NFL Careers That Ended Too Soon

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By Blake Hill – Summer Staff Writer

Bo Jackson (87’-90’)

Source: Shuttering Foundation

Bo Jackson is arguably the greatest athlete that we have ever seen. If you consider yourself an avid sports fan then you “Know Bo”. Jackson did something we had never seen before and still have not seen after, he excelled in football and baseball at the highest level. Sure people like to put Deion Sanders in the same conversation as Jackson because he too played baseball and football, but  Sanders did not even come close to being as impactful as Jackson was on the baseball diamond. Bo Jackson played in both an NFL Pro Bowl and an MLB All-Star game, the only athlete to ever do that. In that All-Star game Jackson hit a lead off Homerun to start the game for his squad and was eventually named MVP of the game. Jackson played for the Kansas City Royals and he made his money with great power at the plate and blazing speed in the outfield where he played both center and left field. Over the course of Bo Jackson’s MLB career he had four 20-Homerun seasons and he even finished 10th in the AL MVP race in 1989. On the football field Jackson was a vicious combination of size and speed at the Runningback position for the Oakland Raiders. At 6 ‘1” 227 lbs and running an unofficial 40 time of 4.12 seconds (the best time ever recorded in combine history) this man was as close to unfair a player could be. Although Jackson never rushed for 1,000 yards in a season he did average 5.4 yards per carry over the course of his career which puts him close to the top of the list in that statistic. 

So what happened to Bo Jackson. Why did this freak of nature athlete seem to leave sports just as quickly as he arrived in them. The end of Jackson’s career can be summarized in one day, January 13, 1991. While playing in the AFC Divisional playoff game, Jackson suffered a severe injury during one of his long runs. It was this injury that began the quick downfall of the great Bo Jackson. After that play Jackson would never step on the football field again. Even after this injury Jackson attempted to play baseball again, but it was clear that he was only a fading image of what he once was. Even today many people wonder what could have been of Bo Jackson if he did not suffer that brutal injury in 1991. Could we have seen the first athlete ever to be in the Hall of Fame in two sports?

Pat Tillman (98’-01’)

Source: pattillmanfoundation.org

Pat Tillman came onto the football scene when he began his career at Arizona State University in 1994. Tillman began his career there by excelling at his linebacker position despite only standing at 5’ 11”. As a junior, Arizona State was able to make it to the Rose Bowl by going undefeated. A great deal of the credit for that successful season can be attributed to Tillman as one of the key leaders on the defensive side of the ball. In 1997 he was named Pac-10 Defensive Player of The Year as well as team MVP of the Arizona State football team.

In 1998 Pat Tillman was selected by the Arizona Cardinals with the 226th pick in the NFL Draft. It can certainly be speculated that Tillman fell so low in the draft due to him being undersized to play Linebacker at the next level. That is why the Cardinals moved him to safety and by the year 2000 he was selected to the All-Pro team. In that season Tillman finished with 155 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, and 1 interception. Although Tillman had just started what seemed to be a very promising NFL career he turned down a 3.6 million dollar deal with the Cardinals to enlist in the Army. 

Pat Tillman was motivated to join the Army in 2002 mainly due to the horrible acts that were performed on the Twin Towers in September of 2001. Tillman was first deployed in Iraq where he participated in the initial invasion of Iraq called Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. In April of 2004 Tillman was redeployed but this time he went to Afghanistan. This would be the mission where Tillman was tragically killed in the line of duty. Initially it was reported that Tillman was killed by an ambush attack but it was later disclosed that he was killed by friendly fire. Tillman gave up playing a sport for a living in order to put himself on the front lines to defend our country. Pat Tillman was the type of man that any person could look up to as an example of sacrifice and selflessness.

Barry Sanders (89’-98’)

Source: Detroit Free Press

This may be a surprising name to see on this list to some of you, especially seeing that Barry Sanders had a 10 year career in the NFL. However, as legendary of a career that he had, it was still a shock to the football world when Sanders decided to hang up the cleats after the 1998 season in which he rushed for nearly 1,500 yards. 

Barry Sanders is talked about by many as one of if not the best Running back to ever play the game of football. He was dominant in college when he attended Oklahoma State University as well as throughout his entire NFL career with the Detroit Lions. Sanders is one of the few Running backs in history to rush for at least 1,000 yards in every single season he played in the NFL. One year that jumps out in particular is 1997, where Sanders ran for 2,053 yards and 11 touchdowns. This is one of the great seasons by a Running back in the entire history of the NFL. By the end of his final season in the NFL Sanders had accumulated 15,269 rushing yards as well as 2,921 receiving yards. He also scored 109 total touchdowns from scrimmage. What is most miraculous is that he did this within a Detroit Lions organization that struggled severely to produce winning seasons and an offensive line that could be ranked consistently in the bottom of the NFL.

There is a simple answer to why Barry Sanders decided to walk away from the NFL in the fashion that he did, the Detroit Lions front office. He believed that the front office of the Lions was not doing all that they possibly could in order to field a team that could compete for a championship. Sanders was satisfied by his own individual accomplishments and decided to walk away from the game instead of being continuously bothered by the lack of success his team was having. It can certainly be speculated that if Sanders had continued his career all the way to the bitter end of his football talents, then he could have been the holder of every major Running back record in existence.

