Near death experiences have a way of changing a person’s outlook on life and can sometimes severely limit their victim’s physical abilities. These incidents can occur during normal everyday activities or through the course of the sports in which these athletes engage. The transformative ability of near death experiences can sometimes give the victim clarity and perspective on their lives, but for others can be traumatic and personally devastating.
Athletes often experience injuries during the course of their sporting endeavors, it is almost expected as a hazard of the job. No athlete takes the field of play thinking it could potentially be their last act, however several of these athletes found themselves in circumstances where their lives were in danger because of their occupation. Every sport has its potentially dangerous elements and some of these incidents exposed the vulnerabilities that athletes contend with on a regular basis.
Some of the athletes on this list used these incidents as inspiration as they went on to achieve further success. For others, it represented the end of their athletic endeavors, but they remain closely associated with the sports they influenced. These experiences taught fans to appreciate the risks that athletes take when plying their trades and in some cases changed the way that sports approached certain injuries. In many cases, these athletes can thank the quick response of athletic trainers, team doctors, and surgeons for saving both their lives and their careers.
10 D.J. Hayden – Football
A seemingly innocent collision during a full contact practice at the University of Houston, actually almost ended the life of D.J. Hayden. In 2012, Hayden collided with teammate Trevon Stewart as they both went up for an interception, and it left Hayden in terrible pain. 48-year athletic trainer Mike “Doc” O’Shea sensed something was out of the ordinary and rushed Hayden into the locker room. As Hayden’s condition deteriorated, O’Shea called an ambulance and the EMTs rushed him to Memorial Hermann Texas Trauma Institute.
As Dr. Ron Albarado prepared Hayden for surgery, he expected an injury to the spleen or liver, but it was revealed to be much worse. Hayden’s vena cava, the main artery bringing blood to the heart, had been almost completely torn and Hayden was bleeding internally. The injury had a mortality rate of 95%. Albarado quickly sawed through Hayden’s sternum to reattach the artery during the successful surgery. Hayden left the hospital six days later and lost nearly 30 lbs during the recovery process. Four months later, Hayden ran a 4.3 second 40-yard dash at his Pro Day. He was drafted 12th overall in the NFL Draft and now plays for the Oakland Raiders.
9 Brock Lesnar – Mixed Martial Arts, Professional Wrestling
In 2009, while Brock Lesnar was arguably at the peak of his powers, he was stricken with diverticulitis during a hunting trip. The digestive disorder sidelined the UFC Heavyweight Champion and required surgery in order to seal a perforation in his large intestine. In 2011, Lesnar again had to undergo surgery for the affliction and had a one foot of his colon removed. Lesnar described the pain as a “shotgun blast to the stomach, and then someone poured in some salt and stirred it all up with a nasty pitchfork.” He cited his battle with diverticulitis as a reason for his retirement from the UFC. In 2012, he returned to the WWE and is currently the WWE World Heavyweight Champion.
8 Eric Abidal - Soccer
Eric Abidal was diagnosed with a liver tumor in October 2011, during his campaign with Barcelona. He underwent surgery to remove the tumor two days later. That May, he played all 90 minutes of Barcelona’s Champions League Final win over Manchester United and was presented with the captain’s armband for his remarkable return. However, Abidal’s battle was far from over. In March 2012, Abidal revealed that he would have to undergo a liver transplant because the first surgery had been unsuccessful.
Teammate Dani Alves volunteered a piece of his liver, but Eric’s cousin Gerard was chosen as the organ donor. After spending over one month in the hospital recovering from surgery, doctors said that he could return to the football pitch with further recovery. Through training and rehabbing in the Pyrenees, Abidal later returned to Barcelona and played in five matches during the 2012-13 season. Abidal continued his football career by moving to AS Monaco, and helped the squad qualify for the Champions League. This season, Abidal continues his career with Olympiakos.
7 Fabrice Muamba – Soccer
On March 17th, 2012, Fabrice Muamba took the field for Bolton Wanderers against Tottenham Hotspur in an FA Cup tie at White Heart Lane. Medical staffs from both teams rushed onto the field to treat Muamba after he collapsed during the first half, suffering from a heart attack. Dr. Andrew Deaner, a cardiologist attending as a fan, helped administer cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) on the pitch and Muamba was wheeled off the field on a stretcher.
