Each year, an estimated 100,000 people are hurt by sports-related eye injuries with about 13,500 of them resulting in permanent vision loss. In support of Sports Eye Safety Month this April, Eye Care of Delaware joins the American Academy of Ophthalmology in reminding athletes everywhere that the great majority of sports-related eye injuries can be avoided by simply wearing the proper protection.
Athletes Are at Greater Risk for Eye Injuries
Professional athletes from all sports leagues have a history of career-threatening injuries to the eyes. Basketball players face the highest risk, but all athletes face the danger of flying balls (or pucks), an opponent’s hand or a piece of equipment. Nearly 30,000 sports-related eye injuries are treated in U.S. emergency rooms every year. Even though 90 percent of these injuries could be avoided by wearing protective eyewear, it’s still not a requirement for most professional athletes.
Top 20 Eye Injuries That Might Have Been Prevented With Protective Eyewear
Here are 20 of the most infamous eye injuries in modern American sports. These athletes just didn’t see it coming!
1. Herb Score — Baseball
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 did recover his 20/20 vision and returned to the mound the following year. But, 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.” Score pitched eight seasons in the majors and compiled a 55–46 won-loss record with a 3.36 ERA. He struck out 837 batters in 858.1 innings.
2. Tony Conigliaro — Baseball
Aug. 18, 1967 – The Boston Red Sox were hosting the California Angels, and in his third at-bat of the game, Conigliaro, who was two for two, was hit in the face by a fastball. At that time, the batting helmets did not have the protective ear flap that is standard today. The slugger had a broken cheekbone, dislocated jaw and serious damage to his left retina. He missed the entire 1968 season, but did make a strong comeback two years later. Winning a Hutch Award, given to the comeback player of the year, Conigliaro posted a respectable 20 home runs and 82 RBIs in 1969. However, his eyesight was blamed for his batting slump, as he hit only .255 compared to .290 in his rookie year and .287 in 1967.
In 1970, it truly looked like he was returning to his old form. He raised his batting average to .266 and had career highs in the home run and RBI department, with 36 and 116 respectively. Conigliaro was traded, ironically enough, to the California Angels. Just 26 years old, with such poor eyesight, he only hit .222 for the season, with just four home runs and 15 RBIs. Sadly, he decided to retire.
Four years later, Conigliaro tried to make another comeback with the Red Sox in the 1975 season. He was only 30 years old, but it just wasn’t meant to be. He hit .123 in 21 games, and this time retired for good due to his poor eyesight. In 1990, the Red Sox created the annual Tony Conigliaro Award which honors the player who best overcomes obstacles and adversities on and off the field.
3. Henry Boucha — Hockey
Jan. 4, 1975 – Minnesota North Stars center Henry Boucha suffered a fractured orbit (eye socket) after an attack by Boston Bruins player Dave Forbes. At the end of the first period, the two skaters had just come out of the penalty box 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 fracture. Boucha received a $3.5 million settlement but he never fully recovered. He did make a comeback to play for the WHA’s Minnesota Fighting Saints in 1976, and then again in 1977 with the Scouts and Rockies of the NHL, but couldn’t overcome his eye injury. He retired after that at the young age of 24.
A member of the Ojibwa tribe, Boucha has donated a lot of his time recently helping to advance various Native American causes. He is collaborating with Twin Cities Public Television on a documentary about his life, which he hopes will lead to a series of documentaries he wants to produce about the 21 Native Americans who have represented the U.S. in the Olympics. Boucha helped the U.S. win a silver medal in the 1972 Olympics in Sapporo prior to his NHL career.
4. Bernie Parent — Hockey
Feb. 17, 1979 – During a routine play, an opponent’s stick poked through the eyehole of Parent’s goalie mask. “I remember it well,” said Parent. “It was a Saturday afternoon. The defenseman’s stick came up high. It was just an accident. The guy was standing in front of the net. He turned around, lost his balance and hit me in the eye with his stick.” The Philadelphia Flyers Hall of Famer lost sight in his right eye for two whole weeks. He eventually recovered his sight, but his retina was badly damaged and eventually, vision loss forced him to retire. Parent played 14 years in the NHL, was a two-time Vezina and Conn Smythe Trophy winner and is considered one of the greatest goalies of his time. After the accident, many NHL and junior league franchises switched from the fiberglass mask to the modern-day cage mask.
