The allure of sport is in the hypothetical.
What if this? I predict that.
Mock drafts, scouting reports, preseason picks: these are the binding agents of fanhood, the currency with which we construct meaning out of childhood games.
Buried in this perpetual state of projection there lies a darker question: What could have been?
For these athletes, that somber refrain defines their legacy. Brilliant athletes all of them, but none quicker, or stronger, or more agile than the cruel fate of bodily torment.
I’m purposefully excluding players that died during their careers, instead focusing on those who played through injury. The former already have our attention—bronzed busts, charity tributes, and sentimental magazine features.
As Neil Young says: “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.”
In that case, the faders deserve a little love. Here’s my tribute.
The allure of sport is in the hypothetical.
Decades after his career ended, the hurler from Brooklyn came across an erstwhile golf pro at a charity tournament. Jane Leavy captures the exchange in A Lefty’s Legacy, her seminal account of Koufax’s life:
Vin Scully, the Dodgers broadcaster, was with him one day on a golf course when a pro suggested Koufax would shoot better if he straightened his arm on his follow-through. Koufax replied, "If I could straighten my arm, I'd still be pitching."
That the pain from his playing career still lingered 30 years after retirement proves just how crippling Koufax’s arm problems were.
Or if you prefer a statistical perspective, Koufax retired at age 30 after what was by most any account his finest big league season. In 1966 he went 27-9, posted a 1.73 ERA, struck out 317 batters, and then walked away, unable to endure the arthritic torment any longer. After six years at the top of his profession he was gone.
Mickey Mantle seems an odd choice for a list of injury-hampered stars. After all, Mantle’s illustrious career—536 home runs, 3 MVPs, 7 championships—spanned an impressive 18 seasons.
What exactly did injury take from him?
Plenty, at least according to eye witnesses who saw Mantle’s breathtaking speed prior to the injury he suffered in Game 2 of the 1951 World Series.
Chasing a ball in right-center field Mantle’s cleat got caught in a sewer drain and he suffered a traumatic injury variously described as torn muscle, torn cartilage, and torn tendon. Without the benefit of modern science we may never truly know the exact nature of Mantle’s injury, and we will never conclusively determine how drastically it altered his career.
I’ll let Jane Leavy, author of the most recent Mantle biography, and apparent aficionado of iconic, wounded athletes, give her take:
That October afternoon was the last time Mantle set foot on a baseball field without pain. He would play the next seventeen years struggling to be as good as he could be knowing he would never be as good as he might have become.
Forgive me if this sounds condescending, I’m not much for ultimate fighting knowledge. But after doing a little background research via Yahoo!Sports it seemed to me Chuck Liddell deserves a spot in this slideshow.
Now the story.
In 2007 “The Iceman” took a three year winning streak into a title showdown with Quinton “Rampage” Jackson. Not only did Liddell lose the fight in stunning Tyson-Douglas fashion, he lost his mojo along with it. The knockout sapped Liddell of his legendary toughness and delivered him that dreaded “never the same” label.
I suppose that’s the risk you take when you climb into a cage with a dude named “Rampage.” And although I may never understand UFC, I have to respect the heck out of anyone willing to do that.
Griffey was a modern-day Mantle, a player so accomplished that the very fact he could be considered shortchanged by injury raises testament to his prodigious ability. 630 home runs, a .907 OPS, 10 Gold Glove awards, and there could have been more. As fellow B/R man Andrew Silva writes, “To many [Griffey] is considered the most talented player that ever lived and 'only' hit 600 home runs.”
Griffey’s run from 1996 to 1999 may be one of the best four-season stretches in major league history. He averaged over 50 home runs per season, leading the league on three of those occasions, won Gold Gloves in each of the four seasons, and drove in 567 runs. More than that, he personified the youthful exuberance of baseball in a way no player had since Willie Mays.
When he left for Cincinnati in 2000 all of the wonder that defined “Junior” seemed to dissipate. He was only 30, but he grew old so quickly it was hard to take account of his age. He suffered season-ending injuries in 2002, 2003, and 2004, only twice playing 140+ games during his eight full seasons as a Red.
