The Gutsiest Play-Through-Pain Moments in Sports

Jessica Marie@ItsMsJisnerCorrespondent IIJune 18, 2013

The Gutsiest Play-Through-Pain Moments in Sports

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    Plenty of us don't even go to work if we're feeling the slightest bit under the weather.

    So imagine finishing your workday with a cracked clavicle, or with a broken leg, or with a dislocated elbow—and imagine your work entails running, jumping and getting hit by other people.

    Sometimes, we forget how tough our favorite athletes can be. We like to rag on them when they miss a shot or give up a bad goal, and we routinely insult their manliness if they dare take themselves out of a game.

    But this group of guys (and girls) makes us forget all about the athletes who can't stay in the game when they get hurt—which, by the way, is totally reasonable.

    These guys are just superhuman.

20. Paul Pierce

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    The Wheelchair Incident. The infamous Wheelchair Incident. 

    It was the most controversial occurrence of the 2008 NBA Finals. Was it embellishment? Was it genuine, gut-wrenching pain? Was it simply a flair for the dramatics? We will never know. Only Paul Pierce can know. 

    The Celtics captain was playing in his first-ever NBA Finals game when teammate Kendrick Perkins knocked him to the ground on a block attempt. A hush fell over the crowd.

    To the horror of the full house at the TD Garden, Pierce lay writhing on the parquet floor, clutching his knee. Everyone assumed the worst. Everyone assumed that the Celtics' dreams of hoisting Banner No. 17 were over. 

    As soon as Pierce was carried off the court by teammates and officials and taken to the locker room in a wheelchair, pretty much everyone assumed it was over—not just for the captain, but for the Celtics as a whole. 


    Pierce reemerged with just over five minutes remaining the third quarter, looking 100 percent fine. No knee injury. No wheelchair. Not even a limp. Pierce would lead the Celtics to a Game 1 victory and eventually to the NBA title. 

    Obviously, the wheelchair wasn't necessary. Obviously, Pierce was totally fine. But the wheelchair added a nice touch to his return, no? 

19. Donovan McNabb

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    Donovan McNabb is…controversial.

    He was a six-time Pro Bowler, but then again, he was constantly dogged for failing when the stakes were the highest. He was the second pick of the first round of the NFL draft in 1999, but he never performed at quite as high a level as was expected of him. 

    Fans are vicious when it comes to McNabb. They question his grit. They question his dedication. But perhaps they shouldn't. This is, after all, a guy who played on a broken ankle against the Cardinals in 2002. 

    "Gutsy" isn't usually the first word that comes to mind when you're talking about Donovan McNabb, but maybe it should be. The QB got sacked by Arizona's Adrian Wilson on the third play of that game, had his ankle taped up and came right back out to throw for 255 yards and four touchdowns. 

    Later, it was revealed that McNabb had broken his fibula in three places. Not too shabby. 

18. Carmelo Anthony

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    Like so many other polarizing superstars in the NBA, Carmelo Anthony has his fair share of haters. He may not have been able to take the New York Knicks to the promised land year, but he certainly did try—and he tried on a torn labrum. 

    The Knicks were a flawed team, but that wasn't all on Anthony. Anthony's efforts late in the season, as the playoffs approached, were superhuman. When New York needed him to, he put the team on his shoulders and seemingly willed it to victory, and he did it despite the fact that his shoulder was far below 100 percent. 

    Anthony played 12 postseason games in 2013 with a partially torn labrum in his left shoulder, according to, and he sustained the injury in a battle against Boston's Kevin Garnett in Game 5 of the first round. He still willed himself to finish that series and the next one against the Pacers, despite the fact that the injury could potentially require surgery

    The Knicks ended up bowing out in six games to the Pacers, but don't accuse this guy of not trying. 

17. Bobby Baun

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    Were hockey players just tougher a few decades ago? Were they more reckless? Were they more desperate? Because these days, it's hard to fathom a player breaking his leg in the midst of a game, getting it taped up and then returning to the action a few minutes later. 

    Bobby Baun personified that kind of toughness. During the 1964 Stanley Cup Finals, the Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman got hit with a Gordie Howe slap shot that broke his leg. He had to be stretchered off the ice, but his night wasn't over. 

