The 20 Biggest Injury Comebacks in Sports

Timothy RappFeatured ColumnistSeptember 12, 2011

The 20 Biggest Injury Comebacks in Sports

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    How can a basketball player only scoring four points be legendary? Or a quarterback losing a game after throwing two interceptions and no touchdowns?

    By overcoming an injury to accomplish the feat, that's how.

    On this list, we remember the players that overcame injuries and ailments to return and play heroically for their team. Some overcame an injury in a game and fought through the pain to finish the contest. Others battled injuries that should have kept them on the bench or threatened their careers.

    One way or another, the following athletes inspired us all with their determination and willpower.

20. Drew Brees

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    In the final game of the 2005 season, Drew Brees went diving for a fumble, and came up with a devastating arm injury—a torn labrum and partially torn rotator cuff in his throwing shoulder.

    That offseason, the Chargers offered him backup money to remain with the team, and many teams around the league were scared off by the shoulder injury, including the Dolphins, who went with Daunte Culpepper.

    All he did after that was lead the Saints to a championship in Super Bowl XLIV and win the game's MVP award, along with being named the 2008 AP NFL Offensive Player of the Year.

    Guess that shoulder was all right after all.

19. Curt Schilling

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    Ah yes, the infamous bloody sock.

    For those of you who don't remember the moment, here you go:

    "Schilling was injured in Game 1 of the 2004 AL championship series against New York. Team doctors stitched a tendon in his right ankle to keep it from flopping around, and he returned to lead the Red Sox to a remarkable win in Game 6 to tie the series at 3-3. The Red Sox went on to win that series, and won the World Series for their first title since 1918."

    And for those of you who don't believe the whole story, well, Schilling has this to say to you:

    “If you have...the guts, grab an orthopedic surgeon, have them suture your ankle skin down to the tissue covering the bone in your ankle joint, then walk around for 4 hours,” Schilling wrote on his Web site www.38pitches.com. “After that go find a mound, throw a hundred or so pitches, run over, cover first a few times. When you’re done check that ankle and see if it bleeds.”

18. Rajon Rondo

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    In Game 3 of the 2011 Eastern Conference Semifinals, Dwayne Wade and Rajon Rondo got tangled up and Rondo ended up with a dislocated elbow, an injury most expected would keep him out for the rest of the game.

    That wasn't the case. Rondo came back at the beginning of the fourth quarter and helped lead Boston to a vital Game 3 victory over Miami, finishing with 11 assists.

    The heroic performance wasn't enough to save Boston in the series, however, as they lost to Miami in five games.

17. Willis Reed

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    It's one of the vintage moments in NBA Playoffs history—Willis Reed walking through the tunnel for Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals.

    Reed and the torn muscle in his thigh scored the first two baskets in the game (his only points), inspiring the Knicks to a victory over the Lakers behind Walt Frazier's 36 points and 19 assists.

16. Byron Leftwich

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    Leftwich broke his left tibia in the first quarter of this 2002 matchup between Marshall and Akron. After leaving the game and getting x-rays, Leftwich returned in the third quarter, though Marshall trailed 27-10.

    Despite a herculean comeback effort by Leftwich, Marshall ultimately lost the game, 34-20.

15. Tiger Woods

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    There was a time when nothing—and I mean nothing—could stop Tiger Woods.

    Not even himself.

    Two weeks before the 2008 US Open, Woods suffered a double stress fracture in his left tibia.

    "Hank Haney, his swing coach, was with him in Florida when doctors told Woods the preferred treatment was three weeks on crutches, followed by three weeks of rest.

    "According to Haney, Woods looked at the doctor and said: 'I'm playing the U.S. Open, and I'm going to win.'

    'And then he started putting on his shoes,' Haney recalled. 'He looked at me and said, 'Come on, Hank. We'll just putt today.' Every night, I kept thinking there was no chance he's going to play. He had to stop in his tracks for 30 seconds walking from the dining room table to the refrigerator."

    But nothing was going to stand in Woods' way.

    "Despite a torn anterior cruciate ligament and the double stress fracture, Woods managed to win a major that required five days of flinching, grimacing and a long list of spectacular shots that have defined his career.

    "He went 91 holes on a leg that got worse each day, finally defeating Rocco Mediate on the 19th hole of a playoff."

14. Philip Rivers

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    This one is pretty simple: Philip Rivers played the 2007 AFC Championship game against the Patriots with a torn ACL.

    It may not have been the smartest decision—he went 19-37 for 211 yards and two interceptions in the loss—but you can't question his guts for attempting to play the position with a torn ACL.

13. Kirk Gibson

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    It's one of the most famous home runs in baseball history.

    Gibson wasn't expected to play in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series between the Dodgers and Athletics, suffering from two injured legs and a stomach virus.

    But with the Dodgers trailing 4-3 in the ninth inning, Gibson came out as a pinch hitter with two outs and Mike Davis on first base. After working the count to 3-2 against the A's stud closer, Dennis Eckersley, Gibson lifted a dramatic home run into the right field seats.

    And he didn't make another appearance in the series. No matter—the Dodgers, perhaps inspired by the moment, won the series in five.

12. Michael Jordan

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    Just watch the video and be amazed.

