Injuries and Scandals That Tragically Cut These Athletes' Careers Short

By Jake SchroederLast Updated Apr 18, 2020 9:33:57 PM ET
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Photo Courtesy: Staff Sgt. Stephanie Jacobs/Hurlburt Field

Athletes are modern gladiators, revered by mere mortals and sometimes mistakenly believed to be immune to serious injuries, mental meltdowns and scandals. Turn on the tube, and the news will remind you that athletes are just as susceptible as the rest of us to tragic events, and those events sometimes end their careers.

Sometimes, it’s an unpredictable injury; sometimes, it’s an overinflated ego that falsely makes them believe they are above the law. Let’s take a look at some of the injuries and scandals that blew up some very promising athletic careers.

Tiger Woods

Has there ever been a more shocking public fall from grace than that of Tiger Woods? The child golf prodigy has been on TV sinking putts since the age of two, and he stole America’s heart along the way. By the time he was in his golfing prime, the world had never seen such dominance on the links.

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Photo Courtesy: Untitled Author/Pixabay

Unfortunately, it emerged that Tiger's persona behind the public facade was troubled by sex addiction, countless affairs and a drive to be personally dominant that was far less healthy than his drive to achieve golfing dominance. If you have a pulse, you know the sad Tiger Woods story.

Mike Tyson

No man was more feared in the boxing ring than Mike Tyson. The Knockout Kid seemed to explode with a single ignition of fury, taking down massive, muscle-bound goliaths with a single punch. (Seriously, some of his fights were too short to even be boring.) Ultimately, the world discovered Mike's persona outside the ring was almost as dangerous.

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Between facing credible rape allegations — for which he served time — fueling an insatiable drug habit and behaving erratically (ear biting, anyone?), Tyson brought down his own career in record time. He’s the first to admit that his many scandals were his professional undoing.

Alex Rodriguez

If you're young or not a baseball fan, you may only know Alex Rodriguez as the pearly white-smiled husband of Jennifer Lopez. He is a media darling again, which just proves his charm is undeniable. Those familiar with baseball, remember him as a once-golden child who fell from grace — hard.

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The culprit was steroids, and A-Rod’s failure to admit he used them throughout most of his career was his undoing. He waged a public battle with Major League Baseball filled with an unrivaled level of self-righteousness and indignation that will always tarnish his career with most fans.

Grant Hill

Grant Hill is one of the most likable guys in sports. The former Duke basketball star is one of the best NBA analysts around, so many people forget just how great he was as a player back in the day. His career would have been awesome — if not for injuries.

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Photo Courtesy: Chris Elise/Getty Images

Ultimately, Hill's balky ankles let him down time and time again. Due to repeated ankle injuries, he was forced to retire in 2000. To add insult to injury, Hill claimed a misdiagnosis by doctors led to his irreparable ankle injury.

Bo Jackson

Bo Jackson is considered by many to be the greatest athlete of all time. He was both a dominant college running back and a talented outfielder at Auburn. (That’s right, two different sports.) He went on to play in the NFL as a running back for the Oakland Raiders and also played in the outfield for the Kansas City Royals.

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Photo Courtesy: Alex Trautwig/MLB/Getty Images

It’s exceptionally rare to play two sports professionally — and even less likely to have Hall-of-Fame-level of talent in both. Bo suffered a fracture of his hip joint that ended both careers before he could prove he could go the distance. It’s a classic case of "what if."

Yao Ming

Yao Ming revolutionized the center position in the NBA. At 7.5 feet tall, he makes the tallest men in the league today look comically small. The fact that he was from China made him a global megastar and an extremely rare anomaly. The Chinese average height is closer to 5.5 feet tall.

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Photo Courtesy: World Travel & Tourism Council/Flickr

Unfortunately, if you’re Yao's height, your body is carrying a massive load. Specifically, your feet bear the brunt of all that weight, and Yao's feet ultimately cut his career short. Still, he remains a global icon and a revered figure in China.

