Biggest Ghost Stories in Sports
The sports scene can be a fickle one. Success, even for a moment, is difficult to achieve and can at times be as fleeting as a gust of wind.
Whether the result of injury, a simple lack of production or various criminal flirtations, the sports world is littered with talented and enticing figures who dazzled us for a short time only before fading away.
Over the years, we’ve welcomed countless “sure things” into our homes, though many failed to stay for even a cup of tea.
With that in mind, we take a modern look at 13 of the biggest ghost stories in sports.
13. Marcus Fizer
Simply put, Marcus Fizer was a beast. The former Iowa State power forward led the Big 12 in scoring as a sophomore and followed it up with a memorable junior season in which he again led the conference in scoring, was named conference Player of the Year, the Big 12 Tournament Most Outstanding Player and a consensus first-team All-American.
After leading his team to a regular-season title, a Big 12 Tournament title and an NCAA Elite Eight appearance, Fizer logically took his talents to the NBA.
The burly big was quickly rewarded for his play as a Cyclone and selected No. 4 overall by the Chicago Bulls in the 2000 NBA Draft.
Despite loads of strength and skill, however, Fizer failed miserably at the professional level. From household name to out of the league in less than six years, Fizer’s fall was as precipitous as it was surprising.
He appeared in just 289 NBA games with only 35 starts.
Believe it or not, Fizer’s still suiting up—now in Venezuela—but he’s far from the American living room, where he was once the topic of conversation.
12. Freddy Adu
Part of me feels sorry for Adu. The media, and the expectations they created, did the Ghanaian-born footballer zero favors, and, unlike everyone else on the list, Adu experienced his on-field success at a uniquely young age and out of the public’s eye.
That, however, is also what made Adu so fascinating. At the age of 14, he became the youngest athlete ever to sign a professional contract in the United States, and in 2004 Adu became the youngest player to appear in an MLS game.
But Adu faded from the limelight as quickly as he had once ascended, out of the MLS after just four seasons and with only 12 goals to his name.
Since then, Adu has continued making rounds on the professional circuit—he’s played in Portugal, Brazil and France along with a second quick stint in the MLS—but has failed to catch on with any one team for more than a single season while scoring just 13 goals in the last nine years.
11. Adam Morrison
I’m not sure if he was better known for the Co-Player of the Year award he won during a wonderful 2005-06 season at Gonzaga or for the tears he shed in a later tournament loss to UCLA.
Or was it the hair?
No matter the reason, though, Adam Morrison was a big deal.
He and his locks had a truly sensational junior season—averaging better than 28 PPG for the 29-4 Zags—and crying in March, on the court and before the game had even ended, only made him matter more.
But then came the death knell: Michael Jordan drafted him (No. 3 overall in 2006).
Draft night would be the last hooray for Morrison, who was out of the league just four years and three seasons later (he sat out all of 2007-08 with a knee injury).
In 161 career appearances, and 28 career starts, Morrison averaged 7.5 PPG to go along with a gaudy 2.1 RPG.
Like a flash in a pan, he was the talk of the town one day and gone the next.
10. Charles Rogers
Make no mistake about it: Charles Rogers was a beast. As exciting to watch as he was prolific, Rogers was a college star and a can’t-miss prospect.
In 2002, the Michigan State receiver was college football’s most dynamic playmaker and a unanimous All-American. He was a two-time All-Big Ten selection, winner of the Fred Biletnikoff Award and Paul Warfield Trophy, and set an NCAA record for consecutive games with a touchdown reception (13).
For his efforts, Detroit used the No. 2 overall pick on Rogers in 2003, selecting the big-play talent over the likes of Andre Johnson, Terence Newman, Jordan Gross and Terrell Suggs.
Of course, draft night is where his fortune ran dry. Out of the league in two years, Rogers appeared in just 14 NFL games, hauled in only 36 passes and had almost as many violations of the league’s substance-abuse policy (three) as touchdown catches (four).
In a 2009 interview with ESPN’s Jemele Hill, Rogers came clean about his addiction to Vicodin, regular use of marijuana and much more.
Unfortunately, he hasn’t redeemed himself or even been heard from since 2011, when he was pulled over and found to be driving with an open container of alcohol.
9. Tonya Harding
Tonya Harding is best known for her connection to the brutal attack on Nancy Kerrigan in January of 1994. It’s unfortunate, but true.
Even before then, however, Harding was a well-known quantity. A reigning national champion and a medal favorite heading into the 1994 Olympic Games, Harding was once a central figure in the American sports world.
From a talent perspective, she was incredibly promising. Harding’s list of accomplishments include her becoming the first woman to complete a triple axel in a short program as well as the first ever to complete a triple axel combination with the double toe loop.
I’m not sure exactly what any of that means, other than that Harding was for a short time really, really talented.
Of course, as everyone knows well by now, that all quickly changed.