Certainly Griffey could have benefited from the “cream and the clear” that so many of his peers indulged during the early 2000s. That Griffey has never been connected to steroids during an era that saw so many inferior players pass him by deserves praise.
My hope is that his competitive integrity becomes a part of his enduring legacy, right alongside that beautiful left-handed swing and the statuesque pose that told you it was gone.
Lemieux is the Mickey Mantle of hockey, a legendary figure made all the more impressive by the fact he could have been more.
Most folks remember the Hodgkin’s lymphoma that caused him to miss time in 1993, but beyond that Lemieux suffered from a chronically bad back that hampered him most of his career.
During the last twelve years of his career, Lemieux only played 70+ games on two occasions. Despite missing large chucks of time during his prime, Hockey News still rated Lemieux the fourth-best player of all time in 1997. Had he stayed healthy for longer, Super Mario might have entered the rarefied air of Gretzky, Bobby Orr, and Gordie Howe.
As pain would have it, we’ll never know if Lemieux could have challenged hockey’s holy triumvirate.
With apologies to Deion Sanders and perhaps Carl Lewis, Bo Jackson is the greatest all-around athlete of the last 30 years. Though he never dominated football or baseball at the professional level, the man could run a 4.12 40-yard dash and hit a baseball 500 feet without ever really giving due attention to either pursuit.
It wasn’t human, and it still isn’t.
To define Jackson by his statistical accomplishments, to dress him down by what he wasn’t in a measured sense, misses the essence of Bo. He was entertainment incarnate, sport for the sake of awe. Maybe nine strikeouts followed by one mammoth home run hurts the team in the long run, but it sure is fun to watch.
And it is possible that as he matured into his late 20s and early 30s Jackson could have grown into a truly elite player in either baseball or football. At the very least, his 1990 hip injury robbed us of legendary feats still to come.
With Bo you knew, there would have been more stories to tell.
Lindros faced absurd expectations when he entered the NHL in 1992. To hear people talk about his abilities, anything short of Wayne Gretzky would be a disappointment for the young center. And for a while Lindros showed the world why he went number one overall in the NHL draft, scoring and hitting with the league’s best.
But as it usually goes with great expectations, Lindros fell short of those dizzying heights. Not only did he fail to bring the Stanley Cup back to Philadelphia, a series of concussions ultimately compromised his abilities and stole precious ice time. When he retired in 2007, thoughts of what he wasn’t instantly overwhelmed the considerable bulk of his accomplishments (including a Hart Trophy).
For this Flyers fan, going into any more detail brings back too many bad memories. Watch the video for a snapshot of the good times.
Watching Walton cheer-lead on the sidelines during the the Celtics’ 1986 championship run—his white towel waving furiously—has to be one of the most bittersweet images in basketball history. Sure, he was Sixth Man of the Year in ‘86, but Walton was never meant to be anybody’s sixth man.
A peerless superstar in his college days, Walton’s near-flawless run in the 1973 NCAA championship game—21 of 22 from the field—ranks as one of the greatest individual performances in basketball history.
Those amateur theatrics were just preamble for his NBA heroics.
In 1976-77, one of Walton’s few near-healthy NBA seasons, Walton led what I consider the greatest NBA finals upset of all-time. After a season that saw him average five assists per game (as a center!), Walton led his Portland Trailblazers into a finals showdown with the loaded Philadelphia 76ers. The Sixers featured Dr. J, George McGinnis, Caldwell Jones, Henry Bibby, Darryl Dawkins, World B. Free, and Doug Collins. The Blazers had Bill Walton.
Despite falling behind two games to none, Walton willed his club past Philadelphia for an improbable four-to-two series win. During the ‘77 playoffs Walton averaged over 18 points, 15 rebounds and five assists per game. Without his all-around game the Trailblazers, who had never even been to the playoffs before that year, would have stood no chance.
Walton would lead the Blazers to a fast start in the ‘77-’78 campaign, his play leading the team to wins in 50 of the first 60 contests, before suffering the first in a series of foot and leg injuries. Those recurring ailments would limit Walton the rest of his career, and after leaving in Portland in 1979 he would never feature prominently in the league again.
His late career resurrection as an energy bench player provided some consolation, though it did little to answer the unfulfilled promise of Walton’s career.
