The NFL can be a cruel and unforgiving game. Time and time again, dynamic players have had their careers taken away from them due to brutal injuries. In some instances, certain players have done more than enough to be recognized as all-time greats. However, there’s the other side of the spectrum, players who were taken away from the game far too soon.
With countless NFL players working on their craft and honing their skills as they prepare for the 2022-23 season, we can’t help but think about players such as Odell Beckham Jr.
Still creative and gifted on the offensive side of the ball, Beckham Jr. has visibly lost a step or two due to the relentless injuries he’s endured. While the loquacious receiver still has time to put valuable years together, there are several players littered throughout NFL history who missed out on that very chance due to career-ending injuries.
Let’s take a look back at some of the more unfortunate times when a player's career came to an expected end after a single play.
10 unfortunate career-ending injuries in NFL history
#10 Terrell Davis
Seldom is Terrell Davis' name mentioned when discussing the greatest running backs to ever play the game. With only 7,607 rushing yards and 60 touchdowns, it isn't exactly surprising. Nevertheless, when Davis was smack dab in the middle of his prime, he was impossible to chase down once he had a head of steam. When faced with immense pressure in the backfield, Davis would easily shrug off defenders before waltzing his way into the end zone. He was also a monster on special teams.
In his first season in the league, Davis ran for 1,117 yards and seven scores. His impressive rookie season was simply a precursor for what was going to take place for years to come. In 1998, after being named to back-to-back Pro Bowls and All-Pro teams, Davis led the league in rushing yards with 2,008, as well as scores on the ground with 21.
Davis would help the Denver Broncos win consecutive Lombardi trophies in 1997 and 1998. The otherworldly running back appeared on his way to all-time status before tearing both his ACL and MCL in his right knee in 1999. While he worked hard to make his way back onto the field, once he returned, Davis was simply never the same. He would ultimately end his career following the 2001 season after rushing for just 701 yards.
#9 Darryl Stingley
Darryl Stingley struggled during the early portion of his career. The former Purdue standout was taken with the 19th overall pick in the 1973 NFL Draft. Much was expected of Stingley from the very beginning.
His first season was a forgettable one as he recorded 339 receiving yards and two touchdowns. For most of his career, his numbers continued to flounder. However, during the 1977 season, a light switch went off as Stingley began to figure it out.
The former first-round draft pick finished his season in New England by amassing career-highs across the board, including receiving yards, 657, and receiving touchdowns, five.
With Stingley determined to have a breakout year, he went into the preseason in 1978 full of confidence. In one of the final games before the start of the season, Stingley attempted to catch an errant pass but was violently hit by Jack Tatum. The force of the blow broke Stingley’s spine, resulting in paralysis.
#8 Steve Young
Carving out a Hall of Fame-level career came at a painful price for quarterback Steve Young. The former San Francisco 49er easily dissected complex defenses when he was on the field and led his squads to ridiculous amounts of success.
Young’s story is one of the more unique in NFL history. Before being allowed to show what he could do on the field, Young sat patiently behind Joe Montana, an all-time great. Once Montana hung up his cleats, Young stepped right in and easily filled the void.
As a full-time starter, Young was named to seven consecutive Pro Bowls and three All-Pro squads. He was also terrific when the money was on the line, leading the 49ers to a Super Bowl victory as their unquestioned leader in 1994.
Although Young enjoyed his time atop the football world, he endured a heavy beating. Game after game, Young would find himself laying flat on the turf as he was forced to take huge hit after huge hit. In 1999, Young had enough, retiring after just three games in the season due to a concussion.
#7 Johnny Knox
First and second-round players are often expected to carry the offensive load on any given team. They’re also expected to morph into some of the best players in the league. The further and further you go down the draft, on the other hand, teams have no idea what they're expecting. Such was the case with wide receiver Johnny Knox.
Taken in the fifth round in the 2009 NFL Draft, Knox worked his way up Chicago’s depth chart. As a rookie, Knox was named to the Pro Bowl after catching 45 passes for 527 yards. Not exactly eye-popping numbers, but he was a Pro Bowler nonetheless. With Knox’s numbers continuing to climb over the years, he was forced to hang his cleats up before realizing his full potential.