On January 6, 1994, Nancy Kerrigan—Harding’s primary American competitor and biggest rival at the time—was brutally assaulted by a man named Shane Stant. Within hours, speculation connecting Harding to the attack ignited like wildfire, inspiring fellow figure skater Scott Hamilton to suggest “the world press was turning the Olympics into just another sensational tabloid event.”
As a result of the surrounding media frenzy and probably much more, Harding would go on to tank at the ’94 Games, finishing just eighth overall.
Through later legal proceedings, it was determined that Stant was hired by Harding’s ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, and her bodyguard, Shawn Eckhardt, to carry out the gruesome assault on Kerrigan. Though Harding’s involvement in the plot was never legally determined, the once-elite figure skater pleaded guilty to conspiring to hinder the prosecution of the attackers.
For her crime, Harding was stripped of her 1994 U.S. Title, forced to withdraw from the 1994 World Championships and resign from the USFSA.
Though she finished out the year and skated in a couple more marque events, by 1995 Harding was out of skating and the American mind for good (unless you followed her brief boxing career, and I sure hope you didn’t).
8. JaMarcus Russell
I always thought JaMarcus Russell was a bit overrated. He had just one college season of note and, even then, hardly set the college football world ablaze.
During his junior campaign, Russell threw for 3,129 yards and 28 touchdowns (eight interceptions) and was named to the All-SEC first team. He was not, however, an All-American or even a Heisman Trophy nominee.
With all that said, Russell looked the part in ways few ever had. At the time he was drafted, the former Tiger stood 6’6”, weighed 265 pounds, was mobile and had an absolute cannon.
Of course, it was all enough to convince the Raiders to draft Russell No. 1 overall in the 2007 draft.
Then came the descent. Instead of blowing up on the football field, he blew up off it.
Despite immense talent and even bigger expectations, Russell lasted just three seasons in the NFL, appearing in 31 games, making 25 starts and throwing more interceptions (23) than touchdowns (18).
He attempted a somewhat under-the-radar comeback in 2013—he tried out for the Bears—but failed to make the team and hasn’t been heard from since.
7. Jay Williams
In three seasons at Duke, Jay Williams became one of the most decorated college basketball players of the last decade. For his career, he averaged an impeccable 19 PPG and six APG to go along with 2.2 SPG. He led his team to a national championship in 2001, was a two-time All-American and the winner of countless Player of the Year trophies.
More importantly, he had as nasty a game as any point guard around, combining elite scoring skills with an eye-opening ability to find and create for others.
On the court, there was nothing J-Will couldn’t do, and he was selected No. 2 overall by Bulls in the 2002 NBA draft as a result.
He got off to an inconsistent start but posted a triple-double (26 points, 14 rebounds, 13 assists) in November of 2002 and was named Rookie of the Month one month later. Everything was going to plan.
However, it all came crashing down—literally—on June 19, 2003 when Williams crashed his motorcycle, severing a main nerve in his leg, fracturing his pelvis and tearing three ligaments in his left knee. On that night, his once-promising career came to an abrupt end.
The former Dukie did attempt a comeback three years later but came up short and now works as a college basketball analyst for ESPN.
6. Greg Oden
The modern-day Sam Bowie, Greg Oden was supposed to anchor the Portland Trail Blazers for a decade or more. Instead, he watched injury after injury derail his career.
Standing 7’0” and weighing 273 pounds, Oden was a terror at both ends of the floor from the moment he arrived at Ohio State. As just a freshman, the mammoth center was a consensus second-team All-American and the NABC Defensive Player of the Year en route to leading his Buckeyes to a national title appearance. Even while recovering from a broken wrist, he averaged an astounding 15.7 PPG, 9.6 RPG and 3.3 BPG.
When it came time for Portland to decide between Oden and Texas freshman Kevin Durant, the Blazers didn’t even blink, selecting Oden No. 1 overall with little doubt in mind.
Thanks to countless injuries, however, Oden’s time in the league has been underwhelming. He played in just two seasons and 82 games for the Blazers, averaging 9.4 PPG, 7.3 RPG and 1.4 BPG. He would go on to miss three straight years of basketball before attempting a comeback with the Miami Heat in 2013-14.
Yet Oden struggled in limited minutes with LeBron James and company and has again disappeared from the basketball scene.
Most recently, he resurfaced on August 11 when he was charged with battery for allegedly punching his ex-girlfriend in the face.
5. Maurice Clarett
More than just about anyone else on the list, Maurice Clarrett arrived and disappeared in a uniquely brief time frame.
The do-it-all running back landed at Ohio State with 5-star status as well as plenty of fanfare and quickly lived up to the billing.
At a time in college football when true-freshman difference-makers were as rare as they were talented, Clarett didn’t just play for the Buckeyes, he starred.
Ohio’s Mr. Football was named the Big Ten’s Freshman of the Year in 2002 and led Ohio State to a national championship while rushing for 1,237 yards and a gaudy 18 touchdowns.
Clarett had quickly become the future of college football. Or so we thought.
The talented back was suspended for the entire 2003 football season following several troubling incidents and was eventually dismissed from school.