    Of course it wasn't. The Leafs were down 3-2 in the series. They needed him. 

    So Baun simply taped up his broken leg and not only returned to the game but was effective enough to score the game-winning goal in overtime. A few days later, the Leafs would win the Cup, too. 

16. Clay Matthews

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    When you're trying to win a championship, you need a spark. As the Green Bay Packers headed into Super Bowl XLV, that spark came in the unlikely form of Clay Matthews. 

    The linebacker had been battling injuries all season leading up to the Packers' Super Bowl campaign that year. He missed four preseason games with a hamstring issue. He was omnipresent on the weekly injury report. 

    But when his team needed him to step up against the Steelers in the biggest game of them all, he did—broken leg and all. 

    Matthews kept his injury under wraps, so it wasn't until after Green Bay had claimed the NFL crown that it was revealed he had played the second half of the season with a stress fracture in his lower leg. And even after it was revealed, he didn't want any accolades or pats on the back for his efforts. Matthews told the Green Bay Press-Gazette:

    I don’t make a big deal of it. (It happened) some time in the middle of the season. You can’t do anything about it. I was just taking practices off and showing up on game day and giving it my all.

15. Duncan Keith

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    We all like to make fun of hockey players and their teeth (or lack thereof), but few images of toothless hockey players are more famous than the one of Duncan Keith after helping his Chicago Blackhawks clinch a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2010. 

    The defenseman got hit in the face with a puck in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals and lost a whopping seven teeth, yet he only missed a few minutes of the action. He returned to the game to help the Hawks earn a sweep and eventually win the Stanley Cup. 

    Though he finished the 2010 postseason with a rather unattractive smile, Keith had 17 points in 22 games and established himself as a bona fide tough guy. 

14. Walt Garrison

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    The playoffs bring out the most competitive side of the most competitive people on the planet. Therefore, it's safe to say that if you sustain an injury during the playoffs—no matter how severe—you're going to do anything and everything in your power to keep yourself in the game. 

    In 1970, Dallas Cowboys running back Walt Garrison broke three ribs in the first quarter of a game and had to be carried off the field. 

    Whatever they gave him in the locker room worked, because when he returned to the action, he rushed for over 100 yards to help the Cowboys win that game and eventually reach the Super Bowl. 

    They didn't win the big game, but still—they probably wouldn't have even gotten there if Garrison didn't have nerves of steel. 

13. Byron Leftwich

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    It's one thing to help your team attempt a rousing come-from-behind victory. It's another thing to do so when you can barely walk. 

    Byron Leftwich has never really amounted to much in the professional realm, but no matter what, he will forever remain a college football legend for this performance. Facing Akron in November 2002, the Marshall quarterback broke his left tibia and was in such excruciating pain that he famously had to be carried down the field by two teammates. 

    The expectation was that he was done at least for the day, maybe even for the season. But no. Not only did Leftwich return to finish the game against Akron, but he led Marshall on a 17-point rally to make it a game again. With a broken shin. 

    Sadly, though, Marshall still lost. 

12. Jack Youngblood

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    Our perception of toughness in the NFL has changed over the years—maybe for the better. There are still some fans out there who get mad at players who take themselves out of games because of serious injuries. If you take yourself out of a game because your career could end if you don't, you're still seen as weak, not enough of a team player, blah blah blah. 

    Jack Youngblood definitely wasn't one of those players. 

    Youngblood was one of the toughest players around. The Hall of Fame defensive end only missed a single game during the course of his 14-year professional career, and that famously meant playing on a broken leg for the entirety of the 1979 playoffs. 

    Youngblood fractured his left fibula on a sack of Roger Staubach in a divisional playoff game that year, but he didn't miss a game and even played in the Super Bowl that year.

    They don't call him the John Wayne of football for nothing. 

11. Philip Rivers

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    The public perception of San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers has wavered over the course of his nine-year NFL career. On one hand, he's led the Chargers to four playoff appearances. On the other hand, he's been inconsistent, whiny at times and unable to win the big ones. 

    But despite his penchant for being whiny, there is one thing you cannot accuse him of: being a wimp. 

    The 2008 AFC Championship Game was one of the most important games of Rivers' career. He and the Chargers represented the only remaining obstacle between the 17-0 New England Patriots and the Super Bowl.

