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Gone But Not Forgotten: 10 NFL Players Whose Careers Were Too Short

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The sudden retirement of 49ers star linebacker Patrick Willis has shocked the NFL world and fans.

Seven Pro Bowls in eight years showed Willis is an elite player and superb defender. He's the supercomputer who formulated the lights-out defense by the Bay that made three straight NFC Championship games.

Whenever teams lined up against the 'Niners, the first thing the QB had to do was figure out where #52 was on the field.

It is impressive to consider how much he did, despite fighting nagging injuries.

This week, he determined his overall quality of life moving forward was worth more than chasing a ring. He has missed 12 games in the past two seasons, and while football has made him rich, he came from no money to millions in the NFL.

If you can't enjoy the fruits of your labor, especially for someone who did manual labor as early as age 10, what's the point? Willis joins the ever-growing list of NFL stars who succumbed to prematurely-ended careers:

10. Joe Theismann

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Joe Theismann didn't even start his career in the NFL after leaving Notre Dame. He played three years in the CFL and made the All-Star game twice before heading to the Redskins in 1974.

Under Joe Gibbs, he became an elite passer, leading the Redskins to consecutive NFC championships, and won NFL MVP in 1983. A violent sack against the Giants in 1985 on Monday Night Football cut his career short.

Harry Carson and Lawrence Taylor snapped his leg so graphically, the intimidating Taylor immediately summoned medical help from the Redskins sideline. The play has earned a unique place in NFL as a moment you can't unsee once you see it. (Warning: Don't look it up while on lunch break.)

He finished with more than 25,000 passing yards and 160 TDs in his career, which are respectable numbers, but marks modern QBs pass easily.

9. Ricky Williams

Ricky Williams left Texas as, perhaps, the best Longhorn running back since Earl Campbell. Mike Ditka was so convinced he was the franchise savior for the Saints, he traded his entire draft and two picks for next year to Washington to get Williams in 1999.

Running a 4.56 at the Combine where you weigh in at 244 pounds will turn some heads.

Williams had a good start in New Orleans, rushing for 1000 yards in two of his three years there. But, he didn't feel completely comfortable and left for Miami. In 2002, he led the NFL with 1,853 yards rushing and won Pro Bowl MVP.

However, he left the NFL because he liked something a little more than football:

After retiring in 2004 to avoid the marijuana suspension, he came back in 2005 before losing 2006 to another suspension. He played just one game in 2007 but came back for more than 1,100 yards in 2009.

He finished his career with over 10,000 yards, but had a chance to rewrite the record books. His is an interesting study in behavioral/mental disorders and how they can affect the productivity of elite talent.

8. Jerome Brown

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The Philadelphia Eagles had the most menacing front four in the late 80s and early 90s. Reggie White was the dominant force as an edge rusher, but the guy with the most upside was Jerome Brown.

He was a leader of Jimmy Johnson's dominant Miami Hurricanes' teams of the 80s before Philly took him ninth overall in 1987. He made two All-Pro teams in his five years, playing on a stacked defense. In 76 career games, he collected 29.5 sacks.

So, go to any Wawa and ask any guy over 30 if the '91 Eagles would've won a Super Bowl if Randall Cunningham didn't break his leg at Lambeau Field opening day. Expect eye rolls, exasperation and profanity.

You can never forget certain moments in life. I vividly recall watching "Jeopardy" with my dad when someone hit a Daily Double and Jim Gardner, the ABC affiliate anchor, interrupted the program with the news: Jerome Brown died in Florida in a one-car accident.

On June 25, 1992, the Eagles lost a great player.

7. Ickey Woods

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The Cincinnati Bengals had a strong offense in the late '80s led by Boomer Esiason at QB. Behind him was a talented rookie named Ickey Woods.

The second-round pick from UNLV dazzled the fans with his size and touchdown dance dubbed, “The Ickey Shuffle.” We saw a lot of that in 1988 when he led the AFC with 15 rushing touchdowns.

The Bengals won the AFC and came up short in Super Bowl XXII, which saw Joe Montana and the 49ers cement their legacy with a game-winning drive.

Perhaps, the most fragile position of fame in America was that of a star running back. In the second game of his second season, Woods tore his ACL against Pittsburgh. Woods came back in 1990 but totaled just over 1,500 yards in his career.

His great career was cut short but his famous dance has endured, and was reprised in a famous Geico ad.

6. Steve Emtman

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The Colts selected Emtman first overall out of Washington in 1992. He was an elite defensive lineman, who collected multiple awards for his play on the undefeated Huskies team that split the 1991 National Championship.

This was a can't-miss prospect expected to have a franchise-altering career.

Emtman suffered a series of injuries to his knees and, later, his neck while playing on the AstroTurf at the Hoosier Dome. At 6'4'' and 290 pounds, the stress on his joints never got help from the playing surface.

