By Lawrence Edwards
For all the great players the NFL has produced and sent to the Hall of Fame to be remembered, there have been many who were once thought to be destined for football immortality, or at least thought to have had a very productive career ahead of them, that never got the chance to completely realize their dreams. A lot of those were the result of career changing injuries. Now, what prompted me to write this was, I was reading an article on how after Victor Cruz returned from his groin injury to practice on Sunday, it was later reported that his groin was still “noticeable bothering him” as Giants head coach Ben McAdoo put it. He also stated that he would be re-evaluated. For some reason this brought the instant thought to my mind: “What if Cruz becomes another one of those unfortunate players to have their career tragically cut short?”
This article isn’t going to be all about Victor Cruz. At first I wanted to write it on him. However, I thought to myself “Why not give some other notable players some love.” So this article is meant to shed light. It’s meant to show that no matter your status in life or your profession. Nobody is safe from having one event completely alter the course of their life. I chose two names that stood out to me, Sterling Sharpe and Daunte Culpepper. Yea I know some of you are thinking, what about “Bo Jackson”, well everybody knows Bo.
Sterling Sharpe played wide receiver for the Green Bay Packers from 1988 – 1994. Sharpe was as tough as they came. He was a big strong receiver who was, not even in the slightest, afraid to go across the middle to make the tough catches. He made an impact for Green Bay right out of the gate. Leading the league in his second season in receptions and breaking former Packer Don Hutson’s record for receptions and receiving yards in a season. In 1992 Sharpe got him a new QB in gunslinger Brett Favre. They would become one of the top passing duos in the league at that time. Sharpe was well on his way to a Hall of Fame worthy career, but all that came to a sudden stop when he suffered a career ending neck injury during the 94 season. Had Sharpe never got injured, he and Favre possibly could have gone down as the best passing tandem of all time. With Favre gunslinger mentality and Sharpe’s fearless play, it would have been something for Pack fans to witness for years.
Unlike Sharpe, Culpepper was able to go on and try to rekindle his career after injury, but could never re-capture that magic that helped him make history in an impressive 2004 season. He was drafted by the Minnesota Vikings 11th overall in the 1999 draft. He saw somewhat of immediate success as he was named the Vikings starting QB for the 2000 NFL season. He would help lead the Vikings to an 11-5 finish and a post season berth. Culpepper threw for 3,937 yards and 33 touchdowns to 16 interceptions. Although he got them to the NFC Championship game, they would lose to the New York Giants badly by a score of 41-0. Culpepper would come across some struggles on the field for the next two seasons. In 2001 and 2002 he threw a combined 32 touchdowns and 36 interceptions. The Vikings would finish with records of 5-11 and 6-10 those years respectively. Culpepper would make a comeback during the 2003 season, however, and lead the Vikings to a 9-7 record. He passed for 3,479 yards and 25 touchdowns against 11 interceptions. However, It was the 2004 season would turn out to be Culpepper’s best statistical season of his career and his last fully productive one. Culpepper made history that season, passing for a league leading 4,717 yards, 39 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He also broke Dan Marino’s record of combined passing and rushing yards in a season, reaching 5,123 total yards. He was only the fourth QB to run for more than 2,300 yards in a five season period. Culpepper severely injured his knee against the Carolina Panthers in a 38-13 loss during the 2005 season. He tore his ACL, PCL and MCL and never played a down for Minnesota gain. He was traded to Nick Saban’s Dolphins after expressing the desire to be out of Minnesota. Things didn’t go well for Culpepper after the injury. He could never get back to the same player he once was. He tried to make a comeback in 2006 with the Dolphins but it didn’t go very well. Miami had a losing record and Saban benched him once he noticed he had a nagging bruised shoulder injury. Culpepper also had to undergo arthroscopic surgery to remove a piece of cartilage that was loose in his injured knee. He did start for Oakland for a few games in 2007 while they waited to complete contract negotiations with JaMarcus Russell, however he would be forced to miss the rest of that season as well due to a hamstring injury suffered when he raced teammate Stanford Routt on foot. He announced his retirement in 2008 because of the frustration that teams didn’t see him the way he saw himself anymore, a starting Qaurterback.
There are tons of other names, in all sports in fact, that were forced to end their careers early due to injury. I don’t know about everyone, but there are those people out there who look at these professional athletes as invincible. It’s not hard to begin to falsely think that these players we put on a pedestal are immune to the misfortunes of life. When a player suffers a career ending injury, they are remembered for the moment, then they fade away into memories we seldom access. We get a small glimpse into how they are feeling during their retirement press conference. They try to fight back tears as they inform the media and their many fans that they can no longer participate in the game. I’ve personally heard people ask “Why is he crying? It’s just a sport?”
Former Giants RB fights back tears as he announces his retirement.
I then say to them, imagine you were doing something you absolutely love. Something you still can’t believe you are actually doing in life. Imagine you finally felt a sense of true accomplishment by completing a goal that millions of young kids and grown adults have and cannot reach. Imagine the feeling of self-satisfaction, because you have made your dreams come true and nothing can go wrong, just to have them ripped away from you due to circumstances you can’t control. This is the moment we get to see that these athletes are just as human as us. We get to sympathize with them because they now seem to be on our level and no longer on top of the world. Players that are blessed to continue and finish their careers until they feel it’s time to stop, should sit back really think about how blessed they are. This is why it infuriates me when these players, at times, start to complain about how many millions they should be making. They should sit back and really think to themselves how blessed they are. No amount of money can stop an accident from taking away the option to even ask for more. I’m sure those players who wasn’t fortunate enough to play as long as they wanted would give anything to come back and play at least one more game, even if it was for free.