11 NFL Players That Had Their Career End Due to Poor Choices
You always hear about star athletes who retire early or are forced into retirement due to unforeseen circumstances.
That almost always is health-related, and when it’s not, it’s due to age, performance, or a franchise moving on from a player.
Athletes tend to go as long as they can, otherwise. Being a professional athlete brings fame, glory, the thrill of competing at the highest level, and of course, a whole bunch of cash.
With that money and notoriety, though, comes added pressure, irregular responsibility, and numerous paths down dark holes.
If you’re not careful, at least.
Athletes are human like anyone else. They can be subject to scandal and all types of situations most people never even think about. This can all lead to them making boneheaded mistakes.
When linking athletes who left sports too early and really bad choices, I ended up with this list of 11 NFL stars who saw their career ended by stupidity.
Ryan Leaf, QB, San Diego Chargers
Leaf’s story is a cautionary tale for top-5 draft picks — or any picks — in that you need to make good decisions and take a job in professional football seriously.
Or just care, like, at all.
Leaf seemingly didn’t, even though some draft scouts incorrectly vouched for him to be the top pick in the 1998 NFL Draft. You know, like over Peyton Manning.
It’s not like Leaf went to a great destination, of course. He was drafted by a bad San Diego Chargers franchise, and he didn’t get much help.
Regardless, Leaf had a lengthy history of bad behavior from the second he stepped foot in the facility, and it was compounded by atrocious play on the field.
Poor work ethic and even worse play rendered Leaf’s career over and labeled him one of the biggest NFL Draft busts at just 25 years old.
The size, arm strength, and general talent were there for Leaf to succeed. He just didn’t put in the work to get better and had any potential comeback derailed by a series of legal issues.
JaMarcus Russell, QB, Oakland Raiders
The story is strikingly similar when you look at another massive draft bust. The Oakland Raiders probably never should have fallen in love with JaMarcus Russell, but his size and arm strength were certainly appealing.
Longtime owner Al Davis made the fateful mistake of drafting Russell #1 in the 2007 NFL Draft, and the LSU product never came close to meeting expectations.
Russell displayed major accuracy, timing, and awareness issues from day one, but it didn’t help that he also wasn’t taking his job very seriously.
His bad career started with shaky interviews, with executives calling into question Russell’s focus, work ethic, and commitment. There were even reports later that he had tested positive for codeine shortly after being drafted. He would later be arrested for this same offense in 2010.
Bad decision-making stunted and eventually ended Russell’s career in 2009 at just 24 years old.
Titus Young, WR, Detroit Lions
Detroit has not had amazing luck with drafting wide receivers. With the exception of Calvin Johnson, it’s been a rough ride for the franchise at the position.
One such bumpy adventure was with former Boise State star Titus Young, who lasted all of two seasons after the team selected him in round two of the 2011 NFL Draft.
Young came into the NFL with major character concerns, and it didn’t take long for his questionable behavior to show up at the pro level.
While fairly productive when on the field, Young’s decision-making began deteriorating on the field and in practices, where he at one point even attacked a teammate. From there, Young was arrested multiple times and eventually was even incarcerated.
Johnny Manziel, QB, Cleveland Browns
Manziel wasn’t quite the NFL Draft bust Leaf or Russell were, and he also never wound up in jail. However, he was a massive college football star that took partying too far and didn’t exhibit a great commitment to being the best he could be at the highest level of football.
A former Heisman Trophy winner, Manziel entered the league as an unorthodox dual-threat quarterback and seemingly “winged” his first NFL start.
While “Johnny Football” did show signs of progression on the field in his second season, he had documented alcohol and substance abuse issues and even got into a physical altercation with his girlfriend.
With the Cleveland Browns demanding him to stop his partying ways, the last straw was when Manziel lied to the organization multiple times. His unraveling in the NFL even included an odd trip to a casino where he donned a disguise in hopes of not being recognized.
Manziel lasted two years in the NFL before Cleveland released him. The former Texas A&M star attempted numerous comebacks, but to no avail.
Colin Kaepernick, QB, San Francisco 49ers
Kaepernick’s story is difficult to categorize. The one-time Super Bowl quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers looked like a superstar in the making, but a gradual decline in production forced the franchise to consider moving in a different direction.
That was probably the case even before his defiant stance against social injustice, which he took to the public by sitting and later kneeling during the National Anthem before NFL games.
This aspect of Kaepernick’s plight wasn’t so much “stupid” as it was a bit reckless in terms of prolonging an NFL career.
Some insist Kaepernick was “blackballed” by the league from that point on, as his 2016 release from the Niners would signal the last time he’d play professional football.
