Athletes can go from being the best in the world to complete afterthoughts in a matter of seconds. All it takes is a twist in the ankle or one bad day and suddenly everything they worked for is over. It’s one of the saddest things when your favorite team has a super star who you’re expecting to produce for years to come and suddenly they are irrelevant or even worse, a hindrance. It seems to happen incredibly often right after a large contract, which can lead to irrelevancy for the team for years.
There are lots of reasons this happens besides injury; age, attitude, and lack of initial talent are often what’s truly at fault. It normally happens with people who are given an unexplainable contract or thrived in one specific style of play. Here are 15 Formerly Great Athletes who have completely lost their way.
15 Dwight Howard
Dwight was Superman. Back in the day, Howard was easily the best center in the NBA, taking home Defensive Player of the Year three years straight, led the NBA in rebounds 4 of his 8 years, and even led the team to an NBA finals appearance. The comparisons to Shaq were completely warranted and it looked like Howard’s career was going to skyrocket until the 2011-12 season, when he let out a side of himself that few had seen.
Unhappy with the way that he felt the Magic front office was building the team, Howard demanded a trade. The rest of the season Howard and the Magic had a rough relationship, culminating with Howard agreeing not to opt out of his contract, the Magic missing the playoffs, and Head Coach Stan Van Gundy being fired from his job (at Howard’s request). No matter what the Magic tried was not enough for the big man and he once again demanded a trade during the off-season. The Magic finally broke down and shipped Dwight off to the Lakers, though he said he was only willing to play for Brooklyn.
14 Matt Kemp
From 2007 to 2010, Matt Kemp had a very respectable run playing in the outfield for the Dodgers. Those years he floated around hitting at a .300 average, was an RBI machine, and was a fantastic fielder. In 2011, he completely exploded becoming an offensive juggernaut while winning a second Gold Glove award. He hit 39 home runs and 126 RBIs, not to mention hitting his preseason goal of 40 steals - all were career highs. Despite that he carried the team all season, Kemp lost the MVP award to Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers, partly because Kemp’s Dodgers missed the playoffs. After that breakout season, the Dodgers extended Kemp’s contract for 8 years, making it worth up to $160 million, the largest contract in franchise history.
13 Josh Smith
In one offseason, Josh Smith went from being one of the most dominating Power Forwards in the NBA, to being one of the worst players on the court. From 2004 until 2013, the Hawks had a formidable building block in the young forward. At 24 years old Smith became the youngest player to reach 1000 career blocks and he was beginning to show a lot of growth in his scoring ability. He helped to take the Hawks to the NBA playoffs 6 straight years, and was a strong producer for the team averaging 16 points per game in the playoffs. By the 2012-13 season, Smith had matured into a very good player, getting himself named to the NBA All-Defensive Second Team for the first time in his career. It looked as if his career was on the rise as he became a free agent after that season.
12 Albert Pujols
He was hands-down the best player in baseball during his time in St. Louis, but now he may be known as the worst contract in sports. As a member of the Cardinals, Pujols did everything a player could do. He won Rookie of the Year, 3 MVPs, 2 World Series, and Sports Illustrated named him Player of the Decade in 2009. Some people claimed that they saw regression after his 2009 season, but it was all talk as he finished 2nd in MVP voting in 2010, though his strikeouts were a bit high. Advanced stat junkies claimed that his swing speed was quickly falling off and it was only a matter of time before Albert saw his number take a hit. He won a World Series in 2011 with the red birds, but choose to sign with the Angels during his free agency that off season.
11 JaMarcus Russell
BUST! That’s all anyone has to say when JaMarcus Russell comes up in conversation. He has been vastly ineffective since the start of his career when Oakland took him number 1 overall in 2007. He is the poster child for failed NFL picks. He has been listed in every article about draft busts right next to the likes of Ryan Leaf and Akili Smith - the difference is that both of those guys steered clear of the NFL after their tenure came to an end. Russell has been trying to make a comeback every year, and even was the star of a Bleacher Report documentary JaMarcus Russell's Road Back to the NFL. Spoiler: no one signed him.
10 Josh Hamilton
Josh Hamilton’s career is like a fairy tale that just didn’t end with “happily ever after.” Many know that he began his career in 1999 when Tampa Bay drafted him #1 overall. That’s when most of the trouble came. He quickly began spiraling out of control via drugs and alcohol addiction. The Rays noticed his issues and began helping him seek treatment, but it just got worse and worse for the slugger. He started showing up late, or sometimes missing meetings and practices. In 2003, he started to fail his drug tests, and by 2004 he was out of baseball. He kept attempting to make comebacks, but drugs continued to get in the way. Josh was arrested in 2005, and then failed another drug test, leading the MLB to suspend him for the entire 2006 season.
