The careers of many freakishly talented athletes have been sidetracked by injuries, leaving fans to wonder what might have been. Some of them were even Hall of Famers. Here are 35 "what-if" athletes.
A prodigious talent, he was projected to do great things at Oklahoma and in the NFL. Dupree rushed for 1,144 yards on only 146 carries as a freshman, but injuries curtailed his sophomore season. Dupree ended up in the USFL but suffered a severe knee injury that ended his career in that league. Four years later, in 1990, Dupree managed to make the Los Angeles Rams, but he rushed for only 251 yards and one touchdown.
One of the best pure athletes in history, Jackson performed incredible feats in football and baseball and was poised to excel in both for many years. His football career was cut short by a hip injury suffered in the Raiders' 1991 playoff game against the Cincinnati Bengals; the injury also hampered his ability to play baseball. Bo gave sports fans plenty of highlights in his relatively short career. He hit 141 home runs over parts of eight big-league seasons and rushed for 2,782 yards and averaged 5.4 yards per carry in four NFL seasons. But it’s hard to look at his physical gifts and not wonder what might have been.
Taylor, the top pick in the 1991 MLB Draft, can’t claim bad luck for his injury. He got into a bar fight in his native North Carolina, suffered a shoulder injury and was never the same. He never made it higher than Double-A despite multiple attempts at comebacks. He is routinely mentioned as one of the biggest busts in sports history, particularly in light of how much hype he received when the Yankees drafted him.
In retrospect it seems like a ridiculous debate to have, but there were many in 2007 who thought the Trail Blazers made the right move by picking Oden over Kevin Durant. The Ohio State product was dominant when healthy and profiled as the NBA’s next great big man. Unfortunately, chronically injured knees robbed Oden of both his health and his explosiveness. In the end, Oden played only 105 games in three seasons and missed three full seasons in the middle of his career. Durant? Well, we know what became of him.
Sabonis’ story is a classic “what-if” tale and especially juicy because there are rare videos of him fully healthy when he played for the Soviet Union. In the NBA, the 7-foot-3 big man was “Mount Sabonis,” a plodding but immovable center with a deft shooting touch and keen court vision and passing abilities. Before injury he was impossibly agile, quick and athletic for someone of his size. Some analysts think he would have been among the the top five centers of all time if he had played his whole career in the NBA. Alas, hoops fans everywhere must settle for what they got — career averages of 12 points and 7.3 rebounds per game for Portland.
Hill had a do-it-all skill set and tremendous court sense. In six mostly healthy seasons with Detroit, he averaged 21.6 points, 7.9 rebounds and 6.3 assists. But persistent ankle injuries robbed Hill of his explosiveness, causing him to miss enormous amounts of time. He still put up solid seasons when he was able to stay on the court, but they were far too few for a player of his caliber.
When McGrady entered the NBA with Toronto, he was Vince Carter’s on-court running buddy. While Carter is about to play his record 22nd season, McGrady, the better all-around talent of the two, was repeatedly derailed by back problems that would often crop up out of nowhere. A healthy T-Mac was one of the league’s most gifted pure scorers -- he led the league in scoring during his final two seasons with the Magic.
Kobe Bryant was once asked which NBA player was toughest for him to guard. He could have said LeBron, or Kevin Durant or just about any other player. His answer? "Roy, 365 days, seven days a week. Roy has no weaknesses in his game." Roy's first four seasons in Portland, when he was mostly healthy, saw him average 20.2 points, five assists and 4.6 rebounds. Injuries plagued him the following year, so much so that he retired before the 2011-12 season, before attempting a brief, five-game comeback in 2012-13. The stats and Bryant's words suggest that NBA fans were deprived of a chance to see a special talent for a decade or more.
Didrikson was one of the greatest athletes in history. She was a track and field star, winning two golds and a silver medal at the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, tried her hand at baseball, and was a 10-time major championship winner on the LPGA Tour. She won 48 golf tournaments in all, and remains the only woman to make the cut in a PGA event, doing so on multiple occasions. Didrikson was stricken with colon cancer and died at age 45; had she not, it is likely she would have added several more titles to an already packed trophy case.
