The 25 Most Astounding Athletic Career Comebacks

Eric NewmanCorrespondent IIIOctober 18, 2011

The 25 Most Astounding Athletic Career Comebacks

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    The athletes on this list have been maimed, shot, scorched, stabbed, grenaded, banned, crippled, stricken with poverty and stricken with cancer.

    No one imagined they would, or could ever return to their athletic endeavors. Yet these 25 athletes not only came back to their sports, but excelled at them.

    Ladies and Gentlemen, meet THE RESURRECTED. 

25. Pelé

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    As the youngest athlete in the 1958 World Cup, 17-year-old Pelé  dazzled the world with his surreal playing.

    In 1962, he led Brazil to a second win.

    In 1966, the tactic of the other teams was to take out the king. "The Butchers of Portugal" let loose and Pelé fell victim to a brutal tackle. People said he was done.

    He wasn't.

    In 1970 an aging Pelé made an unheard of fourth trip to the World Cup. Again, Brazil won.

24. Carson Palmer

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    The knee injury this former Bengals superstar sustained was a horrific triple-whammy: a torn ACL, a torn MCL, and a dislocated knee with resulting tissue and cartilage damage. Just one of these could be a career-ending injury.

    Carson underwent major reconstructive surgery that utilized donor tissue and grafts from his own body. The next season he was back at the helm, threw for more than 4,000 yards and had a QB rating of 93.9%.

23. Andre Agassi

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    In 1995, Agassi ranked number one in the world, but a tumultuous relationship with Brooke Shields, a nagging wrist injury, and poor performances on the court sent him into a gaping abyss of depression. In 1997 at the nadir of his career, he took up snorting crystal meth. His world ranking plummeted a stunning 140 notches. 

    But Agassi cleaned up, reconditioned, and soared back up through the rankings until, in 2002, he became the oldest player in history to reach number two.

22. Michael Jordan

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    Burdened with grief from the murder of his father, "His Airness," chose to retire from basketball in 1993. After a lackluster stint as a minor league ball player, Jordan made his famous two-word announcement to the world: "I'm back."

    But many suspected MJ wouldn't be all that he once was, and he wasn't, at first. That is to say his play was spectacular, but not ethereal. 

    Turns out though, that after a year and a half away from the game, Jordan just needed a bit more warming up. The next three seasons would be another Bulls three-peat.  

21. Jim Morris

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    Teenaged Jim Morris was a hot pick in the amateur baseball draft back in the early 80s. But then his pitching arm rebelled. According to the article Jim Morris - Derailed By Arm Injuries, Morris "had several operations, including one that involved replacing a tendon in his left elbow with one from his right ankle." Nothing worked. Morris gave up baseball, became a teacher and settled into middle class life in the suburbs.

    More than 10 years later, 35-year-old Morris dazzled the scouts at an open MLB tryout by throwing not 1, not 2, not 5, not 10, but 12 consecutive 98 mph pitches. In his first time on the mound as a major league pitcher, the aged rookie struck out Royce Clayton of the Texas Rangers in 4 pitches.

20. James Braddock

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    This Depression Era fighter looked promising early in his career, but then started losing fights when he most needed to win--after the stock market crash. His record grew so bad that he couldn't make a living boxing anymore, and ultimately, had to go on welfare.

    A promoter needed a body in the ring when a fighter canceled. Braddock got the gig and upset his opponent with a knock out in the third round. From there, he just kept winning.

    Ultimately, a promoter pitted him against the ferocious Max Baer for the title of heavyweight champion of the world. In the biggest upset in boxing history, Braddock beat Baer by decision after 15 rounds.

19. Eric Cantona

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    It was the kung fu kick seen around the world. Eric Cantona cemented his status as a legend when he went berserk and directed the now infamous kick at a heckler in the stands. The Football Association banned Cantona for a full 8 months.

    When he returned to the field the following season, he was soon back in top form and, as team captain, led Manchester to victory in the FA Cup Final.