Ambulance staff rushed Muamba to London Chest Hospital. On the way, a defibrillator was used to give him several shocks in an attempt to restart his heart, which had stopped beating for 78 minutes. Against all odds, Muamba’s heart restarted, and he awoke two days later. The heart attack was caused by Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a condition which ended his career as a footballer. Muamba now works as a pundit and sports journalist.
6 Vladimir Konstantinov – Hockey
Following their Stanley Cup Triumph in 1997, Vladimir Konstantinov, Viacheslav Fetisov, and Detroit Red Wings masseuse Sergei Mnatsakanov were celebrating at a private party, which they left via limousine. That night, limo driver Richard Gnida allegedly fell asleep at the wheel, jumped a curb, and crashed into a tree. Konstantinov suffered serious head injuries, was paralyzed, and fell into a coma. Mnatsakanov also suffered head injuries which left him in a coma. Fetisov walked away with minor injuries and continued his career, but Konstantinov’s hockey career was over.
After finishing as a runner up to Byran Leetch for the Norris Trophy in the previous season, Konstantinov inspired his teammates the following season. Konstantinov was featured front and center the next season as the Detroit Red Wings repeated as Stanley Cup Champions. During the trophy presentation, Konstantinov appeared on the ice in a wheelchair and received the Stanley Cup from team captain Steve Yzerman. The Red Wings have unofficially retired his number, and no Red Wings players has worn his number 16 since.
5 Travis Pastrana – Motocross
When he was only 14 years old, Travis Pastrana suffered an injury so traumatic that only three other people in the United States have survived. During a freestyle motocross competition, Pastrana came up short on a 120 foot jump and crashed. The wreck actually separated Pastrana’s spine from his pelvis. Pastrana was in a coma for two weeks and wheelchair bound for three months. He received blood transfusions to offset severe internal bleeding. He has gone on to achieve success in several sports at the X Games, compete in rally races around the world, and race in the NASCAR Nationwide Series.
4 Jonny Gomes – Baseball
Jonny Gomes has routinely cheated death throughout his life. He has had several near death experiences. The first occurred when he was 14 and his sleeping bag caught on fire while he was asleep inside it. When he was 16, he was involved in a car accident that left him in the hospital for two days and killed his friend. In 2002, Gomes suffered a heart attack on Christmas Eve, slept through the night, and only went to the hospital after blacking out the following day. Doctors say that he would not have survived another night. Gomes has also been attacked by a wolf and a man with a gun, but has survived all of these incidents and continues his career with the Oakland Athletics.
3 Rulon Gardner – Wrestling
Rulon Gardner won the gold medal in stunning fashion at the 2000 Summer Olympics, where he defeated Aleksandr Karelin, who had been unbeaten for thirteen years. Two years later, Gardner found himself in a battle for his own life when his snowmobile fell into the Salt River. He was stranded for 18 hours before rescue crews found him in a makeshift shelter he had constructed. As a result of the severe hypothermia and frostbite, he lost a toe, but recovered from the incident to win a bronze medal at the 2004 Summer Olympics. Three years later, Gardner was in a plane crash, which he again survived.
2 Paul Kruger – Football
Two incidents nearly ended Paul Kruger’s life before he reached the NFL. The first came when he was 13 years old and he was a passenger in his uncle’s Jeep when it crashed into a ravine. The Jeep’s roll bar crushed Kruger and caused him injuries which required the removal of his kidney and spleen. Kruger spent time on life support as a result of the injuries. While attending college at the University of Utah, Kruger was stabbed in a street fight and suffered a collapsed lung and severed artery. The injuries required 175 staples to repair and required three months of rehab before he could run.
1 Serena Williams – Tennis
Serena Williams is one of the most decorated female athletes of her generation, matched only by her sister Venus. She suffered a cut to her foot and a ligament tear as a result of stepping on a glass in Munich, Germany in June 2010. In March 2011, she complained about difficulty breathing and had swelling in her leg. At the insistence of her physiotherapist, Williams went to the hospital, a decision that likely saved her life. At the hospital, doctors uncovered several pulmonary embolisms in her lungs. Her treatment required twice daily doses of blood thinners and surgery, which likely saved her life. Williams recovered from her injury to win Wimbledon for the fifth time and a gold medal at the 2012 Summer Olympics.