Unlike football and basketball rookies who come equipped with the hype of having just played a well-watched amateur sport, baseball rookies emerge from the anonymity of minor league baseball to thrill, inspire, and mystify us.
No rookie captured the essence of baseball newcomer better than Mark “the Bird” Fidrych. He looked like a Muppet, talked to the ball, and flummoxed opposing hitters. The nation fell in love with the kid from Worcester, and he quickly transcended whatever statistics he would accumulate.
Lost in the hysteria surrounding his antics was Fidrych’s on-field accomplishments. He threw 24 complete games his rookie year and finished with an ERA of 2.34. Although his peripherals weren’t great (3.5 SO/9) and his mediocre minor league track record never suggested greatness, it would have been nice to have “the Bird” in the game for a few more years.
Instead a torn rotator cuff midway through his second season effectively ended his career. A handful of comeback attempts proved fruitless.
Perhaps its best that the memory of Fidrych remains encased in that magical first season. He was, and always will be, a phenomenon.
In 1977 Pete Maravich was the leading scorer in the NBA. By 1980 he was retired. By 1988 he was dead, vanished before anyone could appreciate the full spectrum of his mastery.
At his height, “Pistol” Pete Maravich occupied his own plane in the basketball stratosphere; a coach’s son who combined intense rote body memorization with the court vision of a basketball savant. Where others saw a frenetic clutter of bodies in motion, Maravich saw opportunity. The ball dancing on his finger tips, but never beyond his control, Maravich used a peerless arsenal of tricks—body fakes, no-look passes, scoop shots and the like—to dominate the opposition.
His college and professional feats are the stuff of legend. Before the advent of the three-point line, Maravich averaged 44.2 points per game playing for his father at LSU, including a 69-point performance against Alabama in 1970. In the NBA Maravich averaged over 19 points per game in each of his first nine NBA seasons, peaking with his 31.7 ppg performance in 1976-77.
Persistent knee injuries would limit his effectiveness in the following years and force his retirement at age 32. A consummate entertainer on the court, Maravich struggled to find his place off it. Having finally found peace as a born-again Christian in the mid-1980s, Maravich died in 1988 after suffering a heart attack in a pick-up basketball game. He was just 40 years old.
Sayers was the Barry Sanders of his generation, a back so phenomenally talented and elusive that the brevity of his career still does not stop people from ranking him among the all-time greats.
The “Kansas Comet” broke into the league in 1965 would set the all-time single season touchdown record in his rookie season with the Bears. He would twice lead the NFL in rushing before a devastating hit by San Francisco 49ers defensive back Kermit Washington in 1970 permanently compromised an already ailing knee.
After an attempted comeback, Sayers retired in 1971—six years after his debut. Even though he did not have the cumulative statistics usually commensurate with a Hall of Fame career, the unimpeachable memory of his electrifying skills earned him a spot in Canton in 1977.
Legendary sportswriter Red Smith summarized Sayers’ allure best:
His days at the top of his game were numbered, but there was a magic about him that still sets him apart from the other great running backs in pro football. He wasn't a bruiser like Jimmy Brown, but he could slice through the middle like a warm knife through butter, and when he took a pitchout and peeled around the corner, he was the most exciting thing in pro football.
In a sport where careers usually start young and end early, Monica Seles’ career started younger and ended far earlier than anyone could have imagined.
Seles turned pro at 14 and reached the semifinals of her first Grand Slam tournament, the 1989 French Open. She went on to win the next three French Opens, amassing eight Grand Slam titles by the time she was 19 years old. In a crowded field that included the great Steffi Graf, Seles was the undisputed best player in the world in 1991 and 1992.
In 1993 her reign of dominance came to a horrifying end when a crazed Graf fan stabbed Seles in her back during the quarterfinals of clay court event in Hamburg, Germany. Seles would not appear in a match for the next two years, missing what would have likely been her tennis prime due to the physical and psychological wounds suffered from her very public downfall.
Upon her return, Seles managed to win one more Slam (the ‘96 Australian Open), but never again threatened to reclaim her No. 1 ranking. Her natural gifts were such that she was able to remain a top player into the early 2000s, providing at least some closure on a career that could have been much more.