Calvin Johnson (07’-15’)

Source: ESPN

Calvin Johnson is considered to be one of the greatest athletic specimens to ever play the Wide Receiver position in the history of the NFL. Standing 6’ 5” and weighing nearly 240 lbs he was a mismatch on virtually every defensive back that aligned across from him. At this monstrous size, Johnson also possessed 4.35 second speed in the 40 yard dash. In just 9 years, Johnson was able to put up some astonishing numbers. He finished his short career with 11,619 receiving yards to go along with 83 receiving touchdowns. In 2012 Johnson shattered Jerry Rice’s single season record of 1,848 receiving yards by tallying 1,964 yards. That is an average of nearly 123 yards every single week of the season.

There are many speculations as to why Johnson decided to hang up the shoulder pads so early in a time where he was still very much in his prime. Although Johnson was able to see plenty of individual production the team itself struggled year in and year out. Over the course of his career the Detroit Lions only reached the postseason twice. As a player who valued winning over his own accolades this was a tough pill to swallow. At one point he wanted to leave Detroit but he was bound by contract to stay. It was because Johnson did not see the chance of winning a championship in his future he decided to walk away from the game forever.

Patrick Willis (07’-14’)

Source: B/R

A bruising Linebacker who spent his entire career in the red and gold playing for the San Francisco 49ers, Patrick Willis has certainly made a name for himself in the football world. Being a staple piece of the 49ers  defense for 8 years and a six 

Image from: fourthandnine.com

time All-Pro selection, it was known to all offenses across the league that every time you played San Francisco you had to game plan for Willis’ impact on the game. Being 240+ lbs and running a 40 yard dash at the combine clocking in at a 4.56 he had NFL scouts drooling over him when it came around to draft time. Once Willis began his career in 2007, his production on the field did all of the talking for him, as he was Rookie of the Year in 2007.  Out of his 8 years in the NFL, 6 of them he finished with over 100 total tackles. In both 2007 and 2009 he led the entire NFL in tackles,  and he did this with a certain level of humbleness that is quite remarkable. He was never a face you would have seen in the news running his mouth and talking about how great he is. Instead he kept his mouth shut, led by example and made all of his teammates around him better for it.

A man with this type of production should not be out of the league in 8 years. Even if his overall production died down he still earned his way onto a roster simply as someone to guide the younger talent on the roster. So after one season of battling with a nagging toe injury, why did Patrick Willis decide to walk away? Willis felt that it was perfect timing to walk away from the game due to his body beginning to deteriorate as well as him losing passion for the game. Willis was a firm believer of playing the game because you loved it instead of the paycheck and once he felt that passion begin to fade he was prepared to start the next chapter of his life.

Sean Taylor (04’-07’)

Source: theseatletimes.com

The “Meast”. Sean Taylor was considered by his teammates to be half man, half beast. Taylor earned this nickname by the violent nature in which he played the game of football, as well as the overall work ethic he took into each and every day. It was known to everyone at the Washington Redskins facilities what kind of man Sean Taylor was. He was always out at the field, whether he was out there an hour early before practice or running his own personal practice on the teams off days. He was always working to make himself better for the greater good of his team. Sean Taylor would see the fruits of all that hard work once he began his career in the NFL. In Taylor’s short NFL career he was selected for the Pro Bowl twice and was selected to be an All-Pro in his final season. Over the course of his career Taylor would accumulate 299 tackles to go along with 12 interceptions. 299 tackles is incredibly impressive for a defensive back in just 3 ½ years. 

Many know how the great Sean Taylor’s NFL career and life would end. On November 26, 2007 Taylor was shot and killed in his own home when 4 men were attempting to burglarize his house. Taylor tragically would be leaving behind his Fiance Jackie Garcia as well as their 18 month old daughter. To remember the late Sean Taylor all of the NFL teams would wear a #21 decal on the back of their helmets for week 13. Today Taylor is remembered as one of the hardest hitting Defensive backs in NFL history, but even more importantly a man who had an incredible work ethic as well as great pride in himself and those who were around him. 

Ryan Shazier (14’-19’)

Source: CBS Sports

Ryan Shazier’s career tragically ended in a Monday Night Football game in the 2017 season against the Cincinnati Bengals. Shazier was playing middle linebacker when a shallow drag route came across the middle and Shazier was there to make it with a strong tackle knocking the ball carrier backwards. Even after it seemed like Shazier delivered the majority of the blow, it was known immediately that something was not right. Shazier remained down on the field reaching at his lower back. Once Shazier was stabilized he was taken to the hospital where he learned the following morning that he suffered from a spinal contusion. In December of that same year Shazier underwent spinal stabilization surgery to aid in recovering in that injured area. That surgery ended his season in 2017 and much later on in 2020 the Pittsburgh Steelers placed Shazier on the reserve/retired list effectively ending Shazier’s career. Even after his horrific injury, Shazier was still voted to the Pro Bowl in the 2017 season, the second he was voted into in his short career. 

Over the course of Shazier’s 3 ½ year career he was able to make 299 tackles to go along with 7 forced fumbles and 7 interceptions. He was a rare combination of size and speed weighing in nearly 240 lbs and running a blazing fast 4.38 40 yard dash at the NFL combine. In that 2017 season where Shazier got hurt it seemed as if he was finally settled and felt comfortable playing at the highest level. He was known as one of the key leaders and contributors on that Steelers defense and it makes even a non Steelers fan wonder how much more Ryan Shazier could have developed. Even though it is unlikely that Shazier will be able to play in the NFL again, he still is an inspiration to anyone who has followed his journey post injury. There were questions as to whether Shazier would ever even be able to walk again. Today there are videos of him doing box jumps and working out, making progress every single day. For anyone who is going through something where they feel the odds are stacked against them can learn a thing or two from this man.

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