Being able to play through pain is often a requirement once an athlete reaches the professional ranks. This is so frequently the case that players are often asked whether they are hurt or whether they are injured. If they are just hurt, then it is expected that the athlete ought to continue to compete. But if the athlete is truly injured, that is often the threshold where it becomes acceptable for the athlete to exit the field of play with their pride intact. Well, it becomes acceptable for some athletes.
There are always exceptions to any rule, and sometimes even the most serious of injuries cannot keep an athlete from competing. Throughout the years, there have been many examples of athletes who have gone above and beyond in order to return to competition much sooner than expected after suffering a serious injury. In some cases, players have returned months ahead of schedule by taking on the rehabilitation process with an aggressive mindset. Others opted for quick fixes for their injury, sometimes mortgaging the future of their career in order to compete in the most important moments in sport.
Of course, many of these athletes also have a flair for the dramatic, and the best miraculous recoveries often come in the most meaningful times in the season. The most memorable moments occur when an athlete is able to not only quickly recover from an injury, but is also able to succeed in spite of the injury. It adds a certain feeling of otherworldliness and exceptional heroism, as though there is an acknowledgement that only the toughest and most competitive of athletes are able to overcome an injury and still perform at the highest level. What follows are 15 of those athletes who have made the most miraculous recoveries in sports.
15 Ray Lewis
During October of the 2012 NFL season, it was reported that Ray Lewis had torn his triceps muscle and that the injury was very likely to end his season. A veteran of 17 years in professional football, there was speculation that the injury would effectively force Lewis into retirement, but the All-Pro linebacker was able to recover quickly and ultimately returned to the Ravens in time for the team’s first playoff game in January. There were reports that Lewis used deer antler spray to help in the recovery process (which contains a substance banned under NFL rules), but Lewis never admitted to using the substance and there was little the NFL could do with Lewis retiring following the season. The Ravens went on to win a second Super Bowl title with Lewis anchoring the defense and compiling the most tackles in the postseason after his improbable return from injury.
14 Ben Hogan
Hogan was one of golf’s greatest players when he was in a horrific car accident in 1949. After being hit head-on by a Greyhound bus, there were initial reports that Hogan had died, but he survived the brutal collision with a fractured collarbone, a double fraction of his pelvis and a broken rib and ankle, according to SmithsonianMag.com. He required multiple blood transfusions and also needed to have abdominal surgery, and there were serious doubts as to whether he would ever golf again. It was therefore quite a surprise that, just months after being described by reporters as “crippled,” that Hogan was able to win the 1950 US Open, relying on an incredible shot on the 18th hole with a 1-iron that forced a three-way playoff. Hogan’s return to prominence was complete, and he would go on to win many more major championships after his victory at the US Open, including three consecutive majors in 1953.
13 Rajon Rondo
During Game 3 of the 2011 Eastern Conference semifinals against the Miami Heat, Rajon Rondo dislocated his left elbow after falling to the floor and trying to brace himself with his left arm. The elbow had to be reset in the locker room, and it was estimated that Rondo would need somewhere between three to six weeks to recover from the serious injury. After finishing the game, he was able to return for Game 4 of the series with his elbow heavily wrapped. Rondo played well despite being limited somewhat by the injury, but the Heat were ultimately able to prevail in the series before losing to the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Finals.
12 Brett Favre
Favre was known for his toughness throughout his NFL career and there were many instances in which the legendary quarterback played through injuries of varying severity. But his return from the injuries caused by an offseason car accident just before the start of his senior year at Southern Mississippi was by far his most impressive recovery, as he was able to step back on the field within a month of the accident. His injuries were not at all minor, as Favre had to overcome a concussion and cracked vertebrae, not to mention surgery that required two feet of his intestines to be removed, according to ESPN.com.
11 Bobby Hurley
Hurley’s professional career was irreparably damaged by a car accident that nearly took his life in 1993. He was thrown from the truck he was driving, landing in a roadside ditch and having his windpipe ripped away from his lung due to the impact. After an arduous recovery, Hurley was able to resume his pro career, but he was no longer the player he was when he was drafted seventh overall by the Sacramento Kings in the 1993 NBA Draft. That he was even able to play following the injury was a miracle, as Hurley was fortunate to have his life after such a severe accident. Hurley had been one of the best collegiate point guards ever and he left Duke University as the NCAA all-time leader in assists.
10 Kerri Strug
The US Gymnastics team was close to seeing their chances at their first team gold slip away at the 1992 Olympics in Atlanta when Kerri Strug tore two ligaments in her ankle after attempting her first vault. The US team needed her to score well on the final vault in order to win the gold, so Strug – after only a few moments of icing the ankle – returned to the runway and delivered one of the most dramatic moments in sports history. She landed the vault – holding her pose while on one leg -- and secured gold for the US, having to be later carried to the podium in order to receive her gold medal with her teammates.
