Walter Ford

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October 29, 2013
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Ford: 5 athletes that fizzled too fast

Through the first three games of the season, San Francisco 49er Aldon Smith seemed primed to repeat his stellar 2012 season, but as we all know, a second DUI has landed Smith in a rehabilitation center for an undetermined amount of time.

Since trading in his helmet and shoulder pads for group therapy and introspective thought, Smith was also hit with gun charges earlier this month stemming from an offseason party in which two people were shot and Smith himself was stabbed.

In a career that is just now in its third year, there are an awful lot of red flags around Smith challenging his longevity in the league, leading many to believe Smith is wasting his prime weathering the consequences of his actions.

So it got me thinking: Who are some of the other buffoons who squandered their childhood dream before it could reach its full potential?

Here is a list of the top five professional athletes who wasted an opportunity most sports fans would give an arm and a leg for.

5. Rolando McClain, Oakland Raiders, 2010-2012 , LB

McClain was the Oakland Raiders’ first-round pick in 2010, going eighth overall out of Alabama, and had the look and buzz about him similar to what Patrick Willis had gotten on the other side of the Bay. But McClain’s career never mirrored that of Willis’. As a rookie, McClain played in 15 games, making 85 tackles. In his sophomore season, McClain improved with 99 tackles and five sacks and looked to be the Raiders’ middle linebacker for years to come, but several off-field problems, one of which involved a gun being discharged next to a man’s face in an attempt to intimidate, led to a significant drop in production and McClain being dropped from the Raiders, then the Ravens.

4. Maurice Clarett, Ohio State Buckeyes, 2002, RB

As a freshman running back at Ohio State, Clarett dazzled defenses to the tune of 1,237 yards and 16 touchdowns. If that wasn’t enough, Clarett scored the game-winning touchdown in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl as his Buckeyes upset the heavily favored Miami Hurricanes. Clarett thought that was all the schooling he needed and challenged the NFL’s eligibility rules for early entry into the draft. He lost his petition, and because he had already signed an agent, he lost his Ohio State eligibility. In 2005, Clarett was drafted in the third round by the Denver Broncos and later cut. As Clarett bounced around semi-pro leagues looking for a place to play, he most often wound up behind bars with convictions for aggravated robbery, resisting arrest and carrying a concealed weapon without a permit.

3. Len Bias, Maryland 1982-1986, Forward

Bias is widely regarded as the best basketball player never to play in the NBA. The 6-foot, 8-inch power forward won back-to-back ACC Player of the Year awards and, in 1986, was the ACC Athlete of the Year. Bias was drafted second overall in the 1986 NBA draft by the defending champ Boston Celtics. Two days after being drafted, Bias, along with some friends, was using cocaine in his dorm room. Bias overdosed and was rushed to hospital but would not survive.

2. Adam “Pac Man” Jones, Titans, Cowboys, Bengals, 2005-present, CB

The shutdown cornerback and explosive kick-returner was drafted sixth overall in the 2005 NFL draft by the Tennessee Titans. Jones was the first defensive player taken in the draft but would hold out for much of the preseason. Already on probation for a fight he was part of while attending West Virginia, the Titans kept Jones on a short leash. It should have been shorter. During his rookie year, Jones would get picked up for marijuana possession, obstruction of justice, disorderly conduct, public intoxication and misdemeanor assault. In 2007, the infamous strip club fiasco happened, where Jones got into an altercation with a female dancer who collected money he had thrown on stage without his permission. Jones physically assaulted the dancer, leading to a scuffle with security. Later that night, a member of Jones’ entourage returned to the club and fired gun shots into the crowd. Three people were hit, and one was paralyzed from the waist down. In 2007, Roger Goodell suspended Jones for a full season. Jones returned to the NFL and has had mild success as a member of the Cowboys and Bengals.

1. Ryan Leaf, Chargers, Cowboys, 1998-2001, QB

There were two names that grabbed all the college football headlines in 1998: One was Peyton Manning, and the other was Ryan Leaf. It was a hotly contested debate as to who would be the first overall pick. The Colts held the No. 1 pick and were forced to decide between the accurate arm of Manning or the rifle hanging from Leaf’s shoulder. They chose correctly, and San Diego was left with the booty prize.

At Washington State, Leaf won the 1997 Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year and was third in the Heisman voting. But once in San Diego, Leaf’s inability to dice up defenses frustrated him, causing him to blow up at reporters and spiral out of control. Leaf was maligned as a prima donna and a bad teammate by his team, then in his second season, he was sidelined by a shoulder injury. By year three, Leaf was back and looking good, even grabbing the cover of Sports Illustrated with the headline “Back from the Brink.” After his third season though, Leaf was released by the Chargers and later by the Buccaneers for being unwilling to take a pay cut. Leaf’s final team was the Cowboys, where he concluded his career with another poor performance. Leaf’s downfall wasn’t his addiction to pain killers, which would come later and have legal ramifications, but his unwillingness to compramise and be a team player. He was rude to the media, his teammates and his ownership. He tops my list of athletes to throw away their careers because it was self-imposed. It wasn’t a drug or gambling addiction. He was simply a jerk, and it cost him everything.

To contact Sports Editor Walter Ford, call 530-477-4232 or email

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The Union Updated Oct 29, 2013 11:45PM Published Oct 29, 2013 10:46PM Copyright 2013 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.