Lance Armstrong

Will we ever forget the man who is possibly the most scandalous athlete of all time? The Lance Armstrong downfall was particularly polarizing because of the cancer factor. Not only did Armstrong overcome testicular cancer — becoming an icon for cancer survivors and their supporters in the process — but he also raised an ungodly amount of money for cancer research.

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The revelation that he used steroids to gain a competitive advantage throughout his dominant run as a cyclist was incomprehensible for many fans. In retrospect, it probably should have been obvious. Armstrong is a tragic figure in numerous ways.

Tonya Harding

Tonya Harding became synonymous with one of the most mind-boggling, tragically comical (in a really dark way) sports scandals of all time. Her boyfriend and his henchman attacked her primary figure skating rival, Nancy Kerrigan, injuring her to give Harding a competitive advantage (to say the least).

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To this day, Harding denies involvement in the attack, but her story remains hard to believe. She was recently revived in the pop culture consciousness, thanks to the release of the movie I, Tonya and a stint on Dancing with the Stars. Regardless, she is still most known for the Nancy Kerrigan affair.

Chad Ochocinco

Chad Ochocinco, also known as Chad Johnson, is one of the most electric, gregarious wide receivers the NFL has ever known. In an era where player personalities were illuminated on TV shows like Hard Knocks, Ochocinco came through with Pro Bowl-numbers every year while showcasing a vibrant personality.

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His career was cut short after his then-fiancee Evelyn Lozada accused him of assaulting her during an ugly incident. Ochocinco has since admitted that he got physical with Lozada, but the admission wasn’t enough to prevent him from being cut by the Miami Dolphins.

Ken Griffey Jr.

Ken Griffey Jr., what can you say? Not only did "The Kid" have the sweetest swing baseball had ever seen, but he was undoubtedly one of the best all-around players in the game's history. He was the face of the game who made the backwards hat cool and re-popularized the game among the African American community.

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Photo Courtesy: Artura Pardavila III/Wikimedia Commons

Griffey Jr. dealt with his fair share of injuries throughout his career, which is a testament to his all-out way of playing the game. He ultimately proved to be a Hall of Famer, mostly because of his insane early success rather than his consistent physical health.

Bill Walton

If you’re a sports fan in the Millennial or Gen-Z generations, you may know Bill Walton as the unabashed Deadhead who also happens to be one of the most off-the-cuff, rambling basketball analysts ever. (Okay, he’s definitely the most off-the-cuff, rambling basketball analyst ever.)

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You may even know him as the dad of former Lakers and current Sacramento Kings coach Luke Walton. Before his second life, Walton was one of the most dominant — yet one of the most injury-plagued — big men in the NBA. He was freakishly athletic and well rounded as a player, but his balky lower half was unsustainable for the long haul.

Marion Jones

Marion Jones was one of the most celebrated American track athletes of all time. Like so many track athletes from her generation, her career was cut short after it was discovered she had used performance enhancing drugs and lied about it.

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Jones certainly wasn’t alone in cheating, but she was one of the few athletes who actually served time in prison when she was found guilty on two counts of perjury. In Jones’ case, the situation didn’t end up as hopeless as it could have, as she later (post-prison) played for the Tulsa Shock in the WNBA.

Brandon Roy

Brandon Roy was a do-it-all guard with the Portland Trailblazers, and by do-it-all, we mean defend, shoot, drive, pass, sign autographs for the fans, serve as a great teammate and willingly play the role of Face of the Franchise. What Roy couldn’t do was overcome a pair of balky knees that let him down time and again.

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Knees are obviously important in the game of basketball. They're the conduit for virtually every move you need to make to pull off successful plays, let alone become an All-Star or Hall of Famer. His knees let him down.

Penny Hardaway

You could probably say Penny approached his NBA career the "Hard-a-Way." But seriously, he seemed to be on pace to win countless All-Star team nods, achieve a Hall of Fame career and win at least one championship as the second punch in a duo with Shaq.

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But then injuries threw everything way off course. Like many great NBA players who find themselves sidelined by injuries, he suffered chronic wear and tear — his knees, in his case — that he couldn’t escape. He's now the hottest name in college basketball as the coach of the University of Memphis Tigers.

