Top 10 Athletes who Played Through Pain

Many sports fans would prefer an athlete who demonstrates tremendous determination, perseverance and effort over one who seems lazy, apathetic or not fully invested in their sport or event, even if the latter is more naturally talented. With such great levels of emotional investment in their beloved sports, fans similarly expect athletes to hold nothing back to help themselves or their team emerge with a win whenever possible. Even when unable to win, fans often maintain a deep respect for players who give their all and make every effort in any way possible. Legendary Packers coach Vince Lombardi best summarized this notion when he declared that “I firmly believe that any man's finest hour, the greatest fulfillment of all that he holds dear, is the moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle – victorious.”

Some athletes go even beyond this, however, and are willing to sacrifice not only their energy and effort, but also their immediate physical well-being. While this leads to injury for many athletes, many throughout history have still refused to relent and displayed the type of toughness, mental fortitude and love for their sport that endears them to fans across the world, irrespective of their allegiances. When an athlete goes beyond anyone’s expectation to defy what seems possible, all we can do is stand and watch and celebrate their sacrifice for the love of their team or their sport. These athletes are by no means the only ones who have done so, but represent the most extreme examples or the examples which occurred on the biggest athletic stage.

Note: none of these examples include concussions or other head-related injuries. With the waves of new research and information becoming available on a constant basis, it is crystal clear that, for the interests of their long-term health, athletes should stay on the side of caution after any such incidents. While the desire for athletes to want to continue to play is commendable, it is also deeply unwise and should be prevented at all costs by the team officials, coaches or teammates of athletes.

10 Tiger Woods, 2008

Woods’ legacy has been forever marred by his serial marital infidelities, made public late in 2009 and early in 2010. Since then, he has since struggled with injuries and has not won a major since the news became public, but the most recent of his fourteen career PGA major victories was also arguably his greatest. Already plagued by injuries, Woods had missed two months due to knee surgery before the 2008 US Open and was not expected to be among the tournament leaders. Woods finished with a score of 73 in the first round, five shots off the leaders, but then finished with a score of 30 on the front nine in the second round, one shy of breaking Vijay Singh’s nine-hole US Open record. Woods finished the day with a 68, placing him just one shot off the lead, and then shot a 70 the next day to put him one shot ahead of Lee Westwood for first going into the final day at Torrey Pines.

Woods, attempting to play through significant pain, managed to hit a 73, giving him a share of the lead with Rocco Mediate and forcing a rare 18-hole playoff the following day. Clearly demonstrating he had returned too soon from surgery, Woods was in visible agony throughout the playoff and barely able to stand. Woods then tied Mediate over the 18 holes, forcing a sudden-death playoff that Woods one by one stroke over Mediate. Woods underwent arthroscopic surgery to fix his knee after the tournament, but his ability to overcome the pain to win the major marked him as a physically tough athlete in a sport not known for such injured heroics.

9 Curt Schilling, 2004

Best known as the “bloody sock incident,” Schilling allowed just one run on four hits over seven innings in Game 6 of the ALCS against the New York Yankees, on Boston’s way to becoming the first MLB team to win a playoff series after going down three games to none and winning the team’s first World Series since 1918. Schilling had gone 21-6 in 2004 and finished second to Johan Santana in Cy Young voting in the American League that year, but tore the tendon sheath in the ankle during Game 1 of the team’s ALDS series against the Angels. Schilling had the tendon stabilized, in what is now medically referred to as the Schilling tendon procedure, multiple times during the playoffs to alleviate the damage, but Schilling’s ankle still bled enough to lead to his bloody sock. The sock was placed in the Baseball Hall of Fame, but was sold to an anonymous private bidder at auction for $92,613.

8 Byron Leftwich, 2002

Before playing quarterback for four different NFL teams, most notably the Jacksonville Jaguars, Leftwich started for Marshall University. In a November 2002 game against Akron, Leftwich broke his left tibia in the first quarter and watched his team build a significant deficit. Determined to try to help his team win, he made his way back onto the field despite barely being able to stand. Forced to have two of his offensive linemen carry him down the field after each throw, Leftwich was still able to make several long completions to his receivers. Marshall lost the game 34-20, but Leftwich cemented his legacy as one of the toughest athletes in collegiate history and built a reputation that led Jacksonville to draft him seventh overall in 2003.

7 Kirk Gibson, 1988

Gibson was undoubtedly an integral part of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ 1988 team, signified by his NL MVP win that year. After injuring both legs in the NLCS against the New York Mets and contracting a stomach virus, however, few, if any, expected Gibson to appear in the World Series against the Oakland A’s, who were led by sluggers Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco. With a one-run deficit in the ninth inning in Game 1, Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda still elected to use Gibson as a pinch hitter, after Gibson underwent physical therapy in the clubhouse to prepare and the Dodgers got a man on base against A’s closer Dennis Eckersley. Gibson hobbled up to the plate and, after forcing a 3-2 count, hit a home run over the right field fence in Dodgers Stadium to win the game. The images of Gibson hitting the home run entirely with upper-body strength and then limping around the bases, jubilantly pumping his fists in the air, has remained one of baseball’s enduring moments. Gibson did not appear again in the series, but the Dodgers won the World Series four games to one.