During a 2011 showdown against the Seattle Seahawks, Knox crashed into Anthony Hargrove. The former fifth-round receiver was immediately ushered into surgery. In doing so, he avoided paralysis. However, his NFL career was done and over with.
#6 Wendell Davis
It isn't every day that the Chicago Bears get it right when it comes to the receiver position. Yet, after nabbing Wendell Davis with the 27th overall pick in the 1988 NFL Draft, the franchise had themselves a true building block for the future.
The first three seasons of Davis’s career were plagued by injury and inconsistent play. Once Davis picked up a bit of experience and avoided those nagging injuries, he flourished.
In year four, Davis racked up 945 yards. In year five, he followed his breakout season with a stellar campaign in which he recorded 734 receiving yards. As Davis pushed forward with his career, an abnormally weird injury took place during his sixth season.
During roughly the halfway point of the 1993 season, Davis dug both of his feet into the turf and attempted to catch a pass that was lofted in his direction. However, the moment Davis planted, both of his knees turned inward and pushed into his thighs before rupturing. In seemingly the blink of an eye, the career of Davis came to an end.
#5 Joe Theismann
Could Joe Theismann have built his career into one of the game’s all-time greats? It sure seemed that way.
Being selected in the fourth round of the 1971 NFL Draft wasn't going to deter Theismann from success. By the time the 1985 NFL season came rolling by, he had already racked up a number of impressive accolades.
Theismann was a two-time Pro Bowler, one-time All-Pro selection, a Super Bowl Champion, and regular season MVP award winner.
The 1985 season began normally. Theismann pushed his then-Washington Redskins to playoff contention. Desperate to pick up a victory against the New York Giants, their longtime rivals, Theismann was crushed by Lawrence Taylor as he made his way up the middle. As a result, Theismann suffered a gruesome injury as his leg was essentially snapped in half. He would never play another NFL down again.
#4 Daunte Culpepper
The expectations that were hoisted onto the shoulders of Daunte Culpepper appeared to be far more than the former 11th overall pick was able to carry.
During Culpepper’s rookie season, he spent all of his time on the bench, playing in just one game and not even throwing a pass in said game. In year two, once he was given his opportunity, he shined.
Culpepper became a consistent member among the game's passing yards receivers. In 2004, he led the entire league with 4,717 passing yards. Everything, unfortunately for Culpepper, went downhill the following year. At the halfway point of the season, Culpepper tore his ACL, PCL, and MCL in his knee. He didn’t immediately retire, but he might as well have as he was never the same player ever again.
#3 Gale Sayers
Even with NFL defenders knowing exactly what was coming, there was simply nothing they could do to stop it.
Gale Sayers often waited patiently in the backfield of a Chicago Bears game. In a moment's notice, he would be fed the ball from his quarterback before making his way up the middle, gashing stacked boxes and leaving his defenders in the dust. From 1965, the year he was drafted, until 1969, Sayers was selected to five consecutive Pro Bowls and two All-Pro squads. On two separate occasions, Sayers’ also led the league in rushing yards.
In what’s become a more routine injury in today’s day and age, Sayer tore his ACL, MCL, and damaged the meniscus in his right knee during the late 1960s. Sayers’ didn't immediately decide to hang up his cleats, but in both 1970 and 1971, he combined to rush for just 36 yards.
#2 Bo Jackson
Bo Jackson was a freak of nature. Not only was he an all-world running back, but he was also one of the best players in Major League baseball. With the two-sport athlete dominating in both professions, his career took a turn for the worst in 1991.
At first glance, Jackson’s injury didn't appear to be too serious as he dislocated his hip. However, despite those prevailing early thoughts, Jackson’s injury turned into a career ender.
In addition to dislocating his hip, Jackson also fractured the bone in his hip. To make matters worst, he also suffered from a lack of blood supply to the area, making his recovery essentially impossible.
#1 Kevin Everett
Kevin Everett was desperate to prove that he belonged at this level. With his career still in its infancy stages, Everett stepped onto the field in 2007 looking to make a name for himself.
Playing on special teams at the time, the former Buffalo Bill attempted to bring Domenik Hixon of the Denver Broncos to the ground. On the play, Everett collided with a player, suffering an immediate fracture and dislocation of the spine. Playing football became secondary as Everett laid motionless on the turf.
Although he would never play football again, Everett would eventually regain mobility and begin walking again.