There is some truth to that, but Kaepernick also didn’t appear to take the appropriate measures to try to get another NFL gig, once even sabotaging his own workout.
Right or wrong, Kaepernick could have continued his pro career, and he made a decision to take things in a different direction.
Greg Hardy, DE, Dallas Cowboys
There’s stupid and reckless. And then there’s plain old evil. Allegedly.
Former Panthers and Cowboys defensive end Greg Hardy was one of the best pass rushers in pro football, but an ugly off-field case that accused him of some violent acts threatened his pro career.
After Carolina gave up on him, Jerry Jones gave Hardy his final chance in 2015. Hardy added six more sacks to his career totals but rubbed head coach Jason Garrett and numerous teammates the wrong way.
Hardy’s nasty past and odd personality kept him from ever getting another contract. He attempted a comeback but gave up and focused on a career in mixed martial arts instead.
Joseph Randle, RB, Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys have had a lot of wild child personalities over the years. Joseph Randle may have been the worst, as he wasn’t even that productive for the team yet offered an incredible distraction.
A fifth-round pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, Randle flashed nice ability but was never overly consistent. He also had difficulty making good decisions off the field and blew a golden opportunity to be the team’s starting running back.
Randle first flashed his poor behavior when he was arrested for shoplifting in 2014. He would later get in trouble for drugs, public intoxication, assault, and the list goes on (and gets worse).
Ray Rice, RB, Baltimore Ravens
Far more productive than Randle and one of the biggest NFL stars to see their career go up in flames, Rice exited pro football with one swing of the fist.
The superstar Ravens rusher was arguably wearing down after averaging a paltry 3.1 yards per carry in his final NFL season, but at just 26, he still had a chance to turn things around.
That wouldn’t happen, however, as video emerged of him knocking out his fiance in an elevator.
While clearly shaken up by his horrible decision (and apologetic), Rice was never forgiven in the eyes of football fans and started the league’s awakening when it came to domestic violence abuse. He’d never play another NFL down.
Lawrence Phillips, RB, St. Louis Rams
If you started realizing this list only gets darker and darker, you’d be right. Rice’s act was nasty enough, but that’s nothing compared to the rest of the players on this list.
One guy who really sabotaged himself was former Rams running back Lawrence Phillips, as he could never stay out of trouble, dating all the way back to his college days at Nebraska.
A phenom in college, Phillips still gained the attention of the Rams due to his amazing 1994 campaign where he amassed 1,826 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns.
The Rams rolled the dice on Phillips, but the baggage he brought with him never left. The team gave up on him after less than two full seasons and a comeback attempt in 1999 saw him flame out as a member of the 49ers.
Things only got worse from there, as Phillips went down a dark path that led to imprisonment and, sadly, even suicide.
Rae Carruth, WR, Carolina Panthers
It’s unclear if Rae Carruth had the trajectory of a superstar in the NFL, but he did enjoy a strong rookie season and flashed some ability during his time in the league.
Unfortunately, he had atrocious judgment, as he allegedly ordered a hit on his pregnant girlfriend. It’s a horrible story, as it resulted in her death, and the child was born with serious disabilities.
The Panthers saw the writing on the wall once Carruth became the prime suspect and eventually fled. Carolina released him in December of 1999, and he was later convicted and served 18 years in prison.
Aaron Hernandez, TE, New England Patriots
Lastly, we come to Aaron Hernandez, who may be the number one NFL star who ended their career by their own poor decision-making.
A fourth-round pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, Hernandez quickly developed into a very effective pass-catcher for the New England Patriots. His production and versatility earned him a massive contract just before he was accused of murder.
Hernandez denied the allegations, but the evidence was insurmountable. In fact, as the case played out, former teammates revealed disturbing aspects of his personality, while a second murder allegation also came to light.
The tight end was ultimately convicted of murder and committed suicide while in prison.
Some of these tales are cautionary, but in a very real way, they’re all tragic. At the very least, players deserve (and need) better direction before and after entering the league.
Others may require therapy, and it’s arguable they simply shouldn’t be engaging in such a high-profile career in the first place.
The good news, if there is good news, is these epic tales of NFL careers gone wrong shines a light on what not to do. It also places a greater emphasis on addressing mental illness, while not making it such an unapproachable topic in the first place.
Maybe none of these NFL stars had a chance. If they came into the league getting the kind of advice Cris Carter was handing out, they were getting the wrong message entirely.
You can’t bet on the past, nor do most sports betting websites allow you to bet on how careers will end. However, spotting erratic behavior can help you avoid wagers concerning players and teams.
That, and it’s just interesting to look back on NFL history and marvel at how some players blew such a golden opportunity.