college football

The most gruesome injuries in college football history

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Jason Ence

November 24th, 2020

In our latest instalment of our popular "most gruesome injuries" series, we turn our attention to the gridiron.

Injuries have always been a fact of life in college football, but the increase in speed and size of college athletes over the years has led to increasingly more violent collisions. Many times, players get contorted in ways they shouldn’t, and suffer impacts to bones and ligaments that can cause irreversible results.

Please be advised that some of the accompanying videos you will see in our list of the most gruesome injuries in college football history are highly graphic. Viewer discretion is strongly encouraged.

5. Roy Lee Mullins, Ole Miss (1989)

Roy Lee "Chucky" Mullins was a defensive back for Ole Miss, and during the Rebels’ homecoming game against Vanderbilt he made a tackle that ended his career in an instant.

Vanderbilt fullback Brad Gaines was thrown a pass near the goal line, and as he caught it he was violently hit from behind by Mullins. The play looked like a typical hard hit, but Mullins launched himself head-first to make the play, driving the top of his helmet into Gaines’ back and lodging the ball loose for an incomplete pass.

Mullins immediately collapsed to the ground, the hit having shattered his spine. Four of his vertebrae were destroyed, and he was immediately paralyzed. He was airlifted to the hospital, where he underwent a five-hour surgery to fuse his spine. Unfortunately, it was not enough, as Mullins was permanently paralyzed from the neck down and never regained feeling below his neck.

Mullins was supported nation-wide, with numerous teams reaching out, and he was even visited by President George H. W. Bush while in the hospital. Mullins eventually returned to school the following season to resume studies. However, the following May, he suffered a pulmonary embolism which took his life.

Ole Miss has honored Mullins from the time he was injured, establishing a trust fund to support him and eventually renaming a street on campus. Ole Miss also established the Chucky Mullins Courage Award, which is given to the player "who most embodies Mullins’ spirit and courage," and gives them the privilege of wearing Mullins’ number 38 jersey during the season. Gaines, who befriended Mullins prior to his death, still visits his grave multiple times a year, including on Christmas Day.

4. Willis McGahee, Miami (2003)

Our next injury is one of the lasting memories of the BCS era. With just under twelve minutes to go in the 2003 National Championship game against Ohio State, Miami running back Willis McGahee caught a screen pass behind the line and turned upfield. He was hit in the knee by Buckeyes’ safety Will Smith, instantly tearing all three major ligaments in the joint.

The ABC television crew showed multiple slow-motion replays of the gruesome injury, upsetting many viewers. The replays showed the running back’s knee bend backwards at nearly a 90-degree angle, and the commentators knew upon the first replay that the injury was serious.

The injury dropped McGahee’s draft stock, moving him from a certain top-five selection down to the 23rd pick by the Buffalo Bills. After multiple surgeries and a long spell of rehab, he made his NFL debut in 2004 and, against all odds, ended playing 142 games over 10 seasons.

3. Tyrone Prothro, Alabama (2005)

Alabama wide receiver Tyrone Prothro’s football career ended on Oct. 1, 2005 in a game against the Florida Gators. In the fourth quarter, Prothro went up near the goal line and made a terrific catch against cornerback Dee Webb. After landing, Webb inadvertently planted his foot on Prothro’s lower leg, causing his tibia and fibula to instantly break.

The damage to his leg was so severe that he had to undergo eleven surgeries just to be able to walk again, albeit with a limp. His likely career in the NFL dashed, Prothro bounced around for years between entry-level jobs and still struggles to walk.

2. Eric LeGrand, Rutgers (2010)

The changes to rules on kick returns began to be implemented in part because of the tragedy that befell formers Rutgers defensive tackle Eric LeGrand in a game between Army and Rutgers 10 years ago. During a fourth-quarter kickoff, Army slotback Malcolm Brown was returning a kickoff when he was tackled by LeGrand.

As the defensive tackle lowered his head and shoulders to make the stop, another defender’s leg caught Brown’s foot, spinning him around. This caused his shoulder to collide with LeGrand’s helmet, breaking Brown’s collarbone in the process. That would not be the worst injury suffered on the play, though.

LeGrand did not get up from the collision. He momentarily passed out on the field, struggling to breathe and unable to move anything but his head. He was rushed to the hospital, where doctors discovered two of his vertebrae had been fractured, and he was promptly put on a respirator. LeGrand was given less than a five-percent chance of ever walking again.

LeGrand underwent extensive rehab, and has since regained feeling and movement in his upper body. He is an inspiring figure who has vowed to walk again, and has found a career as a motivational speaker. While the injury may have taken away his legs, it has not taken away his heart.

1. Marcus Lattimore, South Carolina (2012)

The knee injury suffered by South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore in a 2012 game against Tennessee is one of the more stomach-churning incidents in recent memory. Just a season after suffering ligament damage in his left knee, the South Carolina junior was hit in his right knee by a Tennessee defender as he was being tackled from behind by another defender. The impact of the helmet to his knee was nothing short of devastating.

Lattimore’s leg was crumpled in the impact. As he flipped over the defender, his leg whipped over his body, the lower half of it turning 90 degrees and almost detaching completely.

As Lattimore was loaded onto the cart a few minutes later, every player from both teams came out to surround him and show support to a young man who had fought so hard to return from his first injury. After the game, it was announced that he had torn every ligament in his knee. Additionally, he suffered nerve damage in the knee, which still hinders him today.

Lattimore declared for the NFL draft after the season, and was selected in the fourth round by San Francisco. Unfortunately, he would never play a snap in the league. Lattimore was placed on the non-football injury list later that summer, and more than a year later, after multiple failed attempts to return, was forced to announce his retirement.