It’s hard to imagine a more devastating blow to the Milwaukee Brewers than what transpired Tuesday, when Christian Yelich fouled a ball off his kneecap and suffered a break that will sideline him for the rest of the season.
For a team that had gotten itself back into the thick of a playoff hunt – one game out of a playoff spot as it woke up Wednesday – it was a brutal turn of events, never mind the face-value loss of a reigning MVP and bona fide repeat candidate.
Where does it rank, in your mind, among the most memorable and devastating Wisconsin sports injuries? It’s hard to know yet without a clear picture of the fallout, but it’s going to make any short list. Here are the others that jump to mind.
Larry Hisle (1979)
This wasn't on the initial list, but a couple readers pointed out that he belonged. The free-agent signing from Minnesota was a huge part of "Bambi's Bombers" in 1978, finishing third in the MVP voting with a .906 OPS, 34 homers and 115 RBIs. But it April of 1979, he hurt his shoulder, and a series of setbacks kept him from settling back in at full health. He had multiple operations and stayed with the Brewers until 1982, but he never played in more than 27 games in any season after 1978.
The Brewers finished 95-66 in 1979, but that was still eight games back of the Orioles for a playoff spot. It stands to reason Hisle could have made a difference there, or during the playoff runs of 1981 and 1982. Hisle today is the Brewers' manager for youth outreach.
Rollie Fingers (1982)
The best analogy to what befell Yelich is what happened to the World Series qualifying Brewers in 1982. Rollie Fingers, the reigning Cy Young and MVP, was lost to an arm injury in early September, and just about everyone affiliated with that Brewers team will tell you that Milwaukee really would have won the series if Fingers had been available. The Cardinals, of course, won in seven games – rallying for three runs in the sixth and two runs in the eighth of Game 7 for a 6-3 win. Fingers had a 2.60 ERA that season in 79⅔ innings. Fingers also missed the entire 1983 season, though he returned with a 1.96 ERA in 1984.
Not only was Fingers hurt in 1982, but Cy Young winner Pete Vuckovich was dealing with a torn rotator cuff. He toughed it out, but the Brewers lost both of his starts in the Word Series, and he was never the same thereafter.
Teddy Higuera (1989 and beyond)
Christian Yelich is one of only four players in Brewers franchise history to post back-to-back seasons of 6.0 WAR or greater, joining Robin Yount, Ryan Braun and Higuera – who’s the only player to do it three times. He was amazing in 1987 when he set a team record with 240 strikeouts and went on a memorable 32-inning scoreless streak. And that came on the heels of 1986, when he finished second in the Cy Young voting and posted a 2.79 ERA. In 1988, he went 16-9 with a league-leading WHIP of 0.999. But the left-hander began experiencing injuries after that, first with back issues in 1989, followed by a torn rotator cuff in 1991 that also cost him the entire 1992 season. Higuera was pretty much done after that, and he remains one of the great “what might have been” cases in Wisconsin sports history (although, to be fair, he was already 30 years old when the injuries began to roost).
Sterling Sharpe (1994)
It’s easy to forget the excellence Sharpe brought to the wide receiver position during the final years before the franchise turned around and in the early Brett Favre era. In 1992, he finished with an NFL-record 108 receptions and led the league with 1,461 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns. He broke his own record in 1993 with 112 receptions, followed by a famous 40-yard pass in the final seconds against Detroit that led to a thrilling 28-24 playoff win – the first playoff win with Favre and Reggie White in the fold.
In 1994, he posted 18 receiving touchdowns, but he also suffered “stinger” injuries in the final two games of the season, and it was discovered that he needed surgery to fuse two vertebrae in his neck and that there was unusual looseness between them. The recovery time was eight months, but Sharpe never suited up again.
The Packers were still able to win their playoff opener against the Lions that year, famously holding Barry Sanders to negative-1 yards rushing in the game, and they were two years away from a Super Bowl triumph. But is it possible they could have had even more if Sharpe had been able to play in his 30s?
Brian Butch (2007)
This was another gruesome moment in time, when Butch went down and dislocated his elbow against Ohio State late in the 2007 season, but it was as much about the timing as the aesthetics. The junior big man and former McDonald’s All-American from Appleton West High School was done for the year, and Wisconsin – which entered that week ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press poll for the first time ever – went on to lose the game, 49-48.
The Badgers also lost two weeks later in the Big Ten title game against the new No. 1-ranked Buckeyes. Wisconsin earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament but ultimately fell in the second round to UNLV after gutting out a win over Texas A&M Corpus Christi.
Ben Sheets (2008)
The former first-round draft pick delivered one of the greatest pitching seasons in Brewers history in 2004 and kept rolling for the next several years. It’s ironic that the 2008 season is remembered for a different pitcher (CC Sabathia) than the one who became the first Brewer to start the all-star game that year (Sheets). But Sheets – who finished 2009 with a 3.09 ERA and quality numbers across the board – wasn’t healthy enough to finish strong for the postseason run. He set the franchise career strikeout record that season and started September on the right foot, with back-to-back scoreless starts – including a complete-game shutout on Sept. 6 in a 1-0 game.