    In a huge Game 5 against the Jazz in the 1997 Finals, Jordan overcame a vicious flu that had him vomiting right up until game time and scored 38 points in a Bulls victory, giving them a 3-2 game lead in the series.

    There will never be another like him.

    (And no, it's not really an injury, but in my opinion it's as admirable to overcome a flu as it was for many of the others on the list, so I felt inclined to include it.)

11. Emmitt Smith

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    In the final game of the 1993 regular season, Smith led the Cowboys to an overtime victory over the Giants with a dislocated shoulder.

    Despite dislocating the shoulder in the first half, Smith played through excruciating pain, finishing the game with 229 yards. And he did so at the physically demanding position of running back, where he was getting hit at full speed every time he touched the ball.

    Unbelievable.

10. Steve Yzerman

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    I think this pretty much says it all about Steve Yzerman:

    "Detroit general manager Ken Holland said he never saw anyone play in more pain than Steve Yzerman when he led the Red Wings to the 2002 Stanley Cup championship.

    "'He got shot up before every game,' Holland said. 'He could hardly walk. He had a knee that was bone on bone. He was in such incredible pain.'"


    (Yzerman had reconstructive surgery on his knee in the offseason that cost him half of the 2003 season.)

9. Donovan McNabb

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    There is one reason McNabb playing on a broken ankle ranks higher in my opinion than Rivers playing on the torn ACL: Rivers played mediocre at best, whereas McNabb was spectacular.

    When McNabb broke his ankle against the Cardinals in 2002, he went 20-25 for 255 yards and four touchdowns in the game, leading the Eagles to a 38-14 victory and a 7-3 record.

    He missed the remaining six games of regular season.

8. Kerri Strug

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    After injuring her ankle on her first vault in the team gymnastics competition during the 1996 Olympics, the US team needed Strug to land a second vault on her feet to clinch the gold.

    And Strug did just that, sticking the landing in one of the most iconic moments in US Olympics history.

    A truly brave moment.

7. Ronnie Lott

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    There aren't many humans out there who can lay claim to being as big a badass as Ronnie Lott was.

    After all, he amputated his finger...so he could stay in a football game!

    Read that sentence again, and the next time you feel like complaining about a few aches or pains, just keep your mouth shut instead.

6. Jack Youngblood

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    While we're on the subject of broken legs, let's not forget about Jack Youngblood, who snapped his left fibula in a 1979 Divisional Round playoff game between the Rams and Cowboys.

    And yes, he returned to the game and even registered a sack. And no, he wasn't finished there:

    "Youngblood used a leg brace the rest of the way as the Rams won the NFC title the next week at Tampa Bay before losing Super Bowl XIV to the Steelers, 31-19. Just for good measure, the future Hall of Famer played in the Pro Bowl as well."

    That's just madness, folks.

5. Bobby Baun

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    After a Gordie Howe slap shot broke Baun's leg in Game 6 of the 1964 Stanley Cup Finals with the score tied 3-3, Baun did what anyone else would have done.

    After being taken off the ice on a stretcher, he had it taped back up and scored the game-winning goal in overtime, forcing a Game 7.

    Wait, nobody in his right mind would do that.

    And to top it off, he also played in Game 7, helping the Maple Leafs win the Stanley Cup.

4. Clint Malarchuk

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    You can find video of this incident on YouTube if you aren't the queasy type, but I had to physically walk away from my computer when I watched it, so I wasn't about to post it here.

    Malarchuk was a goalie for the Sabres in 1989 when he had his throat slit by the skate of Steve Tuttle of the Blues, literally causing blood to gush on to the ice.

    Malarchuk's life was saved by the team trainer, Jim Pizzutelli, who had served in Vietnam as an army medic and stopped the bleeding in Malarchuk's neck until the wound could be closed.

    And then Malarchuk returned to the ice only four days—yup, four days—later, despite doctors recommending that he take the rest of the season off.

    Hockey players are just wired differently, I guess.

3. Niki Lauda

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    Thirty-nine days after being part of such a brutal crash at the 1976 German Grand Prix that he found himself trapped in his car and engulfed in flames, Niki Lauda returned to his race car and finished fourth at the Italian Grand Prix.

    That's unbelievable, considering he suffered severe burns to his head, inhaled dangerous gasses while trapped in his car, later slipped into a coma, and is still missing the majority of his right ear.

2. Mario Lemieux

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    There are athletes who have played through or returned from life-threatening illnesses. Others have come back from debilitating injuries that would have forced mere mortals to give the game up.

    And then there is Mario Lemieux, who not only suffered from Hodgkin's lymphoma, but also endured chronic back pain throughout his career.

    And he was pretty good along the way.

    "With his puck-handling dexterity, long reach and accurate shot, Lemieux won three Most Valuable Player awards in the NHL and six times was its leading scorer.

    "Lemieux is the only player to average more than two points a game (2.01). His goal-scoring percentage of .823 (613 goals in 745 games) is the best for players with 150 games. He saved a floundering franchise in Pittsburgh and led the Penguins to back-to-back Stanley Cups, winning MVP playoff honors both years."

1. Lance Armstrong

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    Oh, all he did was beat testicular cancer and go on to win the Tour de France seven times from 1999 to 2005, the most victories in the history of the race.

    Ho-hum.

     

    Be sure to hit me up on Twitter (@TRappaRT) along with the entire B/R Swagger team (@BR_Swagger)