For any professional athlete, there is a natural assumption of risk to one’s physical well-being. Players are constantly honing their bodies in the weight room—not just to become faster and stronger than their competition, but also to protect against the injuries that can ruin a season. The result of this training is the development of a remarkable ability to hold up against the jaw-rattling hits and year-long grind that would sideline most normal humans. Still, cut too sharply while driving to the net or fail to notice the linebacker coming over the middle and your season (and maybe your career) can be over in an instant. Here are five injuries that require more than just an ice pack.
Notable Athletes: Tom Brady, Tiger Woods, Chipper Jones, Michael Redd
Estimated Recovery Time: 8 to 12 Months
Any Patriots fan can give you some insight into the misery of this knee injury. The torn ACL occurs relatively often in athletics—the constant changes of direction and physicality of sports such as football and basketball are debilitating to the knees. The anterior cruciate ligament provides 90% of the leg’s stability and is essential to dynamic movement. The tell-tale “pop” of the ligament (and accompanying pain) means the end of your season and the beginning of approximately a year of rehab before a full recovery is possible.
Notable Athletes: Steve Young, Sidney Crosby, Mike Piazza
Estimated Recovery Time: Varies
Concussions occur so frequently in contact sports that they are often shrugged off and seen as more of an inconvenience than an injury. The reality is far more disturbing—head injuries can have a significant impact on vision, memory, and motor function in both the short and long term. While most athletes attempt a return to action within a few weeks, the most severe cases can force retirement. A recent increase in devastating head injuries has led many leagues (most recently the NFL and MLB) to enact new protocols on protecting afflicted players and punishing those responsible for any action deemed unnecessarily violent.
Torn Ulnar Collateral Ligament (Tommy John Surgery)
Notable Athletes: Steven Strasburg, John Smoltz, Brian Wilson, A.J. Burnett
Estimated Recovery Time: 12 to 18 Months
Once upon a time, a torn UCL meant a one-way ticket to retirement for a Major League pitcher. The unnatural strain and torque on a pitcher’s elbow wears down the delicate muscles in the arm, rendering the player physically incapable of throwing a ball forcefully. That is, until the development Dr. Frank Jobe’s pioneering “Tommy John surgery," named after its first recipient. The radical procedure replaces the damaged elbow ligament with a ligament from another part of the body, allowing the injured player the chance to resurrect their career. Although a return to the big leagues is far from a guarantee, improved techniques and technology have allowed more and more patients to make a full recovery in recent years. Still, even the most resilient arms face a year and a half of rehab before attempting a comeback.
Notable Athletes: Kevin Everett, Michael Irvin, Steve Austin
Estimated Recovery Time: Career Ending
Possibly the most frightening injury on this list, a fractured vertebrae can affect a person’s ability to move, let alone its implications on a sports career. A handful of times a year, a player will get crushed on a slant over the middle or land awkwardly and lie motionless on the field, drawing gasps and prayers from the sidelines. Fractured vertebrae can lead to anything from tingling in the extremities to paralysis. Buffalo Bills tight end Kevin Everett suffered the injury early in the 2007 season, ending his career and casting doubt on his ability to walk again. Thankfully, Kevin has since made a full recovery.
Notable Athletes: Reggie Bush, Joe Theismann, Kendry Morales
Estimated Recovery Time: Varies
Consider this: the tibia (the main bone in your leg) is the strongest weight-bearing bone in the human body. It is approximately four times as strong as concrete. Generating enough force to break it is not only tremendously difficult—it is potentially crippling to the victim. The snapping of the bone is usually audible to those in the immediate vicinity. In 1985, when former Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann had both his tibia and fibula broken by Lawrence Taylor, he claims “(his) leg from the knee down was completely numb.” The injury is widely regarded as one of the most gruesome to ever be captured on film, and forced his early retirement from the NFL.