Traumatic Injuries That Take Players Off the Field for Good

Sometimes it seems as if professional athletes have it all: Money, fame, and the ability to build a career doing what they love. But there’s a downside, especially when it comes to contact sports like football. Every day, athletes run the risk of injury, and some are career-ending.

How risky are contact sports?

American football on a field.

A quick game could easily result in a trip to the hospital. | 33ft/iStock/Getty Images

Contact sports, especially football, have been controversial for years. Despite the fact that millions of people participate in them, we don’t know exactly how risky they are. But it’s safe to say the risks are quite substantial.

Ligament sprains are the most common football injury reported, followed by concussions. And while those are certainly serious, they’re not often severe enough to end an athlete’s career. The following five injuries, however, can take players off the field for good.

1. Damaged vertebrae

A woman touches her back while at work.

That weekend game might cause Monday morning back problems. | Andrey Popov/iStock/Getty Images Plus

A damaged vertebrae is one of the most terrifying risks of professional sports. And in 1994, that’s what ended the career of Sterling Sharp, who played for the Green Bay Packers. After sustaining the injury during a game against the Atlanta Falcons, his doctor told him it was best if he stopped playing as soon as possible.

2. Herniated disks

A man holds his lower back.

Back and spine injuries could change your life forever. | Globalmoments/iStock/Getty Images

Herniated disks are another common risk of contact sports, and sometimes they’re quite severe. In 2007, Seattle Seahawks fullback Mack Strong herniated a disk during a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. His doctors advised him to retire since the herniated disk could have led to paralysis if it was hit improperly.

3. Knee injuries

A woman with leg pain sits on grass.

Knee injuries are extremely painful … and expensive to deal with. | Kwanchaichaiudom/iStock/Getty Images

Knee injuries happen frequently, and they have ended numerous careers. Alvin Williams, a former guard for the Toronto Raptors, spent most of his career on the injury list thanks to a knee injury he sustained in his third season. He never fully recovered. Former Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper sustained a major knee injury during a game against the Panthers in 2005, and although he tried to return to football, he was never able to play as well.

4. Neck injuries

Man with pain in his neck.

A serious neck injury won’t result in your average pain. | Andriano_cz/iStock/Getty Images

Neck injuries are no joke — they can lead to permanent paralysis. Former Cleveland Browns linebacker Chris Spielman sustained not one but two of them during his career, forcing him into early retirement. Former Packers receiver Sterling Sharpe also sustained a career-ending neck injury in 1994.

5. Multiple concussions

Hockey players during a game.

Hockey players often have to deal with concussions. | Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

A single concussion typically doesn’t end a career in sports, but multiple concussions certainly have. Hockey players like Keith Primeau of the Philadelhpia Flyers and Nick Kypreos of the New York Rangers both had to leave the NHL because of problems stemming from several concussions.

Long-term effects of playing sports

Fitness concept and welfare with female athlete jogging in city park

Athletes should always be aware of the risks. | Bogdanhoda/iStock/Getty Images

Even if athletes are lucky enough to make it through a career unscathed, they could still suffer from the effects of a traumatic brain injury down the road. A recent study showed that 87% of the donated brains of deceased football players showed signs of CTE, a degenerative brain disorder associated with repetitive head trauma.

These findings have raised concerns over the safety of contact sports like football and soccer. But many athletes continue to strive to play professionally, often claiming to know the risks.