Just making it to the big leagues, to the NFL or to the NBA doesn’t guarantee success. Even the greatest of athletes don’t always meet expectations. Injuries prevented many from reaching their potential. Tragically, others like the great Len Bias and Steve Prefontaine, lost their lives far too early, robbing them of the opportunity to be something special. However, there’s a select group of athletes who never became what we thought they could be, not because of injuries, but because of strange happenings, bad choices and of course, drugs. Here are ten of the strangest and most tragic cases of athletes who never quite reached their full potential.
10. Rick Ankiel – MLB
The case of Rick Ankiel is a strange one. He’s the first player since Babe Ruth to win ten games as a pitcher and hit at least 50 home runs as a hitter. Ankiel came up with the Cardinals and he was forced into the spotlight because of a series of injuries in 2000. He was brilliant. In the playoffs against the Braves Ankiel pitched well for the first two innings, but ran into some trouble in the third when he walked four batters, threw five wild pitches and gave up four runs. His next start in the National League Championship Series against the Mets was even worse. Ankiel didn’t make it out of the first inning and five of his pitches hit the backstop. He threw two more wild pitches in another game later in the series. Ankiel struggled to pitch effectively ever again. In 2006 he was converted into an outfielder and finished his career as an every-day player. He had a fairly successful end to a strange career before retiring in 2014, but his potential as a pitcher was never realized.
9. Maurice Clarett – NFL
By all indications, Clarett should have been great. As a freshman at Ohio State in 2002 Clarett rushed for 1,237 yards and 18 touchdowns. He became the first freshman since 1995 to lead the country in rushing yards. Unfortunately, a series of incidents on and off the field, including filing a false police report, led to Ohio State suspending Clarett for the 2003 season. Clarett left school and attempted to enter the 2004 NFL draft. The resulting lawsuit led to the three-year rule for underclassmen and forced Clarett into the 2005 NFL draft – where surprisingly the Broncos chose him in the third round. Clarett’s career never amounted to anything. He was released by the Broncos before the start of the season and has been in and out of trouble with the law – including an incident in 2006 where he was forced to serve time in prison. After his incarceration Clarett bounced around various other football and rugby leagues.
8. David Thompson – NBA
Thompson was an ABA and NBA All-Star for the Denver Nuggets and Seattle Supersonics and is credited with Monte Towe for developing the alley-oop pass and dunk. He played nine years, five of those in the ABA before the merger. He was an All-American and the AP Player of the Year in college. In 1975 Thompson was voted the Basketball Writers Association player of the year and is considered by many to be one of the greatest to ever play the game. He signed a $4 million contract in 1978 – the largest any professional basketball player had even been given. He was never the same after that. Injuries played a role, but Thompson’s substance abuse issues were a major factor in his decline. He was a notorious partier and a routine visitor at Studio 54 in New York. Fortunately, after a significant decline Thompson righted himself and now works with young basketball players.
7. Monica Seles – Women’s Tennis
From 1990 through 1992 there might not have been a better women’s tennis player than Monica Seles. She won the French Open in 1990 by besting Steffi Graf in an epic straight set match. She won the Australian Open, US Open, and the French Open again in 1991. Then she did it once more in 1992 while also reaching the finals of Wimbledon. Seles came back strong in 1993, steamrolling the competition and winning the Australian Open. Sadly, on April 30th, 1993, in Hamburg, an obsessed fan ran onto the court and stabbed Seles in the back. She was treated immediately and recovered quickly, but she wouldn’t return to competitive tennis for two more years. Seles had mixed success after her return. She won the 1996 Australian Open, but she was never as dominate as she could have been.
6. Kirby Puckett – MLB
On September 28, 1995 Puckett took a Dennis Martinez fastball to the face – ending what was a brilliant offensive season. Puckett recovered from the injury and in the spring of 1996, entering his 14th season, Puckett returned to spring training, but on March 28 he awoke with only half his vision. Puckett was diagnosed with Glaucoma and lost sight in his right eye. He would never play another inning of Major League Baseball again, ending his Hall of Fame career. Puckett’s retirement was unfortunately also eventful. He was accused of several off-the-field domestic incidents and he withdrew from the public eye. In 2006 Puckett suffered a massive stroke and passed-away.
5. Micheal Ray Richardson – NBA
Richardson was the fourth overall pick by the New York Knicks in 1978. He led the league in assists and steals in his second year. He then played for the Golden State Warriors and the Nets, where he became an All-Star. Richardson suffered a serious knee injury during the 1984-85 season which hampered his career, but “Sugar” Ray Richardson just couldn’t dodge the drugs. He was suspended three times for rampant drug use. Eventually, David Stern banned Richardson for life. Stern rescinded the ban in 1988, but Richardson failed two cocaine tests in 1991 and never played in the NBA again.
4. Tonya Harding – Figure Skating
Harding was the first American woman to complete a triple-axle jump in an international competition. She was fearless and making a name for herself in the early 1990s, despite a series of on and off-ice incidents that included some examples of rather erratic behavior. Most were quirky requests for wardrobe changes, showing up late for events and so forth. In January of 1994 Harding took her strangeness to whole new level. She colluded with her ex-husband (Jeff Gillooly) and her bodyguard (Shawn Eckhardt) to hire Shane Stant to attack and break fellow competitor Nancy Kerrigan’s leg. Luckily for Kerrigan, the injury wasn’t a break. Both competed in the 1994 Olympics where Harding finished in 8th place, while Kerrigan won silver. Harding was eventually implicated and pleaded guilty to the attack. Her skating career was essentially over, though she remained somewhat relevant in the subsequent years through a series of unusual TV appearances and the release of a sex-tape.
3. Steve Blass – MLB
In 1972 Steve Blass won 19 games as a pitcher for the Pittsburg Pirates. This followed on the heels of a tremendous playoff run in 1971, where Blass allowed only two earned runs in 18 innings, won game seven of the World Series, and finished second in the World Series MVP voting. Inexplicably, in 1973 Blass somehow lost the ability to control his pitches. He walked 84 batters in just over 88 innings of work and posted a -4.0 WAR that year, the single worst rate for a pitcher since 1901. Blass played ten solid years, but he never recovered from his horrendous 1973 season. He retired in 1974 and worked in a variety of jobs before becoming a Pirates broadcaster in 1983. Since then “Steve Blass Disease” has become a moniker for baseball players who suddenly develop a significant loss of mechanics or confidence which ruins their career.
2. Mike Tyson – Boxing
Mike Tyson was phenomenal and one of the greatest fighters to ever live, but he could have been so much better. Tyson was 37-0 before losing to Buster Douglas in 1990. Whether coincident or not, Tyson never seemed to recover. In 1991 Tyson was convicted of rape and was sentenced to six years in prison. He only served three before bouncing back with eight straight wins before losing to Holyfield in 1996. Then, things got weird. Tyson twice bit Holyfield’s ear during the rematch in 1997 and was disqualified. He fought several successful bouts against lesser opponents but some serious money issues and a bankruptcy certainly took a toll. He lost to Lennox Lewis in a title match in 2002 and never really had an impact in the ring again. There’s no doubt that the three years Tyson lost to prison and his subsequent strangeness altered an otherwise brilliant career.
1. Aaron Hernandez – NFL
Hernandez was a rising star for the New England Patriots. He played in the 2011 Pro Bowl and signed a five-year, $40 million contract. No one could have predicted what happened next. Hernandez became the subject of a double-murder investigation and was eventually arrested and found guilty of the murder of Olin Lloyd. Hernandez was the subject of several off the field incidents, including a suspected shooting in a car in Miami in 2013, but the murder conviction was startling and tragic.