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.
During his one year in LA, Howard beefed with superstar Kobe Bryant, and played very lazy basketball, finishing the season with his lowest scoring average since his second year in the NBA. He chose to sign with Houston during the 2013 off-season. At first he was a big part of the Rockets, helping All-Star James Harden lead the team to the playoffs three straight years, but during the 2015-16 season Howard’s bad attitude reared it’s ugly head once again. He refused to work with teammates and was often scrutinized for preferring to be the star opposed to winning games as his points per game and rebounds both took a nose dive. It’s hard to call Dwight’s career over, and he is expected to get a new contract in free agency this season, but it’s tough to see his career getting a true resurgence as long as he feels the need to be the star everywhere he goes.
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.
Unfortunately he never was able to live up to that contract. Injuries greatly hampered Matt Kemp’s time in LA and he failed to cross 90 RBIs again for the team. It soon became apparent that he was regressing quickly and taking up a spot in the outfield that many elite prospects were chomping at the bit for. Kemp was unceremoniously traded to the division rivals San Diego Padres for next to nothing, and the Padres still tried to back out of the trade when they found out Kemp was battling arthritis in both hips. The Matt Kemp trade was just another failed experiment in a very busy off-season for the Padres that brought in All-Stars Craig Kimbrel and Justin Upton as well. Kemp was able to plate 100 RBIs, but his speed and power numbers were abysmal. He’s a far cry from the player he once was, and it looks like his career cannot end soon enough for the Padres who can’t unload him, and the Dodgers who still have to keep paying him.
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.
With a fairly weak class of players, Smith was regarded as one of the most talented free agents to choose from, and teams were itching to grab him. Smith signed with the Pistons on a four-year, $54 million deal. He played one good season in Detroit, but there were whispers that he wasn’t getting along with the coaching staff and some of his teammates. These rumors turned out to be true as he was cut by the team 28 games into the next season while averaging 13.1 points, 7.2 rebounds. The Rockets, where his good friend Dwight Howard resided, quickly snatched him up. However, he was benched quickly for not buying into the team method. While he did put together an impressive playoff run that year, the Rockets chose not to bring him back. He was signed by the Clippers, but was ineffective. He was traded back to Houston, and was still ineffective. Since leaving Atlanta, his blocks, which were such a defining part of his game, have been drastically reduced, and it looks like Smith has regressed to a player who teams choose to steer clear of.
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.
The Cardinals tried to offer the veteran a 10-year deal worth $210 million, but it was quickly rejected for the Angels' offer of 10 years $240 million. His production immediately fell off, he never hit above .300 again. He has performed at career lows in every facet of the position. Not only has his hitting really fallen off (batting .244 last year), his wins above replacement (WAR) has been in the negative zone, and his fielding has dropped to little league status. In the first half of his contract with LA, Albert has batted .263 averaging 92 RBIs a year and 29 home runs. Not horrible by any means, but certainly not worth another 5 years at roughly $30 million per year. He is still declining, which might be all right if he wasn’t being paid so much. His glory years are far behind him, but Angels fans will be treated to this mess for 5 more years.
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.
Some guys can party in the offseason and produce on the field, but Russell could not. To finish the 2009 season, he posted the lowest quarterback rating, lowest completion percentage, fewest passing touchdowns, and fewest passing yards of all starting QBs. Throughout his time in the NFL he was knocked for having little to no work ethic, but coming in overweight for the 2010 season (some reports said he was over 300 pounds) was the last straw for the struggling Raiders. They cut him only 3 years after taking him first overall. After being cut, Russell tried out for a number of teams, but found himself in jail for being in possession of codeine syrup without a valid prescription. This greatly hindered any team giving Russell a second chance. From the very beginning it seemed obvious that JaMarcus was in the NFL purely for the money, having little true passion for the sport - it may be best for him to go seek his fortune elsewhere.
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.
That’s where the story should have ended, but following the 2012 season, Hamilton signed a 5-year contract worth $125 million with the Rangers’ division rival LA Angels. There he became a shell of the player he once was playing in only 240 games, batting .255 with only 30 home runs. After another very public relapse where Josh tested positive for cocaine, the Angels dumped him to the Rangers where he still is. Hamilton’s life was sold as a movie long before his contract with the Angels... maybe they’ll just leave those years out of it.
