Written By: Reena Mukamal Reviewed By: Sidney K Gicheru MD AAO.org
They didn’t see it coming! Professional athletes from the NBA, NFL, NHL and other sports leagues have a history of career-threatening injuries to the eyes. Basketball players face the highest risk, but no athletes are immune to the danger of a flying ball, hand or piece of equipment. Nearly 30,000 sports-related eye injuries are treated in U.S. emergency rooms each year. Though 90 percent of these could be avoided by wearing protective eyewear, it’s still not a requirement for most pro athletes. Here are 20 of the most infamous eye injuries in modern American sports.
1. Herb Score — Baseball
On May 7, 1957 — two years after winning American League Rookie of the Year honors — Cleveland Indians pitcher Herb Score was struck in the face by a line drive. He was carried off the field and spent nearly three weeks in a local hospital, where he received treatment for damage to his retina, hemorrhaging in the eye and fractured orbital bones. Score eventually recovered his 20/20 vision and returned to the mound the following year. However, he was never the same pitcher. As Hall of Famer Bob Feller said after Score’s death in 2008, “He would have been probably one of the greatest, if not the greatest, left-handed pitchers who ever lived.”
2. Tony Conigliaro — Baseball
On Aug. 18, 1967, Boston Red Sox slugger Tony Conigliaro was hit in the face by a fastball. Though he wore a helmet, it did not have the protective earflap that is standard in today’s models. Carted off the field on a stretcher, the outfielder had a broken cheekbone, a dislocated jaw and serious damage to his left retina. He made a strong comeback two years later, but his career never recovered. Conigliaro retired in 1975 due to his poor eyesight. In 1990, the Red Sox created the annual Tony Conigliaro Award to honor the player who best overcomes obstacles and adversities on and off the field.
3. Henry Boucha — Hockey
On Jan. 4, 1975, Minnesota North Stars center Henry Boucha suffered a crushed eye socket after being attacked by Boston Bruins’ player Dave Forbes. The two skaters had just come out of the penalty box at the end of the first period when Forbes attacked Boucha from behind and “thrust his stick to Boucha’s head in a bayonet-type motion.” The injury required 25 stitches and surgery to repair the eye socket fracture. Boucha received a $3.5 million settlement but he never fully recovered. He retired from professional hockey the following year at age 24.
4. Bernie Parent — Hockey
On Feb. 17, 1979, during a routine play, an opponent’s stick poked through the eyehole of Bernie Parent’s goalie mask. The Philadelphia Flyers Hall of Famer lost sight in his right eye for two weeks. He eventually recovered but his retina was badly damaged. Eventually, vision loss forced him to retire. Parent was a two-time Vezina and Conn Smythe Trophy winner and considered one of the greatest goalies of his time. After the incident, many NHL and junior league franchises made the switch from the fiberglass mask to the modern-day cage mask.
5. Sugar Ray Leonard — Boxing
On May 9, 1982, World Welterweight Champion Sugar Ray Leonard had a two-hour surgery to fix a partially detached retina in his left eye. Leonard, age 25, had been having trouble with the eye since a sparring injury nine months prior. While training for a title-defending bout against Roger Stafford, he started to see floaters. The operation was successful, but Leonard retired just six months after his eye healed. He made multiple comebacks but lost his last professional fight, against Héctor Camacho, in 1996. The next year, he was voted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
6. Dickie Thon — Baseball
On April 8, 1984, Houston Astros’ short stop Dickie Thon was up to bat and leaning into the plate when a pitch shattered the orbital bone above his left eye. The scar tissue that formed behind Thon’s retina forever left him with partial blindness. The rising National League star continued to play major league baseball for another 10 years but had to stand farther from the plate and use a longer bat. Thon struggles with the injury to this day. He says that driving and reading for long periods of time give him double vision and a headache.