That was Smoky Joe Wood’s cumulative ERA between the years of 1909 and 1913. Over those years he amassed a 91-47 record with 99 complete games and 23 shutouts.
For that small window of time, only Ed Walsh and the great Walter Johnson were better. Some claimed that Wood, who starred for the Red Sox during some of their best years, threw even harder than the Big Train.
Then, in a bit of misfortune that seems rather innocuous by today’s standards, Wood’s dominance came to an emphatic end. Fielding a bunt attempt against the Tigers in 1913, Wood slipped on wet grass and broke his thumb. He continued to pitch through the pain—quite well in fact—but ultimately lack of proper healing led Wood to abandon the rubber.
By 1918 Wood was a regular in the outfield for the Cleveland Indians, finishing out the last five years of his career as a position player.
In another time, Wood’s broken thumb would have been nothing more than small setback—six weeks in a splint at the worst. Instead, it truncated one of the most promising careers of the dead ball era.
Don’t assume Yao Ming was going to change the NBA for the better. Don’t assume that, just because he was the first foreign No. 1 overall pick, Yao would have taken world basketball to the next level. Don’t assume he was going to be the game’s greatest global ambassador since Michael Jordan.
In order to fulfill those promises Yao Ming had to play well. And he did, extremely well.
Between 2004 and 2008 Ming was arguably the best offensive center in basketball (Dwight Howard being the argument), averaging no less than 18 points per game in any of those campaigns. Even as foot injuries began to compromise his effectiveness, Ming’s wonderful touch around the basket and beautiful mid-range game kept him among the game’s elite.
There is of course a certain sadness to the fact that Yao couldn’t play past age 30. So much of his potential, as a player, went untapped.
As a symbol, however, Ming surpassed even the wildest expectations. By the end of his career, an estimated 300 million Chinese people played basketball and approximately 30 million watched the NBA every week. Considering that Ming has barely played over the last few years, those numbers are particularly impressive.
Ming embraced his unique place in the game, proudly accepting his role as global ambassador while never taking himself too seriously. There is a difference between the two, and Yao navigated it beautifully. Lucky for us, we got to witness the 7'6" behemoth dominate basketball with all the grace and graciousness of an icon.
Broadway Joe was a pioneering figure in the meeting of sport and culture.
With that as preamble, it’s easy to forget that Namath limped through the prime of his NFL career. Between ages 27 and 30, Namath played more than 10 games in a season only once. By the time he regained his footing in 1974, glory days had passed him by.
Namath will not soon be forgotten because of the injuries that befell him, but one has to wonder how many more guarantees he could have made.
Debuting with the Indians in 1955, Score led the league in strikeouts each of his first two seasons. Effectively wild, almost menacingly so, Score won rookie of the year honors in ‘55 and notched a 20-win season in ‘56 when he was just 23.
In May of 1957, one of the most promising careers in baseball came unglued. During a home game against the Yankees, Score was struck in the face by a Gil McDougald line drive. The blast fractured Score’s face, threatened to rob him of his eyesight, and ended his ‘57 campaign.
He returned in 1958, but struggled through another injury-plagued season. Many Indians’ fans thought the trauma of the line drive rattled Scores’ psyche, robbing him of his blinding talents. Score offered another explanation, attributing his declining performance to an elbow injury that in turn sullied his throwing mechanics.
No matter the cause, Score never regained his top form. After throwing 200+ innings in each of his first two seasons, the electric lefty never topped 165 innings again and by 1962 was out of baseball completely.
Never one to wallow in regret, Score found solace in the Indians’ broadcasting booth. There he called play-by-play for the next three decades, introducing himself to another generation of Northeast Ohioans and redefining his somber legacy.
Sampson was as dominating a player as the college game has ever seen. He won Player of Year honors three times, lifting his University of Virginia squad to a No. 1 overall ranking in 1983 and leading the Cavaliers to an appearance in the Final Four.
His NBA career got off to an equally auspicious start, with the 7'4" Sampson garnering Rookie of the Year honors in 1984 and averaging north of 20 points per game in each of his first two seasons. When Hakeem Olajuwon joined Sampson’s Rockets in 1985, the two led a basketball renaissance in Houston. In ‘85-’86 the original twin towers led the Rockets to the NBA finals where they lost to Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics.