6 Willis Reed, 1970

Reed, a career New York Knicks player and one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History according to a 1997 vote, was also named NBA MVP, a first-team All-NBA player and an NBA All-Defensive first team player in 1970. After leading the Knicks to the NBA Finals against the LA Lakers that year and then a 3-2 lead over the Lakers in that series, Reed suffered a serious thigh tear that prevented him from playing in Game 6, which the Lakers won. Considered to have almost no chance to play in Game 7, Reed still managed to play for 27 minutes off of the bench, receiving an ovation from the fans and giving them, and his team, an emotional boost to help them win the game 113-99. Reed only scored on his first two shots and was not a major offensive contributor, but it is often forgotten that he also closely guarded Lakers superstar Wilt Chamberlain, arguably one of the top 5 players of all-time, while on the court to help his team win. The Game 7 situation and his role in helping the Knicks win the NBA Championship make this an easy story to include on the list.

5 Derek Redmond, 1992

Redmond was one of the most successful British track athletes in recent history, winning gold medals in the 4x400 relay in the European Championships, Commonwealth Games and World Championships. His Olympic career was marred by injuries, however, preventing him from finishing his events in Seoul in 1988 or Barcelona in 1992. While in the former he injured his Achilles before the event started, in the latter he made it to the semi-final, before seriously injuring his hamstring partway through the race. Redmond was nonetheless determined to finish, and stood up to continue hobbling around the track. His father Jim, in attendance at the event, rushed out of his seat, brushed off several security personnel and made his way onto the track. Placing his arm around his son’s shoulder, he supported him as the two slowly made their way to the finish line while Jim Redmond tried to console his sobbing son and repeatedly waved away Olympic personnel trying to convince him to vacate the track. Though his father’s assistance disqualified him from the race, meaning he officially did not finish, Redmond and his father crossed the finish line together, creating one of the most touching and emotional sports moments of all time.

4 Ronnie Lott, 1985

A Pro Football Hall of Famer, four-time Super Bowl winner with the San Francisco 49ers, a ten-time Pro Bowler, and one of the best defensive backs in NFL history, Lott was also one of the most physically intimidating players to ever step onto an NFL field during his career. Lott most commonly showed his toughness through his aggressive open field hits, but in 1985, he also did so through his willingness to play through injury. While attempting a tackle on Cowboys fullback Timmy Newsome in the final week of the season, Lott got his left pinky finger stuck in Newsome’s helmet and had it crushed into his own chest, badly fracturing the tip and making it nearly unrecognizable. Lott chose to have his finger repaired for the following week’s Wild Card playoff game against the New York Giants and still played, but was unable to prevent his team from losing 17-3. During the following off-season, Lott declined a complicated procedure to graft new bone to repair his finger and simply had the tip of his left pinky amputated. Though, as rumor often suggests, the amputation did not occur mid-game in the team’s locker room, Lott nevertheless showed tremendous physical toughness to play through the pain to try to help his team in the playoffs.

3 Jack Youngblood, 1979-1980

Youngblood, the fearsome Hall of Fame defensive end who played his entire career with the Los Angeles Rams from 1971-1984, enjoyed his highest sack total in 1979 with 18. That season marked his fifth consecutive selection to the NFL All-Pro team in six years and his seventh consecutive Pro Bowl selection. His greatest accomplishment that season, however, came when he played he played all three games of the 1979 playoffs, as well as the Pro Bowl, with a fractured left fibula. The Rams defeated Roger Staubach’s Cowboys 21-19 and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 9-0 before falling to the Pittsburgh Steelers 31-19 in Super Bowl XIV. To play at a high level in the NFL playoffs and Super Bowl with such an injury is already impressive enough, but his determination also to play in the Pro Bowl despite his injury marks him as truly, deeply committed to the game and to his team.

2 Bobby Baun, 1964

Bobby Baun won four Stanley Cups with the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1960s, and served as a physical but clean defensive force, never scoring more than eight goals or twenty points in an NHL season. It is therefore ironic that his most celebrated moment is one of his goals, in the overtime of Game 6 of the 1964 Stanley Cup Finals. Down three games to two to the Detroit Red Wings in the series, Toronto needed to win Game 6 to force a deciding seventh game, but Baun had to be stretchered off the ice with ten minutes to go after he blocked a Gordie Howe shot with his foot and ankle. Unwilling to allow his team to go on without him though, Baun requested to be taped up and given painkillers to go back on the ice. During overtime, Baun scored the winning goal from the blueline to send the Leafs to Game 7. Baun also refused to have his ankle examined before that game and helped the team win the game 4-0 to win the team’s third consecutive Stanley Cup. Afterwards, x-rays revealed Baun had played the Game 6 overtime and Game 7 with a severely broken ankle. Baun’s sheer physical and mental toughness, as well as his clutch goal in Game 6, make this a truly extraordinary moment in sports history.

1 Shun Fujimoto, 1976

In the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, Fujimoto won a gold medal in the team gymnastics competition for Japan. What makes his accomplishment exponentially more impressive is that Fujimoto broke his kneecap during the floor exercise and not only continued in the competition, but also scored a 9.5 on the pommel horse and a 9.7 on the rings. Fujimoto furthermore kept perfect balance after dismounting from the rings, standing long enough for it to count before succumbing to the enormous pain he had been holding off. The dismount further compounded his injury by dislocating his already broken kneecap and tearing ligaments in his leg, but doctors still had to order him to refrain from continuing in the competition. His participation in the events and high scores still helped Japan eke out a narrow victory over the Soviet Union. The severity of his injury and ability to record such high scores nevertheless mark his accomplishment as truly awe-inspiring and a testament to human willpower.

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