Parent is using his fame to encourage others to donate their eyes after death. In 1980, he and The Flyers Fan Club started the Bernie Parent Eye Bank. Bernie is asking others to join the crusade.
5. Sugar Ray Leonard — Boxing
May 9, 1982 – World Welterweight Champion Sugar Ray Leonard had a two-hour surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore to repair a partially detached retina in his left eye. Leonard, age 25, had been having trouble with the eye since a sparring injury nine months earlier. While training for a title-defending match against Roger Stafford, he started to see floaters. The operation was successful, but Leonard retired six months after his eye healed. He made multiple comebacks but lost his last professional fight to Héctor Camacho in 1996. The following year, he was voted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
6. Dickie Thon — Baseball
April 8, 1984 – Dickie Thon, the Houston Astros shortstop, was up to bat and leaning into the plate when a pitch hit him and shattered the orbital bone above his left eye. The scar tissue that formed behind his retina left him partially blind. The rising National League star continued to play major league baseball for another 10 years, but stood farther from the plate and used a longer bat. Thon still struggles with the injury to this day, saying that driving and reading for long periods of time give him double vision and a headache.
Thon’s brother Frankie also suffered an eye injury on the baseball field. Playing American Legion baseball in San Juan in 1978, he was hit in the face by a catcher’s throw. As a result Frankie lost partial vision, which ultimately forced him to retire in 1981.
7. Kirby Puckett — Baseball
March 28, 1996 – Minnesota Twins outfielder Kirby Puckett woke up with a black dot blocking the vision in his right eye. The 35-year-old was a 10-time All-Star and one of baseball’s most popular players. It was the last day of the Twins spring training camp in Fort Myers, Florida when Puckett told team physician Leonard J. Michienzi, “Doc, I must have slept on my eye wrong, because all I’ve got is this big black dot in the middle.” Puckett was a known practical joker, and Michienzi thought he was kidding at first, but found that the player had indeed lost a substantial part of his peripheral vision. A retinal specialist diagnosed Puckett with glaucoma and found a partial blockage in the blood vessels of his retina. He endured four surgeries, but the vision loss could not be reversed. Just a few months later, on July 12th, Puckett announced his retirement. He became a national spokesperson for the Glaucoma Foundation and publicly encouraged people to get eye examinations. Puckett was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2001.
8. Orlando Brown — Football
Dec. 19, 1999 – Cleveland Browns offensive tackle Orlando “Zeus” Brown was hit in the eye by a penalty flag during a game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. The flag thrown by a referee was weighted with a pouch of BBs. It flew past the face bar on Brown’s helmet into his right eye. He staggered from the field, but almost immediately returned and pushed the referee to the ground, banishing him from the game. The impression was that Brown was retaliating, but he claims that he was trying to get back into the game and the official was simply in his way. He didn’t even know he was hit by a flag until he was at the hospital. “I thank God I did push him because if I did finish that game, I would have lost my eye,” he said. Brown did suffer damage to the eye’s retina and optic nerve, which led to ongoing pain and white flashes. Ultimately, he was cut by the Browns in Sept. 2000 and awarded 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
March 11, 2000 – Just six days after his 22nd birthday, Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Bryan Berard took a stick to the face on a slapshot follow-through. He fell to the ice and was rushed to a local hospital where he was diagnosed with 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 that season. The following year, Berard had multiple surgeries and wore a contact lens to achieve 20/400, the league’s minimum vision requirement. He did return to the ice and won hockey’s Masterton Memorial Trophy, awarded to the player who best exemplifies sportsmanship and dedication to hockey. In an ESPN interview in 2016, Berard said, “Every day I think about it. I wake up and I only have one eye. It’s every day,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s a lot of ‘what ifs?’ It was a freak accident. It’s part of the sport. At that time, a lot of players didn’t wear shields.”
