15 college football players whose careers ended too soon
Which 15 former college football stars had their careers ended far too soon, both in NFL and college, because of injuries suffered while in school?
Everyone loves a good sports story. However, not everything is sunshine and rainbows in the world of sports, namely college football. In fact, there have been a number of stars who had their careers cut far too short due to injuries, leading to early retirements.
Earlier this week, Arkansas running back Rawleigh Williams III announced his sudden retirement from football after suffering a second neck injury. He was injured during a spring practice and in order to avoid further damage, he sat down with family and decided he was going to hang up the cleats.
Williams III is not alone.
Some of the former college football stars on this list ended up in the NFL, but injuries suffered while still in school forced them to give up the sport they loved, whether they were ready to or not.
Here are 15 college football stars whose careers ended far too soon.
LB, Oklahoma State
While Josh Mabin isn’t exactly a household name, he has earned a spot on this list because he’s one of the most recent players to retire for health reasons. Also, because his reason for retiring is unique.
Prior to the 2016 season, the sophomore revealed that he had hypertrophic cardiomyopathy which essentially means his heart had built up too much muscle to properly circulate blood, putting him at a major risk for sudden cardiac arrest, which could lead to death.
If that’s not the wildest reason to retire, I don’t know what is. He was set to be the backup middle linebacker for Oklahoma State in 2016, but he made the announcement just days before the season. He finished his Cowboys career with four total tackles in five games.
DT, South Carolina
This was one of the more interesting situations that led a player to retire from the sport far too early. Stanley Doughty was considered one of the top defensive linemen in college football before suffering a spinal injury during his final season with the school which ended up keeping him from the NFL as well.
Basically, Doughty suffered a spinal injury and the South Carolina training staff told him to play through it because it was just “a stinger.” Everyone who has played football knows what that feels like and it’s not comfortable, but Doughty’s injury seemed to go even further than that.
To this day, he claims that every time he tilts his head back, he feels tingling through his deltoids and chest. He is suing South Carolina, and the NCAA, for neglecting to adequately treat him following his injury and telling him to play through it.
According to Doughty, who played from 2004-06 with South Carolina, he was signed by the Chiefs before he even graduated, but their training staff said that he wasn’t going to be cleared to play. He missed out on an NFL career and was forced to shut things down far too soon.
Tyrone Prothro made a catch that’s still being talked about today. The former Alabama receiver went up to make a reception over Southern Mississippi’s Jasper Faulk in a September 2005 game during Prothro’s junior season. He came down with his hands around the ball, which happened to be around the back of Faulk.
Just watch this incredible reception. It’s quite possibly the best college reception of all-time:
That reception in an early-season game was the play he was made famous for. Fans knew his name because of the catch — well and the fact that he was one of the SEC’s best returners before the 2005 season.
A few weeks later, he was known for something horrific. Prothro went up for a catch against Florida and the Gators’ defensive back came down on his leg, shattering both the tibia and fibula. It was one of the most horrific injuries in recent memory. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who is even slightly squeamish.
Prothro’s leg would never be the same. After 11 surgeries, his leg was still not close to fully-healed and he knew that his playing days would be over. He never played another down, finishing his Alabama career with 58 catches for 853 yards and five touchdowns while he was also a heck of a return man.
One of the most shocking retirements in recent memory was former five-star running back Thomas Tyler of Oregon. He was ranked a top-20 recruit in the country in the 2013 class, according to 247Sports, and was expected to do big things with the Ducks’ explosive offense.
Heck, Oregon running backs have been on everyone’s Heisman radar for the past few years. Tyler was expected to be the next big thing, but after missing the entire 2015 season with a shoulder injury, he announced his retirement from football. Quite the fall from grace going from a blue-chip recruit to a retired collegiate athlete.
Tyner, however, is a different case.
In just two years with the Ducks, he racked up 1,485 yards from scrimmage and 15 total touchdowns. He also averaged 5.6 yards per carry. He was retired for 15 months until he recently decided to return to college football, but this time with rival Oregon State.
John Canzano of The Oregonian reported that Tyner requested a release from Oregon and was granted that the next day. He chose Oregon State as his next home, stating that he always wanted to be a Beaver.
Although he’s no longer retired, it’s too soon to tell if his career will end too early because of lingering injuries.
WR, Ball State
Leading the nation in receiving, Dante Love looked to be one of the next small school stars to make it to the NFL. The year was 2008 and he had just dominated college football the year before, albeit at Ball State, catching 100 passes for 1,398 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Love was on every scout’s radar heading into his senior season, but he needed another big showing to earn himself NFL Draft consideration. He was averaging 144.3 yards per game through his first three and everything was on schedule to get him a draft selection. However, his final career college game came far too soon.
Ball State traveled to Indiana in the fourth game of 2008 and Love was looking to lead his Cardinals to an upset, but he was more worried about if he would ever walk again than anything else in the second quarter. He was running downfield when two Indiana defenders made a play on him and he went down awkwardly. He didn’t get up.