Unfortunately for Sampson, ‘86 would be his last healthy season as a pro. Due to a balky back and persistent knee troubles, Sampson only played in more than 50 games once more during his 10-year career.
When he left the NBA in 1992, the man once pegged as sure-fire great had played in just 441 of a possible 820 career games.
Campbell was the stylistic opposite of Gale Sayers, but just as effective during his early years in the NFL. His powerful running style, in the mold of Jim Brown, caused immeasurable pain to his opponents and eventually himself.
As a member of the Houston Oilers, Campbell led the league in rushing each of his first three professional seasons with a bruising style that invited contact. Eventually the hits caught up with Campbell, and after averaging 5.2 yards per attempt in 1980 his averages and totals began to regress in tandem.
Injuries caused him to miss time in 1982, a year that saw his yards per carry dip to just 3.4, and by his eighth season in the league Campbell’s wrecking ball career was over.
One was a Texas gunslinger that drew comparisons to Nolan Ryan for his stunning fastball and equally stunning inability to control it. The other was a lean, classically sculpted hurler from Southern California with an uncanny command of four distinct pitches. Kerry Wood and Mark Prior, yin and yang tied together only by the parallel arcs of their baseball fate.
At the end of 2003 that seemed a good thing. Prior and Wood had both finished their best professional seasons—Prior finished third in the Cy Young vote and Wood struck out a career high—and led the Cubs to the NLCS. But as fast the pair rose, they fell all the faster.
Between 2004 and 2007 Prior had: an Achilles tendon injury, elbow strain, elbow contusion, strained shoulder, strained left oblique, shoulder tendinitis, and, eventually, shoulder surgery. During the same time period Wood suffered a strained triceps, various knee injuries, and a partially torn rotator cuff.
After that time spent under the knife, neither pitcher would ever regain their form as an elite starting pitcher. Likewise, the Cubs’ franchise (save one outlier season in 2008) has never fully recovered from the loss of their two young aces. To make matters worse, Cubs GM Jim Hendry attempted to compensate for the loss of Wood and Prior with a number of unwise veteran contracts that have set the organization back at least another five seasons.
Just one more curse caught in the ivy, just one more sad story to tell over beers and deep dish pizza. And when the long-suffering Cubs fans gather to sing their song of lament, Wood and Prior will surely occupy its own somber verse, their names—much like those of Tinkers, Evers, and Chance—seeming as if they were one.
It’s become so easy to admire Grant Hill for the way he has persevered through injury and reinvented his game in the wake of injury, that we forget how great Hill was in his prime. Never simply an elite scorer—though he could do it at will—Hill excelled in every area of the game.
During his first six pro seasons Hill average over five assists per game each year and in ‘95-’96 pulled down just shy of ten boards per contest. Though he never had the boisterous personality to match his stunning athleticism, Hill’s all-around game mirrored that of the Bulls’ Scottie Pippen and presaged the sort of role LeBron James would eventually play in the Cleveland Cavaliers’ offense.
Then injury struck. Injury after injury, many of them unrelated and acutely bizarre. Persistently misdiagnosed ankle injuries, a sports hernia, even MRSA—Hill’s parade of ailments turned him from world beater to role player over the course of six painful seasons with the Orlando Magic.
To his credit, Hill never pouted and reemerged as an ace defensive stopper with the Phoenix Suns in what is proving to be a wonderful late-career renaissance. Hill has flipped the script from injury victim to injury survivor during his time in Phoenix and earned the respect of fans the league round.
Quick rise, quick fall, Terrell Davis.
TD rushed for 1000 yards in each of his first four NFL seasons, capped by two campaigns that, combined, rate as perhaps the best back-to-back seasons by an NFL running back. During the Broncos’ Super-Bowl-winning 1997 seasons, Davis rushed for 1750 yards. He followed up that performance with a 2008-yard, 21-touchdown campaign in 1998 as the Broncos repeated as champions.
The year after that Davis played only four games, the following year just five, and in his final season a comparatively robust eight.
With knee injuries overwhelming his innate blend of speed and power, Davis retired after 2001 (his seventh season). A Mile High salute to an NFL star who could have been an NFL legend.