Sandy Koufax

Let's take it way back to when cigarettes weren't deemed unhealthy and enlisting in the military was little more than a rite of passage. That’s when a young Sandy Koufax made his name as the sweetest throwing lefty in the game of baseball, blazing a path for Jewish athletes to play the game.

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Koufax remains a legend of the game today, so many young sports fans may not realize that he actually developed painful arthritis that forced him into early retirement. When doctors told him he could end up losing the use of his golden left arm, he knew it was time to hang up his cleats.

Monica Seles

The story of Monica Seles is one of the most bizarre and tragic in sports history. As an up and coming contender on the women's tennis circuit, Seles was a talented rising star. The lefty had grace, tenacity and a forehand and backhand that were quite formidable.

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She wasn’t done in by some chronic injury, like tennis elbow or balky knees. No, Seles was stabbed by a crazed fan who jumped out of the stands and charged here before she knew what was happening. She eventually returned to the game, but she was never the same, leaving tennis fans to wonder what could have been.

Gale Sayers

Gale Sayers was a revolutionary figure in football, making his name as one of the first true star running backs. More graceful than a gazelle, he remains one of the most influential Hall of Famers in Canton. So, it stings to know he could have been even greater than he was if he hadn’t suffered a career altering knee injury.

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Photo Courtesy: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The timeframe added to the problem as well. If Sayers had been born even 15 years later, treatment options may have allowed him to recover from his knee injury. Unfortunately, surgical options at the time were still fairly crude, and he was never the same player.

Joe Theismann

Joe Theismann was one of the coolest athletes of his generation. He had a successful Hall of Fame career, but his gruesome, career-ending knee injury is what fans remember most. The fact that legendary player Lawrence Taylor caused the injury makes it even more memorable.

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Theismann went on to become a successful commentator on Monday Night Football. It’s too bad most of the older generation of viewers will never get over the horrifying vision of his knee contorting in ways a knee should never move. It was a sad — and painful — ending to a great career.

Floyd Landis

It was ironic that Floyd Landis became a vocal critic of Lance Armstrong and the new face of USA Cycling in the wake of Armstrong's professional demise. Why was it ironic? Maybe because he was eventually embroiled in a virtually identical scandal that cut his career short.

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If you didn't already know, Floyd Landis was accused of using EPO, an illegal substance that delivers enhanced amounts of oxygen into the bloodstream. It's banned for a reason, and when Landis tested positive but continued to deny the charges, there was no turning back. His career immediately raced down a bike path to nowhere.

2000 Spanish Paralympic Basketball Team

On the topic of the most shameless scandals in sports history, the casual sports fan may not be aware of the crimes of the 2000 Spanish Paralympic Basketball team. The games have special rules regarding mental disability. The Spanish Paralympic team won the Gold medal in 2000, and you can probably guess how the rest of the story goes.

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Photo Courtesy: Richard Gillin/Wikimedia Commons

Apparently, members of the team weren’t checked for a mental disability. Not only were some members of the team not checked, but 10 of the 12 team members weren’t checked. That doesn’t sound like an accident, does it?

Terrell Davis

This Broncos running back played alongside John Elway and became one of the most beloved players in Broncos history. The former Pro Bowl player took an absolute pounding as the bell-cow back for the Broncos, and he eventually became synonymous with injury.

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Photo Courtesy: Toiete Jackson/Wikimedia Commons

Davis retired at the age of 29 — young, even for battered running backs — because of recurring knee injuries with varying degrees of severity. Rehabilitation of damaged muscles and joints year after year takes a serious mental and physical toll. Despite having more juice in the tank, Davis decided the grind was no longer worth the hassle.

Oscar Pistorius

Oscar Pistorius was one of the most intriguing, inspiring athletes of our time. Known as the Blade Runner, he overcame the loss of his legs as a child and learned to leave his able-bodied competition in the dust while maintaining a rosy outlook on life. A tragic event changed everything.

