Chris Johnson and 9 Other Athletes Who Hit the Mysterious Wall
Chris Johnson’s 2011 season brings back memories of a select group of professional athletes who simply lost the ability to play the game they love. These players didn’t just decline in skill level; they almost freakishly were reduced to ordinary men.
Such a situation is known as having the yips, an unnatural diminish of the fine motor skills. These athletes didn’t just age faster than their peers or strike out too many times in one season, but they did so at a disturbing rate, causing others to speculate as to the mysterious illness plaguing their performance.
The following 10 slides are of players who endured similar circumstances to Johnson: Years of success followed by the inability to do even the simplest aspect of their games.
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Two years ago, Chris Johnson was a 2,000 yard rusher. Last year, he ran for 1,300 yards and earned his third straight Pro Bowl invitation. Now he is the league’s worst running back (minimum 100 carries) at a paltry 3.02 yards per carry, a drop-off absolutely unforeseen.
NFL analysts say Johnson seems to be running with no passion, no excitement and none of the burst that once made him one of the premier football players.
Steve Blass is so infamous for dealing with the yips that he has his own illness named after him: Steve Blass Disease. Blass won 78 games in a five-year span from 1968-’72, during which he posted a 3.05 ERA and made an All-Star team.
Inexplicably, he began to struggle with his control in 1973, walking an unheard-of 84 batters in 88 innings. He also led the league with 12 hit batsmen and his ERA skyrocketed to 9.85 in 18 starts. Blass never regained the form he had displayed as one of the game’s best young pitchers in the late ‘60s.
Ian Baker-Finch was a champion golfer who won the U.S. Open in 1992, establishing himself as one of the premier golfers in the world.
Finch then suddenly lost his ability to hit the golf ball, doing so in such a way that it was seen as a psychological problem. He shot a 92 in the first round of the 1997 British Open and then abruptly retired from the game of golf.
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Mike Vanderjagt was the most accurate kicker in the history of the NFL. Then he missed a 46-yarder against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2005 AFC Divisional playoffs and it was all downhill for Vanderjagt.
He was released by the Indianapolis Colts prior to the 2006 season and signed with the Dallas Cowboys. Vanderjagt missed 32 and 33-yard field goals in overtime in his first preseason game. Against the Colts in Week 11, he missed both field goal attempts.
Vanderjagt was mercifully released by the Cowboys midway through the season and hasn’t been back in the NFL since.
When he broke into the big leagues with the Minnesota Twins, Chuck Knoblauch quickly established himself as one of the game’s great second baseman. He hit .300 three straight years in the mid-‘90s and played strong defense.
In the 1999 season, Knoblauch began to experience an inability to make even the simplest of throws to first base. After making just three errors in ’94, he committed a league-high 26 in ’99. The problem worsened for Knoblauch, and he was eventually moved to left field.
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Dontrelle Willis was a rising star on the 2005 Florida Marlins, winning 22 games and finishing second to Chris Carpenter in the National League Cy Young award voting.
Three years later, Willis couldn’t even land a roster spot on the Detroit Tigers, walking 35 batters in 24 innings before he was sent down to Triple-A. Willis has bounced from the Tigers to the Arizona Diamondbacks to the Cincinnati Reds since, still trying to make a comeback.
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In the mid-1990s, Mark Wohlers was an integral part of the Atlanta Braves. He was a hard-throwing closer who topped 100 MPH with his fastball.
In Game 4 of the 1996 World Series, Wohlers gave up a demoralizing three-run home run to New York Yankees catcher Jim Leyritz.
After that, Wohlers seemed to lose all control on the mound. He walked 33 batters in 20.2 innings in 1998 in the major leagues. He was sent down to Triple-A and fared even worse, walking an incredible 36 batters in 12.1 innings.
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Chuck Hayes shot 64 percent from the free throw line in his rookie season in the NBA, a year in which he played sparingly for the Houston Rockets.
After that, his ability to shoot foul shots mysteriously declined, plummeting to an all-time low of just 36 percent in the 2008-’09 season.
Hayes has since regained his form, and his 66 percent last year was a career high.
Mack Sasser was the backup catcher for Gary Carter during the late 1980s, even contributing with a .307 batting average in 1990.
After a serious collision at home plate, Sasser lost the ability to throw the ball back to the pitcher. He became infamous for his double clutches. What was ironic was that Sasser had no problem when throwing to second base on a steal attempt.
Sasser eventually overcame his problem with help from his psychotherapist.
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The story of Rick Ankiel is well-documented. He was a 20-year old star pitcher on the 2000 St. Louis Cardinals, having compiled an 11-7 record to go with a 3.50 ERA in 30 starts.
In the postseason, Ankiel set a major league record by uncorking five wild pitches; he also walked six in 2.2 innings. The following year, Ankiel walked 25 batters in 24 innings before he was eventually sent to the minor leagues.
Ankiel eventually switched to hitting and made his way back up to the major leagues, hitting as many as 25 home runs in the 2008 season.