Top 20 NFL Greats Whose Careers Were Cut Short

The following NFL stars all had aspirations to be something more--not necessarily something great, because we still consider these players to be among the best. But they had dreams to become something

The following NFL stars all had aspirations to be something more--not necessarily something great, because we still consider these players to be among the best. But they had dreams to become something beyond what they originally became, and for one reason or another their dreams were cut short.

When the players listed were kids and playing back yard football, many probably told their friends they'd play in the NFL for 15 years. Some may have even thought they'd run through the history books all the way to the Hall of Fame. They'd have a bust created, and a portrait of their best football moment would hang proudly behind it. A plaque would sit beneath the bust and highlight all of their stats, and future high school athletes would gingerly stroll by staring at their the greatness they hoped to one day become.

Oh, how dreams are quickly shattered by a busted knee, some illegal substances, other aspirations, and downright unfortunate circumstances. Although, I struggle mightily to come up with a better term to use other than "unfortunate," for the Sean Taylor's murder. I'm always up for suggestions, and yes, he's obviously included on this list. For one reason or another, the following players' careers ended prematurely. Many shocked us when they finally hung up the cleats or were forced too. Others didn't, but everyone listed kept us wondering what might have happened if they could have stayed on the field for just a few more years.

While the point of the article is to entertain with a list of players we almost forgot about, it's also here to point out that none of us should take anything for granted. And I mean anything, from the ability to pick up a football to the ability to use your hands to type an article about not taking typing (or the career you hopefully love) for granted. Because before you know it, you too might be forced to hang up the cleats.

20 Rashard Mendenhall, RB

Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Whether or not we can really consider Mendenhall "great" is certainly up for debate, however, he didn't become a relatively common household name for no reason. Drafted by the Steelers in 2008, Mendenhall amassed more than 4,000 yards and 37 rushing touchdowns in the four full seasons he played. Injuries plagued his career, but Mendenhall decided to end it on his own terms. He retired at the young age of 26 after playing only one season for the Arizona Cardinals.

19 Dwight Stephenson, C


While Stephenson played eight years in the NFL, he started only 87 games. Despite the low game total, the NFL still inducted the University of Alabama product into the 1998 Hall of Fame for the number of accolades he racked up during his time with the Dolphins. He helped anchor a Dolphins' offensive line that surrendered the fewest sacks in the NFL for a record six straight years. Before suffering a career-ending knee injury, Stephenson earned All-Pro and All-AFC recognition for five straight years and was elected to five straight Pro Bowls.

18 Pat Tillman, SS

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Pat Tillman's greatest contribution came off the field, but he also made a tremendous mark in Arizona while a member of the Cardinals. Arizona selected him in the seventh round of the 1998 draft, and as is the case with most late round draft picks, the chances he would make the team were slim. Tillman, however, proved doubters wrong with his intense, physical style of play. Eventually he cracked the starting lineup, and while the stat sheet might not impress you, few would argue that Tillman was the heart of a Cardinals' team that seemingly always lacked a pulse.

17 Daunte Culpepper, QB


While Culpepper played in the NFL for 11 years, the last five years of his career were marred by injuries. This is a "what could have been" story. Selected 11th overall in the 1999 NFL draft, Culpepper sat behind Randall Cunningham and Jeff George his first year before starting for the Vikings in year two. That year he threw an impressive 33 touchdowns (15 to Randy Moss) and led the Vikings to the NFC Championship game. Arguably his most dominating season came four years later when he threw for a league leading 4,717 yards and a Vikings' record 39 touchdowns. Culpepper missed the end of the 2005 season after tearing his ACL, MCL and PCL ligaments. He was never the same again.

16 Robert Edwards, RB


We'll give ourselves some leeway with this addition because few would argue Edwards was an intriguing prospect with immense amount of potential. He never reached that potential because he suffered one of the most devastating injuries to a running back, blowing out his knee while playing pick-up beach football at the 1998 Pro Bowl. During his rookie season, he rushed for 1,115 yards and nine touchdowns. While he did make an inspiring comeback, treatment wasn't the same as it is now, and his career was never the same.