18. Frank Mir

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    In 2004 Mixed Martial Arts powerhouse Frank Mir won the UFC Heavyweight Championship. He didn't have a lot of time to revel in the accomplishment though; less than two months later he would be sprawled out on the side of the road in pain so agonizing that he puked in his motorcycle helmet.

    Mir had been riding his Suzuki GSX-R1000 sports bike when a driver ran a red light and clocked him.

    Authorities estimate that Mir flew 80-100 feet before crashing down alongside the road. His femur was broken in two places and ALL of the ligaments in his right were torn. One of his toes dangled on by a thin strip of flesh.

    When he couldn't meet fight obligations, the UFC stripped his title.

    Mir amazed doctors and fans alike when he returned to the ring about a year and a half later. Initially he wasn't winning fights like he used to, but with a first round win in April 2007, the MMA community knew Mir was back. 

17. Tommy John

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    Life was good for Tommy John in the summer of 1974. At 13-3, he held the best record of any pitcher in the National League and many were crediting him with resurrecting a stagnated Dodgers franchise.

    Then John came unhinged. Literally. At least his arm did. His ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) had torn away from the bone around his elbow. 

    Experts gave John a 1 in 100 chance of recovery. Then a doctor went ahead and invented a nifty little procedure that, at the time, was more stuff of Mary Shelley fiction than of actual practice.

    After a year of recovery and learning to pitch a new way, John went on to win 164 more games. 

16. Josh Hamilton

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    There's "showing promise" and then there's showing a massive talent; once-in-a-generation talent, legend-potential talent. Meet Josh Hamilton, greatest force in baseball culled from a high school since A-Rod. First round, first draft pick. Four million dollar signing bonus.

    Then a car accident and a deep dive into the abyss of substance abuse.

    According to a June 2006 article in USA Today, Hamilton confesses to trying every drug on the street. Out of self-loathing, he burned his own hand with cigarettes, he tried to overdose several times, he blew through his millions and he covered himself in satanic tattoos. For two years, he played no baseball at all.

    Recovery came slowly and came late, but it came. Now Hamilton is in the majors living up to the player he was meant to be.

15. Seabiscuit

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    The little horse that could. First a joke, then a champ. But when a tendon ruptured, everyone figured Seabiscuit had seen the last of his racing days.

    The horse was retired to a ranch where, according to an article on the Thoroughbred Greats website, for nine months he "wandered a paddock, became fat, and tried to race deer along the fences."

    After a period of convalescence, Seabiscuit recovered enough that his owner decided to give him one last chance to win the Santa Anita "Hundred Grander." Not only did Seabiscuit win, but he clocked the fasted mile and a quarter in track history, and the second fastest ever run on an American track.

14. Magic Johnson

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    When Magic Johnson tested HIV positive, he immediately retired to deal with his health and be with his family.

    But something didn't sit well with him; there was still plenty of play in him that needed to get out. He thought about making a comeback, backed out and went into coaching, but that wasn't satisfying the itch either.

    So, after a four-season hiatus, he finally went back onto the court as a player in the 1995-1996 season. He averaged 15 points, 7 assists, and 6 rebounds per game.

13. Tony Conigliaro

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    In his teens and early twenties, the accident-prone Conigliaro was already breaking records (youngest home run champion in American League history) and bones (arm, toes, shoulder).

    On August 18, 1967, Conigliaro took a pitch to the face. The crunch of his facial bones shattering could be heard all across Fenway.

    Conigliaro recovered but was left with an irreparable hole in his retina. Eighteen months passed; everyone including Conigliaro himself figured his career was over. But his vision improved and in 1969 he took to the field again. He batted .255 with 20 homers and 82 RBI. The American League named him comeback player of the year. 

12. Muhammad Ali

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    Three and a half years. That's how long Muhammad Ali was suspended from boxing at the height of his professional career. The suspension was a result of his claim for conscientious objector status after the U.S. military drafted him to fight in Vietnam.

