Who knows how good they could have been?
The news out of Washington was devastating this week, even without all the Beltway drama of what did Dr. James Andrews tell Mike Shanahan about Robert Griffin III’s knee injury and when did he know it? They’re still working on the full extent of the injuries to RGIII’s knee.
But just the hint of possible injuries to his ACL and LCL and the idea that he might need a reconstruction that would force him to miss much, if not all, of the 2014 season, was frightening enough. It’s not only a blow to the future of the Redskins, but it cast a shadow over RGIII’s future.
Would he become another great player whose career ended – or was inexorably changed – by a devastating injury? Would this knee deprive us all of the privilege of watching a great career?
Those are unanswerable questions, especially this early, but it’s something to ponder considering the brutal nature of the NFL. Many, many careers have been cut short, some before we even had a chance to know if a player could be a great one. Sometimes we were only able to get a hint of the greatness to come.
With that said, here is a sample of what injuries have done to great, and potentially great players. Here are five great (or potentially great) ones whose careers were cut too short due to devastating injuries:
1. Bo Jackson—Listen to people who watched Bo play – it’s never “Jackson,” it’s always “Bo” – and they are wistful about the “What might been” part of his story. If only he had concentrated on just one sport instead of trying to play baseball too … If only he hadn’t suffered a devastating hip injury at age 27 in just his fourth NFL season.
There is believe that Bo could’ve been the greatest running back ever, and possibly one of the greatest athletes ever – something some already consider him to be. He had only 2,782 yards in his four-year career and never even reached 1,000 in a single season. But he never played in more than 11 games in any season and he averaged 5.4 yards per carry. He also seemed to just be getting started when he got hurt.
2. Gale Sayers—The NFL hadn’t seen anything like the “Kansas Comet” when he broke into the NFL in 1965 with 2,272 all-purpose yards and 22 touchdowns. Then the next season, when opposing defenses were being designed to stop his triple-threat – runner, receiver, returner – he was even better, totaling 2,440 yards.
He was leading the league in rushing in 1968 when he tore several ligaments in his right knee, ending his season. He returned in 1969 to win the NFL rushing title with 1,032 yards. But he hurt his left knee in 1970 and that was it. He was forced to retire after an aborted comeback in 1971 at the age of 28 – already a four-time Pro Bowler. Five years after his last snap he became the youngest man ever inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
3. Troy Aikman—The Cowboys quarterback won three Super Bowls, threw for 32,942 yards and played until he was 34, so it’s a little tough to argue his career ended “prematurely.” But two years before he was cut in 2001 – in large part due to the 10-plus concussions he suffered during his career — Aikman had signed a contract extension that was expected to keep him with the Cowboys into his 40s.
Imagine what Aikman could’ve accomplished with seven more seasons – at least another two or three good ones, too. He might have won a fourth Super Bowl. He probably would’ve thrown for 40,000 yards. And instead of just calling him a Hall of Famer, he might have ended up in the discussion of the Top 10 quarterbacks of all time.
4. Sterling Sharpe—In seven seasons in the NFL, the Packers wide receiver never missed a game. He had five 1,000-yard seasons (including his last three) and was a five-time all-pro. Here’s the catch, though: In his first four NFL seasons his coach was Lindy Infante and his quarterbacks were Mike Tomczak and Don Majkowski.
It was only in his final three NFL seasons he had the coaching of Mike Holmgren and the ability to catch passes from a young Brett Favre.
In three seasons with Holmgren’s plays and Favre’s passes, Sharpe caught 314 passes for 3,854 yards and 42 touchdowns. Clearly he was just getting started. But he was forced to retire at age 29 with a neck injury. He could’ve put up sick numbers if he had played with Favre for another 4-5 years.
5. Robert Edwards—By no means is Edwards in the “great” category, but he certainly suffered one of the most unfortunate injuries in NFL history. The former Georgia running back was a first-round draft pick of the New England Patriots in 1998 and his rookie season was a success, with him rushing for 1,115 yards.
Then, during a rookie flag football game on a beach as part of the Pro Bowl in Hawaii, Edwards – who had a long history of injuries in college – blew out his knee. The injury was so bad, he nearly had to have his leg amputated. He was told he’d never play again.
He did, four years later for the Miami Dolphins – an inspiring, if short-lived comeback in which he touched the ball just 38 times in 12 games. He did play two all-star seasons in the Canadian Football League, though, each time rushing for more than 1,000 yards.
He was in his 30s then, his knee had been ravaged by injuries and time, and the competition wasn’t great. But it gave a glimpse at what maybe could’ve been had his NFL career not been over, for all intents in purposes, at age 24.