While it might seem like an easy job to some, being a professional athlete requires countless hours of hard work and dedication, while the risk of injury looms large. Athletes get injured. No matter how tough they seem to be, one poorly placed hit or awkward movement could leave them seriously hurt. Every off-season in the NFL sees a few players lost for the year due to injuries sustained while training or in practice. Once the regular season comes along, things don’t get much better. Some players even go through entire seasons battling an injury that they sustained earlier in the year.
But there are ways of combating this. Now more than ever, teams are trying to cut down on injuries and bring players up to speed on proper technique when training as well as tackling in games. Safety is a huge concern in the NFL. Concussions being the biggest health problem in the game today, the recent discoveries on the long term effects of such an injury stress just how seriously measures against it must be taken. Most injuries require a specific amount of rehabilitation until the player can recover. They might or might not come back 100% the same but concussions can negatively affect an athlete’s well being well into their lives.
Over the course of its long history, the NFL has had its share of memorable injuries. But these instances in the game’s past are not remembered for being great achievements or for giving fans great feats of skill. They’re remembered for being cringe-worthy. Once a player gets badly injured, the intense air of competition momentarily leaves the stadium. It’s no longer about who’s scoring more points or the rivalry between two teams. It instantly becomes about the players safety and the hope that they can recover with their lives intact. Sadly this is sometimes not the case and while most players manage to get back to where they were before their injury, some are haunted by theirs for their entire lives.
* Warning: When videos are included, some of them are quite graphic, so discretion is advised.
20 Napoleon McCallum
Drafted out of Navy in 1986 by the L.A. Raiders, Napoleon McCallum’s career was initially put on hold due to his naval commitments. But in 1994, McCallum was thought to be a breakout candidate for the Raiders after a terrific playoffs the year before. On a Monday Night Football game against the San Francisco 49ers, he suffered a terrible knee injury when Ken Norton fell against his knee, bending it and tearing all of his major knee ligaments. His calf and hamstring muscles were torn off the bone and his nerves were also severely damaged. Though it was initially thought that his leg needed to be amputated, McCallum was able to pull through and walk again. But he never did play football again.
19 Charles Gordon
Vikings cornerback/ punt returner Charles Gordon got badly injured after a returning a punt against the Green Bay Packers. Announcers Troy Aikman and Joe Buck initially missed the injury on both the live play and replay, but the injury was so bad that they refused to air the injury again due to how serious it looked. As for the injury itself, it occurred when Gordon’s leg got caught under a Packers player, contorting in a bad way breaking instantly. Gordon was later put on IR promptly ending his season. He played one more year in the NFL before being released by the Vikings.
18 Wes Welker
One of the best slot receivers in NFL history, Wes Welker used to be a staple on the New England Patriots offense. However, he’s suffered a number of nagging injuries throughout his career and that – along with his age – has slowly diminished his on the field production. But out of all of his injuries, none were as bad as the one he suffered against the Houston Texans as a member of the New England Patriots. During the game, Welker blew out his left knee, tearing two ligaments in the process. The injury ended what was shaping up to be one of his best seasons in the league. Patriots coach Bill Bellchick went so far as to say he turf at Reliant Stadium played a part in the injury.
17 Eugene Wilson
On a Monday night pre-season game against the Minnesota Vikings, Houston Texans safety Eugene Wilson was injured by Vikings QB Brett Favre. Favre was aligned as a receiver in the Wildcat formation and attempted to block Wilson on the play. The result was an illegal crack-back block that sent Wilson to the sidelines. Wilson then lay on the field a while writhing in pain before attempting to hop back to the sidelines. The almost 40-year old quarterback was later charged $10,000 by the NFL for the play.
16 Marc Mariani
The former Titans receiver injured himself returning a punt in a pre-season game against the Arizona Cardinals. Mariani was brought down and then almost immediately after had his leg stepped on. His tibia and fibula snapped. Trainers quickly rushed to his aid wrapping the injury in an air cast before getting him to the hospital. The bone had completely snapped and was piercing the skin. While the injury itself looked to be extremely painful, doctors were able to insert a metal rod into his leg and he soon after began his rehabbing. Still in the league today, Mariani is now a member of the Chicago Bears.
