Pain in the neck: How one injury has haunted Packers for three decades

Packers running back Johnathan Franklin is shown before a 2013 game at San Francisco. Franklin is one of several Packers players in recent decades to be dealt a severe neck injury.  

Kelley L Cox/Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

GREEN BAY, Wis. — Second-year running back Johnathan Franklin is the player at the top of most people’s minds right now when it comes to career-ending neck injuries, but he’s just the most recent in a long line of Green Bay Packers whose careers have ended in similar fashion over the past three decades.

If star tight end Jermichael Finley, whose football future is in question, doesn’t return to the field the Packers will have lost an average of one player to a career-ending neck injury every three years during this span. It’s been an even more frequent occurrence in the past 10 years, as six players (if Finley is included) have had their careers end prematurely due to this type of injury.

Franklin’s career may not have been destined to put him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame one day, but at least a couple players in recent Packers history could have been headed to Canton if not for the injury. For them not to get that chance at "all-time great" status because of a neck injury is unfortunate, but that the Packers have been afflicted by the same type of malady so often — to so many key players — is downright improbable.

From Franklin, whose career ended last week, to cornerback Tim Lewis in the mid-1980s, here’s a look back at 10 Green Bay players whose careers were stopped by a neck injury.

RB JOHNATHAN FRANKLIN

Before the injury: Franklin was a fourth-round pick by the Packers in 2013. When he got a chance to play significant snaps in Week 3 of his rookie season (with Eddie Lacy out with a concussion), Franklin ran for 103 yards in 13 carries with one touchdown. However, he carried the ball only six more times for 4 yards the rest of the season.

When everything changed: Nov. 24, 2013 vs. Vikings.

How it happened: In only his fourth kick return of the season, Franklin fielded the ball at the goal line and ran for 22 yards. It was then that he was met by Minnesota’s Jamarca Sanford. Television announcers commented that it took a while for the pile of players to clear up, but that was more a result of a potential fumble than it was a serious injury to Franklin. It was serious, though, and the Packers placed him on injured reserve with what was described as neck / concussion. Franklin did not undergo any type of surgery.

From then to today: Franklin, 24, is the most recent addition to this list, so it’s unknown exactly where his life goes from here. But whatever path he chooses, it won’t be playing football. Franklin has aspired to be the mayor in his hometown of Los Angeles, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see him get involved with that community sooner than later.

TE JERMICHAEL FINLEY

Jermichael Finley

Before the injury: Finley owns the franchise’s all-time record for single-season catches by a tight end (61 in 2012) and three times topped 600 yards in a season. Though he often drew the ire of Packers fans for dropping passes, there was no denying Finley had become a great middle-of-the-field target for quarterback Aaron Rodgers. The 2013 season was shaping up to be his best yet, showing off tremendous ability after the catch.

When everything changed: Oct. 20, 2013 vs. Browns.

How it happened: Finley, then 26, caught a slant pass from Rodgers for a 10-yard gain before suffering a spinal cord contusion when he was hit around the neck. Finley lay on the field for about five minutes, unable to move. He was soon carted off, with cameras showing that he was able to move at least his right arm.

From then to today: Finley’s career might not be over. Despite an insurance policy that will pay him $10 million (tax-free) if he never plays again, Finley has the desire to continue. The question is whether any NFL team is willing to medically clear him. The physician who performed the C3-C4 fusion surgery, Dr. Joseph Maroon, gave Finley the all-clear, but there’s a big difference between that happening and a team being willing to sign him and risk a more severe injury.

S NICK COLLINS

Nick Collins

Before the injury: Through six NFL seasons, Collins was about as good as they get at safety. He was a three-time Pro Bowl selection, a three-time second-team All-Pro and a Super Bowl winner. Collins had a career-high seven interceptions in 2008 and six more in 2009. Having just turned 28 years old at the start of the 2011 season, Collins seemed to have many great years of football still in front of him.

When everything changed: Sept. 18, 2011 vs. Panthers.

