Staying healthy is one of the most important aspects of a professional athlete’s career, but it’s also one the athlete has the least control over. When All-Star forward Kevin Durant finally returned to action with the Golden State Warriors in Game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals after missing nine straight playoff games with a strained calf, he scored 11 points in less than 12 minutes, only to rupture his right Achilles tendon early in the second quarter. Golden State went on to lose the series to the Toronto Raptors in six games, and Durant reached a four-year, $164 million deal with the Brooklyn Nets, despite a recovery period that is expected to keep him out all of the 2019-20 season.
Whether it’s a freak accident or something as commonplace as an ACL tear on the running back you drafted No. 1 overall in your fantasy league, injuries — like bad calls and publicly funded stadiums — are an unfortunate but accepted part of professional sports.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at 25 of the most devastating sports injuries of all time.
WARNING: Some photos contain graphic content and may be upsetting to some people, reader discretion advised.
Joe Theismann Breaks Both Bones in His Leg
Joe Theismann’s 12-year NFL career with the Washington Redskins featured two Pro Bowl selections, an MVP award and a Super Bowl championship. However, everything changed one Monday night in November 1985 when New York Giants defensive end Lawrence Taylor tackled Theismann from behind on a failed flea flicker. The tackle broke Theismann’s right tibia and fibula so badly that even after his leg healed, it was slightly shorter than it had been before the injury. Washington released Theismann the following year. He never played professional football again, instead going on to a broadcasting career. He’s worked for CBS, ESPN and the NFL Network.
Bo Jackson’s Hip Injury and Avascular Necrosis
Bo Jackson was a true two-sport star, playing professionally for both the Kansas City Royals and the Los Angeles Raiders. To this day, he remains the only athlete to play in the MLB All-Star Game and be selected to the NFL Pro Bowl. But after Jackson fractured and dislocated his hip in a 1991 playoff game, doctors discovered avascular necrosis in his hip, a condition that causes bone cells and cartilage to die. Just like that, Jackson’s football career was over, and his baseball superstar status was, too. He played three more unexceptional MLB seasons and retired before the 1995 season at age 32.
Mike Utley’s Paralysis
Mike Utley’s football career began with plenty of promise at Washington State. The guard was a consensus All-American his senior year and helped lead the Cougars to a 1988 Aloha Bowl victory, the university’s first bowl win since 1916. He was drafted in the third round of the 1989 NFL draft by the Detroit Lions, and by his third season, he was the team’s full-time right guard. But tragedy stuck on Nov. 17, 1991, in a game against the Los Angeles Rams when Utley fractured his sixth and seventh cervical vertebrae, rendering him paralyzed. In the aftermath, Utley co-founded the Mike Utley Foundation, which seeks to find a cure for paralysis.
Steve Yeager’s Neck Punctured By Bat Shard
Longtime Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Steve Yeager is a cousin of famed pilot Chuck Yeager, but that’s nowhere close to being the most interesting thing about him. Yeager was in the on-deck circle on Sept. 6, 1976, when teammate Bill Russell’s bat shattered on a swing and a sharp fragment launched toward Yeager, impaling his esophagus. Luckily for Yeager, it missed his windpipe and a major artery by an inch but it still required surgery to remove the splinters. The impact of his injury is felt today through the innovation it brought. Yeager’s injury inspired the development of the throat protector that hangs on the front of a catcher’s mask to cover the neck area.
Peyton Manning’s Single-Level Cervical Neck Fusion
Quarterback Peyton Manning won four MVP awards with the Indianapolis Colts and brought Indianapolis its only Super Bowl Championship. But Manning’s run of 227 consecutive starts (including the playoffs) came to an end Sept. 7, 2011, when a neck condition required him to undergo surgery. He missed all of the 2011 season and, in his mid-30s, a future in football was anything but assured.
Nevertheless, Manning returned with the Denver Broncos and won the 2012 AP Comeback Player of the Year. Even more crucial for Manning, in 2016 he won his second Super Bowl to pull even with his brother’s total and settle any Sunday dinner squabbles. Eli Manning has led the New York Giants to two Super Bowl victories.
