10 Most Painful Injuries in NFL History
Injuries are "a part of the game" but no one wants to get hurt, and for the most part, it's always painful when a player suffers an injury. But these 10 episodes are special cases that have reached almost mythic proportions.
Now, obviously the physical element of each of these injuries is the main reason why they've earned a spot on this list, but to be considered one of the most painful—in every sense of the word—injuries in NFL history, there is also some element of an emotional or mental anguish as well.
The late Steve McNair—a man who was no stranger to injuries—was fond of saying that "pain is just weakness leaving the body," but try telling that to the people on this list.
No. 10: Cadillac Williams' 2nd Knee Injury
Doug Benc/Getty Images
When: Week 17, 2008
Cadillac Williams might be the modern-day Gale Sayers: a phenomenal running back with endless potential who was repeatedly beset by major injuries. To his credit, Williams has worked tirelessly to bounce back and remain in the NFL for several years.
But that in and of itself isn't the reason he earns a spot on this list.
In 2007, Williams tore his patella tendon and missed almost all of his third season in the NFL. He fought his way back to health—even though many thought his career was over and it was time for the Bucs to let him go—and finally earned a spot back on the field late in the 2008 season.
And in the team's regular season finale against Oakland, he rushed for two touchdowns and 78 yards on 12 carries, but he tore the patella tendon in his other knee and was carted off the field.
Although the injury itself looked bad, it was his face and the anguish on it—having to start all over once again—that was most painful.
No. 9: Michael Irvin's Neck Injury
When: Week 5, 1999
We all know that Philadelphia fans are among the most brutal and hateful in professional sports, but they took it to a whole new level in October 1999.
Future Hall of Famer Michael Irvin's career ended that day, when a hit from Eagles defensive back Tim Hauck temporarily paralyzed the Dallas receiver after he fell on his head.
That was bad enough for Irvin to endure, but to hear the fans in Philly actually cheer once they realized who it was that was hurt and being put onto a stretcher was truly painful.
No. 8: Bryant Young's Broken Leg
When: Week 13, 1998
Bryant was emerging as one of the NFL's best defensive lineman by 1998, his fifth season in the NFL, before he tackled Giants quarterback Kent Graham late in the game. As the play was ending, teammate Ken Norton Jr., fell into Bryant, slamming his helmet against the former Notre Dame star's right leg, shattering his tibia and fibula.
Young was immediately placed in an ambulance and driven to Standford's hospital to undergo surgery.
And although he would recover rather quickly, return to All Pro form just a year later, and play another nine seasons, many people remember that injury more than anything he achieved on the football field.
No. 7: Bo Jackson's Shattered Hip
When: 1990 AFC Divisional Game
Granted this entry is a bit (overly?) influenced by the impact it had on the NFL: the injury deprived us of the countless additional thrills Bo Jackson would have provided had his hip not exploded during a playoff win over the Bengals.
But even if it wasn't Bo and it didn't ultimately end his potential-laden career, the play itself was painful: according to reports, his hip actually came out of the socket.
On the ground and struggling to get off the field, even with assistance, was perhaps the only time we ever saw Bo actually look mortal.
No. 6: Garrison Hearst's Ankle
When: 1998 NFC Divisional Game
The above picture—or the images of team doctors and trainers huddled around him for what seemed like hours—pretty much says all you need to know about how painful Hearst's injury was. It was "only" a broken ankle, but the direction in which it went was absurd, almost cartoonish.
By all logic, the injury should have cost Hearst his career: necrosis, which followed, is the very same reason why Bo Jackson retired.
Still, he managed to keep rehabbing and returned to the field in 2001 after missing two full seasons.
No. 5: Napolean McCallum's Hyper-Extended Knee
When: Week 1, 1994
This might be the first case of an announcer issuing the now cliched warning to viewers—"if you are squeamish, do not look at the television"—about the impending replay.
McCallum's knee seems to snap back so far that it's almost inconceivable.
But it's even more telling that both Monday Night Football color analysts Dan Dierdorf and Frank Gifford—who was no stranger to gruesome injuries as you'll see later in this slideshow—were so distraught and abhorred at the sight of what happened to the Raiders running back.
No. 4: Tim Krumrie's Broken Leg
When: Super Bowl XXIII
If you don't count Joe Montana's epic 92-yard game-winning drive which culminated in John Taylor's touchdown grab, arguably the most memorable element of this great Super Bowl, it was the injury to Bengals nose tackle Tim Krumrie.
Not only did the injury later require a steel rod to be placed in his leg, but, according to an interview he did a few years later, paramedics warned him that he might go into shock if he didn't immediately head to a hospital: earlier, Krumrie had refused to leave the stadium until the game was over.
No. 3: Frank Gifford's Head Injury
When: Week 8, 1960
NFL Films later declared Philadelphia two-way star Chuck Bednarik's late-game tackle of Gifford as the greatest tackle in NFL history. But because Gifford lay motionless on the field—Sam Huff said "I thought Bednarik killed him"—and he missed the entire 1961 season because of the "deep brain concussion" he suffered; it's the bronze medal winner for this list.
And although observers speculated that Bednarik "added insult to injury" by gloating over Gifford after the play was over (see above photo), the game's last true 60-Minute Man insists that was not the case.
No. 2: Joe Theismann's Broken Leg
When: Week 11, 1985
You know an injury is horrific when—instantaneously—the opposing team urges the training staff and doctors to rush out onto the field.
That's what happened when Lawrence Taylor sacked Joe Theismann on a Monday night at RFK: Taylor and Jim Burt seemed to be even more distraught than Theisman's teammates.
Theismann would never play again, but the unsightly image of his lower leg snapping in two, continues to live on to this day.
No. 1: Darryl Stingley/Mike Utley/Dennis Byrd/Kevin Everett Spinal Injuries
When: (Stingley) Preseason, 1978; (Utley) Week 12, 1991; (Byrd) Week 12, 1992; (Everett) Week 1, 2007
Rather than try and say that either one of those career-ending, paralyzing injuries rank higher or lower than the other, I simply lumped them in to one entry.
Although all four were fairly unique in how they happened, because they each produced the same grim, sad result, it's hard to separate them from one another.
And since these injuries all involved something as serious and in some ways life threatening, it's impossible to say any broken leg or separated shoulder that came before or after was more painful for the players themselves, and even the fans watching at home or in person.