This list is not for the squeamish.
Sports should be fun. Even for the most experienced professional, when their game ceases to be enjoyable, their ability to perform is noticeably diminished. While there are certainly times when a game goes beyond pop culture and enters the realm of history (the 1980 Miracle on Ice for example). Most of the time, it is indeed just a game.
But every so often something occurs on a field or a court which alters life itself for a competitor. There have been injuries so severe that the excitement and noise surrounding the sporting event in which they occurred disappeared, leaving a stunned crowd too emotional to do more than whisper.
We will leave out those incidents where the injury was the result of an intentional hit or effort to harm. Nothing good can come from reminding fans of those. This list will concentrate on the one harsh reality that all athletes deal with, even if they don’t like to think about it; in the final analysis, they are putting their health on the line every time they answer the opening bell. Further, the list will in general move from the least severe toward the most. Some of the following photos may be distasteful for a viewer. But the videos, which will not be posted, are far worse.
10. Juan Encarnacion – St. Louis Cardinals, 2007
When Juan Encarnacion entered the 2007 season, he was 31 years old. Never a superstar, he was still an integral part of two World Series Championship teams, one in Florida and one in St. Louis. He was a career .270 hitter with a nice slugging percentage of .441. The next season would be the final one on his Cardinal contract and, as a free agent, he was likely to be sought after as a third or fourth outfielder who could supply some power and veteran leadership. But his career came to a sudden conclusion one August night in Busch Stadium.
While Juan was in the on deck circle during a game against the Cincinnati Reds, infielder Aaron Miles cracked a line drive foul ball his direction. Encarnacion never reacted. It’s not clear if the ball was just hit so hard that he couldn’t avoid it or if he wasn’t paying close enough attention, but the ball hit him squarely in his left eye. Witnesses described the sound as ‘sickening.’ He laid motionless on the grass in front of the Cardinal dugout while the trainer and teammates rushed to his aid. He eventually left the field under his own power but was taken immediately to the hospital.
“It’s the worst trauma I’ve seen. Absolutely,” Dr. George Paletta said, adding that the future holds no guarantees. “You hope the best for Juan, but he suffered a severe injury with a very guarded prognosis. “
After treatment and evaluation, it was determined that his vision was harmed beyond any hope to continue his baseball career. Encarnacion retired and returned to his native Dominican Republic where he operates his own charity.
9. Lee Trevino, the Western Open, 1975
“If you’re standing on a golf course in a rain storm and you’re afraid of lightning, hold up a 1-iron. Even God can’t hit a 1-iron. “ –Lee Trevino
That’s funny. Even if you hate golf, that’s funny. It’s considerably less funny when you actually get struck by lightning. Lee Trevino, not long after making this crack, actually did. While playing in the Western Open, Jerry Heard and Trevino were standing together when the improbable happened. A single bolt of lightning struck the men, knocking them to the ground and seriously injuring them. Not far away, a separate bolt struck player Bobby Nichols and another man in his group. All were hospitalized and none escaped long-lasting effects.
While Trevino was able to continue his career, he suffered back pain the rest of his life. Nichols, who had a PGA Championship to his name, continued playing but did not win another PGA tour event. Heard, who was only 28 at the time of the incident, won one additional event but never was the same player. Trevino later quipped that the lightning strike was just revenge from the Lord for his insulting comment. Eternal consequences notwithstanding, the story of these golfers is a cautionary tale to players who want to get in just one more hole. If it even smells like a thunderstorm, get your butt off the course.
8. Joe Theismann, Washington Redskins, 1985
This tale was made even more famous by the Sandra Bullock movie, The Blind Side. For those that saw the event live, no reminder was necessary. During a November 1985 game on Monday Night Football, the great N.Y. Giants’ linebacker Lawrence Taylor rushed at Joe Theismann from behind. He collapsed the quarterback and a pile of linemen and defenders fell all around him. Theismann screamed, Taylor immediately got up and waved to the Washington sideline for help.
The replay was a bad dream. Theismann’s right leg had simply snapped like a bread stick between his knee and ankle. Of course, it was played over and over again while he was being tended to on the field, making viewers wonder if ABC was purposely trying to make them turn the TV off. Even a paramedic couldn’t have watched it without flinching.
