Much like Hollywood films, the sporting world is one which can inspire and amaze. Over the years there have been things that have happened during games which have been so heroic, that it almost does not feel real and instead something that you expect to see at the cinema (many of these moments have been turned into films too). These moments transcend a simple game, and instead they can unite fans and players around the world, regardless of which team your loyalties are with. It is these moments that make sport something special in this world and unlike anything else.
Heroic moments occur when a player, or the team, step up in the face of adversity and excel against the odds. This could be playing through a tough injury, it could be an extraordinary performance despite illness, putting your body on the line for the sake of your team-mates and fans, or simply rising up when most would be down and out. In many cases these heroic performances may not be particularly wise, and particularly when playing through an injury where it is likely that it will do more damage, but sometimes the stakes are high and it is in these times that legends are made.
This top 20 list will be dedicated to those who summonsed all of their intestinal fortitude and put it all on the line, either for their team, or just for their own competitive spirit to win. Performances like these remind us of why we love sports so much. Performances like these inspire people so much and it’s great to hear stories like these.
Here are 20 heroic performances in sports history, which may as well have been written for the big screen.
20. Philip Rivers – 2007-08 Playoffs
A torn ACL is an injury which many players don’t ever come back from, but Philip Rivers is not most players. He showed his grit and determination in the 2008 playoffs, when he injured his knee in the Chargers victory over the Colts in the AFC divisional round. Rivers was unable to finish the game, and he soon found out that he had partially torn his ACL. A few days before the AFC championship game (which no one expected him to play), Rivers had arthroscopic surgery to clean out the damaged cartilage and he felt strong enough to play in the game.
The Chargers lost the game, but Rivers played through it and gained the respect of everyone in the NFL world for his passion and determination. Rivers did however need an extensive operation following this to repair a torn ligament.
19. Byron Leftwich – November 2nd, 2002
Byron Leftwich is most famous for a legendary college performance which made scouts around the country really take notice of his character. The Marshall QB was left with a broken left tibia on a hit in the 1st quarter, but instead of remaining in the hospital, Leftwich showed remarkable courage by returning to the game where his team was trailing. In an inspired performance, Leftwich rallied his team to an incredible 17-point comeback but Marshall would still lose the game.
It is not just Leftwich’s heroic performance that makes this a special moment in sports history however; it is also the lasting image of Marshall’s offensive linemen carrying Leftwich to the line of scrimmage after a long pass downfield, a great example of what it means to play as part of a team. I’m not sure the reserve QB was too impressed though.
18. Willis Reed – Game 7, 1970 NBA Finals
The image of Willis Reed emerging from the tunnel at MSG remains one of the most iconic NBA images, and will give plenty of Knicks fans goosebumps to think about. In the all important Game 7 of the 1970 NBA finals against the Lakers, it was unclear if Knicks leader Reed would play after suffering a torn muscle in his thigh which caused him to miss Game 6. After missing the warm up and receiving an injection to dull the pain, Reed emerged from the tunnel, entering a rapturous MSG like a WWE wrestler. The Knicks were never going to lose from that moment, and despite only scoring twice, the arrival of their leader inspired the Knicks onto a famous victory. Reed stated that it was “the one great moment you play for all your life”.
17. Curt Schilling – 2004 ALCS & World Series
In order for a bloody sock to find its way into the Baseball Hall of Fame and then be auctioned for $92,613, the person wearing it must have done something very special. During the 2004 ALCS against the Yankees, Schilling and the Red Sox were trailing the series 3-0 (at the time something no team had ever overcome). Schilling was pitching on a torn ankle tendon, but the Red Sox pulled it back to a Game 6. Prior to the game, Schilling had surgery on his ankle, but somehow guided Boston to victory only allowing one run in a grueling 7 innings of work. This left him with a sock soaked in blood, but the respect of fans around the world (apart from doctors). The Red Sox did what many thought was impossible and went on to win the series and would face the St. Louis Cardinals.
During Game 2 of the World Series, Schilling had fresh stitches in his ankle which would do little to stop the blood from flowing. He powered through anyway and the aptly named Red Sox swept the series, with his second bloody sock reaching the Baseball Hall of Fame before being auctioned in 2013.