7. Kirby Puckett — Baseball
On the morning of March 28, 1996, Minnesota Twins’ outfielder Kirby Puckett awoke with a black dot blocking the vision in his right eye. He was 35 years old, a 10-time All-Star and one of baseball’s the most popular players. A retinal specialist diagnosed Puckett with glaucoma and found a partial blockage in the blood vessels of his retina. Even after four surgeries, the vision loss could not be reversed. Puckett announced his retirement months later, on July 12. He became a national spokesperson for the Glaucoma Foundation and publicly encouraged people to get eye exams. In 2001, he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
8. Orlando Brown — Football
On Dec. 19, 1999, Cleveland Brown offensive tackle Orlando Brown — aka “Zeus” — was hit in the eye by a penalty flag. The flag, thrown by a referee during a game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, was weighted with a pouch of ball bearings. It flew past the face bar on Brown’s helmet into his right eye. Damage to the eye’s retina and optic nerve led to ongoing pain and white flashes. Ultimately, he was cut by the Browns in Sept. 2000 and sidelined for three years, with a $25 million settlement from the NFL. In 2003, he rejoined the Browns — renamed the Ravens — and played with the team until March 2006. Brown died in 2011 from diabetes-related complications.
9. Bryan Berard — Hockey
On March 11, 2000, Toronto Leafs defenseman Bryan Berard took a stick to the face on a slap shot follow-through. Berard fell to the ice in a pool of blood and was rushed to a local hospital. He suffered a retinal detachment, and a severe rupture of the eye’s globe. The top overall pick of the 1995 NHL draft would miss the remainder of the season. The following year, Berard had multiple surgeries and wore a contact lens to achieve 20/400, the league’s minimum vision requirement. He returned to the ice and won hockey’s Masterton Memorial Trophy for his perseverance.
10. Bryce Florie — Baseball
On Sept. 8, 2000, Boston Red Sox pitcher Bryce Florie was hit in the face by a line drive. He didn’t pass out, but doctors at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary diagnosed him with a damaged retina and fractures to his eye socket and cheekbone. He had many surgeries to relieve the pressure around his right eye and fix the fractures. Doctors worried that a pool of blood behind the retina would steal his sight, but Florie’s vision eventually improved to 20/50. The 30-year-old returned the next year to pitch in seven games, but his Major League career ended shortly thereafter.
11. Steve Yzerman — Hockey
On May 1, 2004, Detroit Red Wings forward Steve Yzerman took a puck to the eye. He was not wearing a face shield when a shot bounced off the opposing team’s goalie during game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals. The future Hall of Famer was down on the ice for several minutes before being taken to a local hospital. There, he suffered a corneal abrasion and underwent four hours of surgery to repair an orbital fracture. The 10-time All Star missed the remainder of the playoffs but returned to the ice for his final season before retiring. Because of Yzerman’s impressive record — he is the sixth-leading scorer in NHL history — his injury has advanced the push for mandatory visor use.
12. Juan Encarnación — Baseball
On Aug. 31, 2007, Juan Encarnación, an outfielder with the St. Louis Cardinals, was struck in the face by a foul ball as he stood on the on-deck circle. The ball caused multiple fractures to his left eye socket and trauma to the optic nerve. The Cardinals’ team physician, Dr. George Paletta, described the injury as “the worst trauma I’ve seen” and compared the injured area to the disintegration of an eggshell. Encarnación underwent successful surgery to repair the fractures, but he had permenant vision loss due to damage to the optic nerve. He missed the remainder of the 2007 season and never returned to play professional baseball.
13. Amare Stoudemire — Basketball
On Feb. 18, 2009, Phoenix Suns player Amare Stoudemire suffered a detached retina after getting poked in the eye during a game against the Los Angeles Clippers. This came on the heels of his recovery from a trauma to the iris in the same eye. Stoudemire had emergency surgery and sat out the rest of the season. He eventually recovered 20/20 vision and went on to a 15-year NBA career, including eight seasons with the Suns, five with the Knicks and one season each with the Heat and Mavericks, before retiring in 2016.