10. Bryce Florie — Baseball
Sept. 8, 2000 – In a game against the Yankees, Boston Red Sox pitcher Bryce Florie was hit squarely in the right eye by a line drive traveling about 100 miles per hour. He was diagnosed with a damaged retina and fractures to his cheekbone and orbit (eye socket). At first, Florie didn’t know exactly what had happened. “I just knew my head felt like it was on fire,” he said. Two surgeries followed; one to relieve the pressure around his eye and a second to repair the broken bones. Doctors worried that he might lose his sight, but Florie’s vision eventually improved to 20/50. The 30-year-old returned to the mound in 2001 to pitch in seven games, but his Major League career ended shortly thereafter. Florie now coaches baseball at Northwood Academy, a private Christian high school in North Charleston, South Carolina.
11. Steve Yzerman — Hockey
May 1, 2004 – Detroit Red Wings forward Steve Yzerman took a puck to his left eye during game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals. He was not wearing a face shield when a shot ricocheted off the opposing team’s goalie. The future Hall of Famer was down on the ice for several minutes before being rushed to a local hospital. He suffered from a corneal abrasion and underwent 4 ½ hours of surgery to repair an orbital fracture. “I don’t know what the final point is going to be when I say that’s it,” Yzerman said, “But I’m not there.” The 10-time All Star missed the remainder of the playoffs but returned to the ice for his final season before retiring as the sixth-leading scorer in NHL history. His injury has advanced the push for mandatory visor use in ice hockey.
12. Juan Encarnación — Baseball
Aug. 31, 2007 – Juan Encarnación, a St. Louis Cardinals outfielder, was struck in the face by a foul ball while waiting to pinch hit in the on-deck circle. The ball caused multiple fractures to his left eye socket and trauma to his optic nerve. Dr. George Paletta, the Cardinals’ team physician, described the injury as “the worst trauma I’ve seen. Absolutely.” Encarnación underwent successful surgery to repair the fractures, but suffered permanent vision loss due to the optic nerve damage. He missed the remainder of the 2007 season and never returned to play professional baseball. Prior to the injury he had an 18-game hitting streak from May 30 to June 18 and batted cleanup 35 times, mostly against left-handed pitchers.
13. Amare Stoudemire — Basketball
Feb. 18, 2009 – Phoenix Suns player Amare Stoudemire suffered a detached retina after getting poked in the eye in the midst of his best game of the year (42 points and 11 rebounds) against the Los Angeles Clippers. The same eye had just recovered from a partially torn iris after being poked by a teammate. Stoudemire had emergency surgery and sat out the remainder of the season. Later that year he spoke at The Vision Summit about his eye injuries and the importance of sports eye protection. 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 the Mavericks. He retired in 2016.
14. Luis Salazar — Baseball
March 9, 2011 – Luis Salazar, the Atlanta Braves Minor League manager, lost his left eye after he was struck in the face by a foul ball. Salazar was standing against the railing at the top step of the dugout during a spring training game against the St. Louis Cardinals when the Braves catcher, Brian McCann, hit a foul ball in his direction. Unable to avoid the ball, Salazar fell back head-first into the dugout, suffering multiple facial fractures. The game was stopped for almost 20 minutes while Salazar was airlifted to a nearby hospital. Unfortunately, doctors were not able to save his eye. Salazar had played in the major leagues from 1980 to 1992 as a third baseman and outfielder for various teams including the San Diego Padres, Detroit Tigers, Chicago Cubs and Chicago White Sox. He was a career .261 hitter with 94 home runs and played in the 1984 World Series for the Padres. Today he works as a manager for the Atlanta Braves organization.
15. Marc Staal — Hockey
March 5, 2013 – New York Rangers defenseman Marc Staal was hit above the right eye by a deflected slapshot in a game against the Philadelphia Flyers. He was not wearing a protective visor. After falling to the ice, he was able to skate to the dressing room. Later that evening, he was diagnosed with an orbital fracture and a retinal tear. Though surgery wasn’t necessary, he missed the remainder of the season (27 regular-season games and 11 playoff games). Staal’s eye pressure spiked and dropped, causing him dizziness and disorientation. He also complained that his eye would, at times, cramp up and cause him headaches. He said, “It would be tough to get through a practice, never mind a game.” He returned to the ice the following season at 100% and became a verbal advocate for mandatory visor use in the NHL. The league began requiring new players to wear visors in the 2013–14 season and nearly all players wear them today.
