Professional athletes and prospective pro athletes are primary candidates for disability insurance coverage. Many elite college football, basketball, baseball and hockey players who will likely turn pro and sign big contracts take advantage of the NCAA’s Exceptional Student-Athlete Disability Insurance Program (or secure private DI policies) to protect their potential future earnings against the possibility of a career-ending injury.
Read Chris Lack’s feature, “How do high-priced athletes protect themselves after the final buzzer sounds?”
Two-time Super Bowl champ Joe Theismann served all of his 11 years in the NFL as quarterback for the Washington Redskins. His career came to a widely witnessed and abrupt end in 1985 during an ABC Monday Night Football game against the New York Giants after a hit by linebacker Lawrence Taylor very obviously broke both bones in his lower right leg. Many people still can’t bear to watch the replay.
Star centerfielder Kirby Puckett played his entire 12-year Major League Baseball career for the Minnesota Twins. In 1995, Puckett suffered a broken jaw when he was hit by an errant fastball. He tried to rehab in the minors, but was diagnosed with glaucoma in 1996 and was forced to retire after three failed surgeries to repair his vision. He died in 2006.
In 1989, San Francisco Giants pitcher Dave Dravecky rallied back to The Show in inspirational fashion after a cancerous tumor was removed from his pitching arm in 1988. In his first game he pitched eight solid innings and notched what would be his last victory on the mound. Five days later, his humerus bone snapped in two while throwing a pitch in the sixth inning against the Expos, thus ending his seven-year career. He broke his arm a second time later that year celebrating the Giants’ pennant-clinching win, and a doctor examining his X-rays noticed a mass in his arm. Cancer had returned, and his arm was amputated two years later. Dravecky is now a motivational speaker.
Dikembe Mutombo, a center for the Houston Rockets, blocked more shots in his 18-year NBA career than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and was a four-time Defensive Player of the Year (who also speaks nine languages and is known for his humanitarian efforts). But in the second game of the first round of the 2009 NBA Playoffs — the oldest player in the league at the time — Mutumbo suffered a knee injury that forced him into retirement. After the game, he said, "It’s over for me for my career."
During the fifth game of the 1999 season, Dallas Cowboys superstar wide receiver Michael “The Playmaker” Irvin went head-first into the field after a tackle by Philadelphia Eagles defensive back Tim Hauck. Irvin suffered a non-life-threatening cervical spinal cord injury that ended his Hall-of-Fame 11-year playing career. Notorious Eagles fans cheered as he was carted off the field, which Irvin later said he accepted because he’d been “killing them for 10 years.”
Tampa Bay Devil Rays pitcher Tony Saunders – the first player ever selected by the team during the 1997 MLB expansion draft – broke a bone in his arm while throwing a pitch against the Texas Rangers in 1999. At the time of the incident, "a pin drop could be heard" inside the Rays’ home Tropicana Field. Saunders came back a year later and broke his arm again on a rehab assignment, forcing him to retire in 2000 at the age of 26. He attempted a short-lived comeback five years later.
After sixteen years in the NHL, hockey star Keith Primeau was no stranger to concussions. But nine games into the 2005-2006 season as a center for the Philadelphia Flyers, Primeau suffered yet another one. He was diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome and announced his retirement a few days later. The ever-growing list of hockey players suffering from post-concussion syndrome has emerged as a major storyline in the NHL today, as the injury is increasingly recognized as a serious injury that can have lifelong and irreparable effects on the brain.
Yao Ming’s 14-year career in the NBA included a lot of highlights and a lot of injuries. The Chinese superstar only missed two games during his first three years in the NBA. In his last six years, he missed 250 games due to injury. His retirement in 2011, where he cited recurring foot and ankle injuries, sparked more than 1.2 million comments on the Chinese social-networking site Sina Weibo. Shaquille O'Neal said, “If he didn't have those injuries he could've been up there in the top five centers to ever play the game."
In his 12-year career as quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys, Troy Aikman suffered 10 known concussions. The final one that ended his career came in 2000 on a hit by Washington Redskins linebacker LaVar Arrington. Aikman announced his retirement during the 2001 offseason after failing to get picked up by another team. He ended his career as the Cowboys’ all-time leading passer (32,942 yards).
David Busst was a defender for England’s Coventry City when a collision with two Manchester United opponents in 1996 ended his soccer career in its fifth year. The horrific collision resulted in the same exact injury Joe Theismann suffered—compound fracture to both bones in his right leg. The match had to be delayed for some time while blood was cleaned off the grass. Manchester United goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel vomited on the pitch upon seeing the injury, which was so severe that Busst’s leg was almost amputated. The injury is often cited as one of the worst in the history of the game.