Buster Posey Breaks His Leg in Home Plate Collision
San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey came out swinging in his first full season to capture the 2010 National League Rookie of the Year Award. But in 2011, the season was barely two months old when in an extra-innings game, Florida Marlins outfielder Scott Cousins tagged up on a shallow flyout and attempted to score. Posey couldn’t field the incoming throw cleanly or set himself properly as Cousins trucked down the third-base line and collided with Posey, leaving the catcher with a fractured fibula and torn ankle ligaments. Posey returned the following season and won the league MVP award, but the incident pushed Major League Baseball to ban baserunners from deviating from their path to initiate contact with the catcher, ruling them out if a slide could have been used to avoid a collision.
Todd Bertuzzi Ends Steve Moore’s Career
In 2004, Colorado Avalanche forward Steve Moore was 25 and in his first full season in the NHL. But it all ended on March 8, 2004, when Vancouver Canucks forward Todd Bertuzzi punched Moore from behind and shoved his head into the ice. Moore suffered three fractured vertebrae and a concussion, and he never played another game in the NHL. Bertuzzi was suspended for the rest of the season by the league and entered a guilty plea to assault. Moore filed a civil suit against the Vancouver Canucks and Bertuzzi, reaching a confidential settlement in 2014.
Napoleon McCallum’s Twisted Knee
Running back Napoleon McCallum was a two-time consensus All-American when he played for the Navy. He was drafted in the fourth round of the 1986 NFL draft by the Los Angeles Raiders, playing one season with them before active duty with the U.S. Navy took him away for three years. McCallum rejoined the Raiders beginning in 1990, but on the opening Monday Night Football game of the 1994 season, San Francisco 49ers linebacker Ken Norton Jr. tackled him, with McCallum’s knee twisting so badly it ripped his calf and hamstring muscles from the bone. McCallum never played another snap but was fortunate that doctors did not have to amputate his leg.
Sandy Koufax’s Arthritic Arm
Between 1962 and 1966, Los Angeles Dodgers southpaw Sandy Koufax amassed three Cy Young Awards, an MVP award and four no-hitters (including a perfect game). With a run of dominance like that, it’s no wonder he earned the nickname “the left arm of God.” However, his arm paid a price for that brilliance. After the 1966 season, at the young age of 30, Koufax abruptly retired. He couldn’t endure any more pain from his arthritic elbow and worried that the long-term consequences of continuing to pitch could render his arm useless in everyday life.
Herb Score’s Line Drive to the Face
In 1955, Cleveland Indians left-hander Herb Score captured American League Rookie of the Year honors and led the major leagues in strikeouts with 240. He followed that up with a 20-win season and another MLB-leading effort in strikeouts on 1956. Then on May 7, 1957, New York Yankees shortstop Gil McDougald hit a line drive right back at Score, breaking his nose, shattering facial bones and impairing his vision. Score missed the rest of the season and while his vision returned to normal, his pitching wasn’t the same. He pitched another five seasons and never won more than nine games. He retired in 1962 and began a second career in broadcasting two years later.
Marcus Lattimore Tears Every Ligament in his Knee
South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore was a freshman sensation in the SEC in 2010, rushing for 1,197 yards and scoring a total of 19 touchdowns. Despite an injury-shortened sophomore season, Lattimore picked right back where he left off his junior season with 627 yards and 10 touchdowns through eight games until a hit from Tennessee linebacker Herman Lathers and defensive back Eric Gordon dislocated and tore every ligament in his right knee. Lattimore was selected by the San Francisco 49ers in the fourth round of the 2013 NFL draft, but he retired in 2014 without ever playing a professional snap.
Dave Dravecky’s Arm
In 1988, doctors discovered a cancerous tumor in veteran lefty Dave Dravecky’s pitching arm and performed surgery that October to remove it and much of the deltoid muscle in the process. Told he never would pitch again, Dravecky returned to the mound 10 months after the surgery, tossing seven shutout innings in a winning effort. Unfortunately, in the sixth inning of his second start back, Dravecky’s arm snapped while delivering a pitch, breaking his humerus bone. Dravecky never pitched again, and in 1991, he had the arm amputated to prevent the spread of his cancer.
