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Senior Bowl 2011: Mark Herzlich and the 10 Most Inspiring Comebacks in Sports

Joseph ChasanCorrespondent INovember 6, 2016

Senior Bowl 2011: Mark Herzlich and the 10 Most Inspiring Comebacks in Sports

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    If you don't know the name Mark Herzlich, you probably should.  He's a linebacker for the Boston College Eagles who's getting ready to cap off his college career with an appearance in this weekend's Senior Bowl, but that's only the beginning of his story.

    Herzlich was a star for the Eagles and an NFL prospect in 2009 when his world came crashing down.  He was diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer called Ewing's Sarcoma.  At the time, he didn't just not know if he was ever going to play football again, he didn't know if he was going to live.

    But he fought it, went through extensive treatment, and emerged five months later cancer-free.  After taking the 2009 season off to rest and continue treatment, he returned in 2010 and re-emerged as even more of a leader for Boston College, and as a symbol of hope for all those who afflicted by this terrible disease.

    In honor of his story, here are 10 of the other most inspiring comebacks in sports history.

10) Rick Ankiel

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    Ankiel was a highly touted pitching prospect for the St. Louis Cardinals who enjoyed a fine rookie season as a 20-year-old in 2000, going 11-7 with a 3.50 ERA and 194 strikeouts and finishing second in the voting for NL Rookie of the Year.

    Then the playoffs happened, and he forgot how to throw.  In his NLDS start against Atlanta, he walked six and threw five wild pitches in just 2.2 innings.  In two NLCS appearances against the Mets, he got through just 1.1 innings, walking five and throwing four wild pitches.  It was utterly baffling, but it was very real.

    He tried to keep pitching the next year, but couldn't shake the mental block.  Eventually, he had to face the facts that he was never going to be able to pitch in the major leagues again.  But that didn't stop him from playing in the major leagues again.

    Ankiel converted himself into an outfielder in 2005, and amazingly, started hitting.  He made it back to the majors in 2007, not as some feel-good-story call-up, but as a bona fide power-hitting, middle of the order star, and his career continues today.

    Not since Babe Ruth had there been such a position shift, and his seven-year odyssey back to the majors taught us all the power of perseverance.

9) Dara Torres

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    Dara Torres was a teenage swimming star in the 1980s, and one of the dominant American swimmers on the world circuit throughout the '80s and '90s.

    She appeared in four Summer Olympics for the United States, winning medals in each one, and retired from swimming after the 2000 Sydney Games in order to focus on having a family and being a mom.  She was already a feel-good story, being the oldest member of 2000 US Olympic swimming team and winning five medals.

    But she defied all the odds when she returned to the pool in 2007 at age 40 and picked up right where she left off, just a year after giving birth to her first child.  She broke her own American record in the 50-meter freestyle that summer, 26 years after having initially set the record as a 15-year-old.

    She continued her comeback by qualifying for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, her record fifth games, and won three more Olympic medals.  At 41, she was the oldest American woman to ever swim in the Olympics and has already stated her intentions to keep going until London in 2012.

    She is an inspirational figure for every mother out there that they can still do anything younger people can do.

8) Gordie Howe

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    Mr. Hockey is best known for his legendary career with the Detroit Red Wings, during which he set virtually every record in the NHL books and led the Wings to four Stanley Cups.  But that's not where the inspirational part of his story comes from.

    Howe retired in 1971 at the age of 43 after 25 seasons in the league.  His love for the game still burned deeply, but a chronic wrist ailment nixed any thought of a return at the time.  That all changed, however, when his two sons, Mark and Marty, were starting their pro careers with the Houston Aeros of the newly formed WHA a few years later.

    He decided to have surgery on the wrist and made a triumphant return to pro hockey in 1973 at the age of 45.  But he wasn't just a token seat filler.  He led the Aeros to back-to-back championships in his first two years with the team and won a WHA MVP award.  Eventually, he was able to return to the NHL in 1979 for one final season at the age of 51 with the Hartford Whalers.

    Gordie Howe is arguably the most beloved figure in hockey history, not because of his talent, but because of his obvious love for the sport and ability to recapture his youth alongside his children.

7) Martina Navratilova

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    Martina Navratilova was already one of the greatest players in tennis history when she first retired from competition in 1994, having won 167 singles titles, including 18 Grand Slam titles, over her prolific career.