9 Steve Yzerman
Yzerman’s toughness is unquestioned, but if any evidence is needed, the 2002 and 2003 NHL seasons are an excellent place to start. Yzerman’s knee was in such disrepair that he was forced out of action for a good portion of the 2002 season, but managed to return for a playoff run that culminated in the Red Wings winning the Stanley Cup. Yzerman then had to undergo knee realignment surgery, and took on six hours a day of rehabilitation exercises in order to come back in time for the end of the 2003 season. Despite skating on a knee in desperate need of surgery, the Detroit captain was second in the NHL in scoring during the 2002 playoffs.
8 Willis McGahee
McGahee suffered one of the most difficult injuries to watch when he endured tears of his MCL, ACL and PCL during the NCAA Championship game in 2003 while playing for the Miami Hurricanes. Due to the expected time needed for recovery, many in the NFL thought McGahee, formerly a lock to be a high first-round draft pick, would fall precipitously down the draft board. The Buffalo Bills took a chance on McGahee with the 23rd pick overall, and the running back rewarded their risk by returning to action much sooner than expected. He still had to sit out all of the 2003 season, but he was a 1,000-yard rusher in both the 2004 and 2005 seasons upon his return from what some thought would be a career-ending injury.
7 Jeff Green
Green gets some criticism from those who feel he has yet to live up to the tantalizing talent that made him a top-5 draft pick, but he also had to overcome one of the more unique recoveries in recent sports history: open-heart surgery. In 2011, Green was diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm that required surgery in which Green’s heart would have to be stopped for 60 minutes, according to SportsOnEarth.com. The recovery process was long, but Green was able to return to action for the 2013-14 season with the Celtics despite the real possibility that the surgery would keep him from ever playing again. Now with the Memphis Grizzlies, Green is averaging 12.3 PPG and 3.8 RPG while playing for a team eyeing a deep run in the playoffs.
6 Kirk Gibson
In 1988, Gibson was so hobbled that manager Tommy Lasorda prevented him from running out on the field to celebrate when the Dodgers beat the New York Mets in the NLCS that year. No one expected him to play in the World Series against Oakland, but Gibson relied on injections of cortisone and xylocaine – along with a healthy dose of game-time adrenaline – to recover long enough to take a single at-bat against the game’s best closer, Dennis Eckersley, in Game 1 of the series. Gibson was barely able to maintain his balance on his first two swings, and it looked like there would be no chance that Gibson could remain standing, let alone make solid contact. But after working the count full, Gibson reached out for a 3-2 backdoor slider and pulled it out of the ballpark, giving the Dodgers one of the most improbable victories in baseball history.
5 Earl Thomas
Thomas recovered so quickly from his separated shoulder that the NFL saw fit to have him randomly tested for HGH before the Seattle Seahawks played in the Super Bowl. Thomas, who separated the shoulder during Seattle’s victory over the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship game, said his shoulder was a “10” when asked by reporters, leading to speculation that the NFL ordered the test over the speed with which Thomas was able to recover. The rapid healing didn’t help the Seahawks to victory, however, as the Patriots were ultimately victorious.
4 Curt Schilling
The tendon in Schilling’s ankle was in such disrepair that he needed to have it sewn back into his ankle before Game 6 of the 2004 ALCS against the Yankees. Now known as the “Bloody Sock Game” and a part of the one of the most unbelievable comebacks ever, Schilling put on a performance for the ages when he helped lead the Red Sox to victory. The repeated stress on the surgically repaired ankle caused the sutures to bleed and soak through Schilling’s sock, which now sits in Cooperstown at the Baseball Hall of Fame.
3 Ronnie Lott
Lott accelerated his recovery from a broken finger by taking the most extreme of the available medical options: amputation. Rather than have a pin inserted in the finger and have to deal with an extended recovery period, Lott opted to have the finger removed so that he wouldn’t have to miss the start of the 1986 season. That’s right, he is permanently without a part of his finger because he didn’t want to miss the start of the season. Not for a playoff game and not for a championship game, but the start of the season.
2 Adrian Peterson
While McGahee’s recovery from a serious knee injury was impressive, Peterson has him beat by a mile in terms of his speedy recovery from a similar injury. After needing surgery to repair a torn ACL, Peterson was back on the field in just nine months, which is quite an accomplishment in and of itself. In addition to making it back so quickly, Peterson looked no worse for the wear and immediately began dominating the NFL as if he had never even had the injury. He led the league in rushing yards that season and eclipsed the 2,000-yard plateau, both astonishing accomplishments considering the severity and the recency of his knee injury.
1 Willis Reed
No one was sure if Reed would be able to play in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals after the Knicks star tore a muscle in his thigh during Game 5 of the same series. He did not warm up with his teammates before the game, instead remaining in the locker room to receive an injection to minimize the pain he experienced, according to NBA.com. Reed’s miraculous recovery became one of the most iconic moments in sports history, as New York’s captain emerged to raucous cheers from the crowd and scored the game’s first four points, spurring the Knicks along to victory over the Los Angeles Lakers.