Over the years, the NFL has become less of a sport featuring the best and most talented players and more of a league of gladiators, pounding each other into the ground for our amusement. While the NFL has become undoubtedly popular over the last few decades, there is a major downside to the sport: lots of injuries.
Sometimes, players even experience career-ending or life-threatening injuries on the field of play. Throw the individual stats out the window; any player who experiences one of these injuries is lucky if he’s able to live a full, healthy life. These are the 15 worst NFL injuries in the history of the league.
15. Eugene Wilson
For a short time in the NFL, the “wildcat” was the formation de jour. That meant a running back taking the snap with the quarterback lining up as a wide receiver. But when the Minnesota Vikings ran this play in 2009, QB Brett Favre threw an illegal block on safety Eugene Wilson of the Houston Texans. That led to Wilson missing half the season with a knee injury and Favre receiving a $10,000 fine. Wilson came back to play in 2010, but he wasn’t the same and his career essentially ended for him the age of 30.
14. Chris Kuper
Former Denver Broncos guard Chris Kuper suffered a nasty ankle injury in the final game of the 2011 season. In the first quarter of a game against the Kansas City Chiefs, Kuper went down in a heap. Medical staff poured onto the field as Kuper’s foot clearly rested in an unnatural position. The ankle injury was so severe that, despite coming back to play 11 more games over the next two seasons, Kuper’s career was essentially over.
13. Danny Amendola
Back in 2011, Danny Amendola was the No. 1 receiver for the St. Louis Rams and a valuable player given his ability to return kicks. But in the first game of the season, Amendola went to the ground on his own and had his elbow buckle underneath him. The result: an ugly dislocation of the elbow and the end of his season before it hardly started. The good news is that Amendola’s career bounced back once he got back onto the field the following season.
12. Marc Mariani
Tennessee Titans return specialist Marc Mariani ran back a kick during the preseason in 2012. A defender tackled him to the ground and Mariani held his leg as the play concluded. In the video of the event, you can clearly see a broken bone in his left leg — and his reaction to realizing it. Mariani missed the entire 2012 and 2013 seasons before making it back into the NFL with the Chicago Bears in 2014. He returned with the Titans in 2016 and played in all 16 games.
11. Tim Krumrie
No injury is well-timed, but a major injury in the Super Bowl is especially disappointing. That’s exactly what happened to Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Tim Krumrie, who attempted to bring down the San Francisco 49ers running back when he suffered a gruesome leg break. While the Bengals lost the Super Bowl in 1988, Krumrie bounced back from the injury; beginning the next season, he never sat out another game for the rest of his career.
10. Eric Wood
In a 2009 game, a Philadelphia Eagles defender dove at Buffalo Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick in an attempt to bring him down. Rookie guard Eric Wood trailed on the play and caught his leg in the heap of converging players. His leg broke in a fairly gruesome manner and it ended his season. Fortunately, Wood returned to the game, converted to center, and became a Pro Bowler at his position for the Bills.
9. Leonard Weaver
Leonard Weaver was a Pro Bowl fullback for the Philadelphia Eagles in 2009, creating a nice career for himself by the age of 27. That all changed in his first game of the season in 2010 on what would sadly be his last carry in the NFL. His leg was bent sideways on the tackle by the Green Bay Packers defender. After a few rounds of rehab on his shredded ACL, Weaver was forced to retire. It’s one of the worst NFL injuries ever and one of the ugliest knee injuries ever to happen on live television.
8. E.J. Henderson
In a game against the Arizona Cardinals late in the 2008 season, linebacker E.J. Henderson went after running back Tim Hightower to make a tackle. Hightower escaped, but Henderson remained with an ugly broken leg. His season ended immediately, but Henderson made a comeback the following year. He even stayed healthy and played all 16 games in 2010 — making his first Pro bowl — but his career was over just a year later at the age of 31.
7. Darryl Stingley
In an exhibition game in 1978, Oakland Raiders safety Jack Tatum led with his helmet and crushed New England Patriots wide receiver Darryl Stingley, leaving the wideout lying helplessly on the ground. While the hit wasn’t intended to harm the player, the damage was done. Not only was Stingley’s career in the NFL over after just five seasons, but he was never able to walk again. Stingley died at the age of 55 back in 2007.
6. Dennis Byrd
Dennis Byrd was a 26-year-old defensive player for the New York Jets back in 1992. On a play against the Washington Redskins, Byrd accidentally collided with a teammate while attempting to bring down the quarterback. His head went directly into the chest of his fellow player. That resulted in a career-ending injury and temporary paralysis, although thankfully he was eventually able to walk again later in his life. Still, it doesn’t make the injury any less sad.
5. Ronnie Lott
San Francisco 49ers safety Ronnie Lott broke his pinky finger in April 1986. The painful injury would’ve cost him some time on the field. However, Lott opted to have the top of his finger amputated so that he wouldn’t miss time on the field. As an NFL legend, the story is often cited for his heroism and dedication to the game. But as Lott later tells the story, it’s actually less of a heroic act and more of a regretful choice involving a lack of foresight.
4. Napoleon McCallum
In the season-opening game versus the San Francisco 49ers in 1994, Los Angeles Raiders running back Napoleon McCallum rushed up the middle and was tackled by a group of defenders. When McCallum fell backward, his leg caught between two players and his kneecap dislocated. Unfortunately, that was the final play of McCallum’s career. The good news, if you can call it that, is that he scored a touchdown earlier in the game.
3. Johnny Knox
In the final game of the 2011 regular season, Chicago Bears wide receiver Johnny Knox fumbled a pass on a slant from quarterback Caleb Hanie. While trying to recover the ball, Knox was hit in the back by a Seattle Seahawks defender. The tackle left Knox with fractured vertebra. He recovered to the point where he’s walking again. However, nerve damage left him with no chance of resuming his playing career.
2. Joe Theismann
Probably the most famous football injury, but it isn’t quite enough to take the top spot on our list of the worst NFL injuries. On Monday Night Football back in 1985, the Washington Redskins and quarterback Joe Theismann took on the New York Giants and their star linebacker Lawrence Taylor. Unfortunately for Theismann, Taylor got the best of him — and his career was over.
On a flea-flicker play, Taylor sacked Theismann, who ended up with a brutally broken leg; the bone stuck out on national television. It was the final play in the 11-year career of the 36-year-old QB.
1. Rashad Johnson
Back in 2013, Arizona Cardinals defensive back Rashad Johnson had a bad day. In what we file in the ‘”just really weird” category, Johnson walked to the sidelines after a punt return. He took off his glove and discovered that the very top of his middle finger was severed. Like, cut off. He even tweeted a photo of it, if you’re daring enough to take a peek.
Johnson ended up having the top of his finger shaved down and only missed two games. The only thing we’re left wondering is how the top of his finger separated from the rest of his hand? The world may never know.