15 Billy Sims, RB


Before there was Barry Sanders, there was Billy Sims. He wasn't as allusive as Sanders, but the Oklahoma product could move a pile. In five years with the Lions, he amassed over 5,000 yards, including three 1,000 plus seasons and 42 touchdowns. He also held a yards per rush average of 4.5. Sims won NFL Rookie of the Year for rushing for 1,303 yards and 13 touchdowns, while also helping a Lions' team improve from 2-14 in 1979 to 9-7. He held a number of Lions' records until the immortal Barry Sanders broke them only a few years later.

14 Korey Stringer, RT


Even 13 years after Stringer's passing, it still feels like yesterday that the revered Viking was anchoring their offensive line and actively making a difference in Minnesota's community. Stringer was a fan favorite, and his unfortunate passing ushered in new health-related training camp protocols. Stringer passed away after complications due to heat stroke, which he suffered at a Vikings' training camp practice. In five years, Stringer started 91 of 93 total games and earned a 2000 Pro Bowl bid.

13 Ricky Williams, RB

via AP

Williams played for 11 years, so again, it's a stretch to warrant him a spot on this list. However, he's here because he could have done so much more in those 11 years had he not left the game mid way through his career. In 1999, the New Orleans Saints traded their entire 1999 draft board to move up to the number five overall pick to select Williams. His tenure with the Saints was disastrous, and New Orleans traded him to the Dolphins for two first round draft picks. While Williams produced admirably in South Florida for a couple of seasons, he soon retired from the NFL following the 2003 season after the NFL suspended him for marijuana use. From there, his career spiraled out of control, and while he did put up one final 1,000 rushing season in 2009, you have to wonder "what would have been?" had he not retired at the half-way point.

12 Keith Millard, DT


Prior to his devastating, career-altering ACL injury in 1990, Millard was one of the most dominating defensive tackles to take the field. Chosen 13th overall in the 1984 draft by the Vikings, Millard would go onto rack up 53 sacks in six years, including back to back double digit sacks years during his first two years in Minnesota. He recorded his best year in 1989 when he played defensive tackle and recorded 18 sacks, which set an NFL record for most sacks by a player at his position. He also earned NFL Defensive Play of the Year and a spot in the Pro Bowl.

11 Kenny Easley, SS


In seven years, Easley put together a career defined by dominance, intimidation and sound ball skills. In his short career, he had 32 interceptions, an AFC Defensive Rookie of the Year award and a 1984 Defensive Player of the year award. His career ended when he failed his physical because of a failed kidney. He attributed the kidney failure to a high dose of pain killers he felt he had to take. Based on his style of play, we can see why he probably needed them.

10 Sterling Sharpe, WR


Sharpe put together a Hall-of-Fame worthy career in the seven years he played for the Packers. However, the chance he gets into the Hall is slim because he just didn't play long enough. While with the Packers, Sharpe racked up over 8,000 yards receiving on 595 receptions and in 1992 became just the sixth player to win the receiving Triple Crown. That year he recorded 108 receptions for 1,461 yards and 13 touchdowns. In 1994, the talented wide receiver was forced to retire because of a serious neck injury.

9 Tony Boselli, OT


Boselli is on the 2015 Hall of Fame ballot and for good reason. Listed as 6'7" and 320 lbs, the former Jaguar found a way to make a name for himself on a small market expansion team. When his career ended due to a shoulder injury, he had racked an Offensive Line of the Year award and was also named to the NFL's 1990s All-Decade Team. Making the All-Decade team, while only playing seven seasons, is incredibly impressive, especailly considering all the talented tackles that played in the 1990s.

