Football, as we all know, is a very dangerous sport. With the threat of brain injuries emerging into the public eye, football players are putting their lives on the line for the love of the game. Now, the average NFL career lasts only 3.3 years and defying those odds is impressive. The people on this list have all defied those odds but unfortunately had their careers ended when in their primes. These men simply had more to give and as fans, we wanted to see more. Could it have been injury, maybe death, or simply losing your love for the game as a whole? Here are the top 10 NFL players careers that unfortunately ended too soon.
Willie Galimore (Chicago Bears 1957-1963)
Galimore was the starting running back for the Chicago Bears under George Halas. He was an elusive back out of Florida A&M regarded for his ability to escape would-be tacklers and his lightning-quick speed. Galimore in his last seasons would see him hindered by a knee injury which would cause him to miss a lot of playing time. Galimore and teammate John Farrington would be killed in a car crash on July 27, 1964. His best season was in 1961 in which he rushed for 707 yards and 4 touchdowns.
10. Gale Sayers (Chicago Bears 1965-1971)
Billy Dee Williams, who portrayed Sayers in the movie, “Brian’s Song”, described his running style as “ballet like Nijinsky”. Sayers floated when he ran as he would breeze past defenders. The “Kansas Comet” is regarded as the 22nd best player of all time according to the 2010 NFL Top 100 list in only seven seasons. He is also a Pro Football Hall of Famer. His most famous game came when he scored six touchdowns at Wrigley Field against the San Francisco 49ers. He would tie an NFL record for most touchdowns in a single game. He was so unstoppable he probably could’ve scored eight if he wanted to. Sayers career would end prematurely after multiple knee and ankle injuries would force him into retirement.
9. Terrell Davis (Denver Broncos 1995-2001)
Here we have another running back to make the list. One of the toughest positions to play physically. Terrell Davis was the piece John Elway needed to finally capture a Super Bowl win. Elway needed Davis as shown in his previous 3 Super Bowl appearances. Davis’ career began with an earth-shattering hit in a preseason game in Japan on a kickoff. Davis was a 6th round draft pick and came to the Broncos as the 6th string tailback. It was a long shot for him to make the team. Coach Mike Shanahan made the right decision to play Davis as he had an impressive 1,000 yard rookie season. Terrell Davis began suffering major injuries that affected his production level starting in 1999. He was able to mimic Gale Sayers by playing seven seasons and making the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
8. Calvin Johnson (Detroit Lions 2007-2015)
Megatron was one of my favorites to watch at the wide receiver position. It was rare to see a player that big, that fast, and with the ability to catch the football the way he did. In his nine years in the league, Johnson amassed seven 1,000 yard seasons. He was the cover athlete of Madden 13 and broke Jerry Rice’s single-season yardage record gaining 1964 yards. The problem Megatron ran into was football.
As stated previously, football can take a huge toll on the human body. Also, the strenuous schedule grinds down not only physical but your mental health. Rumors were that he retired due to the Detroit Lions being a sorry team (sorry Lions fans but you know it’s true), but really it was the state of football. I saw Calvin as a Larry Fitzgerald because of playing on not so good teams but putting up monster stats. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to see him play enough but he gave us a good amount to marvel.
7. Sterling Sharpe (Green Bay Packers 1988-1994)
Here we have another dominant receiver, this time Sterling Sharpe. A consistent 1,000-yard receiver for the Green Bay Packers of the early 1990s. Sharpe was regarded for his strength and ability to go across the middle and make the catch. Sharpe had a serious neck injury in 1994 which would end his career. Sterling Sharpe was a revolutionary receiver as for how he played the game. Sharpe was built like a linebacker and when he caught the ball would try to hit you. The end of his career came at the beginning of Brett Favre’s.
Lord only knows what the Packers would have done if Sharpe had not gotten injured. Favre would have at least a couple more Super Bowl rings playing with Sharpe. Sharpe was invited to five Pro Bowls and three first-team All-Pros.
6. Barry Sanders (Detroit Lions 1989-1998)
We have our third tailback to grace this list but we have a different reason why it all ended. Barry Sanders can be argued as the best running back to ever step foot on the field. Defenders could not tackle this man! Every single season of his career Sanders was able to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark. Sanders is third all-time in rushing yards and at the time of his retirement was second behind Walter Payton.
Sanders was on track to pass Payton in one or 2 seasons. He was an absolute beast. Why did he leave the game? Sanders said in the documentary that he struggled with the decision to retire all offseason, but in the end, had lost the “drive, determination and enjoyment” for the game. “I knew going into that was pretty much it, so I remember after the game I just broke down. I didn’t really say what was going on. I was glad to get out of there.” Sanders still had more in the tank but decided to end it.