Mark Fidrych’s Undiagnosed Torn Rotator Cuff
Nicknamed “The Bird” because his hair gave him a resemblance to “Sesame Street’s” Big Bird, pitcher Mark Fidrych’s debut season with the Detroit Tigers in 1976 featured 19 wins, four shutouts and a major-league leading 2.34 ERA. However, things unraveled quickly in 1977. Returning in late May from a knee injury sustained in spring training, Fidrych started only 11 games, unknowingly tearing his rotator cuff. He claimed his arm “just went dead.” He never regained his rookie season’s success, was out of baseball by 1981, and his torn rotator cuff went undiagnosed until after his retirement.
Willis McGahee ACL, MCL and PCL Tear
In 2002, Miami Hurricanes running back Willis McGahee rushed for 1,753 yards, scored 28 touchdowns and was projected as a top five NFL draft pick. But in the BCS National Championship Game in January 2003 against Ohio State, McGahee took a hit from safety Will Allen that tore the MCL, ACL and PCL ligaments in his left knee. McGahee’s draft stock took a hit as he fell to the Buffalo Bills with the 23rd pick of the 2003 NFL draft. In spite of missing his entire rookie season, McGahee made his NFL debut in 2004 and had a 10-year professional career with two Pro Bowl selections.
Paul George’s Offseason Compound Fracture
Drafted 10th overall by the Indiana Pacers, Paul George quickly made a name for himself, landing on the second-team NBA All-Rookie Team the 2010-11 season. In 2013-14, George averaged 1.9 steals per game and six defensive rebounds per game, earning him NBA All-Defensive Team honors. In the 2014 offseason and during an intrasquad game with the U.S. national team, George landed on his right leg awkwardly, suffering an open tibia-fibula fracture. Despite the gruesome nature of the injury, George was able to make it back to the Pacers for the final six games of the 2014-15 season.
Richard Zednik’s Sliced Common Carotid Artery
Czechoslovakian-born right wing Richard Zednik played his first NHL game at the age of 20 for the Washington Capitals, and his first full season came two years later in 1997-98. However, when playing for the Florida Panthers in a game against the Buffalo Sabres in February 2008, an errant skate blade sliced his neck open, leaving so much blood on the ice that Zednik required five pints at the hospital and the rink had to be resurfaced by Zamboni before play could continue. Doctors successfully repaired his common carotid artery and Zednik missed the rest of the reason. He returned for a final season in 2008-09 and appeared in 70 games.
WARNING: This photo contains graphic content and may be upsetting to some people.
Frank Gifford’s Head Injury and Spinal Concussion
Frank Gifford played 12 Hall of Fame seasons with the New York Giants, despite a head injury that almost claimed his career in his ninth season. In the eighth game of the 1960 season, Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Chuck Bednarik blasted Gifford to force a fumble, sending Gifford off the field on a stretcher with what was termed a deep brain concussion and later diagnosed as a spinal concussion. The superstar running back missed the rest of the 1960 season as well as the 1961 season. When he did return in 1962, it wasn’t at running back but at flanker, a precursor to today’s wide receiver.
Bryce Florie’s Eye Catches a Comebacker
Right-handed reliever Bryce Florie bounced around three major league clubs in five seasons before landing with the Boston Red Sox in 1999. Until that point, he hadn’t given many fans reason to remember his name. That all changed on a September night in 2000 in a game against the New York Yankees when outfielder Ryan Thompson smoked a line drive that hit Florie’s right eye. Florie suffered fractures in his nose, cheek and facial bones around his eye socket. On June 28, 2001, Florie returned to the mound in Boston to a standing ovation, but less than one month later the Red Sox released him. Florie never found his way back to the majors.
Kermit Washington Shatters Rudy Tomjanovich’s Jaw
Rudy Tomjanovich was an All-Star forward for the NBA’s Houston Rockets, who retired his number 45 and later hired him to coach the team. But in a December 1977 game against the Los Angeles Lakers, Houston’s Kevin Kunnert and Los Angeles’ Kermit Washington got into a physical altercation. Tomjanovich attempted to come to the aid of his teammate when a punch from Washington broke Tomjanovich’s nose and jaw, fractured his face and caused leaking of spinal fluid. Tomjanovich missed the remainder of the 1977-78 season but returned the following season and was named an All-Star for the fifth time.
