5 potential NFL Hall of Fame careers derailed by injuries

Staying healthy is one of the hardest parts of building a Hall of Fame résumé.

This week at SB Nation, we’re shining the spotlight on the NFL’s most underappreciated — from our favorite underdog stories to the most overlooked players and teams. Now’s the time to give them their due.

Not every great NFL player can be as fortunate as Tom Brady or Jerry Rice when it comes to longevity. Most players slow down long before hitting age 40. Even playing into your 30s takes relatively good luck.

Football is a violent sport and injuries can always knock a star’s career off track.

Voters for the Pro Football Hall of Fame are sometimes forgiving of players who shined bright for only a brief period of time. Maybe the best example is Bears legend Gale Sayers, who played only 68 games in the NFL before knee injuries ended his career. Despite finishing with fewer than 5,000 rushing yards, Sayers still got inducted.

But that’s rare and happened in another era. For most players now, it takes a long career of accumulating big numbers to warrant a spot in the Hall of Fame. Those who are cut down early by injuries get left out, and are often overlooked in history as a result.

Here are five players who could’ve earned a spot in Canton if their careers didn’t end early due to injuries:

Sterling Sharpe, WR, Packers

Terrell Davis is a Hall of Famer, despite playing only seven years in the NFL. Former Seahawks safety Kenny Easley also needed just seven years to build a résumé that got him a bronze bust.

So it doesn’t make much sense that Sterling Sharpe — whose career was sandwiched between Easley’s retirement and Davis getting drafted — was never even a semifinalist.

Sharpe, like Davis and Easley, only played seven seasons. In that time he averaged 85 receptions, 1,162 yards, and 9.3 touchdowns per year. Sharpe was a five-time Pro Bowler during that span and the best receiver not named Jerry Rice at the time.

He caught 18 touchdowns in his final season in 1994, but suffered a neck injury that ended his career. With his modern-era eligibility up, the former Packers receiver will have to hope that he’s eventually picked as a senior nominee. Luckily for Sharpe, 2020 could be his dream come true.

“I’m the only pro football player that’s in the Hall of Fame, and the second best player in my own family,” Sterling’s brother Shannon Sharpe said during his own induction speech in 2011.

If the precedent has been set that seven stellar years can warrant a spot in the Hall of Fame, it’s hard to see why Sharpe shouldn’t get in too.

Greg Cook, QB, Bengals

Football fans probably recognize most of the names on this list, but here’s one you might not know.

Cook was the first quarterback drafted in 1969 and was an instant star for the Cincinnati Bengals. As a rookie, he threw for 1,854 yards with 15 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. His 88.3 passer rating was the best in the AFL and earned him Rookie of the Year honors in the league’s last season before a merger with the NFL.

His passer rating would’ve been second-best in the NFL in 1969 — just behind Bart Starr’s 89.9, and ahead of the numbers put up by future Hall of Famer quarterbacks Fran Tarkenton, Sonny Jurgensen, and Johnny Unitas.

Then came the shoulder injuries.

It started early in his breakout rookie season when a Week 3 sack resulted in a torn rotator cuff. He played through the pain, but after the season the injury forced multiple operations that ultimately ended his career. Cook made an unsuccessful comeback attempt in 1973 with only three more career passes.

“Greg Cook was, I believe, the greatest talent to play the position,” Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh once said, via NFL Films. “He was Steve Young, but bigger.”

Cook’s the player on this list who played the least amount of time before an injury ended his career. But he may be the biggest “what if?” in NFL history.

Al Toon, WR, Jets

Toon reached 500 receptions in the NFL in his 102nd career game. At the time, the only player who had ever done it faster was Kellen Winslow Sr., who got to 500 in 101 games.

Even Jerry Rice — who was drafted six picks after Toon in 1985 — needed 105 games to get his 500th catch.

Winslow retired after playing in 109 career games, and later made the Hall of Fame. Toon retired after 107 games, and hasn’t come close to Canton.

Toon was a first-round pick in 1985 and averaged 73 receptions and 970 yards per year in his first four seasons. He earned three trips to the Pro Bowl, but his 1986 season was the only one of his career in which he appeared in all 16 games.

Concussions continuously kept him off the field and he opted to retire at age 29 after suffering another in 1992. He told reporters it was the ninth time he’d been diagnosed with a concussion during his eight-year career.

If Toon stayed healthy enough to play into his 30s, there’s a great chance he would’ve accumulated Hall of Fame-caliber stats.

Ickey Woods, RB, Bengals

Woods’ biggest contribution to football was an iconic touchdown dance, “The Ickey Shuffle.” But there’s a reason everyone knew the dance. He scored a whole bunch of touchdowns in 1988.

As a rookie, Woods ran for 15 touchdowns — a total that’s still a Bengals franchise record. He also finished the year with 1,066 rushing yards and a league-leading 5.3 yards per carry. Woods then starred in Cincinnati’s run to Super Bowl 23 in January 1989. In three postseason games, he had 307 rushing yards and three touchdowns.

Woods was already a Bengals legend, complete with his own Sports Illustrated cover shot.

His second NFL season got off to a strong start with a touchdown in each of the first two games. Then he suffered an ACL tear. When he returned in 1990, he wasn’t quite the same. He still averaged 4.2 yards per carry and scored six touchdowns, but the Bengals gave James Brooks and Harold Green the majority of the carries.

Woods suffered another knee injury in the 1991 preseason and that was it. He was ineffective in his return later that year and, by age 26, his NFL career was over.

While his early success had him on a path for superstardom, Woods fizzled out too soon.

Tony Boselli, OT, Jaguars

Boselli’s time as an almost-enshrinee will likely end in the next year or two. He’s been a Hall of Fame finalist three years in a row and will probably be the first Jaguars player to make it to Canton.

He’d undoubtedly already be there if he’d played in the NFL a little longer, though.

As the Jaguars’ top pick in the 1995 expansion draft, Boselli lived up to that billing with Pro Bowl nods in five of his first six seasons. In an era with future Hall of Fame offensive tackles Willie Roaf, Orlando Pace, and Jonathan Ogden all playing, it was Boselli who was a first-team All-Pro for three straight seasons between 1997 and 1999.

The last of those three seasons ended for Boselli when he suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 17 that kept him out of the playoffs. He played all of the 2000 season, but then a shoulder injury cost him 13 games in 2001.

With injuries stacking up and an opportunity to jettison his cumbersome contract, the Jaguars made Boselli available in the 2002 expansion draft. He was the Texans’ first pick, but never played a game for Houston, eventually retiring because of a botched shoulder surgery.

Unlike the others on this list, Boselli accomplished enough in his truncated career that he’ll probably get into the Hall of Fame anyway.