The most gruesome injuries in NFL history

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Jason Ence

December 3rd, 2021

This season has been a tough one for some of the NFL’s biggest names. From Russell Wilson and Ron Gronkowski, to Christian McCaffrey and Michael Thomas, a long list of stars have been knocked out of action.

With so many impact players on the shelf, we began to think about past injuries in the league. While none this season have been particularly stomach churning, there have been some absolutely gruesome injuries in the history of the league. Some were simply football plays, while a few of them were freak accidents.

Join us as we rank the 10 worst injuries to happen during an NFL game. Sorry Jason Pierre-Paul, offseason fireworks accidents do not qualify.

Some of the videos and images you are about to see may be disturbing. Viewer discretion is advised.

10. Alex Smith (2018)

While being sacked by two Houston Texans defenders, Smith’s right leg twisted beneath him, and he endured a compound fracture that broke both his right tibia and right fibula.

Smith also developed a flesh-eating bacterial infection in the aftermath of the injury that nearly led to his doctors amputating his lower leg to save his life. Smith would recover from the infection and undergo 17 different surgeries to repair the leg, and made a miraculous return to the NFL 20 months later, before retiring in 2021.

9. Tim Krumrie (1989)

In Super Bowl XXIII, millions tuned in to watch the Bengals play the 49ers. On the 14th play of the game, Bengals’ defensive tackle Tim Krumrie attempted to tackle Roger Craig. His cleat planted in the turf, and Krumrie’s leg twisted under his weight, causing four separate breaks in his lower left leg, with only his skin keeping his foot connected to his body.

In a remarkable feat, Krumrie returned for training camp the following summer, and did not miss a single game in the ensuing six years of his career.

8. Destry Wright (2020)

Wright’s career in the NFL ended as soon as it began, as the running back suffered a career-ending injury in a preseason game for the Steelers against the Cowboys. Wright not only broke his right leg, but his ankle dislocated so badly that he was photographed laying on his stomach while his right foot pointed up to the sky. He endured multiple surgeries and never played another snap.

7. Bo Jackson (1991)

Jackson was a two-sport superstar, but his football career came to a screeching halt in January 1991 in a playoff game against the Bengals. Jackson was hit in the hip, the impact breaking and dislocating his hip bone. He attempted to pop his hip back into place, but by doing so damaged blood vessels which later caused him to lose all of the cartilage in the hip, and Jackson was forced to retire from football. He underwent a hip replacement and played two more years of baseball before calling it a career.

6. Jeff Fuller (1989)

Fuller was a hard-hitting safety for the 49ers who won three Super Bowls in his six seasons. Unfortunately his career was ended in 1989, when he committed a helmet-to-helmet hit on an opponent during a tackle against the Patriots.

Fuller, on his knees, ragdolled backwards with his head bouncing off the turf. He suffered a broken neck and partial paralysis, and was unable to walk after the injury. He has since recovered enough to walk, but he never regained use of one of his arms.

5. Napoleon McCallum (1994)

In the 1980s and 1990s, Monday Night Football was must-see TV. As such, millions across the country witnessed the career-ending injury to Raiders running back Napoleon McCallum. As he was tackled by Ken Norton Jr. and pulled downward, his leg hyperextended. The injury itself looked bad, but few realized just how bad it actually was.

McCallum suffered extensive nerve damage, tore three ligaments in the knee and both his calf and hamstring muscles were ripped from the bone. He ruptured an artery in the left knee, which forced him to undergo emergency surgery, and nearly lost his leg. He underwent six surgeries in all and never played football again.

4. Johnny Knox (2011)

We often look at brutal hits on receivers after they catch the ball and understand when an injury occurs. Sometimes, though, it is a simple football play that can lead to the worst results. In a late-season game against the Seattle Seahawks, Johnny Knox caught a pass over the middle of the field and then lost the ball on a fumble. As he dove down to recover the ball, he collided in mid-air with Anthony Hargrove, a defensive end also going for the ball.

The collision just looked like a hard hit in real-time, but replays showed Knox was bent in halfthe wrong way. His back was nearly touching his rear end, as he fractured multiple vertebrae and suffered nerve damage and had to undergo spinal-fusion surgery. Despite quite a bit of rehab, the promising young receiver’s career was over, and he retired a year later without ever playing another snap.

3. Darryl Stingley (1978)

This is the most heartbreaking injury of all the ones on our list, and is a reminder of why player safety—especially hits to defenseless receivers—is an issue under heavy scrutiny in football. The injury to New England Patriots wide receiver Darryl Stingley led to many of the rule changes we see today.

Raiders legend Jack “The Assassin” Tatum was one of the hardest hitters in NFL history. In a preseason game against the Patriots, he went for the big hit on Stingley, who was trying to catch an off-target throw. While the hit impacted Stingley's shoulder, and not his head or neck, the blow was devastating.

Set to become one of the highest-paid players in the league a few days after the injury, Stingley’s life was altered tragically. He suffered compression of his spinal cord and broke two of his vertebrae. He was motionless on the field and never regained use of his arms or legs. Stingley died in 2007 from an illness brought on by the complications of quadriplegia. Tatum never apologized for what happened to Stingley and never spoke with him after the hit.

2. Rashad Johnson (2013)

Ever lose part of your finger, and not know how it happened? Neither have we. Unlike Arizona Cardinals safety Rashad Johnson, who didn’t find out he had lost the tip of his middle finger until he went to take off his glove after he covered a punt return against the Saints.

"I'm not even sure how it happened," Johnson said in an interview the day after the game. "If I had to take a guess, I would say maybe it dug into the turf there and snapped back and broke it that way. My glove wasn't torn or ripped, which makes me think it didn't get caught in a face mask or a cleat stepped on it."

He underwent surgery that night to shave down the bone, which was sticking out of the finger, and Johnson missed minimal time.

1. Joe Theismann (1985)

This play needs no introduction. On Monday Night Football in 1985, Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann was hit by legendary New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor and suffered one of the most gruesome injuries ever witnessed on live television in any sport. Washington tried to run a flea flicker, but the Giants were not fooled. As multiple defenders converged on him, Theismann was pulled down by Taylor, who fell onto the quarterback’s lower right leg.

Theismann recalled his leg “snapped like a breadstick”, but he felt nothing below his knee. Everyone could clearly see what was wrong—in gruesome detail—as Theismann suffered a compound fracture, with part of his leg bone sticking through his skin. Only the players knew it at first, until ABC decided to show multiple replays, during which it became apparent to everyone at home.

Theismann never played football again, and the injury became an infamous part of NFL lore.