Hamilton emerged in 2007 with the Cincinnati Reds, claiming to be a changed man and that he was done with the drugs and the alcohol. Hamilton was traded to the Texas Rangers following that season, and he found a home with the Rangers. He was elected to the All-Star game every year, helped lead the Rangers to the World Series twice, and won the MVP award in 2010. Except for a few alcohol relapses, Hamilton stayed clean with the Rangers and looked to be building a great career.
9 Terrell Owens
There was a long period of time where T.O. looked like he could be the best wide receiver of all time, and he knew it. His 15,934 career receiving yards rank second in NFL history, and his 153 receiving touchdowns are third. He’s trying to add onto those numbers, actively working to make it back to the league; some reports even note that some teams (notably the Rams) are interested in signing him.
8 Allen Craig
One of the most unexplainable stories in MLB history is the story of Allen Craig. From 2011 until 2013, the Cardinals felt like they found their future franchise player in Craig based off the unbelievable numbers he was putting up. Some suggest that the Cards let Albert Pujols leave because they knew they could replace him with Craig. Those years, without a guaranteed starting spot and no true position, Craig put up a .312 batting average and was knocking in 90 RBIs. He was a key player in the Cardinals’ 2011 and 2013 World Series runs, and it looked like his career would only be headed up.
7 Vince Young
Has there ever been someone who did more damage to a franchise than Vince Young? Looking over his career is like looking at a checklist of what not to do as an NFL quarterback; he focused on his sponsorships more than the playbooks, he let booing fans get into his head, he blamed his coach for his poor play, and he got himself benched in favor of a man named Rusty Smith. His time in the NFL was like a soap opera. He won Rookie of the Year and was on the cover of Madden, and then had a horrible depressive episode where he literally ran away for a few days. Then he had a great comeback season that was only overshadowed by Tom Brady’s, followed by a season where he came to blows with his coach.
6 Colin Kaepernick
Call it a gimmick, call it being in the right place at the right time, call it dumb luck, call it whatever you want: Colin Kaepernick was going to be the face of the NFL, and now he looks more like the butt of every joke. Kaepernick’s career got off to an interesting start. He was drafted high in the second round when the 49ers traded up to get the dual threat QB. He was groomed to one day take over for Alex Smith, who had been a largely incompetent quarterback at that point in his career. Kaep rode the bench for a year and watched as Smith had the best year of his career to that point under the tutelage of new Head Coach Jim Harbaugh, and the 49ers went to the NFC championship. Alex was cemented to be the starter the next season even with numerous whispers around the league that San Francisco really saw Colin as their future.
During week 10, the unthinkable happened and Alex Smith left the game with a concussion and Kaepernick took the starting job, never to look back. That season Kaep took his team to the Super Bowl, but ultimately lost to the Baltimore Ravens. Despite the loss, it looked like Kaepernick’s career was only going to lead to greater things. The following season, the 49ers went 12-4 and were Super Bowl favorites again but lost to their rival Seahawks in the playoffs, with two interceptions proving costly in the game.
5 Gilbert Arenas
4 Chad Johnson
3 Jose Canseco
2 Alex Rodriguez
1 Tiger Woods
The most public decline of an athlete easily belongs to Tiger Woods, who was once regarded as the best golfer ever, and is now the laughing stock of the golfing world. He spent more consecutive weeks as the #1 golfer in the world (281), he won PGA Player of the Year 11 times, and is second on the list for most major golf championship wins with 14. In November of 2009, everything fell apart for Tiger. It was reported that he had numerous extramarital affairs with a slew of different women, which ended with his wife and family leaving him and his name becoming synonymous with cheating and sex addiction. The very public shaming of the once beloved figure seemed to lay a major hit on his golfing career, as he never seemed to come to form again. He never won another major and has officially been dropped off the list of the top 500 golfers in the world for the first time in his career. Many people want to see Tiger make a comeback and become relevant in the golf world again, but every month it seems less and less likely. Between a number of back surgeries and the rise of a number of great young golfers, Tiger has an uphill battle to even make himself relevant again in the sport, much less a winner.
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