14. Luis Salazar — Baseball
On March 9, 2011, Atlanta Braves Minor League manager Luis Salazar lost his left eye after being struck in the face by a foul ball. Salazaar was standing at the top step of the dugout during a spring training game between the Braves and St. Louis Cardinals when Braves catcher Brian McCann hit a line drive in his direction. Salazar fell headfirst back into the dugout, suffering multiple facial fractures. He was airlifted to a nearby hospital, but doctors were unable to save his eye. Salazar played in the major leagues from 1980 to 1992 as a third baseman and outfielder for various teams including the San Diego Padres. Today he works as a manager for the Atlanta Braves organization.
15. Marc Staal — Hockey
On March 5, 2013, New York Rangers’ defenseman Marc Staal was hit above the right eye by a deflected slap shot. After falling to the ice, Staal was able to skate to the dressing room. He was not wearing a protective visor. Later that evening, Staal was seen by an ophthalmologist, who found an orbital fracture and a tear to his retina. Though surgery wasn’t needed, Staal did take medications and eye drops. He missed the remainder of the season because of dizziness and facial pain. Staal returned to the ice the following season at 100% and became a vocal advocate for mandatory visor use in the NHL. The league began requiring new players to wear visors in the 2013-14 season. Nearly all players wear them today.
16. Larry Sanders — Basketball
On Feb. 8, 2014, Milwaukee Bucks center Larry Sanders was violently but accidentally elbowed in the right eye as he competed for a rebound. Sanders left the game with multiple fractures to his eye socket. The Bucks hoped that he would return by the All Star break, but persistent double vision forced him to skip the rest of the 2014 season. For reasons unrelated to the eye injury, Sanders career sputtered and he left the NBA by 2017.
17. Aroldis Chapman — Baseball
On March 19, 2014, during a spring training game, Cincinnati Reds closer Aroldis Chapman was hit in the face by a line drive off the bat of Kansas City Royals catcher Salvador Perez. The two-time All Star was taken to a local hospital. There, he had a titanium plate inserted to stabilize a broken orbital bone above his left eye. Luckily for Chapman, the injury was not career threatening. He returned to play later that season.
18. Matt Imhof — Baseball
On June 25, 2016, a metal hook slammed into Philadelphia Phillies’ pitcher Matt Imhof’s face. He was doing a routine stretch with resistance bands hooked to the wall, when a hook broke away from the wall and fractured his nose, broke two orbital bones and caused severe damage to his right eye, which was “crushed like a grape.” When Imhof learned that regaining sight in the injured eye was unlikely, he decided to have the eye removed, replacing it with a prosthetic. Just seven months later, Imhof retired from baseball at the age of 23.
19. Akil Mitchell — Basketball
On Jan. 26, 2017, American forward Akil Mitchell was playing for the New Zealand Breakers when a poke in the face popped his left eyeball out of its socket. The former University of Virginia player was going for a rebound when it happened. Mitchell recovered full vision and continues to play professionally.
20. James Harden — Basketball
On April 31, 2019, Houston Rockets’ star James Harden was accidentally hit in the face by Warriors’ Draymond Green while fighting for a loose rebound. The teams were competing in the second game of the NBA playoffs’ Western Conference semifinals. Harden had a visible cut to his left eyelid and blood in the whites of his eyes. But he continued playing with blurry vision and scored 29 points, six rebounds and four assists. What wasn’t obvious was that he had bruised the retina in both eyes. Harden got lucky; sometimes the force from blunt trauma can lead to a more serious, vision-threatening condition called a retinal detachment.
Ophthalmologists treat athletes at every level, from high school standouts to professional stars. Protective eyewear is the best defense against injury, whether you’re a student or NBA celebrity. Polycarbonate lenses are safest for basketball, racquet sports, soccer or field hockey. Athletes who wear contacts or glasses also need protective gear.