He only played one full season in '95 after the Colts let him go. He played just 50 career games, collecting 82 total tackles and eight sacks. Had he stayed healthy for the rise of Peyton Manning, we may never have seen the Patriots dynasty.

5. Billy Sims

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Oklahoma has a great history of world-class running backs. Long before Adrian Peterson and DeMarco Murray, there was the king of the 70s, Billy Sims.

He went first overall in 1980 to Detroit after winning a Heisman in '78. He continued his dominance with the Lions, earning three Pro Bowl berths and rushing for over 1,000 yards in his three full seasons (the 1982 season included just nine games due to a strike).

In 1984, his career ended with a disastrous knee injury against Minnesota. He spent years rehabbing and even tried to make the team as a cornerback in 1989. However, he never played again in the NFL, retiring with 5,106 career yards.

4. Bo Jackson

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Bo Jackson may be the single-greatest pure athlete from my lifetime. Not too many guys excelled in two sports at the level Bo did and changed the way stars are marketed.

The Buccaneers initially picked the Heisman winner from Auburn, but he refused to sign. He re-entered the following year and went to the Raiders, where he lit up teams and, more notably, Brian Bosworth, the infamous college linebacker who played in Seattle.

Oh, yeah, he spent his offseasons playing baseball for the Royals, where he won All-Star MVP in 1989.

Jackson initially split carries with Hall of Famer Marcus Allen, another Heisman Winner in college. He never played a full season because he always spent his summers playing baseball (which may not happen under the astronomic deals NFL stars garner).

In his debut on Monday Night Football, Jackson set a record, which still stands, with 221 rushing yards, including the TD where he powered over The Boz like a monster truck over an old car. His career high was 950 yards in 11 games in 1989.

His football career ended in 1991, when he dislocated his hip against Cincinnati in the 1990 AFC Divisional Round.

Buffalo all but killed the Raiders the following week and Jackson went back to baseball in 1993 after missing all of '92 and played another year in 1994. If not for that injury, he could've been the greatest two-sport athlete ever.

3. Tim Tebow

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Okay, this will piss some people off, but Tebow deserves some consideration.

Tim Tebow went in the first round to Denver in 2010 and won games. It wasn't pretty, but he had a magical ability to get the job done.

With the Broncos, he won games late with his running, passing and tremendous energy. He rallied Denver to the AFC West crown in 2011 before a stunning overtime win against the Steelers in the Wild Card round.

The Patriots crushed the Broncos in the next round, but Tebow didn't get an encore.

Peyton Manning arrived and Tebow went to New York. Fans wanted him to play when Mark Sanchez went down, but he only threw eight passes. He went to New England, but didn't make the regular season roster.

Tim has yet to give up his dream and fans still clamor for him, knowing he can draw ticket sales. He was known for drawing a media circus, as well as lack of mobility in the pocket.

After being away from the game for two seasons, perhaps he deserves another chance in the NFL.

Jacksonville has often demanded Tebowmania come home to Florida and the empty seats at Alltel Stadium suggest it couldn't hurt. He continues to work out and, apparently, improved his mechanics.

If he does return, fans will certainly notice and watch him, waiting for another great play.

2. Terrell Davis

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Few guys have a rags-to-riches story in the NFL like Terrell Davis. He was a sixth-round pick in 1995 and earned his way to a starting role. In his first four seasons, he rushed for over 1,000 yards and increased his amount each season, topping out at 2,008 in 1998.

He could have smashed Eric Dickerson's single-season record had the Broncos' massive lead in so many games induced coach Mike Shanahan to bench his starters. With John Elway and a cavalcade of stars, the Broncos won two Super Bowls at the end of the decade.

After Elway left, Davis' career became a nightmare. He suffered the dreaded Madden Curse when he blew out his knee in week four of the '99 season. A series of leg injuries cost him parts of the subsequent two seasons.

He retired after 2001 and still earned a spot in the Hall of Fame. However, his great story, exciting running and infectious smile always left fans wanting to see more of TD.

1. Jim Brown

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It's hard to explain how great of a running back Jim Brown was to those who never saw him.

He joined the Browns after a career at Syracuse that included lacrosse, basketball and track with football. Yeah, good luck trying to do that today.

In 1957, he entered the NFL and won MVP and rookie of the year. He would make the Pro Bowl every one of his nine seasons and lead the NFL in rushing for eight of them.

He ran fast and hit hard. In the run-first NFL, he was the king, compiling a then-record 12,312 yards and 106 touchdowns on the ground in nine years.

Brown left in 1966 to pursue a career in acting. Whenever players leave today to avoid further trauma, he is often illustrated as an example of this mentality. He went on to have a decent career, but no Oscars or great fame.

However, that scowl he carried into play still observes the game. While so many others of his time lost their basic human functions to the violent nature of the game, Brown looks like he could still get in there and break some tackles, despite his age and how much bigger the players are.

His life serves as a testament to those who want to have a life after football. However, many will contend he could have been the greatest ever, had he stayed beyond age 30 and continued to dominate.