Who doesn’t love a good sports comeback? There’s just something about athletes returning to past glory that lifts fans’ hopes and reminds them that with determination, anything is possible. Unfortunately, not all sports comebacks end in glory. Many of them, instead of exemplifying the power of the human spirit, serve as evidence of the limitations of the human body.
The list that follows details ten of the most disappointing comeback attempts in sports history, arranged according to the prize money or salaries earned by these athletes in their return to their sports. For purposes of variety, only one male or female athlete or coach per sport has been included in the list, and for a more even comparison, the prize money and salaries have been adjusted for inflation.
10. Brett Favre / American Football / Total Salary in Comeback: $14 Million
NFL quarterback Brett Favre has retired and un-retired so many times that it’s confusing which of his returns to the game can actually be considered legitimate comebacks. In fact, Favre’s Wikipedia page has a whole section devoted to “Retirement speculation through the years”, of which the first entry is dated as early as 2002. However, Brett would continue playing with the Green Bay Packers until 2007 and with the New York Jets until 2008. Afterwards, Favre really seemed like he would retire for good. But true to form, in August of 2009, Brett changed his mind again and signed with the Minnesota Vikings. That turned out to be a great decision for Favre as he went on to have a landmark season in which he broke the record for consecutive starts at one position (291), became the first quarterback in NFL history to defeat each of the league’s 32 franchises, surpassed the record for four-touchdown games, played in his eleventh Pro Bowl, and reached the NFC Championship game.
At the end of that season, Favre again predictably announced that he was retiring due to an ankle injury, but also predictably, he still came back for another season. And that final comeback was terribly disappointing. In 2010, Brett’s consecutive starts streak ended at 297 due to a sprained shoulder. Worse, a week later he sustained a concussion after being sacked. That was the last that fans saw of their idol, who ended the season throwing just eleven touchdowns to go along with his nineteen interceptions.
Favre later admitted that he came back for the last time only because the money was too good to turn down.
9. Muhammad Ali / Boxing / Fight Purse Total in Comeback: $9.1 Million
Muhammad Ali‘s retirement in 1979 was pretty sweet. His last fight was a rematch with Leon Spinks, who had taken Ali’s heavyweight title, and “The People’s Champion” won that attendance record-breaking fight to become the first heavyweight champion to wear the belt three separate times. Unfortunately, in October of 1980, Ali decided to step into the ring once more to face Larry Holmes for the WBA belt. By that time, Ali was already struggling with vocal stutters and trembling hands, but he chose to box for financial reasons.
“The Greatest” lost by knockout for the first time in his career, causing actor Sylvester Stallone to describe the match as “an autopsy on a man who is still alive”. Then, despite pleas for Ali to retire definitively, he fought one last time in December of 1981, losing by decision to Jamaican-Canadian Trevor Berbick.
8. Mike Ditka / American Football Coach / Total Salary in Comeback: $7.5 Million
A College (1986) and Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee (1988), Mike Ditka is also among the most accomplished coaches in the NFL. By 1992, he had won two each of the AP and the UPI NFL Coach of the Year Awards (1985, 1986) and had coached the Chicago Bears to six NFC Central titles, three NFC Championship games, and a win in Super Bowl XX. Unfortunately, in 1992 Mike was fired after the Bears dropped to 5-11 during the 1992 season.
In 1997 Ditka raised New Orleans fans’ hopes when he returned to coach the Saints. Sadly, his three seasons with the team were nowhere near as successful as the ten he spent with Chicago. He unwisely traded all of the team’s 1999 draft picks and their 2000 first round draft pick to be able to select Texas RB Ricky Williams in the draft. That turned out to be a bad gamble; with Williams, the team limped to a 3-13 record in 1999. Not surprisingly, Ditka was fired as a coach for a second time, causing him to call his three years with New Orleans “the three worst years” of his life.
7. Michael Jordan / Basketball / Total Salary in Comeback: $2.6 Million
Yes, Michael Jordan made perhaps the greatest comeback in sports history when he came out of retirement in 1995 and won two NBA MVP Awards (1996, 1998) and three straight championships (1996-1998) with the Chicago Bulls. However, MJ didn’t stop there and decided to come back once again with the Washington Wizards in 2001. The results were much less impressive than those from his first comeback.
While posting team-leading averages of 22.9 ppg, 5.2 apg, and 1.42 spg, Jordan tore cartilage in his right knee, ending his season. He had played only sixty games, the fewest in any season he had started. The following season (Jordan’s last), he posted a career-low average of 20 ppg, and the Wizards missed the playoffs for the second straight year.
6. Peter Forsberg / Hockey / Total Salary in Comeback: $1 Million
Peter Forsberg, currently the eighth in career points per game and fifth in career assists per game in the NHL, is considered one of the greatest hockey players of his generation. In fact, by the time of his initial retirement in 2010, he had won two Stanley Cups with the Colorado Avalanche and had never had a negative plus-minus rating in his career.