16. Steve Yzerman – 2001-02 season
Steve Yzerman had established himself as a leader and NHL All-Star by the 2001-02 season, but he would further cement his legacy this year by going against the odds. Due to a re-aggravated knee injury, Yzerman was forced to miss 30 regular season games and his knee injury would continue to bother him throughout the playoffs. Despite facing a 2-0 deficit in the first round, Yzerman led the Red Wings to a comeback before taking down the St. Louis Blues and the Colorado Avalanche, who they defeated in seven games.
In the finals, Yzerman practically played the entire series against the Carolina Hurricanes on one leg, but led his team to victory for their third Stanley Cup in six seasons. Yzerman would have surgery on his knee following this, which would keep him out of the first 66 games the following season.
15. Joe Montana – 1979 Cotton Bowl
The 1979 Cotton Bowl Classic demonstrated Joe Montana’s heroic fighting spirit, as most would have spent the day in bed feeling sorry for themselves. In addition to fighting the flu, the game took place on a particularly cold day after the worst ice storm Dallas had seen in 30 years. This did not deter Montana, who somehow led a huge charge to overturn a 34-12 deficit in the final quarter.
Impressive under any circumstances, but Montana barely made it out of the locker room at the half after having to fight off hypothermia. The trainers covered him in blankets and fed him chicken soup to try and raise his body temperature, which did the trick as he was able to re-enter the game in the fourth quarter and help his Notre Dame team to a famous comeback where they won 35-34. He would of course show this leadership and ability in the clutch throughout his pro career.
14. Brett Favre – Monday Night Football, 2003
Following the death of his father the night before, Brett Favre went against the odds and not only played the next day against the Raiders, but put in an inspirational and moving performance. In one of the darkest times of his life, Favre channelled his emotion against the Raiders and passed for 399 yards and four touchdowns. This moved him into 2nd place for career TD passes and the Packers beat the Raiders 41-7. It was an incredible performance by Favre and one of his greatest, stating that he knew his dad would have wanted him to play. His father had been to all of his games and football was a connection that they shared. A truly heroic performance under emotional circumstances, this united football fans around the world.
13. Bert Trautmann – 1956 FA Cup final
In today’s game there is a huge amount of focus on any kind of head injury after multiple collisions where players have decided to stay on the pitch, despite advice from those around them. This goes right back throughout football history, with the 1956 FA Cup final being a key example. Man City keeper Bert Trautmann suffered a heavy collision with Birmingham’s Peter Murphy, but allowing no subs he decided to play on and pulled off some key saves towards the end of the game to help his team to a 3-1 victory. Three days later, Trautmann discovered that he had broken several vertebrae in his neck in the collision.
12. Chris Simms – Week 3, 2006 Season
After being crushed by the Panthers defense with several hard hits, Buccaneers QB Chris Simms was forced out of the game due to injury. He would soon return though and lead a scoring drive, which helped his team to take the lead in the fourth. Despite this valiant effort, the Panthers came out victorious and Simms was taken to the hospital due to his discomfort.
He had emergency surgery at the hospital to remove his spleen after tests revealed that it was ruptured. Before the operation he had lost around five pints of blood, and if they had waited much longer he would have died. Due to no visible signs of a problem Simms decided to play on despite his discomfort, but fortunately his symptoms were spotted and action was taken in time.
11. Shun Fujimoto – 1976 Olympics
In the 1976 Olympics, Japan was battling with the favourites and a dominant Soviet Union team. Shun Fujimoto would prove himself to be an Olympic hero after he suffered a knee injury from his floor routine, which he decided to keep quiet so that his team would not worry.
Fujimoto went on to score a 9.5 on the pommel horse, before taking part in the rings which required an 8-foot drop. He could no longer hide his injury, and had to be helped to the rings before performing a flawless routine and dismounting with a triple somersault. He landed perfectly before collapsing in agony, got a personal best of 9.7 and this inspired his team on to gold. It turned out that he had broken his kneecap, and then by dismounting the rings he had dislocated it and torn ligaments in his leg.