How it happened: Collins was attempting to tackle Carolina running back Jonathan Stewart during the fourth quarter of a Week 2 game. As Stewart attempted to leap over a diving Collins, Collins’ neck came up underneath the backside of Stewart’s upper leg. Initially, it didn’t look like much; just a routine, every-day NFL play. But it wasn’t. Collins was carted off and waved to the fans on his way to the locker room.

From then to today: Collins has been desperately trying to return to the NFL. He has even sent public messages to the Packers official Twitter account begging the team to give him another chance to play the game he loves. He’ll turn 31 years old by the end of summer and has been away from the game for nearly three full seasons already, but it hasn’t stopped his desire to play.

DL JEREMY THOMPSON

Jeremy Thompson

Before the injury: Thompson was a fourth-round pick by the Packers in 2008. He started three games as a rookie, recording eight tackles.

When everything changed: December 2009, in practice.

How it happened: Thompson was hospitalized after suffering a neck injury in practice. He was out for the remainder of the season, and the injury ended up ending his NFL career. "I have consulted with a number of physicians, and due to my medical condition my intention is to retire from football," Thompson said in a statement. "I am thankful to the Packers organization and to the fans for their support during my time in Green Bay. The Packers are a first-class organization, and I want to thank them for the opportunity to play in the NFL. There truly is no team I would have rather played for."

From then to today: Thompson reportedly went into a career in medicine, but that could not be independently confirmed. He was a health and exercise science major in college who put in his student biography at the time that he wanted to pursue a career in physical therapy. Thompson was twice on the Dean’s List at Wake Forest.

G TONY PALMER

Tony Palmer

Before the injury: Palmer was a seventh-round pick by St. Louis in 2006, but he joined the Packers after being released by the Rams. In two NFL seasons, he appeared in eight games.

When everything changed: Sept. 16, 2007 vs. New York Giants.

How it happened: While blocking on a kickoff return, Palmer, then 24, suffered what head coach Mike McCarthy described as "a small bone fracture" in his neck. Doctors discovered it to be a fractured vertebrae. He did not lose any feeling in his extremities at the time of the injury but underwent surgery later that same month.

From then to today: He was released by the Packers in April 2008, seven months after the injury occurred. Palmer never played football again.

WR TERRENCE MURPHY

Before the injury: Murphy was one of two Packers’ second-round picks (No. 58 overall) in 2005. That was, of course, the year Rodgers was drafted in the first round. However, the selection of Rodgers was followed by Collins (No. 51 overall) and then Murphy, both of whom have had their careers ended by neck injuries.

When everything changed: Oct. 3, 2005 vs. Panthers.

Terrence Murphy

How it happened: In his third-ever NFL game, the 22-year-old Murphy attempted to recover a kickoff-return fumble by Najeh Davenport. However, as Murphy grabbed for the ball, he received helmet-to-helmet contact from Carolina’s Thomas Davis. The injury was a bruised spinal column that was accompanied by spinal stenosis.

From then to today: Murphy was released in April 2006 and officially retired a year later. In 2007, Murphy returned to the Packers as a coaching intern, but that was the end of his time associated with the game of football. He now has his own website and business that buys, sells and rents properties in Texas.

S GARY BERRY

Before the injury: Berry was a fourth-round pick by the Packers in 2000. He was of need to Green Bay because LeRoy Butler was about to turn 33 years old and Darren Sharper was approaching unrestricted free agency.

When everything changed: Oct. 1, 2000 vs. Bears.

How it happened: On the opening kickoff, Berry was blocking when he collided helmets with Chicago running back James Allen. Berry, then 22, was on the field for approximately five minutes. He told reporters at the time that he suffered a similar injury a year earlier in a similar type of play. The injury was termed a bruised spinal column, and Berry was later diagnosed with spinal stenosis.

From then to today: Though then-Packers head coach Mike Sherman stated that Berry wanted to continue playing, it didn’t happen. Berry is now an area sales manager at a company called Santander Consumer USA, Inc. He was employed as a local strength and conditioning coach from 2003-06, but Berry has since been doing other forms of work.