In 2011, Forsberg’s fans were elated when he decided that he had more good NHL years in him and launched a comeback with the Colorado Avalanche. In the first two road games Peter played in, he was on ice for a total of 17 minutes and 38 seconds, in that time earning 0 points and a minus-4 rating, the first negative rating of his NHL career. Then, hours before what was supposed to be his first home game, an event heavily advertised by Avalanche management, Forsberg announced his retirement. He cited foot problems and an “inability to defend [himself]” as his reasons for halting his comeback attempt.
5. Björn Borg / Tennis / Total Winnings in Comeback: $61,000
Björn Borg is considered one of the greatest tennis players of all time by virtue of his eleven Grand Slam singles titles, five of them being consecutive Wimbledon titles and the other six being French Open championships. It was thus quite a shock when at just 26 years of age, Borg announced his retirement in January of 1983.
In 1991, however, the Swede attempted a comeback. He grew his hair out, as it had been in his heyday, and insisted on using his old wooden racket despite the fact that he had used modern graphite rackets in the exhibitions he had played while retired. While an old-school Borg launching a successful comeback would’ve been an amazing feel-good story, the unfortunate reality was that he failed miserably. Borg lost all twelve matches he played, managing to win only three sets in total.
4. Martina Hingis / Tennis / Total Winnings in Comeback: $18,000
“The Swiss Miss”, Martina Hingis, set a series of “youngest-ever” records when she exploded onto the WTA tour beginning in 1994. By 1996, she became the youngest Grand Slam champion of all time (15 years and 9 months) when she teamed with Helena Suková to win the Wimbledon Women’s Doubles title. The following year, Hingis won the Australian Open singles title, the first of five Grand Slam singles titles she would win in her career that was highlighted by a total of 209 weeks as World #1. Shockingly, in February of 2003, at just 22 years of age, Martina announced her retirement from tennis, her problems with her ankles being too much for Hingis to bear.
However, just three years later, she returned to the game. While Martina didn’t win another Grand Slam singles title, she was able to return to No. 6 in the world. Unfortunately, in 2007, the ITF tribunal suspended Hingis for two years due to the presence of a metabolite of cocaine in her urine samples. That prompted Martina to retire once again.
Then, in 2013, after being inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame, Hingis announced that she was again coming out of retirement to play doubles with Daniela Hantuchová. That partnership didn’t go well at all as the pair won no more than one match in each of the five tournaments they entered.
3. Ben Johnson / Sprinting / Prize Money not Usually Awarded for Sprinting
During the 1988 Seoul Olympics, Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson won a gold medal in the 100m final, thus effectively improving his own world record to 9.79 seconds. However, the Olympic Doping Control Center found Johnson’s urine samples to contain evidence of steroid use. That resulted in the rescinding of his gold medal and his world record.
When Ben’s suspension had ended, he attempted a comeback but failed to qualify for the 1991 World Championships in Tokyo. The following year, though, he qualified for the Canadian Olympic team, but finished last in his semifinal heat. Nevertheless, it appeared that Johnson was back to his past glory when he won the 50-meter event in France in 1993. However, he was found to have excess testosterone in his body and was banned from racing for life by the IAAF. On appeal, that verdict was overturned, but it would require Ben to run alone against the clock each time he competed. Surprisingly, he did just that in Ontario but later failed a drug test for a banned diuretic that masks the presence of other drugs.
2. Mark Spitz / Swimming / Prize Money not Usually Awarded for Swimming
American swimmer Mark Spitz won an amazing seven gold medals at the 1972 Summer Olympics and set new world records in all of them. With his two golds from the 1968 Games, that brought his tally to nine gold medals. However, at just 22 years of age, Spitz retired from competitive swimming.
Surprisingly, though, in 1992, at the age of 41 and 20 years after his incredible Olympic performance, Mark attempted a comeback by competing for a place on the US Swimming Team at the Barcelona Games. Unfortunately, Spitz ended up two seconds short of the qualifying time.
1. Jim Palmer / Baseball / Total Salary in Comeback: $0
By the time that Jim Palmer retired in 1984, it seemed like he had little more to aspire to in terms of baseball. In his nineteen years with the Baltimore Orioles in the MLB (1965-67, 1969-1984), his 268 career victories were (and still are) an Orioles record. He had also been recognized with three Cy Young Awards (1973, 1975, 1976) and four Gold Gloves (1976-1979). Furthermore, Jim was a six-time All-Star and a three-time World Series champion (1966, 1970, 1983). For his accomplishments, Palmer was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1990.
Because Jim was already so accomplished and had been out of the game for seven years, the world of baseball was surprised when he attempted a comeback with the Orioles in 1991. Palmer explained that he wanted to make sure that he hadn’t retired too early. It cannot be ignored, however, that at the time of Jim’s comeback, ESPN was trying to cut his broadcasting work pay.
After giving up five hits and two runs in two innings of a spring training game, Jim decided to give up on his comeback attempt. He explained that he had torn his hamstring while warming up for the game and admitted, “I’m not saying I wouldn’t like to continue, but I can’t.”