The sports world is filled with storylines that melt our hearts. We romanticize them to the point where we root for players just because their comebacks make us feel good. Last season, the Chicago Cubs had plenty of heart-melting moments; the 108-year World Series drought and the fun group of kids who just keep winning are two examples. Then, we added the return of slugger Kyle Schwarber to the Cubbies’ list.
The 23-year-old left fielder/catcher missed all but two games last season due to a torn ACL that occurred when he and Dexter Fowler collided in the outfield back in April. It was a miraculous turn of events, for sure. However, it’s not the first time we’ve seen a sports figure make an unbelievable return from injury. These six athletes came back from major injuries to play in big games.
Honorable mention: Paul George
1. John Wall
Back in 2014–15, the Washington Wizards had a 46-36 record; good enough to be the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference. After dispatching the Toronto Raptors in a first-round sweep, they played the top-seeded Atlanta Hawks in the conference semifinals. The Wizards stunned the Hawks with a six-point victory in Game 1. Unfortunately, it came at a major price. Star point guard John Wall, who had 18 points and 13 assists in the win, fractured his left wrist.
Wall was forced to sit out and watch his team lose two of the next three games. But he returned to the court for Game 5 and played 37 minutes in the loss. He also competed in Game 6, staying on the court for an absurd 44 minutes while scoring 20 points and dishing out 13 assists. The Wizards lost the series, but it was an incredible moment in the history of injured athletes who found their way back to the court.
2. Phillip Rivers
Back in 2007, the 5-5 San Diego Chargers went on a run at the end of the year. They finished with an 11-5 record, won the AFC West, and then beat the Tennessee Titans and Indianapolis Colts in the playoffs. Things looked good for San Diego heading into the AFC Championship game against the New England Patriots — except for one thing; quarterback Philip Rivers partially tore his ACL in their win over the Colts.
Rivers had surgery on his knee almost immediately and was able to push himself out onto the field to compete against New England. It didn’t do them much good, as the Patriots beat the Chargers 21-12 and Rivers went 19-for-37 for 211 yards and two interceptions. It’s hard to say if things might’ve been better if Rivers had sat, but backup Billy Volek was just 3-for-10 passing on the season that year. So even if they lost, it was probably right to give Rivers a try.
3. Terrell Owens
Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens may have the coolest recovery story of all. With just two games remaining in the 2004 season, the Eagles lost their star to a severe leg and ankle injury. It looked like they’d have to play without him if they wanted to make it to the Super Bowl. However, after winning their first two games in the playoffs, Owens made a miraculous return to the field to take on the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXIX.
The Eagles lost the game, which somewhat damages this comeback story. But make no mistake; Owens gave an extremely gutsy performance. He caught nine passes for 122 yards, coming up just short of winning his first ring. Not too bad for a guy who couldn’t even run just a week prior to the game.
4. Curt Schilling
In 2004, things didn’t look good for the Boston Red Sox. The New York Yankees beat up starting pitcher Curt Schilling in Game 1 of the ALCS, and the team fell behind 3-0 in the best-of-seven series. Just one more loss, and their World Series hopes would be gone. Even worse, Schilling’s performance for the rest of the postseason was in doubt because of a loose tendon in his right ankle. It couldn’t get much worse.
But the Red Sox rallied, winning the next two games against New York. Needing a starter for Game 6, what do the Red Sox do? They go to Schilling, despite fresh sutures on his ankle, as a team doctor had just repaired his tendon. This resulted in the famous ‘bloody sock” game, as Schilling gutted out seven innings and allowed just one earned run in a win over New York. The Red Sox won the series and eventually the World Series, too.
5. Kirk Gibson
When you think about players stepping on to the field with an injury, few athletes come to mind before Los Angeles Dodgers slugger Kirk Gibson. In 1988, he played 150 regular–season games and won his only career MVP award before sustaining injuries to both legs. This unfortunately barred Gibson from participating when the team advanced to the World Series against the Oakland A’s — or so we thought.
Trailing by one run to Oakland at Dodger Stadium and with Hall of Fame closer Dennis Eckersley on the mound, Gibson limped to the plate in Game 1 of the series. He represented the go-ahead run, but with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning. After working a 3-2 count, Gibson got a slider from Eckersley that he didn’t miss. He clubbed the ball into the right field seats for a walk-off homer and one of the most memorable moments in Major League Baseball history.
6. Willis Reed
Here we have the original unbelievable return from injury. New York Knicks center and NBA MVP, Willis Reed, led his team to the NBA Finals against Wilt Chamberlain‘s Los Angeles Lakers. In the first four games of the series, Reed averaged 31.8 points per game and took his Knicks to a pivotal Game 5 tied at 2-2 with the Lakers. But Reed tore a muscle in his leg after landing awkwardly on Chamberlain‘s foot. He was forced to leave the game after scoring just seven points, and it looked like his season was over.
Despite Reed’s injury, the Knicks won the game and took a 3-2 advantage before the Lakers bounced back and took Game 6. With the championship on the line, Reed appeared in the tunnel at Madison Square Garden ready to take the floor for the Knicks. He played in the game, notching the first four points for the Knicks — the only points he scored in the game. New York beat Los Angeles to take home the Larry O’Brien trophy.