Football's Most Painful Injuries


This season, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has set out to make his league a kinder, gentler place. Linebackers groomed since Pop Warner days to inflict maximum carnage now face heavy fines if they bang a quarterback's head or knee--even though those remain perfectly legal plays. Meanwhile, rumors swirl that Goodell will soon change the game's rules to make quarterbacks safer than the Boy in the Bubble.

Besides outraging linebackers and fans alike, Goodell's gambit calls to mind the hideous injuries that distinguish football as America's favorite sport. As graphic as a real-time injury can be--and the ones described below have been replayed millions of times on YouTube--they overshadow lesser-known maladies that can hurt just as much.

Is a leg supposed to do that?: Compound fracture

There's a sort of deer-in-headlines fascination about a limb bending where it's not supposed to--like when bone-crushing New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor mauled Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theisman in what fans later voted the most shocking moment in NFL history:

The tackle snapped Theisman's shin like a matchstick. Doctors spent hours wiping grass and dirt off the protruding tibia before they could set it. Theisman hoped to go back into the game, but he never played again, nor has he ever watched a replay of that fateful tackle.

That was in 1985, and the footage pales by comparison to the mangled legs captured with today's television cameras. Take, for instance, the multiple angles and slow-mo analysis of the compound fracture suffered by the Denver Broncos' Ed McCaffery in 2001. As his leg whips around like a rubber chew toy, McCaffery still catches the ball! That's good for a first down and an ambulance ride.

Just a bruise—or is it?: Compartment syndrome

Earlier this year, doctors rushed Redskins defensive end (and Dancing with the Stars runner-up) Jason Taylor into emergency surgery—for a bruise. It wasn't an ordinary bruise, though. After a sharp blow to Taylor's leg, fluid rapidly became trapped inside, building pressure that can damage nerves, cut off blood flow, release deadly blood clots, and even necessitate amputation. This freak condition, called compartment syndrome, is hard for even seasoned athletes to avoid. Cory Hogue, a linebacker at the University of Central Florida, fortunately avoided those complications and recovered from compartment syndrome in one leg, only to have his season ended by compartment syndrome in the other leg.

Pop goes the knee: Ligament tear

A collapsed knee generally means two things: torn ligaments and a replay on that night's SportsCenter. In 2003, the knee of Miami Hurricanes running back Willis McGahee had a head-on collision with a defender's helmet, folding it backward like a kicked-in door and tearing three of its four ligaments. McGahee rehabbed successfully, though, and that once-shredded knee has since carried him to nearly 40 NFL touchdowns. In last weekend's AFC Championship game, McGahee—now with the Baltimore Ravens—lay motionless on the turf for several minutes before being carted off on a stretcher. He's got a concussion and a sore neck, but will make a full recovery.

Another running back, Napoleon McCallum, wasn't as lucky. A two-time All American who set 26 records at the Naval Academy, McCallum's pro career looked equally promising--until this gag-inducing, cover-your-eyes tackle. 49ers linebacker Ken Norton bearhugged McCallum from the front, landed on McCallum's knee, and bent it backward like a child's toy bow. "Oh Lord, don't look at this if you don't want to see it," wailed announcer Dan Dierdorf. After six surgeries and months in a wheelchair, McCallum tried to mount a comeback but quit when he lost a footrace to five-year-old girl.

Wounded in the worst place: Sports hernia

Three words: Chronic groin pain. Like a serrated knife to the bone, a sports hernia hurts in the worst way and in the worst place.

A sports hernia isn't a hernia in the classic sense. Instead, it involves a tear in the muscle attached to the pubic bone. The Philadelphia Eagles have lost so many players to sports hernias--at least seven, including star quarterback Donovan McNabb--that one hysterical sportswriter called it an epidemic. Matt Birk, the center of the Minnesota Vikings, had three by himself. He tried to play through the pain by using his hips for leverage instead of his sore groin—a bad idea, because he then tore the labrums in both hips. The result: five surgeries, one on each hip, and three to repair the sports hernias.

Doctor, my eyes!: Eye trauma

Eye injuries aren't common in football--the guys wear helmets, after all, often equipped with visors. So when an eye gouge does occur, it's not always an accident. Earlier this season, the above-mentioned Willis McGahee (seriously, what's the deal with Willis McGahee?) caught a finger directly in the eye, with bloody results. He maintains that the poke was intentional. And when John Henderson of the Jacksonville Jaguars and Andrew Whitworth of the Cincinnati Bengals rumbled earlier this month, Henderson went right for his adversary's eyes.

In a toe jam: Turf toe

Footballers are tough men used to playing through pain, but a bad case of turf toe can bring even the toughest to his toes, er, knees. A turf toe forms when your big toe bends backward too far, causing chronic swelling and extreme pain in the tissues beneath the foot. It causes college athletes to miss more time than anything except knee injuries. Even with rest, stretching, and surgery, the injury can outlast a football career. Over half the people with turf toe still have pain five years later, and many develop arthritis. Turf toe dogged flamboyant cornerback Deion Sanders for years and forced Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Lambert into early retirement.