What is not to love about a sports comeback story? An athlete is counted out for one reason or another, perhaps due to injuries or to age, but he shocks the world by making a triumphant return to the big stage. Even fans who have, throughout the year, reviled that particular athlete cannot help but put those past feelings aside and admire the comeback. Such stories live on for the ages, well after the athlete who was the star of that show has called time on his playing days, in part because those of us who are never able to take the field at such a level wish that we could enjoy a similar moment.
What is the most famous unexpected comeback in the history of North American professional sports is one that will forever be associated with the name of that individual. Diehard sports fans who were not even born before that fateful night occurred have likely seen the grainy footage time and time again, and it is regarded as one of the greatest moments in the history of pro basketball and of Madison Square Garden. It is, in fact, so well known that you likely have already guessed which comeback is being referred to even before scrolling to the No. 1 event on the list.
Also on this list is an unexpected comeback that followed one of the most shocking retirements that knowledgeable analysts and fans had ever witnessed. The elite athleticism held by top-tier professional wrestlers should not and cannot be undersold, and thus pro wrestling/sports entertainment is featured in this piece. One such comeback kicks off the list, and not just because it somewhat came out of nowhere for those who do not actively follow backstage news in the business. There is an easy argument to be made that this man’s second run in the WWE was even better than was his first.
10. Shawn Michaels Better Than Ever After Back Injury
The Heartbreak Kid had unofficially retired from active wrestling after suffering a serious back injury in 1998, and outside of making sporadic appearances up through 2002 the belief was that he would never return to the ring full-time. What was supposed to be a one-off feud with real-life best friend Triple H turned into a remarkable comeback tale, one that saw Michaels participate in classic encounters with the likes of Kurt Angle, Ric Flair and The Undertaker. As good as Michaels was before that back injury, it was during his comeback that the majority of his five-star matches occurred.
9. Joe Namath Starts 14 Games After Knee Injury
Namath didn’t miss a single start because of injury over his first five years with the New York Jets, but cartilage damage to his right knee along with other nagging knocks had seemingly stalled Broadway Joe’s career from 1970 through 1973. Namath surprised many within the football world when he was able to start 14 games for the Jets for the first time in five seasons in 1974. The Jets went 7-7 with Namath under center, and he was named the Associated Press Comeback Player of the Year for that campaign. Namath would never again start 14 games in a single season.
8. Stephen Strasburg Comes Back After ACL Tear
The worst fears of Washington Nationals fans and of those who simply love watching baseball were realized in August of 2010 when it was learned that Strasburg had a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching arm. That injury, along with the surgery required to fix it (more on that later), too often sinks young promising pitching careers. Strasburg proved to be the exception that breaks the rule, and he was named to the All-Star squad his first season back in the league (2012). One of the best pitchers in the game, Strasburg was the National League strikeout champion for 2014.
7. Adrian Peterson Returns After Torn ACL and MCL
A 26-year-old running back who relies on speed and agility is not supposed to return to the National Football League after suffering a torn ACL and MCL in late December (2011 in this instance). If he does manage to return to the field, it should take over a year for the comeback to occur. Peterson, an athletic marvel, was in the starting lineup for the Minnesota Vikings in Week 1 of the 2012 regular season, and he went on to win Associated Press Offensive Player of the Year and Most Valuable Player honors for that campaign. It is one of the finest seasons a pro football running back has ever enjoyed.
6. Tommy John Revolutionizes UCL Surgery
It was believed by experts that John’s career was, at best, in jeopardy when the sinkerball pitcher seriously damaged the ulnar collateral ligament of his throwing arm. What was, at the time, a revolutionary procedure along with over a year of recovery not only saved John’s career. He was even better the second time around. The southpaw won the National League Comeback Player of the Year Award for the 1976 season, and he was named to All-Star squads ever year from 1978 through 1980. That surgery has since helped prolong many baseball careers, and the operation is, as you likely know, named after the pitcher.
5. Mario Lemieux Hits the Ice After Battling Cancer
Lemieux battled through Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a herniated disk and back surgeries until he felt that his body had been through in the spring of 1997. Rumors that Lemieux was attempting a comeback began to surface in 2000, and he made his return to the Pittsburgh Penguins in late a December of that year. Lemieux was not fully the player of old during his second stint in the National Hockey League, but there is no question that the Penguins needed his services during that time. It is too bad that we missed him for a full season due to the lockout that killed the 2004-2005 campaign.
4. Ric Flair Returns After Plane Crash and Broken Back
The man who became “the dirtiest player in the game” nearly lost everything in October of 1975 when he was involved in a serious plane crash that killed the pilot and left fellow wrestler Johnny Valentine paralyzed. Flair suffered a broken back, and he was told that he would never be able to wrestle again. The Nature Boy defeated the odds and, after rigorous therapy, he returned to the ring in early 1976. Flair was more than his old self following a crash that could have cost him is life. He eventually became arguably the greatest performer in the history of North American professional wrestling.
3. Michael Jordan Comes Back to the NBA
Jordan sent shockwaves throughout the sports world when, following a gambling controversy that made national news headlines, he announced in the fall of 1993 that he was walking away from the game of basketball. His Airness then attempted to kick-start a Major League Baseball career. Some would suggest that Jordan gave that up and returned to the Chicago Bulls because he couldn’t hack it in baseball. Remember, though, that Jordan had not publicly given any indication that he was going to make a basketball comeback until the MLB strike began to affect the 1995 regular season. Oh, what could have been for other teams had that strike ended earlier than it did.
2. Kirk Gibson Saves The Day at the 1988 World Series
Gibson was supposed to be out for the entire 1988 World Series due to a pair of injured legs and also a stomach virus. The Los Angeles Dodgers needed their hero in the bottom of the ninth inning as they were trailing the Oakland Athletics by a run. With a man on first, Gibson limped to home plate and battled to a 2-2 count before barely fouling off a pitch to keep the at-bat alive. Legendary Oakland closer Dennis Eckersley attempted to put Gibson away with a back-door slider, but Gibson used only his upper body to smash the pitch over the right field wall for a historic home run.
1. Willis Reed Plays With Torn Thigh Muscle
A torn thigh muscle was supposed to keep the New York Knicks center out of Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals that also featured the Los Angeles Lakers. Reed would have none of it, though, as he shockingly and heroically walked onto the court during team warmups to the delight of a home crowd that sprung into applause. The cherry was put onto the sundae when Reed hit his first two attempts from the field, New York’s first shots of the contest. Reed would not score another point, but the Knicks, going off of the emotional high from Reed making his comeback, went on to win the game and the championship. Any similar returns that occur in pro sports almost always bring up mentions of Reed’s name.