In fact, he suffered a broken neck and it happened to be one of the scariest moments of the season. Everyone in the stadium fell silent as Love was taken out on a stretcher. He was told by doctors that he would never be able to play football again and later returned to the team as more of an assistant coach that year.
Love finished his college career with 199 catches for 2,778 yards and 20 touchdowns.
As a redshirt freshman for Connecticut, Casey Cochran was handed the reigns of the offense, playing in eight games and passing for 1,293 yards and 11 touchdowns, completing about 63 percent of his throws. He had a bright future ahead of him, it seemed.
The 2014 season rolled around and the redshirt freshman had high expectations for himself, but in the first game of the season against BYU, he suffered a hit that would end his career. On a fourth-down play, Cochran was drilled by a Cougar linebacker and blacked out as his head bounced off the turf.
Cochran detailed his last-ever college play in The Players’ Tribune.
My vision blurred again. Once I got to the sideline and I was met by teammates and doctors. They asked question after question. I responded to most of them with, “Yeah, yeah, I’m fine.” But I knew immediately that I was not. I knew I had just played the last snap of my career.
It was my 13th concussion — a baker’s dozen of brain injuries since I took my first head hit at the age of 11. I understand the weight of this number, and I totally get why people look shocked when I tell it to them.
Yes, you read that correctly, he had suffered 13 concussions to that point in his career before he finally decided that his long-term health was more important than the game he loved. He retired shortly after that game in 2014 as a redshirt sophomore.
The future, like many other young players to retire early on this list, was bright for Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland. He was named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2009 and finished his career with the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year award in 2013. He was considered one of the top insider linebackers in the 2014 NFL Draft.
However, there was a growing concern with the Badgers’ star linebacker. Head injuries had been piling up for Borland and he was worried about his longevity in everyday life because of the trauma the injuries had caused.
Borland ended up getting drafted in the third round (No. 77 overall) by the San Francisco 49ers in 2014 and turned in a heck of a rookie campaign. He finished with 107 total tackles, two interceptions and a sack for the 49ers, proving to be one of the league’s best first-year players and a future star in the NFL.
That was until he announced his retirement in the offseason before his second year. It came as a shock to many, but injuries to the head that he suffered in college built up and led to his early retirement.
QB, West Virginia
Florida State recruited Clint Trickett, a Tallahassee prospect, out of high school and committed to the Seminoles as a three-star pro-style quarterback. He may not have been a blue-chip recruit, but he was on pace to become the starting quarterback for the Seminoles once EJ Manuel graduated.
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However, that was not the case as a young redshirt freshman quarterback did so instead. He decided to transfer to West Virginia even before losing the race for the starting quarterback.
Trickett tried to remain patient, but it was pretty clear who the starting quarterback for the 2013 season would be at Florida State. Jameis Winston was the favorite to win the job and he did just that after Trickett left, even going on to win the Heisman and a national title.
At West Virginia, he passed for 4,890 yards and 25 touchdowns in two seasons before announcing his retirement following his senior year due to multiple concussions. He then took over as a quarterbacks coach at East Mississippi Community College (which you may have heard of as it’s the subject of a famous Netflix documentary titled Last Chance U).
Now, Trickett is the tight ends coach at Florida Atlantic under Lane Kiffin.
RB, South Carolina
Marcus Lattimore looked to be the next big thing in the college football world. The electrifying talent rushed for over 1,100 yards as a true freshman at South Carolina in 2010 and it seemed like he would only get better from that point on.
Just seven games into his sophomore season, he had already rushed for 800 yards and 10 touchdowns, totaling 1,000 yards from scrimmage. However, that would be as far as his season would go as he tore his knee up against Mississippi State and missed the rest of the year.
The next season, he played in nine games, rushing for 662 yards and 11 touchdowns, but dislocated his knee in that ninth game, ending his season early once again. It seemed like the major talent just couldn’t stay away form the injury bug. Soon after his shortened junior year, he declared for the 2013 NFL Draft.
Once thought of as a sure first-round talent, Lattimore dropped to the fourth round (No. 131 overall) to the San Francisco 49ers. He never played a down in the NFL and said in an interview with SB Nation that his time as a pro was hell every day.
Rawleigh Williams III
The most recent player retirement on this list is Rawleigh Williams III from Arkansas. The All-SEC caliber running back was considered one of the top rushers in 2016 and expectations were high for the 2017 campaign. However, a second neck injury forced him to pen a letter to Razorback faithful a few weeks ago.
Williams III posted on arkansasrazorbacks.com his retirement letter. He titled it “The Next Chapter.”
An outside zone run to the left side. I’ve run that play literally hundreds of times in my college career. Maybe more.
This outside zone run to the left would be my last.
Not again. I remembered the feeling. It didn’t last as long so I wasn’t as nervous, but I knew something was wrong. I knew that it was similar enough to the last time.