Chavez was in the majors for good by 21 and a bonafide star at 23. At a position usually starved for elite talent, the young third baseman could field and hit with equal aplomb. In the pop-lit hit Moneyball, Oakland GM Billy Beane gushed over the young prodigy’s unparalleled abilities.
"He’s almost afraid to acknowledge how good he really is," says Billy. "And here’s the thing. He’s 24 years old. You know if he’s here now"—he holds his hand at his chest—"he’ll wind up here"—he raises his hand over his head. "You could make the case that Chavvy is the most naturally gifted player in the game."
What Beane and his analytics could not have foreseen, was the degenerative back condition that would erode Chavez’s considerable talents. After six consecutive seasons of 26 or more home runs, Chavez’s production began to spiral in 2006. Between 2008 and the present, Chavez has played in just 100 games combined.
Through his valiant attempt to resurrect his career as a role player for the Yankees, it’s hard to not to see the promise extinguished and the dream deferred.
For a time, Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway looked like the second coming of Earvin “Magic” Johnson. Six-foot-seven with a point guard’s vision and a shooting guard’s scoring touch, Hardaway forced pundits to question whether it was he or teammate Shaquille O’Neal who had the brighter NBA future.
Circumstance made the argument moot. While O’Neal remained a force well into the early 2000s, Hardaway’s knee troubles sapped him of the quickness and elevation that made him such a special talent.
His decline began with a traumatic knee injury in the ‘97-’98 season, on the heels of three consecutive 20+ point-per-game campaigns. Hardaway would never average more than 20 a game again.
Although he remained effective during the ‘98-99 and ‘99-’00 seasons, the lingering effects of his knee injury combined with a foot ailment precipitated a quick decline. In the early 2000s, while former teammate O’Neal was hoarding championships with the Lakers, Hardaway was simply a complementary piece for the middling Phoenix Suns.
As hard as it was to miss Hardaway’s starpower in his early years—particularly because of those omnipresent Lil’ Penny spots for Nike—it was equally hard to miss the speed with which it all fell apart.
Ok, so I lied. Sometimes the faders do get a little love from the sports historians.
After drifting into a career as a truck driver, the long-forgotten Dupree’s career was brought back into focus by an ESPN 30-for-30 documentary that labeled him “The Best that Never Was.”
A prep star from small-town Alabama, the Herschel Walker-eque Dupree starred during his freshman year at Oklahoma. Following a fallout with coach Barry Switzer, Dupree transferred to Southern Miss and then signed with the New Orleans Breakers of the USFL in 1984 before ever playing for the Golden Eagles.
Dupree had his moments in the USFL, but an array of injuries dimmed his prospects and after a couple of seasons he was out of football. He made a brief comeback in 1990, this time with the NFL, but by then he had to settle for a backup role.
His 249 yards against Arizona State in 1983 still stands as a Fiesta Bowl record.
In his recent Hall of Fame induction speech, Shannon Sharpe told the assembled, "I am the only person in the Hall of Fame that can say I was the second best player in my own family."
The younger Sharpe may well be right. Sterling wasn’t just another productive wide receiver during his seven years in Green Bay; he dominated. Sharpe was a Pro Bowler five times and in 1992 he led all wideouts in receptions, touchdowns and yards gained.
While teammate Brett Favre went on to a Super Bowl ring and a place in the record books, a 1994 neck injury left Sharpe maddeningly short of what could have been.
This slideshow is not comprehensive nor was it intended to be. The 25 players on this list are the ones that interested me the most. I’m drawn to their talents, for various reasons, and I’m compelled by the their Sisyphean struggle to overcome the body’s limitations.
This list is the result of a little research and one big brainstorming session. In the midst of that contemplation these other names came to mind.
Jevon Kearse, Ray Fosse, Dale Murphy, Ottis Anderson, Ahman Green, Grady Sizemore, Ickey Woods, Billy Sims, Tony Boselli, Tony Conigliaro, Don Mattingly, Ernie Davis, David Thompson, Jay Williams, Michael Redd, Baron Davis, Tracy McGrady, Troy Aikman, Steve Young.
I'm sure there are more...