Dennis Dixon Tears ACL
In 2007, senior quarterback Dennis Dixon led Oregon to an 8-1 start and a No. 2 ranking, passing for more than 2,000 yards and adding nearly 600 yards on the ground. Dixon was a favorite for the Heisman Trophy and Oregon in line to play for the national championship. But Dixon’s left knee buckled under him on a rush attempt in the first quarter of a game against Arizona, and a torn ACL ended his season. The Ducks lost their final three regular-season games and Dixon fell to the fifth round in the 2008 NFL draft. He played sparingly in the NFL, appearing in just four games over five seasons.
Greg Oden’s Multiple Microfracture Surgeries for His Knee
In center Greg Oden’s single season (2006-07) with Ohio State, he earned All-Big Ten honors and NCAA All-Tournament honors while leading the Buckeyes to the NCAA Championship Game. Oden was drafted No. 1 overall by the Portland Trail Blazers, but the big man’s right knee needed microfracture surgery and he missed his entire first season.
Oden finally played in the 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons, averaging 22.1 minutes per game, but microfracture surgery on his left knee caused him to miss the whole 2010-11 season. Oden had one more microfracture knee surgery before the Trail Blazers waived him in March 2012. He attempted a comeback with the Miami Heat in the 2013-14 season and played in 23 games before retiring at 26.
Andrew Luck’s Shoulder Injury
Quarterback Andrew Luck was exactly what the Indianapolis Colts needed after parting ways with Peyton Manning in 2012. Luck began his career with three straight Pro Bowl selections and led the Colts to three consecutive playoff appearances. However, a shoulder injury that occurred sometime during the third game of the 2015 season hampered Luck’s performance in 2015 and 2016, requiring surgery in January 2017 and forcing him to miss that season. Without a healthy Luck, Indy slumped to consecutive 8-8 seasons in 2015 and 2016. Without Luck in 2017, they collapsed to 4-12. Eventually, a return to the playoffs came in 2018 with the return of their healthy star quarterback.
Steve Young’s Final Concussion
Steve Young spent much of his early career as the backup to — and in the shadow of — another future Hall of Fame quarterback, Joe Montana. Once handed the starter’s job, Young was selected to seven Pro Bowl games, won two MVP awards and led the San Francisco 49ers to a dominating victory over the San Diego Chargers in Super Bowl XXIX. The 1999 season was only three weeks old when a hit from Arizona Cardinals cornerback Aeneas Williams left Young unconscious and with a concussion — the seventh of his career. He sat out the rest of the season with postconcussion symptoms before retiring the following year at age 38.
Tom Brady’s ACL and MCL Tear
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is a six-time Super Bowl champion, three-time MVP and 14-time Pro Bowl selection, but perhaps most impressive is his 2009 AP Comeback Player of the Year Award. In 2008, coming off of yet another AFC championship, disaster struck in the first quarter of the first game of the year. Kansas City Chiefs safety Bernard Pollard blitzed and dove at Brady’s legs and the quarterback tore both his the MCL and ACL in his left knee. The Patriots finished 11-5 but missed the playoffs for the first time since 2002. Luckily for New England, Brady returned as good as ever in 2009. Since then, the Patriots have added three Super Bowl titles and haven’t missed the playoffs.
Scott Stevens’ Hit Gives Eric Lindros His Sixth Concussion
Eric Lindros was drafted No. 1 overall in the 1991 NHL draft by the Quebec Nordiques and when he refused to report, his rights were traded a year later to the Philadelphia Flyers. The center began his career in the 1992-93 season, and two seasons later, he won the Hart Memorial Trophy and the Lester B. Pearson Award, now known as the Ted Lindsay Award. During the 1998 season, Lindros suffered his first concussion. He dealt with four more concussions over the next two seasons before a vicious hit from New Jersey Devils’ captain Scott Stevens gave Lindros his sixth concussion, forcing him to miss the entire 2000-01 season. Lindros played five more seasons (and sustained two more concussions), but never returned to his former glory.
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