10. Kerri Strug – 1996 Atlanta Olympics
The Olympics are a fantastic celebration of what makes sport so special, and Kerri Strug’s performance in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics is one of the most memorable moments in Olympic history. Battling for their first women’s gymnastics Olympic gold, team USA was locked up in a fierce battle with Russia but held a lead going into the final event – the vault.
With the pressure on Kerri Strug, on her first attempt she under-rotated the landing and severely injured her ankle. Strug would need to land a second vault if they were to win, so she shook off the throbbing pain in her ankle and completed a second attempt and landed cleanly, before falling to her hands and knees in complete agony, and then had to be helped off the platform. Strug sacrificed her body for her country and an Olympic gold, and will be forever remembered as an American hero.
9. Bobby Baun – Game 6, 1964 Stanley Cup Finals
In a game that couldn’t have been scripted any better, Maple Leafs defenseman Bobby Baun would emerge a hero after an inspired performance. Facing elimination in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals against the Red Wings, Baun had to be stretchered off after taking a slapshot on his skate, resulting in a broken leg. With the game being forced into overtime, Baun makes a heroic return to the ice before cementing himself as a Maple Leafs legend by scoring the game winning goal, despite playing on just one leg. After forcing a decisive Game 7, Baun refused to let doctors examine his leg and was determined to play. The Leafs won 4-0 to ensure that his Game 6 performance would became an important part of Maple Leafs lore.
8. Tiger Woods – 2008 US Open
Although he may not have the best reputation now, Tiger’s performance in the 2008 US Open will go down as one of the greatest sporting performances in recent history. Woods had arthroscopic knee surgery following the Masters, and would suffer stress fractures after rushing back in preparation for the Open.
Not one to back down, Woods went against doctors orders and it looked like a terrible mistake after double-bogeying the first hole. He laboured through round 1 and 2 and was in clear pain, but gradual improvement left him in joint second. A stunning six final holes in the 3rd round, including a 60 foot putt on the 18th, left him in the lead going into the final round. Woods would force a playoff with Rocco Mediate after another unforgettable putt on the 18th, which lipped the hole before dropping. The playoff went back and fourth before sudden death, where Woods finally emerged victorious in a stunning, hard fought and gruelling performance against the odds.
7. Clint Malarchuk – March, 1989
One of the more disturbing things to happen in sports history, the team trainer should be praised for his heroic response and quick thinking in an emergency. Clint Malarchuk was victim to a freak accident in a game between his Sabres and the visiting St. Louis Blues, and is fortunate to be alive to tell the tale. As two players crashed into Malarchuk, one of their skates slashed his neck and severed his carotid artery. Deeply distressing scenes followed as blood poured out onto the ice, and team trainer Jim Pizzutelli quickly came to his aid and pinched off the blood vessel until doctors arrived and stabilized the wound.
Despite coming close to death, Malarchuk shook off a traumatizing incident which would lead many to never return to the ice, and he was back in training just four days later. A week after that, he was back in the same goal for the Sabres where he had nearly died. Malarchuk demonstrated heroic bravery by returning so quickly to the game, whilst the team trainer and doctors showed heroic actions by their hard work and quick thinking.
6. Niki Lauda – 1976 Italian Grand Prix
When somebody goes through something seriously traumatic, it is the natural reaction for them to avoid putting themselves in a similar situation again. Despite warning that the Nurburgring circuit was too dangerous for F1, Lauda raced in the German Grand Prix and unfortunately proved that he was right. Lauda crashed into an embankment which caused his car to burst into flames, and he was trapped in the wreckage which resulted in severe burns as well as damage to his lungs through inhaling toxic gases. He was eventually dragged out by fellow racers, but the damage was done and Lauda lost most of his right ear, hair, eyebrows and eyelids.
This would be enough to stop most from racing or even driving, but not Lauda. He had reconstructive surgery to replace his eyelids, and miraculously returned to racing just six weeks later. He finished 4th in the Italian Grand Prix, emerging from his car with blood soaked bandages from his still healing wounds. It is hard to imagine what would be going through his head getting back into the car, but he acted heroically by battling his demons so shortly after such a traumatizing incident.