15 Eric Wood
During his rookie year, Buffalo Bills center Eric Wood broke his leg effectively ending his season. It was the first of what would be a small sting of injuries that plagued his career early on. But this injury suffered against the Jacksonville Jaguars differentiated itself from the others due to the brutality involved. While attempting to sack QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, defensive tackle Montavious Stanley fell right onto Wood’s leg. The impact caused Wood’s leg to bend sideways. It was so bad, CBS refused to air it again. Woods returned, but once again missed playing time after injuring his leg two years later.
14 Jabari Greer
One of the more recent injuries on this list, Jabari Greer’s NFL career was ended last year after injuring his leg while defending a pass. At the age of 32, Greer injured his ACL, PCL and total posterior lateral compartment in a game against the 49ers. He was a huge part of the Saints 2009 Super Bowl run and nabbed 9 interceptions in five seasons with New Orleans. But those kinds of injuries are tough for players five years younger than Greer to comeback from, so it’s no surprise that he decided to retire a few months after.
13 NaVorro Bowman
It’s tough to lose a playoff game in the NFL, but it’s only worse when a team not only loses the game but one of their best players as well. NaVorro Bowman suffered a knee injury during the NFC Championship game two years ago. He sustained both ACL and MCL injuries and required surgery. The injury was so bad that Bowman was held out for the entirety of the 2014 season. While bringing a player down, Bowman’s left leg was bent the opposite direction when a teammate thrust the opposing player his direction. Bowman will be looked upon to lead the 49ers defense this year, after the retirement of fellow linebackers Patrick Willis and Chris Borland.
12 Dennis Byrd
While moving into sack Chiefs quarterback David Krieg, Jets defensive lineman Dennis Byrd slammed headfirst into a teammate’s chest and then lay motionless on the ground. The injury initially left him paralyzed but miraculously, Byrd was once again able to walk on his own. Though he can’t do it with as much ease as he did before the injury, he still works at rehabilitating himself – continuously improving with each session. He had his number 90 jersey retired by the Jets organization a few years ago and his story continues to inspire all those who hear it.
11 Chris Kuper
There have already been a few offensive linemen on this list. They’re tough guys, so it’s surprising to see them go down. After all it’s not easy. But every once in a while, you’ll see one of these big guys go down hard. And in Chris Kuper’s case, it was tough to watch. Kuper got his leg rolled over during a game against the Kansas City Chiefs. At first, teammate Willis McGahee went over to his side offering to help him up. But cameras quickly picked up McGahee walking away visibly distraught. It didn’t take long to figure out why. Kuper suffered a terrible ankle injury and it looked like his leg was bending backwards at one point. The Broncos, who were playoff bound had to go through the rest of the season without their star guard.
10 Darryl Stingley
Darryl Stingley had a promising career and life ahead of him that was tragically altered on one play against the Oakland Raiders. Stingley, who was a receiver for the Patriots at the time was laid out by Raiders defensive back Jack Tatum while trying to make a catch. As Stingley lowered his helmet he was met with Tatum’s shoulder pad. The impact of the collision did some serious damage to Stingley’s spinal cord, breaking his fourth and fifth cervical vertebrae. The injury left him a quadriplegic. He was set to sign a new contract with the Patriots that would’ve made him one of the highest paid receivers in the league at the time. Instead he was forced to retire. Stingley later reached an agreement with the league and the Patriots that would see them pay off his medical bills.
9 Destry Wright
As an undrafted free agent, rookie Destry Wright was a long shot to make it as a Pittsburgh Steeler. However, his career was cut short before it even had a chance to get started in a pre-season game versus the Dallas Cowboys. After being brought down on a run play, Wright’s legs each pointed in a different direction. The impact was so severe that he lay on the field as his legs remained in that unnatural position until trainers took him off the field. He’d dislocated one ankle and then broken his leg on the other side. He never played another down in the NFL and is still remembered for his terrible injury.
8 Ed McCaffrey
The former Broncos receiver gravely injured his leg on a Monday Night game against the New York Giants. McCaffrey, who served as the Broncos number two receiver behind Rod Smith, broke his leg when Giants defensive back Shaun Williams went crashing into him to make a tackle. Williams’s hit got McCaffery right in his legs. The hit was so hard that Williams himself injured his thigh on the play. The leg snapped after hitting the field, breaking McCaffrey’s fibula and tibia. His season over, McCaffrey was carted off the field and placed on season ending IR. A couple years later, he retired from the NFL.