8 Jerome Brown, DT


Brown was a force and poised to be a fixture along the Eagles' defensive front for years to come until an automobile accident on June 25th, 1992 took his life. In five years, he racked up 29.5 sacks. He was a Pro Bowl player who one newspaper column called "powerful" and an "anchor" on the field, but "was known for his humor and pranks in the locker room and for his kindness off the field."

7 Terrell Davis, RB


The only thing that is keeping Davis out of the Hall of Fame is his short career by industry standards. But when he did play, he jam packed his moments with a running style and statistics that would blow you out of your cleats. Seven years and two Super Bowl championships later, Davis racked up 7,607 yards rushing on 4.6 yards per carry. At first, that may not seem like much. But there's more. He totaled 6,413 of those yards in just four years before injuries finally took their toll.

6 Gale Sayers, RB


For 3-4 years, Gale dominated the running back position before a serious knee injury in 1968 and 1970 halted what could have been one of the greatest careers by a running back. During his rookie season, he racked up 20 total touchdowns, and finished his illustrious career holding a five yards per carry average. He was fast, shifty and graceful and was easily the NFL's best running back and kick returner during his short, but memorable reign.

5 Bo Jackson, RB


Jackson was a multi-sport athlete who gave each sport a preview of what he could bring had he stuck with one career. In any case, he impressed in all arenas. In 1987, Jackson signed with the L.A. Raiders and during his rookie year, ran for an astonishing 221 yards on Monday Night Football. In baseball, he even put up four 20-home-run seasons. A devastating hip injury sidelined Jackson for good following 1990.

4 Barry Sanders, RB


Arguably the greatest running back to ever step onto the gridiron, Sanders cut his career short during his prime. His decision to retire not only devastated Lions' fans, but football fans who enjoyed watching his rare, elusive running style. It was unexpected, to say the least, for his agent to tell the Lions the day before training camp in 1999 that their star running back wouldn't be suiting up. After a 10-year career, Sanders finished third behind fellow running back greats Walter Payton and Emmitt Smith in career rushing yards, but few doubt he'd have broken both if he'd continued to play.

3 Joe Theismann, QB

via AP

Thesimann career was not necessarily short, but we include him here because it ended so abruptly. He's also not in the Hall of Fame, but many argue that he should be. Named one of the 70 greatest Washington Redskins in 2002, Theismann defeated the Dolphins in the 1982 Super Bowl. He then followed up his Super Bowl victory with a 14-2 regular season record and an MVP title. His career ended with a gruesome broken leg after Lawrence Taylor sacked him on Monday Night Football. Viewer discretion is advised.

2 Sean Taylor, FS


Taylor was a talented player who never had the chance to show the world the athletic gifts he possessed. Drafted fifth overall by the Washington Redskins in 2004, Taylor played just as hard on the field as he did off it. And it was the latter that often got him in trouble with the league. In five years, he branded himself as one of the NFL's hardest hitters, racking up 12 interceptions and 238 tackles. In November 2007, his life was cut short at the hands of four home invaders who killed him at gunpoint.

1 Aaron Hernandez, TE

The Sun Chronicle/Pool Photo via USA TODAY Sports

This is a TBD post, which means the outcome is pending. The way Hernandez's current murder trial is unfolding, the former tight end might actually have a chance to be set free. Shocking, we know. Are people skeptical the defense can weave a story to keep him out of prison? Yes. Are people just as skeptical the prosecution can find enough usable evidence to convict Hernandez; although, by the eye test it appears he's guilty? Yes.

Hernandez was a multi-positional football freak. He was the complement to the bigger  bodied Rob Gronkowski in the Patriots' offensive juggernaut and one of the main reason the team went to the Super Bowl in 2012. He had the ability to line up as a running back, receiver or tight end, and had he continued to play, there's a chance he would have even passed a similarly built athlete in Jimmy Graham as one of the best tight ends in the game.

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Top 20 NFL Greats Whose Careers Were Cut Short