5. Kirk Gibson – Game 1, 1988 World Series
Game 1 of the 1988 World Series will forever be remembered and is an important moment in sports history. Kirk Gibson had injured both of his legs in the NLCS, where the Dodgers emerged victorious over seven games against the favoured Mets.
These injuries and a stomach virus kept him from starting Game 1 of the World Series against the Oakland Athletics, but he informed Tommy Lasorda that he was available to pinch hit. To the shock of the A’s, Gibson limped to the plate in the 9th with his team trailing 4-3, with Mike Davis on 1st after Dennis Eckersley walked him. Davis stole second, and with the count at 3-2, Gibson hit what would be one of the most famous home runs in all of baseball. He hobbled around the bases as his team-mates ran onto the field. The Dodgers took game 1 and would win the series 4-1; with this being Gibson’s only plate appearance of the series.
4. Michael Jordan – Game 5, 1997 NBA Finals
This is just one chapter in the epic legacy of Michael Jordan, but it is an important one that perfectly demonstrates his warrior like character and fierce desire to win. Suffering from food poisoning or an intestinal stomach virus with severe flu like symptoms, Jordan was bed ridden for 24 hours prior to Game 5 of the 1997 NBA finals and he had lost several pounds. But there was Jordan at game time, visibly suffering, dehydrated and fatigued.
Throughout the game there were moments where it looked like he was about to collapse, but in the 2nd quarter he sparked into life and scored 17 points. Jordan then took over the 4th quarter, including sinking a three to clinch the game to give him a remarkable 38 points. Jordan was helped off the court by Pippen, and the world was stunned by this larger than life performance.
3. Jack Youngblood – 1979 NFL Playoffs
It was no secret that Jack Youngblood was hard as nails, as the defensive end for the Rams was famous for his tough play and for never missing a game. The Hall of Famer really outdid himself in the 1979 playoffs however, playing throughout the playoffs on a fractured fibula. Most would see that as a season ending injury, but Youngblood showed his guts and determination by continuing to play right through to the Super Bowl. The Rams would come up short against Pittsburgh, but Youngblood established himself as an NFL legend and warrior through playing with a broken leg. Unsurprisingly, Youngblood thinks today’s player are getting soft.
2. Mario Lemieux – 1992-93 season
Mario Lemieux demonstrated remarkable heroics throughout the 1992-93 season, as he battled with cancer but came back to carry on his sensational play. Since his arrival in Pittsburgh he established himself as an all-time great and lifted the team to back-to-back championships. The Penguins started the 1992-93 season strongly, but a bombshell was dropped when it was announced that the 27-year-old phenom had cancer. People were unsure on what the future held for Lemieux, who left to undergo aggressive radiation treatment.
Two months later, Lemieux returned on the same day as his last treatment and faced the Flyers, and in a moving moment he received a standing ovation from the Philadelphia crowd. He scored and got an assist, and this marked the beginning of one of the all time great sporting stories. The Penguins won an astonishing NHL record 17 straight and finished 1st, largely thanks to a breathtaking scoring spree from Lemieux who won his fourth scoring title with 160 points, all despite missing two months and coming back from a physically and mentally challenging period in his life.
1. Kellen Winslow – “The Epic in Miami”
You know there must be something special about a game when it earns its own title, and “The Epic in Miami” is no exception. The fixture was a AFC divisional playoff game between the Chargers and Dolphins, taking place in the Orange Bowl. It is one of the most famous NFL games of all time, partly down to the sweltering conditions, the hard fought play of both teams as well as a number of records that were set.
Kellen Winslow played an enormous part in ensuring it was an epic, as the Chargers tight end put in a monster performance despite battling against cramps, dehydration, a pinched nerve and having to have three stitches in his lip. Winslow recorded a playoff record 13 receptions for 166 yards, as well as a touchdown. Crucially, he also managed to block a field goal attempt to send the game to overtime, but found himself unable to get up after the block as his body was in spasm. He somehow mustered the strength to get back in the game, and the Chargers eventually emerged victorious. Everyone was feeling the effects, but none more so that Winslow who put in a heroic shift and had to be helped off the pitch by two teammates. This image has become one of the most famous photos in football and all of sport.
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