16. Larry Sanders — Basketball
Feb. 8, 2014 – Milwaukee Bucks center Larry Sanders was elbowed in the right eye by Houston Rockets guard James Harden as they competed for a rebound. He left the game with multiple fractures to his orbital bone (eye socket). The Bucks hoped that he would return by the All-Star break, but persistent double vision forced him to sit out the rest of the 2014 season. Bucks head coach Larry Drew told reporters, “That’s really unfortunate because the kid has been playing well. He was starting to play with a rhythm and played two of his better games this year. It’s just real unfortunate that he sustained the injury. He was starting to get that energy back, that fire and passion. It’s just really unfortunate.” Sanders eventually left the NBA by 2017.
17. Aroldis Chapman — Baseball
March 19, 2014 – Cincinnati Reds closer Aroldis Chapman was hit in the face by a line drive off the bat of Kansas City Royals catcher Salvador Perez during a spring training game. The pitch was clocked at 99 m.p.h. and the hit knocked him to the ground. Manager Bryan Price said Chapman was conscious and talking as he was taken off the field. The game was called after an eight-minute delay with Kansas City leading, 6–3. “It was really a mutual agreement,” the crew chief, Chris Guccione, said. “Players were rattled. The staff was rattled. The umpires were rattled. We figured it was best, along with both teams in agreement, that the game should end.”
Chapman underwent a 2 ½ hour procedure where a titanium plate was inserted to stabilize a broken orbital bone above his left eye. Luckily for the two-time All-Star, the injury was not career threatening and he returned to play later that season.
18. Matt Imhof — Baseball
June 25, 2016 – Philadelphia Phillies’ pitching prospect, Matt Imhof, lost his eye in a freak accident. Imhof had been stretching using a resistance band hooked to a wall when the metal hook came out of the wall and struck him in the face. He fractured his nose, broke two orbital bones and severely injured his right eye. After learning that regaining sight in the injured eye was unlikely, Imhof chose to have it removed, replacing it with a prosthetic. Just seven months later, Imhof retired from baseball at the young age of 23, but insisted that it wasn’t because of his injury. “My injury is not what’s stopping me,” Imhof wrote. “The truth is I need a change of pace after 20 years of doing the same thing.” He continues, “I’m a firm believer that baseball, through all my struggles on and off the field, prepared me for this moment. But the greatest thing baseball ever did for me was teach me who I could be without it.” Imhof was taken 47th in the 2014 MLB draft. He played 2 ½ minor league seasons with four different teams, and posted a 13–10 record with a 3.69 ERA.
19. Akil Mitchell — Basketball
Jan. 26, 2017 – American forward Akil Mitchell’s left eyeball popped out of its socket after he was poked in the face while going for a rebound during a game in New Zealand. The 24-year-old was playing for the New Zealand Breakers when the accident occurred. The game was stopped for 15 minutes while the player was treated by medical officials. Mitchell said he had no vision impairment, but won’t be watching any videos of the incident. Mitchell told the New Zealand Herald, “(Teammate) Paul (Carter) really wanted me to see it and I was like, I can’t do it. It kind of makes my eye throb a little just thinking about it, so I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to watch it.” He continues to play professionally.
20. James Harden — Basketball
April 31, 2019 – Houston Rockets star player James Harden was accidentally hit in the face by Warriors’ Draymond Green while fighting for a loose rebound during the second game of the NBA playoffs Western Conference semifinals. Harden suffered a visible cut to his left eyelid and blood was in the whites of his eyes. The accident occurred just 5 minutes into the game. Harden continued to play and even with blurry vision scored 29 points, six rebounds and four assists. What wasn’t known at the time was that he had bruised the retina in both of his eyes. Harden, the 2017–18 NBA MVP got lucky. Sometimes the force from blunt trauma causes a more serious, vision-threatening condition called a retinal detachment.
Protective Eyewear Can Save Your Vision
Whether you’re a student athlete or professional celebrity, protective eyewear is the best defense against these types of sports injuries. Save your sight on the field or court by using proper eye protection starting this April, Sports Eye Safety Month.
If you or your loved ones have suffered an eye injury to the cornea or retina, Eye Care of Delaware can help. Call (302) 454-8800 or contact us online.