee early in the third quarter and was lost for the season.
The knee didn’t properly heal, and he never played another down.
To this day, Sims still averaged more yards per game than O.J. Simpson, Emmitt Smith, and Earl Campbell.
Team: New York Jets
Achievements: Three Pro Bowls, One All Pro
The wide receiver actually taken before Jerry Rice in the 1985 NFL draft, Toon had three excellent seasons for the Jets in the mid-1980s.
In 1988, he led the NFL in receptions and went to a third straight Pro Bowl. But that year, he also suffered his first serious concussion.
Over the next four years, he endured four more and was forced to retire midway through the 1992 season at the age of 29.
Had he lasted half as long as his contemporary (Rice), Toon probably would have retired the franchise’s all-time leading pass catcher and a potential Hall of Famer.
Team: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Achievements: NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, 2005
Williams’s career isn’t over yet. Even if he isn’t with the Bucs next year, someone will probably give him a look in training camp.
Still, the path that his career has taken since a great rookie season is sad….and reminiscent of another legendary Auburn Tiger back once drafted by the Bucs.
A leg injury hampered Williams in 2006, but it was a torn knee the next year that torpedoed his career.
He fought his way back to the field late in the 2008 season but promptly tore the other knee, and was back on the rehab path.
Williams has stayed relatively healthy the past two seasons and was a major contributor (46 catches) to the resurgence in Tampa last year.
But just imagine what he might have done from 2007 to today on two good legs.
Teams: Baltimore Ravens, Kansas City Chiefs
Achievements: Three Pro Bowls, Three All-Pro, NFL Rushing Title, 2001
Unlike most of the entries on this list, Holmes stayed pretty healthy for the first seven-and-a-half years of his career.
During that time, he had four 1,000-yard seasons, scored 80 touchdowns and was the NFL’s premier runner.
But halfway through 2004—after five 100-yard games, 892 yards, and 14 touchdowns—Holmes sprained his ankle and was lost for the season.
He returned a year later only to suffer a serious neck injury that cost him half of 2005 and all of 2006.
Holmes made a brief return in 2007, but re-injured the neck that November and promptly retired. Still, his final stat sheet reflected more rushing touchdowns (86) than games started.
Teams: Indianapolis Colts, Miami Dolphins, Washington Redskins
Achievements: Eight career sacks
Emtman, the first overall pick in the 1992 NFL Draft, showed brief glimpses of brilliance during his first season.
He recorded three sacks, a handful of tackles for losses, forced a fumble and returned an interception 90 yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter of a road win over Dan Marino’s Dolphins.
But he soon tore his knee and was gone for the rest of his rookie year.
Emtman tore the other knee five games into the next season.
After a surprising return in the middle of the 1994 season, he ruptured a disc in his neck and never again played for the Colts.
Emtman rebounded to play most of the next two years with Miami but the pain was too great and—after another surgery—he retired in 1998.
Team: Chicago Bears
Achievements:Four Pro Bowls, Five All-Pro
Sayers was a first ballot Hall of Famer, so it would be a bit ridiculous to say his career was “ruined” by injuries. He scored 39 rushing touchdowns, nine receiving touchdowns, and an incredible eight more on special teams.
Still, had he not torn up both knees, who knows what those numbers would have been.
Maybe it would have been his, not Jim Brown’s, rushing total that Walter Payton and Emmitt Smith were chasing.
He bounced back once from a torn knee in 1968 to win the NFL rushing title, but couldn’t do so again three years later and retired at the tender age of 28.
Team: Denver Broncos
Achievements: Three Pro Bowls, Three All-Pro, Super Bowl MVP, NFL MVP, 1998
A quarter century after Gale Sayers's remarkable career was cut short by a knee injury, the same happened to Terrell Davis.
Putting up Eric Dickerson and Earl Campbell-like numbers in his first four years, Davis was unquestionably the AFC’s best runner in his day and was expected to walk into the Hall of Fame.
Coming off his 2,000-yard, 21-touchdown MVP year in 1998, Davis tore his ACL and MCL in an early season loss to the Jets and was gone for all of 1999.
More knee problems sidelined him for most of the next two seasons and he retired after 2001.
It’s still anybody’s guess if he’ll one day be awarded a bust and ugly yellow jacket in Canton, Ohio.
Teams: Green Bay Packers
Achievements: Five Pro Bowls, Three All-Pro
Even before Brett Favre became a superhero in Green Bay, Sterling Sharpe was an All-Pro wide receiver.
In his second season, Sharpe led the NFL in catches, a feat he’d repeat in 1992 and 1993.
Twice he racked up over 1,400 yards receiving, he led the league in touchdowns twice, and in his only two playoff games combined for 11 catches, 229 yards, and four scores.
But late in the 1994 season, a neck injury sidelined him—but not before he caught nine passes for 132 yards and three touchdowns in his last game—for the postseason, and doctors never again cleared him to play.
Teams: Los Angeles Raiders
Achievements: One Pro Bowl
Certainly his alter-ego as an All-Star leftfielder hurt Bo Jackson from becoming a Hall of Famer, All-Pro, or even a 1,000-yard rusher.
Still, he was only 28 years old when Jackson’s hip practically exploded upon being tackled in a 1990 playoff win over Cincinnati. (Still, he ran for 77 yards on just six carries that day).
Jackson never played again, and we’re left with only a handful of highlights. But since they include three 88-yard touchdown runs and a 5.4 yards-per-carry average, and eight 100-yard games in just 23 starts, the “What if” questions are endless.