In his fifth career start in 1998, the Cubs' starter put on an electrifying performance with 20 strikeouts. He went 13-6 that year before missing all of 1999 after injuring his elbow and requiring Tommy John surgery. Wood returned and found his form again, posing solid numbers in 2001, 2002 and 2003, before tailing off and eventually finishing his career as a reliever. In a 14-year career, he posted an 86-75 record and a 3.67 ERA. His numbers were solid, but for a guy with can't-miss stuff, he was something of a disappointment.
The Cubs rode Prior’s electrifying right arm to the 2003 NLCS, and he had the look of one of the sport’s aces for years to come. However, despite his sturdy build, his arm action was too stressful, and Prior burned out after a few years at the top of the sport. A collision with Marcus Giles in 2003 hurt Prior, as did a comeback line drive by Brad Hawpe in 2005. Add into that the fact that Dusty Baker routinely had him throw a high number of pitches in each start, and you have a recipe for disaster. Unable to shake a plethora of ailments, not all of them arm- and shoulder-related, Prior never pitched in the majors after 2006. He compiled a 42-29 record and a 3.51 ERA in five seasons.
A knee injury suffered his senior year at Alabama hampered Namath, who played 13 seasons in the NFL, 12 with the Jets. He authored the most famous upset in NFL history in Super Bowl III, a win over the Colts that is largely responsible for his being in the Hall of Fame. But nagging knee injuries that dogged him for the entirety of his career make it tempting to wonder what he could have been had he been at full strength for the majority of his time in the NFL.
Sayers is in the Hall of Fame, but he played only seven years with the Chicago Bears before two major knee injuries sent him into premature retirement. Sayers was one of the most electrifying open-field runners in league history; a graceful, incredibly elusive back who could do most anything with the ball in his hands. He was also a true multipurpose threat, skilled as a receiver and lethal as a return man, racking up eight return touchdowns in his career. Sayers led the league in rushing twice and in all-purpose yards three straight years. He retired at age 28, and remains the youngest man inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, at 34.
Sanders, the 2007 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, was a dynamic wrecking ball of a safety for Indianapolis despite being only 5-foot-8. He torpedoed into backfields and was a menace on throws downfield. However, his all-out style of play, coupled with his relatively slight stature, resulted in his being plagued with injuries. Sanders played in only 50 games in his career and in more than six games in a season just twice, and he was beset by maladies too numerous to name. Had he stayed healthy, he had Hall of Fame talent, but it was not to be.
Pavano missed the entire 2006 season. OK, he was a pitcher — that sort of thing happens. Problem is, the Yankees initially placed him on the disabled list with a "bruised buttocks" after a fall during a spring training game. Pavano ended up missing that entire season for a variety of reasons, and his absence became a point of major frustration for Yankees fans. He missed so much time over the course of his career that the New York Post nicknamed him "American Idle." Pavano managed to start only 30 games in a season five times in a 14-year career, and his numbers were the epitome of average (108-107 record, 4.39 ERA).
Hardaway was a prodigious talent whose lanky 6-foot-7 frame made him a tantalizing prospect. In his first four seasons in the NBA with Orlando, he averaged 19.7 points, 6.7 assists and 4.6 rebounds. Chronic knee issues hampered him for the rest of his career, even as he was able to play in the majority of games in subsequent seasons. For his career, he averaged 15.2 points, five assists and 4.5 rebounds.
Bowie’s career is held up as a footnote in the Michael Jordan story — a cautionary tale about a team making a historically bad pick relative to what was available. Bowie, however, could have been great in the NBA had he been able to stay healthy. He fell victim to tibia fractures in both legs once he made it to the Trail Blazers. He later revealed that his lower legs had bothered him even in high school. Despite a productive and relatively healthy run with the Nets, Bowie retired after the 1994-95 season with career averages of 10.9 points and 7.5 rebounds. He played only 511 games in a 10-year career.
Seles looked like the next dominant female tennis player when she became the youngest French Open winner in history in 1990, taking home the title at age 16. She won eight Grand Slam singles titles before turning 20, but her career trajectory was halted in horrifying fashion on April 30, 1993, when an attacker came out of the crowd and onto the court and stabbed her in the back. Seles was sidelined for two years, and though she did win the 1996 Australian Open, she never was able to recapture the form that led to her meteoric rise.