WR STERLING SHARPE

Sterling Sharpe

Before the injury: Sharpe was the Packers’ first-round pick (No. 7 overall) in 1988 and was an absolute star, going to five Pro Bowls with three first-team All-Pro selections. Sharpe led the NFL in receptions in 1989, 1992 and 1993 and also led the league in receiving touchdowns in 1992 and 1994. There is little doubt that Sharpe would have gone on to be a Pro Football Hall of Famer.

When everything changed: Last two games of the 1994 season.

How it happened: Unlike with many of the players on this list, it wasn’t necessarily one play that ended Sharpe’s career. First, Sharpe’s head was jarred back while blocking Falcons safety Brad Edwards. A week later, the injury got worse when he was tackled in the Packers’ final regular-season game of the year in Tampa — a game in which Sharpe had three touchdowns. Testing after the injury in Tampa discovered what was termed "an abnormal loosening of the first and second cervical vertebrae." At the time, team doctor Pat McKenzie (who is still in his same position with the Packers) told reporters, "There could be long-term ramifications of not having surgery that we don’t think are smart to live with." McKenzie added, "Certainly any cervical spine injury is career-threatening."

From then to today: Sharpe, who played his final game at age 29, made the advised decision to retire and never returned to the field — either as a player or as a coach. He has, however, stuck around in football as an analyst, working on many networks throughout the years. He became a Packers Hall of Famer in 2002 and a College Football Hall of Fame inductee in 2014.

LB JOHNNY HOLLAND

Johnny Holland

Before the injury: Holland was drafted by the Packers in the second round in 1987. In seven seasons with Green Bay, he started 100 games, was a tackling machine and had nine interceptions and 3.5 sacks.

When everything changed: 1992-93 seasons.

How it happened: Holland actually suffered two neck injuries. The first came during the 1992 season, when a herniated cervical disk led to corrective vertebrae fusion surgery. Holland returned to the field at age 28 in 1993 and had a career-high in tackles, but it was discovered at the end of the season that he had another herniated cervical disk. 

From then to today: Holland retired from the NFL on May 20, 1994. He chose this route rather than having a second surgery. Holland has been a football coach ever since, beginning with the Packers in 1995. He’s gone on to coach seven different teams and is currently the linebackers coach for the BC Lions of the Canadian Football League.

CB TIM LEWIS

Before the injury: Lewis was the Packers’ first-round pick (No. 11 overall) in 1983. He had prototypical size and was one of Green Bay’s best players throughout a three-year period during which the Packers had 8-8 records in 1983, 1984 and 1985. Lewis had five interceptions as a rookie, seven interceptions as a second-year player and four interceptions in 1985. Lewis still holds the franchise record from a 1984 interception that he returned 99 yards for a touchdown against the Los Angeles Rams.

When everything changed: Sept. 22, 1986 vs. Bears.

How it happened: During a Monday Night Football game, Lewis was covering Chicago receiver Willie Gault, who hauled in a 6-yard catch before the collision. Lewis, then 24, lost all feeling in his extremities and didn’t regain it until later at the hospital. Lewis actually suffered a similar injury in 1984, though it only kept him out of two preseason games. Packers head coach Forrest Gregg assumed this second time would be the same as the first in that it would keep Lewis out only a week or two. However, Lewis was told by doctors to retire after they diagnosed him with a narrow spinal canal. "It was something I was born with," Lewis told reporters at the time. "The doctors said a shock like that again might sever the spinal cord."

From then to today: A year after the career-ending injury, Lewis began his next step in life as a football coach. His first work came at Texas A&M, followed by a three-year stint as defensive backs coach at SMU before he held that same position at the University of Pittsburgh and then with the Pittsburgh Steelers. From 2000-06, Lewis was an NFL defensive coordinator, first with the Steelers and later with the New York Giants. He’s most recently been the secondary coach of the Carolina Panthers and defensive backs coach of the Seattle Seahawks and is currently the secondary coach of the Atlanta Falcons. Lewis has been a coach in every season since his injury.

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