Sports can be cruel sometimes, robbing us of some of our favorite players before they could fulfill their tremendous promise.
Whether by injuries or circumstance, many of sports’ brightest lights were extinguished far before their time. While it’s sad these players had their careers cut short, it’s important to remember the blessing that was watching them play, even briefly.
Here’s a look at some of our most cherished stars we would have loved to play much longer than they did.
It’s hard to overstate just how prevalent Bo Jackson was at his peak. A Heisman Trophy-winning dynamo who also hit tape-measure home runs, Jackson was almost more myth than man. Put it this way: In an early-1990s cartoon, along with Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky, Bo Jackson was the animated star. Aside from the legend — like trucking Brian Bosworth for a touchdown, his “Bo Jackson says hello!” home run in the MLB All-Star Game, or any number of jaw-dropping throws — Jackson had plenty of substance, too. He’s still the only player to be named a Major League All-Star and an NFL Pro Bowler.
Jackson averaged 5.40 yards per carry in his 38 NFL games in four seasons, a mark no running back with at least 200 career carries has matched since. He had his best baseball season in 1990, hitting .272/.342/.523 with 28 home runs (142 OPS+, 3.5 WAR) at age 27 for the Royals. But then it all went to hell. A hip injury not only derailed Jackson’s first playoff game in either sport, but ended his football career.
He gave baseball another try, but injuries limited him to just 183 games over the next four years. Jackson was reasonably productive, hitting 29 home runs in 160 games — the equivalent of one full season — in 1993-94, but he was diminished. I don’t even necessarily wish that Jackson played until he was 40 years old. But damn, it would have been wonderful if Jackson got to dazzle us for five more years of his prime.
— Eric Stephen
I’m just here to say I second the wish for Bo Jackson to have played forever. Bo doesn’t know a full career, but, damn, it would have been beautiful.
— Sam Eggleston
Once there was a baseball player who captured the imagination of a nation. Fidrych was a skinny 6’3, nicknamed “The Bird” in the minors because of his resemblance to Big Bird from Sesame Street. Like the lovable children’s character, Fidrych was endearingly goofy with an irrepressible openness that charmed even baseball curmudgeons.
He compulsively groomed the mound and talked to the baseball, asking it to do his bidding. He’d throw balls back to the umpire insisting they had hits in them, and he worked fast. After shutting down the Yankees on Monday Night Baseball in a game that took just an hour and 51 minutes to complete, his legend grew.
In his Rookie of the Year campaign, Fidrych went 19-9 with a 2.34 ERA and finished second to Jim Palmer in the Cy Young award voting. Then the injuries came. He tore cartilage in his knee during spring training the following year and had to shut down his second season after only 11 starts because of a torn rotator cuff.
The arm injury went undiagnosed until a visit to Dr. James Andrews in 1985 four years after he retired. When his career was over, Fyrdrych went back home to Northborough, Massachusetts, where he lived on a farm with his wife and daughter. In 2009, he was found dead under his dump truck, an apparent victim of a horrible accident.
Fidrych never would have made it in today’s game. He didn’t throw very hard and he averaged less than four strikeouts per nine innings in his breakthrough season. No doubt his antics would have purists clutching their cups.
But he knew how to pitch — he kept the ball low and in the park — and he knew how to have fun. He was, quite literally, just a kid living out an extended fairy tale in front of 50,000 fans and millions of television viewers. For one year, he was absolutely perfect.
— Paul Flannery
Not many NFL Draft prospects have ever been as hyped as Luck. He was the likely No. 1 pick in 2011, but decided to return to Stanford for another season. That spurred a year of “Suck for Luck,” a sweepstakes to see which team would lose enough games to draft the quarterback. The Colts won (?) that contest and immediately got three straight 11-win seasons with Luck at the helm. He made the Pro Bowl in each of those years and led the league with 40 touchdowns in 2014.
Then he started falling apart.
Luck missed nine games in 2015 with shoulder, kidney, and ab muscle injuries. He missed the entire 2017 season with a shoulder injury. And in 2019, with a leg injury keeping him out of action in preseason, Luck abruptly retired before the regular season began.
Luck’s career ended with just 86 regular-season appearances and eight playoff games — not nearly enough for a player who should’ve been one of the league’s elite quarterbacks for another decade or so.
He could make all the throws, but what made him really special was the physicality he brought to the position. Few players have ever been able to shake off pass rushers and navigate a pocket quite like Luck.
When USC cornerback Shareece Wright scooped up a fumble against Stanford in 2010, Luck destroyed Wright and forced a fumble of his own. When a fumble bounced into Luck’s hands in a playoff game against the Chiefs, he got the job done himself by bulldozing through the defense and diving into the end zone.
It’s a shame we only got five and a half seasons of that player in the NFL.
— Adam Stites
Davis became the fourth player in NFL history to run for more than 2,000 yards in a single season in 1998. He was 26 years old and barreling toward the prime of his career.
Over the following three seasons, he’d play in just 17 games. He retired before he turned 30.
Leg injuries kept Davis from following up on that 2,008-yard, 21-touchdown campaign. He played only four games in 1999, snapping a streak that saw him run for more yards and more touchdowns than the previous year throughout the first four years of his NFL career. Between 1995 and 1998, Davis averaged 15 touchdowns per full season and 104 yards per game. He was a full-stop monster in a league where feature backs were still a thing.