7 Leonard Weaver
Leonard Weaver used to be one of the most versatile fullbacks in the league. His ability to both run and catch the ball made him someone opposing defenses had to take into account when game planning for upcoming games. But his career was ended by a terrible leg injury a while back. Coming off a Pro Bowl year, Weaver had just signed a new contract that made him one of the richest at his position. But on a play where he was supposed to run right, Weaver instead went the opposite direction. His leg then collided with a helmet, effectively ending his NFL career in less than a few seconds.
6 Ronnie Lott
A pinkie injury might not sound like such a bad deal in comparison to some of the other tragedies mentioned on this list, but for former 49ers cornerback Ronnie Lott it wasn’t so much the injury itself that left a mark, but what he chose to do afterwards. Lott severely injured his finger in a game against the Dallas Cowboys. It was bad. The thing looked pretty mangled and there were small bone fragments laying in the field. But rather than have surgery and miss playing time, Lott instead chose option B. He cut off the injured part of his finger. It’s no doubt as to why Lott is considered to be one of the toughest NFL players of all-time.
5 Johnny Knox
During a game against the Seattle Seahawks, Bear receiver Johnny Knox was almost left paralyzed. After catching a pass, Knox proceeded to make a defender miss, losing the ball in the process. As he dove for the loose ball, so did several other players. The ball continued to move around as players from both sides continued to chase after it. As the camera continued to follow the pileup, Knox lay motionless on the ground. He’d been hit while diving for the ball and seriously injured his back. The injury forced him to retire a couple years after and while he does so with a limp, he’s lucky to be able to walk at all.
4 EJ Henderson
An anchor on the Vikings defense, EJ Henderson had a nice long career in Minnesota. The star linebacker was the heart and soul of the defense for nine years. But his career took a turn during a game against the Arizona Cardinals. While trying to bring down Cardinals back Tim Hightower, Henderson twisted his leg while going down. His femur was broken and it took medical attendants several minutes before they were able to cart him to the locker room. It was his second season ending injury in just as many years. A couple of years later, he was out of the league for good.
3 Junior Seau
While his tragic death is still a recent memory, former linebacker Junior Seau is remembered for his accomplishments on the NFL gridiron. In the twilight years of his career, Seau came out of retirement to join the New England Patriots in hopes of winning a championship. In his first year with New England, he had his season cut short. During a game against the Chicago Bears, Seau broke his arm while trying to bring down Bears running back Cedric Benson. The arm broke on impact while trying to make the tackle. After the play, you could see it just limping there. The medical staff quickly put it into an air cast and rushed him into the locker room.
2 Joe Theismann
This is probably the most famous injury to ever occur in pro sports. The Theismann injury is still remembered today as a key moment in NFL history. It’s also remembered for being the last play of Joe Theismann's career. It was during a 1985 Monday night game against the New York Giants. Theismann called a flea-flicker, but Giants all-pro linebacker Harry Carson didn’t bite and ran right into the QB. However, he’d managed to avoid the hit and began scrambling and that’s when Lawrence Taylor started chasing him down. He pulled Theismann down just as lineman Gary Reasons slammed into Theismann. He then fell in an awkward manner while those around him heard a distinctive popping sound. It was the sound of Theismann’s career ending. The bone sticking out of Theisman’s leg was clearly visible while Taylor frantically waved for medical help. It’s left its mark and is remembered as one of the most gruesome moments in NFL history.
1 Kevin Everett
During the second half kickoff against the Denver Broncos, fans at Ralph Wilson Stadium were shocked to see Bills tight end Kevin Everett motionless on the turf. Everett was working kick coverage and got into a helmet to helmet collision with Dominik Hixon. The result looked very bad. The medical staff rushed to Everett’s side and soon after got him to a nearby hospital. He’d injured his neck and had emergency surgery on his fractured third and fourth vertebrae. His neck remained dislocated as he lost voluntary control of his body. His own doctor wasn’t too optimistic about his chances of walking and some even called the injury life threatening. Everett’s career was over, but he did manage to beat the odds and was walking just a few months after his surgery.
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