Walton was one of the greatest college basketball players ever, but his professional career never lived up to what he did at UCLA. Much of the reason for that was a series of debilitating foot injuries that limited Walton’s ability to stay on the court and hampered him when he was healthy enough to play. Had he stayed healthy his whole career, Walton likely would have gone down as one of the greatest centers in history. As it stands, he is the only player to win an NBA Finals MVP, Sixth Man Award and regular-season MVP Award. Walton averaged 13.3 points and 10.5 rebounds for his career.
A Hall of Famer and one of baseball's most devastating lefthanders, Koufax battled arm injuries that dramatically shortened his career. He was known for his command, particularly later in his career, and for a phenomenal curveball. Koufax won three Cy Young Awards in four seasons and was National League MVP Award in 1963. He was forced to retire after his age-30 season because of arthritis in his left elbow. In his 12-year career, he went 165-87 with a 2.76 ERA.
Carter was a dynamic running back for Penn State’s undefeated 1994 team, putting up 1,539 yards and 23 touchdowns on only 198 carries. The Bengals made him the top pick in the 1995 draft, but a torn ACL during his first preseason derailed him before he could get going. He also suffered a torn rotator cuff, broken left wrist and dislocated right kneecap during his time with the Bengals. In the seven seasons he was healthy enough to play, Carter accumulated 1,144 yards, 20 touchdowns and a 3.6 yards-per-carry average.
Lindros, who played for the Flyers in his first eight seasons in the NHL, was a physical specimen on par with Mario Lemieux and one of the most hyped prospects in league history. At first his career mostly lived up to the hype, but injuries slowed him, and a number of devastating hits, especially one delivered by New Jersey’s Scott Stevens, caused concussions that would plague Lindros and ultimately bring about a premature end to his career. Lindros averaged more than a point per game in his NHL career, finishing with 865 in only 760 games.
A physical specimen unlike any seen before or since, Ming was different from other ultra-tall centers in that he actually had plenty of bulk on his 7-foot-6 frame. The Houston Rockets star also possessed plenty of touch for a big man. His NBA career could have been much more, but foot injuries hampered him in his later years in the league, as he missed 250 games in his last six NBA seasons. When healthy he was a force, averaging 19 points, 9.2 rebounds and 1.9 blocks.
Mantle's career is even more impressive when you consider that he played almost his entire 18-year Yankees career with a torn ACL. He also had a shoulder injury that made hitting from the left side more difficult. It's scary to imagine what he would have been if he were healthy. Still, Mantle is regarded as the greatest switch-hitter of all time. He retired with 536 home runs and a career .298 batting average.
Lattimore burst onto the scene as a freshman at South Carolina, running for 1,197 yards, but his next two seasons were derailed by knee injuries. So was his attempt at a pro career. Lattimore never played in the NFL.
Taillon was the second overall pick in the 2010 MLB Draft, with Bryce Harper going first and Manny Machado third. He was supposed to anchor the Pirates rotation with 2011 top overall pick Gerrit Cole for years to come. But Taillon has battled cancer and endured two Tommy John surgeries. Though he has vowed to come back better than ever, it is likely his days as a projected top-of-the-rotation starter are over. In four big-league seasons, Taillon has pitched in only 82 games, compiling a 29-24 record and a 3.67 ERA.
Shazier was a rising star at inside linebacker for the Steelers, with plenty of speed, raw athletic ability and instinctiveness. He looked like a linchpin of the defense for years to come, but that all changed on Dec. 4, 2017, when he was injured while making a tackle. Shazier couldn't move his legs after the play and only gradually regained the ability to walk unassisted. He did not play in 2018 and will not play in 2019, and it is likely that he will never play again. Shazier totaled seven interceptions, seven sacks and 24 tackles for loss in four NFL seasons.
The Penguins' Lemieux, like Mickey Mantle, wouldn’t seem to belong here because he is regarded, at worst, as the third-best player in NHL history. Given his health woes, which included Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and a chronic bad back, it's astounding he produced what he did. Lemieux's career 1.88 points per game mark is second only to Wayne Gretzky's 1.92.
