Thursday, November 11, 2010

Top 10 Athletes: Careers Cut Short By Injury

By Tony Mangia

It's sad to see an athlete like Yao Ming go down again.  While the Houston center limped off the court after only six minutes last night,  the fresh legs of one of the opposing team's players was making a big statement.  The Big Panda could only watch as the Washington Wizards emerging star, John Wall, became the third youngest player to score a triple-double.

Ming, the Chinese behemoth is no stranger to aches and pains.  His career has been pockmarked with injuries and rehabs and hopefully last night's stress fracture of his left ankle tendon isn't career threatening.  The seven-time all-star is a warhorse from his thighs up, but but a fragile piece of china below.  Trotting a 300 pound body up and down the court can do that to you.

Another rising star, Matthew Stafford of the Detroit Lions, was knocked out  last Sunday's game because  of a separated shoulder--his second one this season.  Stafford has been one of the brightest beacons for the Lions and a major reason the team is actually winning after a decade of futility.

There was an interesting discussion on ESPN this morning about pro athletes whose careers were cut short in or before their prime.  As usual, the commentators went back to screaming at each other before finishing the debate, so I've come up with my own list.

The criteria: injured before prime, made team better, showed consistency and showed great promise (won or lead a major category or title).  Winning a championship is a bonus and being in a hall of fame is acceptable.

Some players still had major bodies of work in a short time--Sandy Koufax comes to mind--while others were hurt  (Ken Griffey Jr.) but still marched on to great careers.  Others, like the Cubs Mark Pryor, the Nets Jayson Williams and the Reds Don Gullet were peaking before their bodies gave out too soon.  Some managed to hang on for a few years.

While young players are laid up and compared to their contemporaries--Greg Oden to Kevin Durant--or come back from different kinds of diseases which could have hastened their careers--Josh Hamilton--there will always be the athletes who achieved greatness but make me wonder "How much greater could they have been?"

In all fairness, some of these athletes didn't benefit from the modern conditioning programs or surgical procedures of today.  There wasn't even 'Tommy John surgery' until...well, Tommy John.  Whatever fate has in store for Ming, Stafford or Oden, time will tell.  For now here are the athletes who should have had more time on the courts, gridirons and diamonds.

1.  Gayle Sayers.  The NFL's 1965 Rookie of the Year ran lights out his first four seasons.  It was the eighth game of the Chicago Bears 1968 season when Sayers battered knees first gave out.  The Kansas Comet was averaging 6.2 yards a carry and couldn't return until 1970 when he re-injured the knee and was sensibly done.  Sayer's heroic attempt at rehab was a sub-plot in the TV weeper "Brian's Song." He is still the youngest player ever elected to the NFL Hall of Fame.

2.  Bill Walton.  Big Red's first two seasons in Portland were marred by injuries and it wasn't until his third season under coach Jack Ramsey that the seven-footer made an impact and the Trailblazers won a world title.  While some of today's centers have names like Turiaf and Krstic, Walton battled against the likes of Jabbar and Unseld.  Early in 1978, Walton broke his foot, then broke it again in the playoffs.  It's hard to believe that  he was an all-star only twice and languished until being revitalized with Larry Bird and the Celtics in 1986 when he was voted "Sixth Man of the Year."

3.  Bo Jackson.  What can you say about the first two-sport performer named as an all-star and all-pro in MLB and the NFL?  Jackson might have been known for his Nike "Bo Knows" commercials but a Monday Night Football game where he rushed for 231 yards and knocked hot-shot Brian Bosworth on his ass made him famous.  A hip injury in 1991 put and end to his Oakland Raider days and he was never the same in a Kansas City Royals uniform either.

4.  Kerry Wood.  The flame-throwing rightie was a Chicago favorite.  In only his fifth start in 1998, the Cub pitcher had a one-hit, 20 strikeout game and many believe the hit should have been scored an error.  Tommy John surgery in 1999 put Wood out of action until 2001 when his fastball was called the fastest in the majors.  Wood struck out 266 batters in 2003 but a torn rotator cuff in 2006 sent him to the bullpen. His career as a starter was over and he became the poster-child for an excessive workload.

5.  Don Mattingly.  The six-time all-star and nine-time gold-glover may not seem like he should be on this list, but it is about the potential lost due to injury.  Donnie Baseball brought average, power and defense to the Yankees.  His MVP year in 1985 was one of the greatest all-round seasons in MLB history.  A 1987 back injury--attributed to horseplay with pitcher Bob Shirley--limited Mattingly's power numbers and reduced him to more of a slap-hitter.

6.  Joe Namath.  Another athlete who had a great career but makes you think what could have been.  Namath's world-famous knees were ravaged after his fourth season.  The 1965 Rookie of the Year's Broadway Joe persona could have contributed to Namath's health too.  Four knee operations and the numerous times his knees were drained at halftime will never compare to his partying and Hollywood lifestyle.  In between 1970-73, Namath missed 30 games.  He was the first QB to throw for 4,000 yards in a 14-game season, but also ended up with a dismal career QB rating of 65.5.

7.  Terrell Davis. Literally carried the Denver Broncos to two Super Bowl wins before blowing out his ACL in 1998.  Elway isn't compared to Marino thanks to the team's 6th round pick.

8.  Tony Conigliaro.  Maybe one of the most gruesome sports injuries in history.  At age 22, Conigliaro already had 100 home runs and was on his way to stardom when he was almost killed by a Jack Hamilton pitch to his head in 1967. Who can ever forget that Sports Illustrated cover with the Red Sox player posing with what resembled a purple plum in his eye socket.  Conigliaro was Comeback Player of the Year after returning to the team two years later.  He only hit 62 more home runs for the Sox.

9.  Mark Bavaro.  Rambo is the prototype for all tight ends today: they catch and block.  Phil Simms' go-to-guy.  Monday Night Football 1986:  Bavaro catches pass and runs down field with five 49ers on his back.  That one play made Bavaro a Giants legend then and now.  He once played six weeks with a broken jaw but bad knees finally knocked the big guy out.  He was never the same after the age of 29.

10.  Ernie Davis.  The Browns 1962 draft choice never got the chance to play alongside Jim Brown. Sadly, after a brilliant career at Syracuse, the running back was diagnosed with leukemia.  He wore # 45 once at a preseason ceremony at Cleveland Municipal Field in 1962.  After battling segregation and prejudice, Davis couldn't beat the dreaded disease.  What could have been?

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