Then it all drained away thanks to a torn ACL — suffered, cruelly, which trying to make a tackle on an interception return — and then stress reactions and other knee issues. Even in a diminished state he was ... fine, but clearly not the All-Pro he once was. He retired in the summer of 2000 when it became obvious the player who’d run for 142 yards per postseason game and scored a dozen playoff touchdowns wasn’t coming back.
Sure, Davis accomplished pretty much everything an NFL tailback can over the course of his first four seasons in the league. He won two Super Bowls, was both a regular-season and Super Bowl MVP, and was twice the league’s offensive player of the year. He was a deserving 2017 addition to the NFL Hall of Fame. But a full-strength Davis wouldn’t just be a a firework in the night sky. He would have been the aurora borealis that lit up an entire hemisphere of the NFL’s greatest offenses.
— Christian D’Andrea
Freddy Adu is a punchline. On American soccer, on the dangers of overhyping a teenager, and on racist stereotypes about African athletes lying about their ages. But Adu really was something special, as anyone who saw him before he signed in MLS will tell you.
MLS didn’t pick a random kid to promote as the youngest professional athlete in American history. He turned pro because he looked ready for it. He shined at the Under-20 World Cup as a 13-year-old. Even if you think he wasn’t 13 — which, again, is a claim based on racist stereotypes that there is no evidence for — he certainly was not 20. Players who perform well up an age group at the Under-20 World Cup are universally regarded as ready for professional soccer.
Ready on the field, that is. Off the field is a different story. Many leagues don’t allow players to make first team appearances until they’re 16 to avoid the kind of thing that happened to Adu.
The adults who were supposed to look after Adu failed him. In his rookie season, he was spotted at college parties that were broken up by police. Thomas Rongen, his long-time U-20s coach — a person who should have been doing as much as he could to help Adu while he was facing pressures that almost no teenager could possibly be ready for — has callously joked about him having a drinking problem.
I don’t know if Adu had a clinical issue and don’t wish to speculate, but it’s clear that he was completely incapable of dealing with the stress of being called the savior of American men’s soccer at 14 years old, and even more clear that he didn’t get enough help from supposed grown-ups. MLS and Nike had a plan to promote him and make him a media superstar, but no plan to take care of him.
Years after he was branded a failure, he still showed glimpses of brilliance. He was the United States’ best player at the 2007 Under-20 World Cup, and a year later the best player on an Under-23 team that qualified for the Olympics. He set up three goals in the last two matches of the 2011 Gold Cup, and looked set to revive his career. But it didn’t happen. Those individual great matches never turned into a great season.
Adu was not overhyped. He really was the best male prospect in the history of American soccer. He really was good enough to play against adults at 14. And the adults in charge had no idea what to do about it.
— Kim McCauley
Roy quickly became one of the best young shooting guards the NBA had to offer. He was an all-star in just his second season in 2007-08, and was the first Trail Blazer to be named to the team since Rasheed Wallace in 2001. Roy’s arrival in Portland helped the Blazers get back to being a regular contender, and it felt like he would be the franchise’s cornerstone for the next 10 to 15 years. In his three all-star seasons, Roy averaged 21.1 points, 5.2 assists, and 4.6 rebounds per game.
Roy was a great player. He may not have been elite, but he had respect from other elite stars around him like Kobe Bryant. Bryant was asked by John Thompson who was the toughest player for him to guard, to which Bryant replied, “Roy 365 days, seven days a week. Roy has no weaknesses in his game.”
Roy signed a max contract in 2009, but would only start in 88 more games as a member of the Blazers. Numerous knee injuries forced Roy to retire in 2011 because he lacked cartilage between the bones of both his knees. Roy attempted a comeback with the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2012-13, but only played in five regular season games before needing yet another season-ending knee surgery.
The Blazers lucked out and ended up getting Damian Lillard, who has been incredible for that franchise. But you can’t help but wonder what could have been with Roy.
— Harry Lyles Jr.
Yes, I’m adding a professional wrestler to this list — because Magnum T.A. deserves it. Only the most hardcore wrestling fans, or people alive to see him in his prime, will recognize his name, and there’s a good reason for that.
In the mid-80s, Magnum T.A. was everything. A big, athletic wrestler who feuded routinely with Ric Flair in the National Wrestling Alliance. Everything pointed to him being the next “great one,” with his natural charisma, gifts in the ring, and an unmistakable look that often drew comparisons to Tom Selleck. There was no doubt that not only would Magnum T.A. be a wrestler for a long time, but was poised to be the next “great one.”
Then, at the age of 27, he lost control of his Porsche and crashed into a tree. Everything changed in an instant. T.A. “exploded” two vertebrae in his back, ending his in-ring career and causing everything to come crashing down. In an instant he was reduced from being one of the hottest young stars in the business to an on-screen commentator and personality. He would later go on to become a confidant and trainer, helping some of the biggest stars in the industry today.
It’s not that Magnum T.A. had a sad life outside of the ring, but this is one of missed potential. He was so young, so promising, and in an industry where performers routinely are able to compete well into their 50s. Had Magnum T.A. not gotten into his car accident I have no doubt that today we’d look at him with the same household name recognition as Ric Flair, Hulk Hogan or Macho Man Randy Savage — instead, he’ll be remembered as one of the greatest of all time to never realize his potential, and it’s a tragedy we don’t have thousands of hours of incredible Magnum T.A. matches because of it.
— James Dator
We’ve given you our list, but we would love to hear which athlete you wished had the chance at a longer career. Please, let us know in the comments below.