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Injuries are just part of the game when you’re an athlete, especially a pro, but some injuries are worse than others. Muscle tears, broken bones, concussions can rob all-stars of the rest of their careers or sideline them for seasons to come, devastating both the athlete and their loyal fans.
But every now and then, you have an athlete who comes back from a potentially career-ending injury or a major illness and goes on to achieve greatness. Let’s take a look at a few of those comebacks.
In 2005, Drew Brees went diving for a fumble during the last game of the season and came up with a torn labrum and partially torn rotator cuff in his throwing shoulder. The Chargers offered him backup money to remain with the team during the offseason, and many teams were scared off by the shoulder injury. Turns out, those teams should have been afraid of a healed Brees, who went on to lead the Saints to a championship in Super Bowl XLIV and win the game’s MVP award, along with being named the 2008 AP NFL Offensive Player of the Year.
She is one of the greatest tennis players in the history of the game, and you may never have guessed that she had to deal with recurring shoulder and knee injuries throughout her whole career. In 2015 and 2016, she had to drop out of tournaments because of the injuries, but when she returned, she went on to win the Australian Open in 2017 and set the all-time record for grand slam singles titles. She has been ranked No. 1 in singles on eight separate occasions between 2002 and 2017.
Mario Lemieux is known to be one of the best hockey players of all time. He led the Pittsburgh Penguins to consecutive Stanley Cup championships in 1991 and 1992. He is the only man to have his name on the cup as both a player and an owner. But what is so amazing about all of this is that he was plagued by health problems for a big portion of his career. His ailments included spinal disc herniation, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, chronic tendinitis of a hip flexor muscle, and chronic back pain so severe that other people had to tie his skates. He retired once in 1997 after battling lymphoma, but he returned in 2000. The second and final retirement came in 2006.
But don’t forget, he also played for Canada, and at the 2002 Winter Olympics, Lemieux was selected by Wayne Gretzky to captain the roster and led the team to gold. In order to play, he had to have several painkiller injections during the games.
On Oct. 15, 1988, the Los Angeles Dodgers were playing Game One of the World Series against the Oakland Athletics. Gibson had injuries in both legs, and watched as the Dodgers took a 2-0 lead in the first inning, but then Oakland got a 4-2 lead, with the Dodgers only getting one more run in before the final inning. Gibson was in the trainer’s room listening to the game, and he heard Vin Scully say, “Well, the man who’s been there for the Dodgers all season, Kirk Gibson, is not in the dugout and will not be here for them tonight.” That obviously got Gibson’s blood pumping, so he limped out to the dugout, and said that he was going to go in for a pinch hit. Mike Davis was on first and there were two outs. A’s closer Dennis Eckersley had not allowed a home run since Aug. 24, and got ahead of Gibson with 0-2.
Gibson hammered the game-winning home run to right field. The legendary Dodgers announcer delivered the time-tested line, “High fly ball into right field. She is gone! … In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened.” The Dodgers won the game 5-4, and ended up winning the series.
WNBA star Sue Bird had four surgeries, including her knee, her hip labrum, and several on her nasal bone, between 2007-2013. She also dealt with a knee injury that kept her out of early games in 2017. But Bird is one of the WNBA’s most decorated players. She has won two WNBA championships, four Olympic gold medals, and led the WNBA in assists three times.
Bird has been selected to play in eleven WNBA All-Star teams and eight all-WNBA teams. She is one of only nine women to win an Olympic Gold Medal, an NCAA Championship and a WNBA Championship. On top of all of that, in 2011, she was voted by fans as one of the WNBA’s Top 15 Players of All Time and was voted into the WNBA Top 20@20 as one of the league’s Top 20 Players of All Time.
During the first week of the 1986 season, NFL legend Joe Montana suffered a career-threatening back injury. It was so bad that doctors told him he should retire from football. Instead, Montana was back within two months and returned to the starting lineup. That first game, he led the 49ers to a 43-17 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals and completed 13 of 19 passes for 270 yards and 3 touchdowns. Montana went on to win the 1986 Comeback Player of the Year. He also went on to win a Super Bowl and two league MVPs.
Most of us remember Lindsey Vonn’s horrible body-battering crash during downhill training at the 2006 Turin Olympics, where she had to be helicoptered off the mountain. But she was back on her skis and competing in 48 hours. Some of Vonn’s other injuries have included: fractured ankle, concussion, a thumb sliced open thanks to a bottle, broken arms, torn knee ligaments, and more. She’s needed surgery on many of the injuries, but it never stopped her.
Vonn has won four World Cup overall championships, one of only two female skiers to do so, and she won the gold medal in downhill at the 2010 Winter Olympics. She is one of six women to have won World Cup races in all five disciplines of alpine skiing.
Pelé (Edson Arantes do Nascimento)
Pelé is regarded as the greatest footballer of all time. he began playing for Santos at age 15 and the Brazil national team at age 16. He won three FIFA World Cups during his time — he is the only player to ever do so. He is the all-time leading scorer for Brazil with 77 goals in 92 games, and he averaged almost a goal per game throughout his career. At the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, the then 17-year-old was sidelined by a knee injury, and he was forced to sit out the first two matches. But then in the quarterfinals against Wales, Pelé scored his first goal — then a hat trick in the semi-finals versus France. He wore a brace for the final and scored again, helping Brazil win the first of five World Cups.
Babe Didrikson Zaharias
Babe Didrikson Zaharias excelled in golf, basketball, baseball and track and field. She won two gold medals in track and field at the 1932 Summer Olympics, before she decided to turn to professional golf. She went on to win 10 LPGA major championships, and is widely regarded as one of the greatest female athletes of all time. She also beat colon cancer in 1954. Just 14 months after undergoing surgery for the cancer, she earned what was then a record 12-stroke victory at the U.S. Women’s Open. It was her third Open Championship.