Livingston was thought of as the next great “big” point guard until a gruesome knee injury threatened his career in 2007. The Clippers' guard missed a full season as a result, and many thought he might never play basketball again. He did, and ended up having a decent career as a backup point guard, particularly for the Warriors’ dynastic teams of recent vintage.
LaFontaine was already an established upper-echelon player when he was traded from the Islanders to the Sabres in 1991. He turned things up a notch the following season for Buffalo, scoring 148 points, a total that still stands as a record for an American-born player in a season. He missed significant time the following two seasons, but after a strong bounce-back campaign in 1995-96, his career was functionally ended after he suffered a concussion against the Pittsburgh Penguins. LaFontaine played one more season after that, with the New York Rangers, then retired. His career average of 1.17 points per game is still the best for an American-born player.
Williams, the second overall pick in the 2002 NBA Draft, seemed destined for superstardom with the Bulls. The point guard was an explosive athlete, able to get his shot off against anyone, and his rookie season (9.5 points and 4.7 assists per game) indicated big things were in his future. Those ended up being his career stats, however, as a devastating motorcycle accident caused catastrophic damage to his lower body and ended his playing career almost before it began.
Luck's Aug. 24, 2019, retirement announcement shocked most football fans and analysts. The Colts quarterback said the reasons for his decision were pain from injuries as well as the mental and physical drain of near-constant rehabilitation. Luck led the league in touchdown passes in 2014 and was a four-time Pro Bowler with the Colts. He missed the entire 2017 season due to injury, and there were questions about how the Colts handled his recovery. But even against that backdrop, no one expected him to walk away from the game before age 30.
Griffey, a Hall of Famer, is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest to play his sport. Still, despite hitting 630 home runs and racking up 10 Gold Gloves, an MVP Award and 13 All-Star Game appearances, it's fair to wonder just how absurd Griffey's numbers would have been had he been healthy in the latter half of his career. From 2001-2004, his numbers were strong, but he often wasn't in the lineup. Griffey missed 260 of 486 games from 2002-2004 -- his hamstrings and calves were the main culprits.
Hurley, the seventh-overall pick of the Sacramento Kings in the 1993 NBA Draft after a standout career at Duke , appeared poised to have a long and prosperous pro career. But he nearly died in a car accident on Dec.12, 1993, while returning home from a game. He missed the rest of that season, and despite playing 68 and 72 games the following two seasons, he was relegated to a reserve role and lost some of the quickness and athleticism that made him such a desirable pick in the first place. Hurley's NBA career lasted through the 1997-98 season; he retired with career averages of 3.8 points and 3.3 assists.
Rose was one of the most explosive athletes to enter the NBA in some time when the Bulls made the hometown hero the top pick in the 2008 Draft. Rose immediately paid dividends, winning the 2008-09 Rookie of the Year Award. Two years later, he was MVP after averaging 25 points, 7.7 assists and 4.1 rebounds. An ACL tear the following year cost him the rest of the 2011-12 season and all of the 2012-13 campaign. He came back for the 2013-14 season, but suffered a torn meniscus and missed all but 10 games that season. His career has been riddled with more knee injuries since.
Some hockey pundits maintain Orr, a superstar with the Boston Bruins, is the greatest player ever. That's impressive considering his career was cut short because of chronic knee problems. Orr's style was revolutionary and has influenced countless defensemen who have come after him. His average of 1.39 points per game is fourth best in league history.
Hearst had hit his stride with the 49ers after up-and-down seasons in Arizona and Cincinnati at the outset of his career. He rushed for 1,019 and 1,570 yards in 1997 and 1998, respectively, before a gruesome ankle injury in the 1998 NFL playoffs threatened his career. Despite missing two seasons rehabilitating, he made it back to the league in 2001; San Francisco, which went 10-22 without him, went 12-4 upon his return. Hearst ran for 1,206 yards in 2001 and managed 7,966 for his career. But it's fair to wonder if he could have put up borderline Hall of Fame numbers had he stayed healthy.