Fighting Back: 15 Athletes Who Have Battled Adversity
Athletes are often so adored that fans forget they are human.
That is, until adversity strikes.
Then everyone remembers that an athlete can suffer from the same problems as everyone else.
Cancer, disease, catastrophic injuries.
I'm not talking about one heroic performance (a.k.a. Curt Schilling's bloody sock). I'm talking about athletes who have faced death, but returned to perform at the highest level of their sport.
After beginning this article, I realized that it's nearly impossible to rank someone's suffering. Instead, this is just a list of 15 athletes who have beat the odds. I am sure there are countless more stories than the 15 I have found, but they are all worth reading.
Let's take a look.
Red Sox Third Basemen Mike Lowell
In 1998, Mike Lowell broke into the major leagues with the New York Yankees. That off-season, the Yankees shipped him to the Florida Marlins.
It was in Florida, the state Lowell grew up in and went to college in, that Lowell discovered he had testicular cancer.
Lowell's cancer was first detected on February 19, 1999.
By May 29, he was in the Marlins lineup after missing all of spring training and nearly two months of the season.
As a Marlins fan, I remember a cancer scare in the middle of the Marlins' World Series run in 2003.
"The first time when I had the cancer, my wife and I had been married four months. We had no responsibilities. But the second time, we had my daughter...now you are leaving someone behind," Lowell told the Boston Globe.
The 2003 scare turned out to be a misdiagnosis, and Lowell was on the field when the Marlins defeated the Yankees for the World Series.
In the 11 years since Lowell defeated cancer, he has won three World Series titles and been named to the All-Star team four times.
Olympic Swimmer Eric Shanteau
If you were diagnosed with testicular cancer the week before Olympic qualifying, what would you do?
Eric Shanteau chose to compete. His second place finish guaranteed him a spot in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
A little more than a month later, Shanteau was in Beijing. He missed the finals in the 200 meter breaststroke by .13 seconds and returned home for surgery.
Shanteau has since recovered, and in 2009 he recorded the third fastest time ever in the 200 meter IM.
Retired Figure Skater Scott Hamilton
In 1997, Olympic Gold Medalist Scott Hamilton was diagnosed with testicular cancer.
That same year, Hamilton would return to the ice, even skating while undergoing treatment.
Unfortunately, he discovered in 2004 that he had a brain tumor. He underwent surgery as recently as June 2010 and he is now reportedly doing well.
Hamilton had this to say of his struggles with cancer: "The only disability in life is a bad attitude."
Toronto Maples Leaf Right Winger Phil Kessel
On December 11, 2006, Phil Kessel was admitted to the hospital for testicular cancer.
On December 16, 2006, Kessel was cancer free.
On January 9, 2007, Kessel was recalled to the Boston Bruins, missing only 11 regular season games.
Talk about a quick recovery. Oh, and Kessel won a silver medal with the USA hockey team in the 2010 Olympics.
Retired First Basemen Andres Galarraga
Some called him The Big Cat.
Some called him El Gato.
Others just called him Andres Galaragga.
It was certain that he was big and quick.
But, in 1999, Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma kept him from playing. Galarraga underwent treatment and was able to return for the 2000 season with the Braves.
In 2000, Galaragga put together a .302 batting average to go with 28 home runs and 100 RBI. This was good enough to earn him a comeback player of the year award.
Retired WNBA Guard Edna Campbell
In 1999, Edna Campbell was the 10th overall pick in the WNBA draft.
During her fourth season, it was discovered that Campbell had breast cancer.
She would go on to defeat the cancer and return to play for several more years.
In 2006, her return to basketball following breast cancer was voted the "most inspirational moment" in WNBA history.
Golfer Billy Mayfair
Billy Mayfair is another one of those crazy competitors. Here is the sequence of events.
July 31, 2006: Diagnosed with testicular cancer.
August 3, 2006: Surgery to remove cancer.
August 17, 2006: Billy Mayfair tees off at the PGA Championship.
That's just 14 days between surgery and his return to golf. If you can even call it a return—he didn't miss a tournament!
Lokomotiv Yaroslaval Right Winger Richard Zednik
See those scars on his neck?
You might not recognize the names of his team, but you surely remember the Florida Panthers player who almost died on the ice.