5. Pat Tillman (Arizona Cardinals 1998-2001)
One of the most heroic stories on this list, Pat Tillman was a safety for the Arizona Cardinals. Tillman was a seventh-round pick in the 1998 draft and a pro bowler in 2000. Sports Illustrated football writer Paul Zimmerman named Tillman to his 2000 NFL All-Pro team after Tillman finished with 155 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries, 9 pass deflections and 1 interception for 30 yards. Tillman finished his career with totals of 238 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 3 interceptions for 37 yards, 3 forced fumbles, 12 pass deflections, and 3 fumble recoveries in 60 career games. In addition, he also had 1 rush attempt for 4 yards and returned 3 kickoffs for 33 yards.
Eight months after the September 11th attacks, Tillman turned down a contract offer of 3.6 million dollars over 3 years to from the Cardinals to enlist in the U.S Army. Tillman would, unfortunately, be killed in a friendly fire incident in Afghanistan. His legacy will live on as a patriot who rather serves his country and protects these United States of America.
4. Greg Cook (Cincinnati Bengals 1969, 1973)
Cook broke dozens of passing records at the University of Cincinnati and was scouted and eventually drafted by Cincinnati Bengals founder and head coach Paul Brown with the No. 5 overall pick in the 1969 NFL draft. Cook was a rare passing talent coming out of the University of Cincinnati. He was seen to have the potential to be one of the greatest of all time.
Cook led the Bengals to three straight wins to start the season in 1969 but suffered a shoulder injury in his third game against the Kansas City Chiefs. He would then miss the next four games, return week eight to a win against the Oakland Raiders but lose the rest of his games. Cook was named UPI’s Offensive Rookie of the Year and AFL Rookie of the Year. Cook had torn his rotator cuff in the third game of the season.
Due to the limited medical technology at the time, the injury went undiagnosed. Instead of receiving the necessary surgery, he only received cortisone shots which helped the pain but allowed his rotator cuff and his shoulder to deteriorate. He had surgery in the offseason where it was discovered that on top of his rotator cuff is torn and his bicep was partially detached. Cook attempted to make a return in 1973 but the injuries held him back from throwing the ball like how he used to. He is one of the greatest what-ifs in league history.
3. Jerome Brown (Philadelphia Eagles 1987-1991)
Jerome Brown was a dominant defensive tackle for the unstoppable Eagles defense under Buddy Ryan in the late 80s and early 90s. Brown was paired up with Hall of Famer and all-time great Reggie White and had the potential to make the Super Bowl. The Eagles defenses were feared throughout the league and it started with the front line with how ferocious Brown and White were. By the end of the 1991 season had established himself as one of the league’s premier defensive tackles.
All of Philadelphia fans loved Brown and also his head coach Buddy Ryan. Brown is quoted as saying, “If you had 45 Jerome Browns, you would win every game. Jerome Brown would, unfortunately, die in a car accident on June 25, 1992, along with his 12-year-old nephew. Brown’s jersey number would be retired in a pre-game ceremony at the start of the 1992 season. Jerome Brown was the poster child of what the city of Philadelphia meant. A hard-working, tough guy that got the job done and didn’t care who was in his way.
2. Sean Taylor (Washington Redskins 2004-2007)
I remember the exact day his death was reported on Channel 4 news. Every D.C sports fan remembers that day. Sean Taylor easily would have gone down as one of the best safeties of all time or even best defensive players of all time. Coming out of the University of Miami, Taylor was a hard-hitting safety who installed fear into offensive players hearts.
I’ll never forget the hit he laid on punter Brian Moorman in the Pro Bowl. Sean Taylor was an absolute playmaker and was needed for the Redskins defense. In his four seasons, he made two Pro-Bowls and one All-Pro team. Sean Taylor was shot in his leg by his intruders and later died November 27, 2007. Another great what-if because Sean Taylor was an absolute beast.
1. Jim Brown (Cleveland Browns 1957-1965)
Jim Brown is the greatest running back to step on an NFL field. Brown was a consistent 1,000-yard rusher in a time when there were only 14 games in a season. Brown averaged 104.3 yards per game 5.5 yards per carry. Only Barry Sanders has come close to these totals (99.8 yards per game and 5.0 yards per carry). The most impressive season was in 1963 in which Brown had 291 carries 1863 yards and 12 touchdowns. Keep in mind this was in 14 games. He definitely would’ve gotten 2000 if it were a 16 game season.
Brown was an absolute beast and nobody could stop him. He was 6’2″ 232 pounds running back that could run about a 4.5 40 time. Brown would retire at the top of his game at the age of 30. He still had some gas in the tank. Brown was on the set of the movie, “The Dirty Dozen” when he decided to call it quits. Brown wanted to do something different with his life going forward and felt as though his time in football had come to an end. As I stated previously, Brown is the greatest running back of all time. “Don’t @ me”.
Leave a comment if you feel anyone was left off the list.