    But she wasn't done making history.  Six years later, in 2000, at the age of 43, she returned to reclaim her status as one of the best doubles players in the world.  In a sport where most of her competitors were half her age, she was schooling the youngsters with her attacking style and was often the most fit person on the court.

    When she won the mixed doubles title at the Australian Open in 2003 at the age of 46, she became the oldest player to ever win a Grand Slam title.  She won her first-round singles match at Wimbledon in straight sets in 2004, becoming the oldest player in the open era ever to win a Grand Slam singles match. 

    And she still wasn't done, playing for another three years before finally going out on top, and on her own terms, after winning another mixed doubles title at the US Open in 2006.

    Navratilova continues to be one of tennis' greatest ambassadors and is a living testament to the fact that age really is just a number.

6) George Foreman

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    Believe it or not, there was a time when George Foreman wasn't known as the pitchman behind such miraculous culinary contraptions as the Lean Mean Fat Reducing Grilling Machine.

    He was a champion boxer competing with the likes of Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier during the 1970s, and won the undisputed heavyweight championship of the world in 1973, eventually racking up a record of 40-0 with 37 knockouts.  After losing to Ali at the "Rumble in the Jungle," Foreman fought for a few more years before retiring in 1977.

    His last fight, a loss to Jimmy Young, changed him forever.  Known until then as a fearsome man who had lived a hard life, Foreman found God after becoming ill following the fight and decided to re-dedicate his life to Christian living.  For the next 10 years, he worked at this cause, becoming an ordained minister and raising his family.

    Finally, in 1987 at the age of 38, Foreman announced he was returning to the ring, to better promote his Christan values and raise money for worthy causes.  He continued fighting into his 40s, with the crowning moment coming when he knocked out 26-year-old Michael Moorer in 1994 to regain the world heavyweight title he had lost 20 years earlier.

    Foreman's uplifting story showed the power of the human spirit and proved that if you're doing what you love, then nothing is impossible.

5) Monica Seles

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    At the age of 16, Monica Seles stormed onto the world tennis stage and immediately began dominating the tour.  Between 1990 and 1993, she won nine Grand Slam singles titles and usually sat perched at No. 1 in the world.

    All of that changed in in April of 1993, at a match in Hamburg, Germany.  There, a crazed fan of Seles' German rival Steffi Graf jumped onto the court during a changeover and stabbed Seles in the back.  The violent act shocked the tennis world and dramatically altered Seles' career.

    She wasn't badly injured, but the psychological wounds were far worse, and it took her more than two years to find the courage to return to the pro circuit.  Originally seen as a brash, loud, cocky teenager, after her return she found that she was more beloved than ever.

    At her first tournament back, the 1995 Canadian Open, Seles won the championship.  She continued her return to the top at that year's US Open, where she advanced to the final, and completed her comeback at the 1996 Australian Open, where she won her 10th Grand Slam tournament title.

    Seles was never quite the same player after that, but she remains a powerful symbol of courage and hope around the world.

4) Mario Lemieux

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    Lemieux was the one player capable of challenging Wayne Gretzky for the title of best hockey player in the world.  Gretzky was the Great One, but Lemieux was Super Mario, and he routinely put up Gretzky-esque numbers while pushing the Pittsburgh Penguins into the forefront of the NHL landscape.

    After leading the Penguins to back-to-back Stanley Cup titles in 1991 and 1992, Lemieux seemed poised to take the torch from Gretzky as the face of the sport, but that all changed in 1993 when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma, a cancer of the white blood cells. 

    Amazingly, he only missed two months of action, and returned in time to finish the season, lead the league in scoring and captain the Penguins in the playoffs.

    Of course, that was only the beginning.  He continued to battle the disease, while at the same time being forced to cope with back issues that would eventually grow so bad that Lemieux couldn't even bend over to lace up his skates.  The combined ailments forced him to take a season-long leave of absence in 1994-95, and to retire in 1997 at the age of 31, after leading the league in scoring the two previous seasons.

    He made one more triumphant return to the ice, however, four years later, at the age of 35, and whenever he was healthy enough to play, made fans forget that anything was wrong, before finally calling it quits for good in 2006.

    Eventually, he would establish an even greater legacy for himself in Pittsburgh, saving the franchise from bankruptcy by purchasing the franchise himself and returning it to dominance with a Stanley Cup as an owner in 2009.

3) Michael Jordan

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    Everyone already knows this story, but I'll summarize it anyway.