His name is Richard Zednik, and two years ago, a teammate's skate cut open his carotid artery.
Zednik's luck lay in the fact that the artery was not severed. He would return to the Panthers in the 2008-2009 season and picked up two assists in his first game back.
Retired Goalie Clint Malarchuk
On March 22, 1989, Clint Malarchuk was tending goal for the Buffalo Sabres.
That is, until an errant blade severed his carotid artery.
The injury was so gruesome that television cameras immediately panned away.
Malarchuk's only concern was for his mother, who he knew was watching the game.
"My mother was watching the game on TV, and I didn't want her to see me die," said Malarchuk.
Due to the brave actions of the Sabres athletic trainer, Malarchuk would survive.
And a week later he was back in goal.
Retired Center Fielder Eric Davis
It has been nearly a decade since Eric Davis last played in the majors. But his legacy has not been forgotten.
During the 1997 season, Davis was diagnosed with colon cancer.
His diagnosis was met with an unlikely promise: Davis vowed to return that same season.
And return he did.
In 1998, Davis had the fourth best batting average in the league and strung together a 30-game hitting streak. Pretty impressive for a guy who was one year removed from cancer.
Washington Redskins Punter Josh Bidwell
Josh Bidwell has played for the Packers, Bucs, and, most recently, signed with the Redskins during his time with the NFL.
Like Mike Lowell, Bidwell was in his rookie season with a new team when he first noticed an irregularity with his testicles.
Unlike Lowell, Bidwell's cancer had spread beyond his testicles, and he was told he would need chemotherapy after having had emergency surgery.
"In the course of a few days, I went from the starting nod to being told I had cancer and would be fighting for my life. I was laying in the hospital after the initial surgery and thought 'What in the world just happened?'" Bidwell told ESPN.
After chemotherapy had run its course, Bidwell found himself 50 pounds lighter and barely able to walk. That starting job had turned into an invite to compete for a job the following year.
But, after six months of rehab, Bidwell made the Packers team in 2000, one year after his cancer diagnosis.
Bidwell's best year came in 2005 with the Bucs, when he was named to the Pro Bowl.
Retired First Basemen John Kruk
In 1994, three-time All-Star John Kruk was diagnosed with testicular cancer.
Kruk's diagnosis involved a bit of luck. As the result of an errant throw by Phillies closer Mitch Williams, Kruk had to have a testicle removed.
The doctors only found the cancer after removing the testicle.
At that point, the cancer had spread to his stomach, and he required radiation.
I'll spoil the ending and tell you that Kruk returned to baseball for two more seasons following his defeat of cancer before retiring.
However, this story is definitely worth reading.
Retired Center Alonzo Mourning
In 2003, Alonzo Mourning retired from basketball due to a deadly kidney disease.
That same year, 'Zo would receive a life saving kidney transplant from an estranged cousin.
By 2004, 'Zo was back in playing shape. He would force a trade from the Nets to the Raptors, where he was bought out of his contract.
'Zo went on to sign a free agent contract with the Miami Heat in 2005. In 2006, he won a championship with the team. During that season, he ranked third in the NBA in blocks per game, despite playing limited minutes as Shaquille O'Neal's backup.
Retired Small Forward Sean Elliott
Shockingly, Alonzo Mourning was not the first NBA player to suffer from the deadly kidney disease known as focal segmental glomerulosclerosis.
Following the Spurs 1999 Championship year, Sean Elliott announced that he had been playing with a kidney disease.
After receiving a transplant from his brother in August of 2000, Elliott became the first NBA player to return to action after receiving a kidney transplant.
However, his comeback was short-lived. He retired the following season after 12 years in the league.
If you have turned on your TV in the last 10 years, you probably know that Lance Armstrong is a cancer survivor. But did you know how serious his battle was?
When Armstrong first began treatment in 1996, he was told that his chance at survival was 40 percent.
The cancer that began in his testicle had spread to his lungs, abdomen, and brain.
The cancer required immediate surgery, which resulted in the removal of several brain tumors and a testicle, as well as immediate chemotherapy.
Against the odds, Armstrong survived and persevered. Prior to his cancer battle, Armstrong had won just two stages of the Tour de France in his career.
After cancer? Well he won the Tour—seven times in a row.