But he struggled after that, including a tough 2⅓ inning performance against the Cubs on the penultimate day of the season, and never pitched in the postseason. He needed Tommy John surgery and never pitched for the Brewers again. It’s easy to dream how the 3-1 playoff loss to Philadelphia goes differently if Sheets (and Yovani Gallardo, for that matter, as he worked his way back from an ACL injury in May) were at full strength.
Dominic James (2009)
Marquette was ranked No. 8 in the Associated Press poll when it lost its star senior guard in a Feb. 25 battle against No. 2-ranked UConn to a broken foot. It was a tough way to go for a player who racked up 1,749 points in a Golden Eagles uniform and was part of a sensational triumvirate that also included Wes Matthews and Jerel McNeal.
Without James, Marquette lost its final three regular-season games – two on the road against top-10 teams and a third at home against No. 25 Syracuse in overtime, then lost in the second round of the Big East Tournament followed by a loss in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to Missouri, 83-79. Sixth-seeded Marquettebarely survived Utah State, 58-57, in the first round to get that far.
Andrew Bogut (2010)
It’s as gruesome as it was impactful. Bogut went up for a basket against the Suns on April 3, 2010 – just as the “Fear the Deer” Bucks were hitting their stride and making what seemed like an improbable surge toward the playoffs. But defended by Amare Stoudemire, Bogut lost his balance and came down on his elbow. It was a broken hand, a sprained wrist and dislocated elbow – plenty to knock the second-leading scorer and leading rebounder out for the rest of the year.
The Bucks still captured everyone’s attention during a first-round series against the Hawks and ultimately took a 3-2 lead in the series, but Atlanta closed the deal to advance. Bogut, Milwaukee’s former No. 1 draft pick, was never really the same thereafter.
Nick Collins (2011)
Sept. 11 marks the eight-year anniversary of Collins' injury against Panthers, when he suffered a herniated disk in his neck on a tackle and underwent surgery after being carted off the field. Just a few months earlier, Collins returned an interception for a touchdown in the Super Bowl, but the three-time Pro Bowl safety never got back on the football field, officially retiring in 2014. The Packers have struggled ever since to find a replacement at Collins' level. In 2016, Collins was inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame.
In the short term, the Packers were still able to have a strong 2011 season, finishing 15-1 before falling in the playoffs, although perhaps the defense would have been less beleaguered with Collins in the secondary.
Jermichael Finley (2013)
Head and neck injuries have been something hovering around the NFL for several years, and one of the cruelest reminders is the shot Finley took in 2013 against the Browns. The often-dominant tight end suffered a bruised spinal cord in his neck and wound up in the ICU. He never played in the NFL again. Finley only played six seasons in the NFL and will thus represents a “what if” moment in Wisconsin sports.
A knee injury kept him off the field for much of the Super Bowl season, but he racked up 767 yards and eight touchdowns during Green Bay’s 15-1 season in 2011. He also caught six passes for 159 yards in a playoff loss to Arizona in 2009 (a wild 51-45 loss).
Aaron Rodgers (2013, 2017)
There’s been one constant for the Green Bay Packers the past several years: As long as Aaron Rodgers in healthy, they have a chance. That worst-case-scenario became reality first in 2013, when Rodgers broke his collarbone after getting tackled by Shea McClellin of the Chicago Bears in November of 2013.
However, the 2013 season was one of the more miraculous playoff qualifications in club history. With Matt Flynn at the helm and Rodgers out, the Packers lost three of their next four games and tied the other one, but they squeaked out improbable one-point wins over Atlanta and Dallas. With the Packers record at 7-7-1, Rodgers was able to return for a winner-take-all battle to win the NFC North against the team that sidelined him in the first place – the Bears. You remember what comes next right? The pass to Randall Cobb in the final seconds that lifted Green Bay into the postseason.
In 2017, Anthony Barr of the Minnesota Vikings drove Rodgers to the turf, resulting in another collarbone injury in October, and this one didn’t have a happy ending. Though Brett Hundley was able to lead the Packers to three wins over the next seven games and give Rodgers a chance to come back, the Packers fell to the Panthers on Dec. 17 with Rodgers back on the field, 31-24, effectively ending their playoff aspirations. The Packers played it safe and held Rodgers out the next two weeks, both losses, and Green Bay finished 7-9.
Could we also throw 2018 in there, as well? Even though Rodgers bounced back from what looked like a long-term knee injury in the second half of the season opener against the Bears, orchestrating another magical moment against Green Bay’s biggest rival, it was a struggle all season for the quarterback. The Packers finished 6-9-1.
Jimmy Nelson (2017)
The Brewers finished one game out of a playoff spot in 2017, and who knows what might have happened if their ace hadn’t injured his shoulder on a freak play, diving back to first base. Nelson finished with a 3.49 ERA that season and 199 strikeouts in 175⅓ innings – a clear leap-forward moment after some uneven moments in the first few years of his career. Not only that, but he was at the peak of his powers. Even when you factor in that start he left at Wrigley Field, the Brewers won his last five starts – four by one run – and Nelson posted a 2.40 ERA.
The injury led to shoulder surgery that cost the emerging ace all of 2018, and results in 2019 have been erratic at best (all while dealing with a scary home situation, with medical complications during the birth of his twin daughters). It’s possible the Brewers won’t be able to use Nelson as a starter again. What could have happened in 2017 – or 2018 for that matter – if the team possessed an ace-level starter like Nelson?