Greatest What-If Athlete of All-Time

By now, you know that last Saturday, in one of the most shocking news stories of the year, Andrew Luck abruptly retired from the Colts just days before their first regular season game.

Luck’s retirement was an absolute shock because it came out of nowhere. There was no talk of it, and it seems as if the news broke earlier than Luck wanted. By the time he faced the media Saturday night after the Colts game against the Bears, it seemed like everyone already knew.

Luck joins a list of extremely talented players who never got to fulfill their full potential. Now, we’re stuck wondering what could have happened.

Luck’s retirement raises many questions. How will the Colts fare without their star QB? Will more NFL players start following Luck’s lead and retire early? That leads us to this week’s debate: where does Luck rank among the greatest “what-if” athletes of all time?

Who is the greatest athlete that was never able to realize their full potential? We’re not including traditional “busts” because those athletes were given chances and failed. We’re instead going to focus on athletes who were either injury prone or retired early.

Andrew Luck

Luck was coming off one of his best seasons as a pro. He threw for over 4,500 yards and 39 touchdowns last year while leading the Colts to the divisional round of the playoffs. With a young defense and weapons on offense, the Colts were considered one of the favorites in the AFC this year.

Most people would tell you Luck was right in the middle of his prime. In fact, many would tell you his best days as an NFL QB were ahead of him. He retired because he was tired of the rehab and lingering injuries. If Luck could have remained healthy this year, he would have been an MVP candidate on a likely playoff team. Unfortunately, he is not fully healthy right now and decided to walk away.

It was always fun watching Luck play and he gave us a memorable playoff moment when he completed the second largest comeback in playoff history back in 2014. The Colts beat the Chiefs after being down 28 points in a game in which Luck threw for 443 yards and 4 touchdowns.

Derrick Rose

Call it a homer pick, but nobody embodies this description better than Rose. Rose was on the highest trajectory in NBA history prior to his ACL tear in the 2012 playoffs. In 2010-11, he led the Bulls to the best record in the league with 62 wins. That same year, as a 22-year-old, he became the youngest MVP in NBA history.

The Bulls were a young, talented team that had turned into a perennial title contender. As Rose continued to rack up the injuries after 2012, the Bulls regressed to mediocrity and eventually Rose was dealt to the Knicks. The Bulls sulked into a rebuild.

Rose has continued to bounce around the league, providing dependable offense for the Knicks and Timberwolves in the last few years. Shockingly, he is still just 30 years old, younger than Steph Curry. His dedication to the game despite his catastrophic downfall has been respectable. In fact, in one of the better stories from last year, Rose dropped 50 point on Halloween night, making me a bit teary-eyed as I reminisced about the joy and excitement he brought me so many years ago.

Despite his status as a great spark plug off the bench, it’s still shocking to see how a 22-year-old MVP regressed to a solid role player in what should have been his prime. NBA fans are stuck wondering what could have been if Rose had been able to stay healthy. Injuries truly robbed Rose of becoming one of the best of all time.

Calvin Johnson

People often seem surprised when I state this, but I think Calvin Johnson is the most talented receiver in NFL history. He’s definitely the greatest wide receiver I’ve ever watched.

Johnson was an absolute freak, similar to Randy Moss. He was 6’5” with blazing speed, a great vertical, and phenomenal hands. His ability to go up and get jump balls is unmatched by any wide receiver ever. A typical Johnson highlight would be him dashing off the line on a go route, the quarterback chucking up a jump ball and Johnson coming down with it over three defenders. He was simply un-guardable, and Calvin still holds the single-season receiving yardage record with 1,964 yards in 2012. In March of 2012, he signed an eight-year $132 million contract, one of the largest in sports history at the time.

So, why is he on this list? Johnson abruptly walked away from football in 2016 at just 30 years old. He had great years ahead of him and left countless highlights and NFL records on the table. The most interesting part about his career is that he put up phenomenal receiving numbers while having sub-par quarterbacks for most of his career. What if, like Moss, Johnson had had a prime Tom Brady throwing him the ball for a couple of years? What if he had Joe Montana and Steve Young, like Jerry Rice did? All we can do is wonder.

Barry Sanders

The second Detroit Lion on this list, Sanders is widely regarded as one of the best running backs of all time. He is the most elusive runner in NFL history, and he put up monster numbers during his time in the league. But he retired in 1998 at the age of 30.

While 30 is a relatively old age for running backs, Sanders was coming off a season in which he produced 1,780 yards from scrimmage. The year before that, he had produced a ridiculous 2,358 yards from scrimmage. Sanders was still in his prime, but decided he wanted to move on from football. Unlike the other guys on this list, we probably saw Sanders peak prime. However, we’re still left to wonder what he had left in the tank and how many more NFL records he could have broken.

Jay Williams

In 1999, Williams was a McDonalds all-American. In the three following seasons at Duke, he averaged a phenomenal 19.3 points and 6.0 assists. He also won a National Player of the Year award at Duke. He was drafted by the Bulls at number 2 overall and showed promise as a rookie. Williams’ career to a shocking turn after his rookie year, when he got into a traumatic motorcycle accident.

He would never play another NBA game. However, at least we still get to enjoy Williams as a college basketball analyst.

My Take

Rose is the greatest what-if athlete in history. Everything was set up perfectly for Rose. He had already won an MVP and was just beginning to scratch his potential. He had a talented team around him that was ready to challenge LeBron for East supremacy for years to come.

He can’t be considered a bust because he couldn’t control the awful injuries that derailed his career. Some players didn’t reach their potential because they didn’t work hard enough or busted for other reasons. Some guys reached sustained excellence for a short period before deciding to walk away from the sport. For Rose, it was neither. It was simply bad luck that he could not control.  

What do YOU think? Who is the greatest “what-if” athlete in history? Who got left off the list?

NBA expert and IU grad. '96 Bulls > Warriors. #FireGarPax

Twitter: @realdmill