    After Ali cleared his name in court, he was reinstated by the boxing association, but it was the 1970s now and the arena had changed. Fighting machines Joe Frazier and George Foreman were arguably more formidable than any competitor the younger Ali had fought back in the 1960s.

    Ali lost "The Fight of the Century" against Frazier in 1970, but later beat him in a rematch, then, in the same year, beat reigning champion George Foreman.

    Ali kept fighting until 1981.

11. Monica Seles

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    In 1991, Monica Seles was Number 1 in the World Rankings—at that time the youngest woman ever to top the chart. Her game only got better over the next couple years.

    But in 1993, when many felt she was at her peak, a deranged man reached over a court side railing and plunged a blade in her back. Monica disappeared from the tennis scene for more than two years.

    When she did come back, she won the Canadian Open in August of 1995, and the Australian open in January of 1996.   

10. George Foreman

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    In competitive sports, youth isn't everything. But yeah, it really is. Which is why George Foreman's resurrection is so mystifying.

    After coming out of retirement around age 40, a happier, chubbier Foreman started boxing his way to the top again. At age 45 Foreman caused fans around the world to spit out their drinks and stare at their TVs stupefied after he clocked 26-year-old Michael Moorer—the reigning champ—with a right punch to the chin and sent him to the floor.

    Two decades after holding the title for the first time, Foreman was once again world champ. 

9. Garrison Hearst

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    Hearst was racking up the yardage as a running back for the 49ers. Then came a fateful 49er/Falcon game in January of 1999. Hearst carried the ball for seven yards when a Falcon defensive end spun him–well, all of him except for his left foot which had caught in the turf.

    CRACK!

    Broken ankle. Bummer, but not likely a career killer. Unless some freakish complication causes the injured bone to start dying. It was the dreaded necrosis; it's what ended Bo Jackson's career.

    According to an article in The Sporting News, to save the foot "surgeons dug into Garrison Hearst's left ankle and tore it up." They cleaned out dying bone, and replaced it with plugs of bone and cartilage from Hearst's knees.

    After 2 years of rehabilitation, Hearst mesmerized players and fans alike when he ran for 1,206 yards and helped turn around an ailing 49ers franchise.

8. Joe Simpson

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    Joe Simpson shattered his leg while making a first ascent of the west face of a remote peak in the Andes. After a failed attempt to lower him to safety, his climbing partner cut the rope to save his own life, and left Simpson to die. Simpson fell off the side of the mountain and down into a crevasse.

    Instead of succumbing to death in an icy tomb, he somehow made his way back out to the surface, and then spent three days clawing his way across a glacier, over boulders, around a lake, then finally back to camp.

    Doctors said he would never climb again, and maybe not even walk well. Yet after numerous operations and 2 years of physical therapy, he was out on the peaks again.

7. Niki Lauda

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    In 1976, on his way to a second World Championship Title in Formula One racing, Niki Lauda hit a little bump in the road; he wiped out during a race. His car burst into flames, skidded back out onto the track, and was broadsided by another car. Lauda got torched inside his Ferrari; much of his face was incinerated before he was pulled to safety. He bled internally, lapsed into a coma. It was touch and go for a few days, but Lauda pulled through.

    Forty-three days later, he was behind the wheel at the Italian Grand Prix. Lauda would go on to win two more championship titles before retiring.

6. Bethany Hamilton

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    If someone falls off a horse, you tell her to get back in the saddle. Good, sound advice. But if someone gets her arm wrenched off her body by a ferocious tiger shark, no one would dare tell her to get back in the water.

    Yet, Bethany Hamilton didn't need anyone to tell her. A month and several operations after her tragedy, she was surfing again.

    Then, just over a year after the attack, she won her first National Title and went pro.