    They, like so many others before them, couldn't stymie mighty New England, but considering Rivers gave his team a fighting chance—and did so while playing on a torn ACL—he deserves a little bit of credit. 

    Was it the smartest decision in the world? Probably not. But was it one of the gutsiest decisions in NFL history? Yes. 

10. Franz Beckenbauer

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    Franz Beckenbauer has been called arrogant by his detractors, but when you play through a broken clavicle in the World Cup, you kind of deserve to be arrogant.

    The legendary footballer was part of West Germany's 1970 World Cup team, which won its first four matches before facing Italy in the semifinal. After leading West Germany to a hard-fought victory over England in the round prior, it was clear that Beckenbauer was the linchpin of the team—so when he fractured his clavicle against Italy after being fouled, it was bad news.

    So he did what he had to do: He stayed in the game and finished it with his arm in a sling. West Germany would end up dropping the match 4-3 in overtime to Italy, but at least Beckenbauer did everything humanly (and superhumanly) possible to give his team a chance.

9. Curt Schilling

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    If the Boston Red Sox were going to defeat the Curse of the Bambino, they were going to need some dramatics and a little bit of magic to get it done.

    That's where Curt Schilling came in.

    Schilling was Boston's pitching savior in 2004. During the regular season, he established himself as the ace of the staff (to Pedro Martinez's annoyance), going 21-6 with a 3.26 ERA and leading Boston to the playoffs, where they met the Yankees in a rematch of the 2003 ALCS.

    That's where things started going wrong for the Red Sox. In Game 1 of the ALCS, Schilling imploded, allowing six runs before being replaced by Tim Wakefield. It turned out Schilling had torn a tendon sheath in his right ankle during the Division Series, and it was a foregone conclusion that he would miss the rest of the ALCS after that disastrous start.

    Or would he?

    Boston had no chance at beating the Yankees—and climbing out of a 3-0 hole to do so—without Schilling. So he pumped that ankle full of drugs and pitched a gem in Game 6, allowing a single run in seven innings. By game's end, Schilling's sock was soaked in blood from the injuries.

    You know the rest of this story. The Red Sox came back from a 3-0 deficit, won the ALCS and won their first World Series since 1918.

8. Ronnie Lott

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    What do you do when you're an NFL safety and your pinky finger gets crushed by a running back in the middle of a game?

    If you're Ronnie Lott, you just keep playing and worry about it later.

    The legendary 49ers safety tackled running back Timmy Newsome late in the 1985 season, and the hit was so hard and so vicious that it tore off part of his left pinky. According to the L.A. Times, it is possible that "skin and bone fragments were left on the field."

    So Lott left them there. He taped up the finger, finished the season with the mangled digit and then, in the offseason, chose to have the tip of the finger amputated because surgery would have meant he would miss some of the next season.

    That is dedication.

7. Kerri Strug

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    On the final day of the team competition at the 1996 Olympics, the U.S. women's gymnastic team was in trouble. They had a slim lead over the Russians and were in line for the gold, but Russia still had hope. The U.S. needed to be perfect in order to clinch it.

    Therefore, when Kerri Strug—the last member of the U.S. team to vault—fell on her first vault attempt and hurt her ankle, it could have been a disaster. Strug needed to land perfectly on her second attempt if the U.S. was going to clinch the gold, and she needed to do it, bum ankle and all.

    So she did.

    She limped to the runway and landed her second vault on one foot, earning a score of 9.712—good enough to win the gold. She collapsed to her knees immediately after her landing and was later diagnosed with a third-degree lateral sprain and tendon damage, but she still got the job done for the U.S.

6. Rajon Rondo

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    It has been said that lately, the Celtics go as Rajon Rondo goes. We saw that this year, when they couldn't escape the first round of the NBA playoffs without their real point guard.

    In 2011, though, Rondo didn't force his team to try to play without him. There was no way he was missing a date with the Heat in the 2011 Eastern Conference semifinals.

    Five minutes into the third quarter of Game 3, Rondo was scrambling for a loose ball alongside Miami's Dwyane Wade when he fell to the floor, awkwardly bending his left elbow and, we now know, dislocating it. Most would assume that that would be it for him for the night—but no.