Theismann was a very accomplished QB by 1985. He had piloted the Redskins to two Super Bowl appearances, winning one championship. His career ended as soon as the bone broke, though. Undeterred by his misfortune, the Notre Dame grad launched himself into a successful broadcasting career, analyzing games and players for ESPN as well as NFL network.
7. Kevin Ware – Louisville Cardinals, 2013
Still fresh in many minds, the sight of Kevin Ware lying on his back, grimacing in pain after a gruesome leg injury during the 2013 NCAA basketball tournament will likely never disappear. The advent of better and better quality televisions makes the live broadcasts of news and sports events more dangerous. A few of the items later on this list were either not captured or captured by archaic photography, making their review far less graphic. This one was right in the face of every fan that had the misfortune to be watching at the time.
Louisville was playing perennial contender Duke in an Elite Eight match on March 31. When Duke’s Tyler Thornton attempted a shot near the sideline, Ware went up to block it and when he came down the tibia in his right leg shattered, sending the bone through the skin. A hush fell over the entire basketball-watching nation. The players on the court were obviously unnerved by the sight and many couldn’t look at Ware for more than a few seconds before turning away. Ware was rushed to a local hospital where he underwent surgery.
As horrible as the episode was, the ultimate outcome was slightly better than many in this particular report. After rehabbing, Ware was able to transfer to Georgia State where he continued to play at a high level. Louisville not only went on to win the game, the Cardinals eventually took the tournament title, beating Michigan in the finals.
6. Clint Malarchuk – Buffalo Sabres, 1989
Not a single person who witnessed it could believe what they were seeing. It was a scene out of a cheap zombie movie, where a detached limb spurts blood in quarts for the shock value. Buffalo Sabres goalie Malarchuk had just defended a rather routine play in a 1989 game against the St. Louis Blues. One of his teammates and a Blues player flashed in front of him and crashed into the goal, knocking it loose and tumbling head over skate to the ice. Malarchuk fell, face forward, and that’s when it became apparent something horrible had happened.
The ice in front of him began to darken, a pool of blood forming under his neck. A skate from one of the players—skates which are routinely sharpened before games—had slashed his throat. Nobody except Malarchuk reacted at first. He held his hands to the wound, trying in vain to stop the bleeding which was by then flowing like a faucet. Occasionally, the blood would spurt like shot out of a syringe, signifying an artery had been cut.
“Once I realized this could be death, my first thought was ‘get off the ice, go through the gate, get off camera’,” Malarchuk told The Daily Mail. “So my mum didn’t have to watch me die.”
Thankfully, Clint did not die. But the incident had left him wounded in more than one way. He suffered through depression and alcoholism during the years after the incident, attempting suicide more than once. With the help of his wife and rehab, he’s currently making the most of his life, even writing a book, while still struggling with what happened.
5. Slobodan Jankovic – Panionios of Athens, Greece, 1993
Anyone who has ever played a competitive sport has been frustrated. A bad call, a crucial missed shot, a mental error—any of these can cause an athlete to feel a level of anxiety or anger which is best released through a physical act. Slobodan Jankovic’s story screams a warning at all who’ve played after him to know their surroundings when venting that anger.
Jankovic was a 6’8” center playing in the Greek Basketball Championships when he fouled out of a game against Panathinaikos. He reacted to the call by seeking out a flat area behind the goal and slamming his head against it. The area was made of concrete and the impact fractured vertebrae in his neck causing paralysis from the neck down. Seldom in sports history has an avoidable act had such dire consequences.
4. Mike Utley – Detroit Lions, 1991
A lot can happen to a football player when he dons the gear. While torn ligaments and strained muscles are far more common, serious injuries like concussions and broken bones are part of life in the Collegiate and NFL games.
Mike Utley was left paralyzed after hitting the turf in a 1991 game against the Rams. The play was not a terribly violent or unusual one but the Detroit offensive lineman still broke several vertebrae in his back and was rendered a quadriplegic. It was a horrible thing to happen to the popular Utley but his response to the tragedy, even from the moment it happened, has been inspiring to everyone around him. As medical personnel were moving him off the field, strapped to a gurney, his head held motionless, Utley gave an emotional ‘thumbs up’ sign to his fans and teammates. This was typical of the man. Utley has never let the injury defeat him. He lives his life just as he would with the use of his entire body, never giving up hope, never asking for anything special.