In 2004, he looked the NFL’s way, challenging the league’s draft eligibility rules in court.
The attempt, however, was unsuccessful and continued the former Buckeye’s slide.
Surprisingly, Clarett was drafted by the Denver Broncos in the third round of 2005 NFL draft but was out of the league a month later and before playing a single down in the NFL. From a football standpoint, he hasn’t been heard from since (unless you count the UFL, a league he flirted with in 2010, but one that no longer exists).
4. Ryan Leaf
Ryan Leaf had a magical college career. As a junior, Leaf was the Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year, a first-team All-American and a Heisman Trophy finalist. He threw for a then-Pac-10 conference record 33 touchdowns, posted the second-highest passer rating in the country and led Washington State to a conference championship.
With tremendous buzz and all the world’s momentum, Leaf decided to forgo his senior season of college to enter the NFL draft, where he was selected No. 2 overall by the San Diego Chargers.
Of course, Madison Square Garden (the site of the draft) is where Leaf’s joyride came to an end.
Leaf played in just three NFL seasons, making 21 starts in 25 games while throwing twice as many interceptions (36) as touchdowns (14).
His shocking NFL struggles—when considered against his immense skill and potential—once inspired Michael Ventre of NBCSports.com to call Leaf “the biggest bust in the history of professional sports.”
Trouble with drugs and the law have kept Leaf in the news to a lesser extent, but in the arena of sports, he went from hero to zero in a historically brief period of time.
3. Lawrence Phillips
As a result of injuries to Nebraska quarterbacks Tommie Frazier and Brook Berringer, the world got to know Lawrence Phillips in a major way in 1994.
Against eight- and nine-man fronts, Phillips still managed to set a school record by rushing for 100 yards or more in 11 straight games. Just a sophomore, he ran for 1,818 yards (a school record for sophomores) and 16 TDs en route to a perfect season and national championship.
Entering his junior season, Phillips was a household name and clear-cut favorite to win the Heisman, but legal issues forced him out of all but five games. Still, when he played, he was exceptional—he carried the ball 22 times for 206 yards and four TDs against Michigan State and rushed for another 165 yards and two TDs in a win over Florida in the national title game.
So, despite obvious character flaws, NFL teams were champing at the bit to land the talented junior, including the St. Louis Rams, who selected Phillips with the No. 6 overall pick in 1996 draft.
However, the Rams and head coach Dick Vermeil quickly tired of Phillips and his antics, releasing the former Husker less than two years after drafting him. By the end of 1999, Phillips was out of the league for good.
To put his talent and shocking fall from grace into better perspective, consider this: It’s been said that a teary-eyed Vermeil once called Phillips the best running back he ever coached.
2. Buster Douglas
In 1990, Buster Douglas shocked the world. Heading into a title bout with by far the world’s scariest human—undisputed heavyweight champion Mike Tyson—Douglas was a long shot to say the least: a 42-to-1 underdog.
Ten rounds later, he—not Tyson—was the heavyweight champion of the world.
At the time, going toe-to-toe with Iron Mike for even a few rounds seemed impossible. Beating him was unimaginable.
With the monumental win, then, Douglas became the biggest thing in boxing.
The honeymoon didn’t last long, though. Roughly eight months after defeating Tyson, Douglas took on top contender Evander Holyfield. Said to be 15 pounds heavier than he was for the fight with Tyson, Douglas was battered and embarrassed by Holyfield, knocked down and out in round No. 3.
As quickly as he rose, Douglas fell: After the loss to Holyfield, he didn’t fight again for another six years.
From indisputable Champ to irrelevant Chump—the true story of Buster Douglas.
1. Tim Tebow
Tim Tebow tops the list for a number of reasons. From starting and starring in a postseason win for the Denver Broncos to out of the league completely two short years later, Tebow’s decline was both steep and swift.
Unlike the JaMarcus Russells and Ryan Leafs of the world, Tebow actually experienced some modicum of professional success—leading the Broncos to a 7-4 record as a starter as well as to a playoff victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
And, unlike athletes such as Charles Rogers, Lawrence Phillips and Maurice Clarett, Tebow had problems with neither drugs nor the law.
He wasn’t injured either, further separating him from the likes of Greg Oden and Jay Williams.
Simply put, Tebow’s downfall was as unique and surprising as it was abrupt.
Following a legendary college career (at Florida) and a season (2011) in which he took the entire sports world by storm—creating trends like “Tebowing” while becoming the most talked-about athlete on the planet—Tebow was traded (to the Jets), benched and boycotted.
Whether due to his unorthodox approach to the quarterback position or to the distractions that come with his overflowing fame and popularity, teams have been reluctant to let Tebow through the door, much less on the field.
Despite a winning record as an NFL starting quarterback, the former Heisman Trophy winner was out of the league after three quick seasons.
Sure, he had a brief stint with the Patriots but was cut before the 2013 season and hasn’t received another chance since.
Tebow now serves as an analyst for the SEC Network but is much better known for his altogether thrilling, yet equally brief and disappointing NFL career.
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