Suffering a neck injury in spring practice, his second, was enough for the sophomore running back to call it quits. His long-term health was more important to him than being a top SEC rusher and he made the mature decision to hang up the cleats. He rushed for 1,360 yards and 12 touchdowns in his final season with the Razorbacks.
I know what you’re thinking already, “Willis McGahee had a nice NFL career, he shouldn’t be on this list, right?”
While that’s a valid point and McGahee did have a nice NFL career, his college career was ended far too early because of a leg injury he suffered in the 2003 BCS National Championship. He was making a routine catch on a screen pass, but Ohio State safety Will Allen hit him and awkwardly bent McGahee’s leg back, basically destroying his knee.
It was later revealed that he had torn his ACL, MCL and PCL, all major ligaments in his knee, which makes a running back’s life even harder. Coming back from this type of injury hadn’t happened effectively before, but McGahee decided not to collect the insurance policy he took out before the title game and entered the NFL Draft a year early.
The former sure-fire top-10 pick dropped a bit, getting selected No. 23 overall by the Buffalo Bills where he played three seasons, rushing for over 3,000 yards. He then spend four seasons with Baltimore, two with Denver and one with Cleveland, only rushing for over 1,000 yards just twice more in his career.
McGahee’s final year at Miami was highlighted by 28 touchdown runs and over 1,750 yards. Would his career have been different without the injury?
Yet another running back to make the list. It’s clear that this is one of the hardest-hit positions on the field and these guys take a beating play in and play out. A perfect example of that notion is former All-Pac-10 running back Jahvid Best who was an absolute stud at Cal.
As a freshman, he was just fighting for carries, but he broke out as a sophomore, rushing for 1,580 yards and 15 touchdowns, averaging an astounding 8.1 yards per carry.
During a game in late-November of 2009, Best suffered what is now considered the play that essentially changed his life. He was making a diving attempt at the end zone against Oregon State when he was flipped into the air, landing on his head. He suffered a major concussion.
This was the scary concussion that essentially ended Best’s career:
Best would miss the rest of the regular season and decide to forgo his senior year and enter the NFL Draft. He was chosen No. 30 overall by the Detroit Lions and had over 1,000 yards from scrimmage as a rookie. Although he was electrifying, concussions forced him to retire after just a couple of years.
The former electrifying athlete has taken up a new sport and appeared in the 2016 Olympics as a track and field runner for Saint Lucia.
You don’t often head much about players from Tulane, but if you were to name one, Devon Walker should be the first the comes to mind. The former safety for the Green Wave was injured in a Sept. 8, 2012, game during his senior campaign in which he collided with a teammate and was paralyzed.
Walker didn’t play as a freshman and saw some action as a sophomore before recording 23 tackles, a career-high, as a junior. During that fateful game against Tulsa, he collided with his teammate and remained down on the field. No one knew the severity until he was carted off the field with no movement of limbs.
It was later revealed that he had been paralyzed from the neck down. It was the worst possible news anyone could have expected and his college career was over.
While he would never walk again, the Saints made a cool gesture by signing him shortly after he graduated from college in 2016.
DB, Ole Miss
The first such memorable incident in which a head-first collision left a college player paralyzed was Chucky Mullins in 1989. The former Ole Miss defensive back has since been honored with a statue at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford, Miss. It reads “Never Quit” which happen to be the most famous words from Mullins.
The incident occurred in an October 1989 game against Vanderbilt. It was Ole Miss’ Homecoming game and the Commodores happened to be in town for one of the most devastating injuries in college football history.
Mullins, a defensive back, was lunging in for a tackle against Vanderbilt fullback Brad Gaines, but he went head-first and it did not end well. He ended up paralyzed because of the major impact on his head and neck and would never see the field as an athlete again.
Ole Miss fans were in shock as he was rushed to the hospital, but never regained any feeling from the neck down. He died just two years later, a year after returning to school to finish his degree, in May of 1991 due to a pulmonary embolism. Chucky will never be forgotten by Ole Miss fans.
Entering college as a true freshman can be difficult for anyone, but Eric LeGrand made the transition look seamless. Playing for Greg Schiano in 2008, the Rutgers’ freshman was making a name for himself on special teams and the head coach believed he deserved some major snaps on the defensive line as a sophomore.
When 2009 rolled around, he became one of the better backup defensive linemen in the Big Ten and a future star at tackle. He racked up 33 total tackles, 7.5 for loss and two sacks. He began his junior season as a potential All-Big East performer.
LeGrand recorded 13 tackles, two for loss and 0.5 sacks in his first six games before his career would come to a crashing halt. He injured his neck on a collision with Army return man Malcom Brown. It was a spinal cord injury that left him paralyzed.
While he was never able to play football again, he has been one of the more outspoken former athletes who had their careers ended early due to injuries.
Heck, LeGrand has even been a spokesperson for Subway. He is beloved by all college fans and his No. 52 jersey is the only one that Rutgers had ever retired.
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