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.
He’s a shell of what he used to be, however. The fact that he was drafted 20 years ago really explains where his talent went: the man is old, but everything else he’s done can’t be written off like that. There were the televised workouts, that time he bought an indoor football team just to put himself on the team, when he got cut from the indoor team because of a lack of effort, his attempt at acting, and that time he was trying to be a model. Those kind of acts don’t come with just getting old. It seems like Owens is a little bit off his rocker, though we are talking about a man who wore a Michael Irvin jersey while he was on the Eagles. Even after all those strange choices, Owens says he hasn’t retired from the NFL and fans should expect a comeback. We don’t expect one, but would love to see him try.
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.
In 2014, Craig had a down season. Way, way down season. For the Cardinals he was batting .234 with 77 strikeouts and only 44 RBIs. In need of pitching, and having a surplus of outfielders, the Cardinals chose to send Craig to the Boston Red Sox for veteran pitcher John Lackey. It was a strange move as Lackey was an inconsistent and aging pitcher, while Craig looked to be a star in the making having a bad season, but signed cheaply for a long while. Most speculated that Boston made a killing from the trade. As it turned out Craig was done. In Boston he has gotten a total of 12 hits and 62 strikeouts in a total of 65 games. Boston tried to send him to the minors, where he is now, but he keeps getting demoted from there.
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.
Because the team was so invested in Vince Young, they would bend over backwards to try and make him happy. They even fired their legendary coach, Jeff Fisher, at Young’s request. The coach and QB position has been in flux since Young was cut and the Titans have failed to make the playoffs. Young was extremely talented in his early days, both college and the NFL, but he’s been in and out of the NFL, failing to secure a starting job, and more often than not finding himself cut during the preseason. He currently says he is retired, unless someone wants to give him a job. That basically translates to “I’ll play if you seek me out, but I’m not putting in the effort.” If he’s too lazy to prove to teams that he belongs in the NFL, he’s too lazy to be in the NFL.
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.
The 49ers signed Kaep to a six-year contract extension, worth up to $126 million. For much of the 2014 season, Kaep was unable to help his team. The NFL came after him a number of time with silly fines, and his ego was slowly becoming larger than the rest of the team. Despite collecting a career high in yards both on the ground and in the air, the 49ers ended the year 8-8 and missed the playoffs for the first time in Kaepernick’s career. The offseason came with many unexpected retirements and a unhappy breakup between Harbaugh and the team. Kaepernick was terrible during the 2015 season, losing his job to journeyman Blaine Gabbert, who may be starting over him again in 2016. The 49ers desperately want to get rid of the once coveted QB, but have had no takers. It looks like Colin Kaepernick may go the same way as the QB option and the wildcat formation.
5 Gilbert Arenas
Gilbert Arenas is a dirty word depending what part of the country you are in. After putting together some pretty great seasons with the Wizards, Agent Zero was signed to a 6-year $111 million dollar contract, a contract Arenas himself would later call the worst in NBA history. The contract was a little strange as he was coming off a season where injuries limited him to only 13 games, though before that he was scoring nearly 30 points per game. After receiving the large contract Arenas only played in 55 games over the next 3 seasons in Washington. Some of the missed games were due to injury, which the team knew would be a risk when they inked the deal, however it wasn’t only injuries that kept the guard off the court. Christmas Eve of 2009, Arenas found himself in one of the most avoidable controversies in NBA history when he decided to bring guns into the locker room. A chilling interview with Caron Butler painted the whole situation between Arenas and Javaris Crittenton (who was also suspended, and eventually lost his career for the incident). According to Butler the whole feud started over a poker game and a $1,100 disagreement. Arenas allegedly refused to pay Crittenton his winnings, and the whole thing grew and grew until they were threatening each other with guns in the locker room. Since that incident both men have failed to stay out of trouble, and both have seen their NBA careers fall from their reach. Arenas played some average seasons with the Magic and Grizzlies, and a few more in China, but for the most part has been a pariah from the game. He still considers himself ready to play and is looking for a call from a desperate team this offseason, however unlikely that is. In the meantime the old guard will continue putting his foot in his mouth on social media, hurting his chances of being signed more and more.