“The bottom line is what I give to myself I will get back,” Utley said in 2008. “If I cheat myself, it’s over.”
3. Darryl Stingley – New England Patriots, 1978
A professional athlete becoming paralyzed might be thought of along the lines of a concert pianist having his hands amputated. When a person spends most of their life training and practicing until they can perform their chosen skill at a world class level, what can we expect of them once it is taken away? Like the two athletes directly above him on this list, Darryl Stingley was forced to answer this at a young age.
While the Oakland Raiders’ Jack Tatum was regarded as a vicious hitter and some might have claimed he was dirty, there is no evidence that the collision which occurred in August of 1978 between him and the Patriots’ wide receiver was anything other than part of a rough game. That’s not a lot of consolation to a man lying on the ground with no feeling in his legs. Stingley had jumped to catch a pass over the middle of the field when Tatum slammed into him. He lay on the field motionless while trainers and teammates wondered if he would even survive. Stingley spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair, dying in 2007, aged only 55 years.
The brightest part of this instance is likely that Stingley’s injury was used as an example in the push to get the NFL to set up funds for retired and disabled players. It was also referred to while the league considered many of the rule changes which, especially in recent years, have sought to protect receivers from becoming helpless targets in the middle of the field.
2. Frankie Campbell – Campbell vs. Baer, 1930
Boxing is a sport which channels man’s most basic instincts. Most other popular sports require a participant to win the match by outperforming his opponent. Boxers must win by physically hurting another human being. Many have called it barbaric over the decades. It’s incredible popularity and the ability for men to make money from it—especially early in the 20th century—made all objections moot.
Max Baer was a skilled fighter. He had risen to prominence in the squared circle by decimating one challenger after another. The one asset Baer possessed above most other fighters was his strength. His punching power was renowned and feared.
The Russell Crowe movie Cinderella Man is not overly generous to Baer the man. Max may or may not have been a shallow philanderer as he is portrayed. The scene where Crowe’s character is shown watching the footage of the Campbell-Baer fight, however, is fairly accurate. The fight was not a massacre as one might think. For four rounds, Campbell held his ground, keeping the judges’ scores close.
In the 5th round, Baer slipped in the ring and went down. Campbell mistook it as a knockdown and stopped fighting, even turning his back on Baer. Baer rose quickly, stalked over to Campbell and just as Frankie turned to face him, landed a violent right hook. The thunderous blow collapsed Campbell onto the canvas. He never rose again. His death was likely due to random chance combined with a poor decision by an aggressive competitor rather than any malice. Unlike his movie character, Baer reportedly regretted the punch and agonized over it the rest of his life.
1. Ray Chapman – Cleveland Indians, 1920
Ray Chapman’s death rates as no. 1 on this list for one reason; it’s unprecedented. There have been numerous boxing deaths over the decades. It is an unfortunate reality that several NFL players have been paralyzed. And broken bones are a very real risk in any sport.
There have also been deaths of active MLB players, it is true. Yankee catcher Thurman Munson died in a plane accident in 1979. Darryl Kile died in his hotel room before a Cardinals-Cubs game just a few years ago. But there is only one instance of a player dying directly due to something which happened in a Major League game.
Carl Mays was an excellent right handed submarine pitcher in the 1910’s. He was a big winner for the Red Sox on two World Series teams and went to the rival Yankees in 1919, just before they acquired another former Boston player named Ruth. His pitching style meant that the ball tended to rise as it approached the plate so if he was pitching inside, the batter often had to hit the dirt to avoid being scalped.
During an important game against the Yankees at the polo Grounds in New York, Chapman was struck in the temple by a Mays delivery. He was hit so hard the ball ricocheted back to Mays and the pitcher, thinking it had struck the bat, threw the ball to first. Chapman was unconscious for a time, then woke and tried to walk but soon collapsed and had to be carried from the field. He died in the hospital the next day. Mays was besieged by angry fans and other players who claimed it was intentional. He always maintained it was an accident and went to his grave convinced the incident kept him out of the Hall of Fame.