5. Greg Lemond

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    Your typical story of boy wins the Tour de France, boy breaks wrist in subsequent race, boy goes turkey hunting and gets blasted full of buckshot by his brother-in-law, boy loses three-quarters of his blood en-route to the hospital, boy's chest is slit open and doctors drain the blood from around his collapsed lung, boy survives although one finger is shattered and thirty-five pellets remain in his body (including three in his heart and five in his liver), boy takes two years to recover and starts racing again despite crippling pain, boy wins the Tour de France again (and then again.)

4. Mario Lemieux

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    Back in the early 1980s, expectations for hockey prodigy Mario Lemieux were not in the troposphere, not in the stratosphere, but in the exosphere. According to a legend in one biography of Lemieux, the head coach of the Montreal Canadians suggested purchasing Lemieux's junior hockey league team just to get first crack at the phenom in the upcoming draft.

    Lemieux ended up with the Pittsburgh Penguins and did not disappoint; he shattered team records and was approaching Gretzky numbers in scoring.

    Then came a herniated disc compounded by a rare infection. Lemieux missed several games.

    The next year he came back and led the Penguins to their first ever Stanley Cup. Then came cancer, radiation treatments, more back problems, more surgery.

    Lemieux spent the next few years squeezing hockey in when his recovery schedule permitted and when the pain wasn't too excruciating or the exhaustion too overwhelming. And when he played, he played like the star that he had always been.

3. Ben Hogan

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    Ben Hogan was on a wild winning streak in the pro golf circuit. Then, in rolled some fog on the West Texas Highway and along came a bus, barreling down the wrong lane. And all the king's horses and all the king's men, couldn't put poor Ben back together again.

    According to the article Historic Trauma Cases: Ben Hogan, Hogan "suffered a broken clavicle, fractured ribs, a complex pelvic fracture, facial and eye injuries, a fractured left ankle and a soft-tissue injury to his left leg." The agonized, bleeding athlete had to wait an hour and a half for an ambulance to arrive at the scene and scrape up what was left of him.

    Hogan would confound doctors by not only walking again, but returning to his beloved golf. In 1953 he became the only player–until Tiger Woods came along–to win three major PGA tournaments in one year. 

2. Rocky Bleier

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    After captaining the Notre Dame football squad, Rocky Bleier was drafted twice. First by the mighty Pittsburgh Steelers, then by the United States Army. He went from captain on the field, to private in the jungle.

    On August 29, 1969, his platoon went to the aid of another platoon under ambush. Bleier took a bullet through the leg. Minutes later, a grenade exploded next to him, riddling his foot with sulphur-laced shrapnel. Bleeding heavily, he crawled through rice paddies, and eventually with some help, made it to a chopper and was flown to medical camp.

    Later, he was transported to Japan to undergo an operation. Doctors removed more than 100 pieces of shrapnel from his foot. The medical staff told him if he persevered, he might walk normally again some day. Playing football again was out of the equation.

    Not too many years later, Rocky would have four Super Bowl rings to go with his Purple Heart.

1. Lance Armstrong

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    You know Lance had to top this list. He had to. He may be hated as much as loved, but he's universally admired for his resurrection.

    Armstrong made a splash in the cycling world, signed a lucrative contract, then got diagnosed with testicular cancer (and let's face it men, the idea of cancer makes us jittery; the idea of cancer in the tenders petrifies us.) The cancer was quite advanced and had spread to his abdomen, lungs, lymph nodes, and his brain. Doctors gave him a 40% chance of survival.

    Armstrong opted for surgery and aggressive chemotherapy treatments. Chemotherapy is a demon all of its own. It can cause soul-crushing bouts of nausea, abdominal problems, anemia, joint pain... an entire index of dangers and discomforts.

    So what does Armstrong do? If you're thinking chocolate milkshakes and cartoons in bed, you're way off. Between chemo sessions, the guy goes cycling. Armstrong saw cancer as his greatest competitor, and he grew determined to beat it. Win he did, but the battle had taken a toll on his physical and mental conditioning. To make matters worse, his sponsor had dropped him.

    A man on a mission, he found a new sponsor, trained with intensity, and then went on to collect "a few accolades."