    The best player in basketball, Jordan made winning scoring titles and NBA championships an annual occurence in Chicago throughout the early 1990s, culminating with a three-peat in 1992-93.  Jordan was on top of the world professionally, but personally, things were a bit different.

    Already dogged by a controversy over his gambling habits during the 1993 NBA playoffs, Jordan suffered a major loss that summer when his father, James, was murdered.  Overwhelmed with grief and a desire to take some time and space for himself, Jordan shocked the world by announcing his retirement from basketball at the age of 30.

    Then the following spring, he further surprised fans by deciding to give professional baseball a try.  Baseball had been his favorite sport as a child, and he signed a contract with the Chicago White Sox.  He ended up playing for the Birmingham Barons, the White Sox Double-A affiliate, in 1994, but found limited success.

    Just when everyone was getting used to the idea of Jordan in cleats and a helmet, he pulled another switcheroo, returning to the NBA to reclaim his throne.  He firmly announced that he was still the player he had been with a memorable "double-nickel" game with 55 points against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden and eventually led the Bulls to three more NBA titles.

    While he executed another comeback in 2001 with the Washington Wizards, it was less successful, and as far as inspiring stories go, it was impossible to top his first return.  His journey revealed a human side to the star, and he inspired people around the world to not be afraid to follow their dreams.

2) Dave Dravecky

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    Dave Dravecky spent the early years of his career as a good, but not great, starting pitcher for the San Diego Padres.  He was acquired by the San Francisco Giants in 1987 and performed well down the stretch, going 7-5 with a 3.20 ERA and providing veteran leadership in the clubhouse.

    In 1988, though, his career and his life took a major detour, when a cancerous tumor was discovered in his pitching arm.  He underwent surgery in October, 1988, having half of his deltoid muscle removed and the bone frozen.  It wasn't known if he would survive, let along pitch again.

    But pitch again he did, returning in 1989 and making three terrific minor league rehab starts.  Anticipation was high in the Bay Area for his return to Candlestick, and it finally happened on August 10th.  Dravecky received multiple standing ovations and was showered with love by the Giants faithful. 

    He rewarded their support of him with a gem of a start, tossing eight innings of three-run ball against the Cincinnati Reds to earn the win.  It was one of the most uplifting and inspirational games in sporting history.

    Unfortunately, in the very next game, Dravecky broke his arm throwing a pitch, and he eventually discovered that his cancer had returned.  He was forced to retire from baseball and had his left arm and shoulder amputated in 1991.  But in his struggle, he found hope and redemption, and has become a popular and acclaimed motivational speaker, writing books and touring the country with his story.

    He pitched just 27 games for the Giants, but to this day, he remains one of their most popular former players.  He continues to inspire people and teach that life may make you take some detours, but it's still a wonderful journey.

1) Lance Armstrong

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    The story of Lance Armstrong is the stuff that legends are made of.

    A promising young cyclist in the early 1990s, Armstrong won the World Championship in 1993, and captured two stages in the Tour de France, one of the most grueling sporting events on the planet. 

    But he hadn't really penetrated the consciousness of the public-at-large until his announcement in 1996 that he was suffering from stage-three testicular cancer, an illness that eventually spread to his lungs and his brain.  He was given a less than 50 percent chance of survival.

    He went through a long, painful, and exhausting treatment and recovery process, and amazingly, emerged out the other side cancer-free, and wanting to get back on the bike.  He returned to professional road racing in 1998, but few people expected him to really be able to get back to his old form.

    Instead, he exceeded anyone's wildest predictions, establishing himself as a serious international contender with a fourth-place finish in the 1998 Vuelta a Espana, before tackling the 1999 Tour de France, his first return to the mythical race in three years.  A new athlete, leaner, more fit, more determined, Armstrong shocked the sporting world by winning the overall title that year, instantly becoming a lightning rod for cancer survivors all over the world.

    He would go on to win the Tour de France seven years in a row between 1999 and 2005, and used his fame as a platform to rally the world community to the cause of curing cancer.  He established the Lance Armstrong Foundation and has raised hundreds of millions of dollars for the cause of research and treatment.

    He executed a second comeback in 2009, returning to the sport after a three-year absence to continue his mission of promoting cancer research around the globe.  Think what you will about the allegations of doping, but Armstrong has done more to promote cancer research than any other athlete in the world and remains a powerful symbol of resilience and hope.

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