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Living in crime-riddled South Africa, Pistorius shot his beautiful girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, claiming he mistook her for a burglar. At first, a South African court found him guilty of manslaughter, but a court of appeals later changed the conviction to murder. The case of Oscar Pistorius remains divisive even today.

Greg Oden

Being the number one pick in any draft comes with a lot of pressure to perform. When you can't perform because your body won’t let you, then the mental strain can be too much to bear. Greg Oden is the tragic embodiment of this reality.

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As a massive, uber-athletic, seven-footer who played for Ohio State, Oden became the number one pick in the NBA Draft, ahead of Kevin Durant. However, as Durant flourished in Seattle and Oklahoma City, Oden floundered with knee injuries that ended every season early. Ultimately, those injuries brought his NBA career to a quick end.

Daunte Culpepper

Daunte Culpepper had one hell of a career with the Minnesota Vikings, but he was supposed to play even longer as the big, strong-armed quarterback of the Miami Dolphins. He was even signed to the team over Drew Brees, which tells you everything you need to know about Culpepper's talent.

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Lower-body injuries led to nothing but great disappointment during his career in Miami and for subsequent teams. He was just never the same player after the injuries, and it’s impossible to deny that the injuries played a prime role in cutting his career short.

Bobby Orr

One of the greatest hockey players to ever strap on skates, Bobby Orr is revered as one of the godfathers of modern hockey. His deft agility, unmatched puck handling and ability to slam it into the back of the net made him a perennial All-Star and an obvious Hall of Famer.

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However, like so many greats, he couldn’t fight the savages of the game indefinitely, and the limitations exerted by his own body left some wondering what could have been if he had been made of steel. Specifically, his knees let him down, as recurring injuries slowed the pace of his career before he turned 28.

Michael Irvin

The Playmaker is one of the hardest working, dominating wide receivers in the history of the NFL. If you didn’t want Michael Irvin to play, you had to drag him off the field. So, it was tragically upsetting when an injury forced Irvin off the field long before his time.

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In a game against the Eagles late in his career, Irvin caught the ball and was galloping for more yards when a defender slammed his head against the turf. Irvin suffered a serious spinal cord injury that ended his career.

Kerry Wood

Kerry Wood and Mark Prior once formed the most dominant duo in Major League Baseball playing for the Chicago Cubs, but the more-than-promising youngsters were both plagued by injuries. Wood was arguably the more dominant of the two pitchers. His career spanned more than a decade, but injuries ultimately derailed his projected success.

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Photo Courtesy: Mike LaChance/Flickr

Wood's massive frame and brute strength led to his skill as a flamethrower, and those characteristics should have led to a long Hall of Fame career. That wasn’t the case, as the health and stamina he needed as a pitcher continuously failed him.

Priest Holmes

Anybody who was an NFL fan during the Priest Holmes era remembers just how electrifying it was to watch the Kansas City Chiefs playmaker. As one of the rare running backs to possess the speed and agility of a small man, the strength of a much larger man and the vision of a Hall of Famer, Holmes couldn't be contained.

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At least that was true until his body decided it was time for Holmes to slow down. The game made him famous, but a scary spinal column injury ultimately brought his impressive career to an end.

Sean Taylor

There was no doubt among informed viewers: Sean Taylor was going to be a Hall of Famer, a perennial Pro Bowler and one of the best pure football players of all time. He could run. He could hit. He could force turnovers and confuse even the best quarterbacks as one of the best safeties — maybe even the best overall defender — in football.

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Although the once-troubled star had experienced some legal troubles in the past, he had turned his life around off the field, according to most reports. Nonetheless, he was tragically murdered in a home invasion, leaving a daughter and girlfriend behind.

Chris Bosh

The Miami Heat and Toronto Raptors star was one of the most cerebral, misunderstood players in the NBA. He received lots of undue hatred as part of Miami's Big Three, along with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. Bosh put up All-Star numbers every year, and most experts believe he is a fringe Hall of Fame candidate.

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In recent years, Bosh began to miss significant playing time, and it was eventually revealed that he was suffering from blood clots that could be potentially fatal if they weren’t taken seriously. Those clots ultimately ended a career that showed no signs of slowing.