4 Chad Johnson
We’re not sure what we expected from a man who legally changed his name to Ocho Cinco, but it wasn’t really all of this. Chad Johnson throughout his career was an annoying showboat that many NFL fans loved to hate, but he put up the numbers to back up his antics. For 6 straight seasons, Johnson played in every game and put up over 1000 receiving yards and 7 touchdowns. He set Bengals franchise records for most receiving yards in a season, most receiving yards in a game, most seasons over 1000 yards, most career touchdown receptions, and most receiving yards all time. He was very good, but was most well known for being one of the “diva receivers” that were so prominent in the NFL during the 2000s. He was known for having a list of every defensive back that covered him, he once tried to race a horse on foot (he lost), and coming up with his own catchphrase “Child Please.” Oh and he changed his name to Ochocinco because apparently no one told him how to say eighty-five in Spanish. After the 2008 season, things seemed to change for Johnson. 2009 he put up decent numbers, but by 2010 he had regressed significantly. The Bengals shipped Johnson off to the Patriots where Johnson fell flat only able to haul in 15 passes despite having Tom Brady at QB and his team making the Super Bowl. After he was out of the NFL, Johnson started to make headlines in the wrong way. He was arrested for domestic battery and assault, and then was arrested again for violating his probation less than a year later. He was sentenced to 30 days in jail, partially because he treated his trial as a joke, showing up late and telling his lawyer “great job” by smacking him in the butt. In 2014 Johnson signed a 2-year deal with the CFL’s Montreal Alouettes, but was suspended for the entire 2015 season. He’s currently a free agent after the Alouettes chose to not extend another contract to the troubled receiver.
3 Jose Canseco
The former MVP truly believes that there is a conspiracy amongst MLB teams keeping him out of the league. At 51 years old, he is the only person who believes that. A member of the Bash Brothers on the Oakland Athletics from the 80s, Canseco was once one of the premier players in the league. Over his career Canseco tallied 462 home runs, 1407 RBIs, and won the World Series twice. The man should be living the easy life surrounded with all the trophies he won, but instead he’s a pariah who is still working to get back into the major leagues. His most recent stops have been playing in the Texas League with the Fort Worth Cats and the Rio Grande Valley White Wings of the North American League. The man has been desperate to make headlines since his departure from the league in 2001, starring in a number of celebrity reality shows and attempting to write books. He’s maybe better known for his book Juiced in which he named players that he did steroids with and claimed that up to 85% of MLB players were juicing during his tenure. Many of these allegations turned out to be true and the publication of the book was considered a monumental turning point in an attempt to “clean up” baseball. Aside from the book, the rest of Canseco’s antics have been publicly mocked as being ridiculous. Some of these antics include shooting himself in the hand, an attempted an MMA career (0-1 career record), and agreeing to participate in a celebrity boxing match but he was too scared and tried to have his twin brother take his place, as if no one would notice. He’s also been accused of crime after crime and has been arrested a number of time.
2 Alex Rodriguez
Steroids. Steroids, steroids and more steroids. That’s what happened to Alex Rodriguez. After being the most popular player in the sport for a number of years, A-Rod’s good guy name got dragged through the mud following very public disputes with the MLB after failing multiple drug tests proving he had been using ‘roids for much of his career. Rodriguez has some of the most impressive numbers ever, posting a near .300 batting average, hitting nearly 700 home runs, and passing 3000 career hits. The 3 time MVP has regressed to a nearly insulting level. In 2011 he was unable to hit more than 20 home runs for the first time since 1995 and put up career low numbers in almost every offensive category, until he preformed worse in 2012 and then 2013. In 2014 he was banned for a year after once again testing positive for performance enhancing drugs. At this point the Yankees were willing to pay A-Rod to just retire and walk away from the team, while still getting paid almost $100 million more. A-Rod said no, and that he wanted to keep playing, so the Yanks tried to unload the aging slugger, but had no takers, it seemed the baggage that Rodriguez brought was much worse than letting him ride the bench and force the Yankees to pay out his contract. A-Rod had a slight resurgence after he returned in 2015 by hitting 33 home runs, but has once again returned to miserable form and the Yankees are kicking themselves for ever giving the man his contract. His career has turned far worse than people could have ever predicted, and by sticking around A-Rod is just bringing more shame to his already ruined name. He should just call it a career and leave the game in peace.
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.