    Rondo returned for the end of the third quarter after having the elbow popped back into place and played the fourth quarter with one arm, leading Boston to a 97-81 win that would cut Miami's series lead to 2-1.

5. Tiger Woods

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    The U.S. Open wasn't exactly a breeze for Tiger Woods this year, but at least he'll always have the memories of 2008.

    It was at Torrey Pines that Woods pulled off the greatest feat of his career. Doctors told Woods he should by no means attempt to play in US Open that year, but he didn't care. It didn't matter to him that he had suffered two stress fractures in his tibia and his knee required imminent reconstructive surgery. He'd deal with that after he won.

    Which, by the way, he did, somehow.

    Playing through very obvious pain, Woods birdied the 18th hole in the fourth and final round to tie Rocco Mediate and force a playoff. When both players finished even on the 18-hole playoff, it forced a sudden-death playoff, which Woods improbably won.

    Two days later, Woods announced that he would undergo knee surgery and miss the rest of the 2008 season. But his legend lives on forever.

4. Gregory Campbell

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    The longer the Boston Bruins last in their quest to win the Stanley Cup, the larger the legend of Gregory Campbell will grow.

    The pivotal fourth-line center came up huge against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 3 of this year's Eastern Conference Finals. On the ice for a power play in the second period, he got hit with a blazing Evgeni Malkin slap shot that was hard enough to break his fibula.

    But Campbell kept playing until the power play was successfully killed off—though he could barely move—and afterward, he skated off the ice on one leg and disappeared into the dressing room, his postseason over. Obviously, the Bruins went on to win Game 3 and the Eastern Conference Finals to advance to the Stanley Cup.

    It doesn't get grittier than finishing a shift on a broken leg because you want the Cup that bad. If it hadn't been for Campbell's gutsy performance, we might have seen something like what happened when Dennis Seidenberg decided he couldn't finish a shift without his glove.

3. Kirk Gibson

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    Kirk Gibson wasn't even supposed to be available for Game 1 of the 1988 World Series. But like most of the athletes on this list, that just didn't matter. His team needed him, and it was as simple as that.

    So despite having a stomach virus, and despite having injured not one but both of his legs during the NLCS, Gibson made himself available with one on and two out in the ninth inning. The Dodgers were down 4-3, and Gibson stepped up to the plate and delivered.

    The hobbled hero took the payoff pitch and sent it over the right-field fence for the walkoff home run, and though he was barely able to make his way around the bases and reach home again, he did, giving the Dodgers the 5-4 win.

    Perhaps fueled by that magical homer, L.A. would go on to win the World Series.

2. Willis Reed

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    It was 1970, Game 7 of the NBA Finals. New York Knicks captain Willis Reed wasn't supposed to play. It was almost humanly impossible. He had a torn muscle in his right leg and famously needed a "very large needle" to fill it with Carbocaine in order to make the pain somewhat manageable.

    But the Knicks needed him to defeat the Lakers and, specifically, Wilt Chamberlain. That was all there was to it. As Reed tells it (via, "With one leg, I was being asked to guard the greatest offensive force in NBA history."

    And so he did. Reed played, and he contained Chamberlain to a 2-for-9 performance while teammate Clyde Frazier dominated the rest of the Lakers, finishing with 36 points and 19 assists. Fueled by the captain's grit and selflessness, the Knicks won the NBA title 113-99 over the Lakers. 

1. Kobe Bryant

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    The non-L.A. faction of NBA fandom loves to call out Kobe Bryant for being selfish, or for being a bad teammate, or for being too hard on his comrades or anything else they can come up with.

    But the truth is, Kobe is one of the toughest guys out there and he will play through virtually anything.

    He's been through broken wrists, ankle sprains, Achilles tears and yes, there have been times where it has been smarter for him to watch from the bench (sometimes while tweeting his frustrations).

    But there have also been times where he has refused to let himself miss any of the action, like when he sprained his ankle in Game 3 of the 2000 NBA Finals and came back for Game 4. Or when he hurt his back in the Western Conference semis in 2008 but still played hard enough to get the Lakers to the Finals.

    There are the Derrick Roses of the world. And then there are the Kobes.