Elite athletes put their bodies under incredible amounts of stress. It takes a lot of work to get to the optimum level of fitness. When you combine that with their exertions on the field of play, terrible injuries can happen. Every sports star has to deal with an injury at some point.
Of course, some injuries are worse than others. Today, we’re going to look at 30 sports stars who bounced back from horrific illnesses and injuries to continue their careers. Incredibly, many of them performed even better after they returned to action. In that sense, it’s amazing what humans are capable of. We have broken bones, torn ligaments, cancer, and car crash victims in addition to many other scenarios.
But all of these athletes were able to recover and get back to competition. Scroll down to read about these remarkable human beings.
30. Petr Cech
One of the best goalkeepers to ever play in the Premier League, Cech is a Chelsea legend. He was a stalwart of Jose Mourinho’s defense during his epic first reign as manager. Of course, another aspect that makes Cech famous is his distinctive rugby helmet. But there’s a very good reason why he wears it.
In 2009, Chelsea was playing Reading when a career-defining incident happened. Stephen Hunt came flying in to tackle Cech as he went to gather the ball. The Irishman’s boot caught Cech and fractured the Chelsea keeper’s skull. He had to undergo emergency surgery. Doctors forced him to wear the helmet to avoid further damage.
In terms of miraculous recoveries, Ferguson’s is one of the most remarkable. The UFC fighter is one of the most dangerous athletes on the roster. He’s currently riding a 12-fight win streak in the lightweight division. With his brutal elbows and unorthodox striking, ‘El Cucuy’ is a deadly opponent.
However, he had to overcome adversity in 2017. The Californian tore his LCL while on media duties for the UFC. As well as losing his interim title, he had to bounce back from injury. Remarkably, he fought again six months later. Doctors told him it would take 10 months to just heal, and that wasn’t even counting rehab. Ferguson also lost his title bout against Khabib Nurmagomedov, but the two are slated to finally fight in early 2020.
Lauda is one of Formula One’s most iconic figures. He’s the only driver to have won championships with both Ferrari and McClaren, the two most successful teams in the championship. His rivalry with Britain’s James Hunt is the stuff of legend. But Lauda was a special kind of competitor.
In 1976, Lauda crashed on the infamous Nurburgring. He lost part of his ear and suffered severe burns and smoke inhalation. The toxic fumes almost killed him. Insanely, he was back behind the wheel just six weeks later. Lauda lost the championship by a single point that year to Hunt. But his victory was surviving the crash and returning.
Four-time All-Star John makes this list for a very special reason. He actually has a treatment named after him. ‘Tommy John Surgery’ is the nickname for ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction. John was the first baseball player to undergo this treatment in 1974 after damaging ligaments in his throwing arm.
Most people expected that the surgery would result in his retirement, but John bounced back. He was as good as ever, with more than half of his career wins coming after the surgery. Now, ‘Tommy John surgery’ is a relatively common treatment. He truly paved the way to help a new generation of players recover from serious injury.
Holyfield is the only four-time heavyweight champion in the history of boxing. He’s also the only man to become an undisputed champion in two weight classes, after his dominance at cruiserweight and heavyweight. But in 1994 he faced the biggest obstacle of his career. Doctors advised him to retire after detecting a heart problem.
However, his retirement only lasted for 12 months. He came back a year later to go on another title surge. Holyfield’s comeback saw him beat Mike Tyson and John Ruiz. The boxing legend would go on to fight well into his 40s. His heart condition never troubled him and his legacy shines bright.
This Republic of Ireland international soccer star is the picture of health. Standing a strapping 6″4 and weighing 14-stone, Duffy is a fine figure of a man. He’s a very robust central defender, dominating the aerial battles and winning crunching challenges. But it could have been so different after Duffy came close to death playing the sport he loves.
Duffy was only 18 when he was training with the Irish national team. It should have been the pinnacle of his young career but then a horrific incident occurred. The Brighton player collided with the goalkeeper and sliced open his lung. He went into a coma, losing six pints of blood in the process. The fact that he recovered and is playing top-flight soccer is miraculous.
MMA is an incredibly tough sport. You’re literally trying to damage your opponent as much as possible so that the referee stops the fight. Of course, this will take its toll on your body. Just ask Bisping, who has had to have a knee replacement as a result of his career. But his worst injury came as a result of a torn orbital. In short, he went blind in one eye.
Despite this massive impediment, the UK fighter still kept going. He kept it a secret how much it was affecting him and had no hesitation in taking a title fight on two weeks notice. Bisping went on to knock out the Adonis-like champion Luke Rockhold in the very first round. ‘The Count’ is a legend for that reason.
Peterson was so good that the Minnesota Vikings gave him a $96 million contract in 2011. But he would go on to suffer the injury from hell the following December. The running back tore the LCL and MCL in his left knee. This is a nightmare injury as you have to do a lot of rehab to get back on track. Most stars would sooner just break their leg.
In short, many sports stars never perform at the same level again. However, Peterson had a remarkable recovery and was back in the starting lineup just 10 months later. Even better were his statistics. His performances improved, with Peterson dominating the field in 2012. He ran a career-best 2097 yards with 12 touchdowns. That’s one of the best seasons ever for an NFL running back.
This Brazilian-born, Croatian-international soccer star was one of the most exciting young players in the Premier League. It took him a while to get going, but eventually, Eduardo found his stride playing for Arsenal. However, the forward had his career derailed in agonizing fashion.
In February 2008, Eduardo was playing for Arsenal against Birmingham City. But his game came to a brutal end after a tackle by Birmingham’s Martin Taylor. Eduardo broke his left fibula and dislocated his ankle. It’s one of the most gruesome injuries we’ve ever seen on a soccer field. Eduardo played again but never at the same level.
There are some injuries that are just too dangerous to risk making worse. Manning underwent several neck surgeries that left him on the sidelines for a year. He was under contract to the Indianapolis Colts, but they didn’t want to take a chance on him and let him go. That turned out to be a massive mistake.
Manning joined the Denver Broncos when they decided that he was worth gambling on. In short, it was an inspired decision. With Manning as their starting quarterback, the Broncos won Super Bowl 50. Manning was the oldest quarterback to win a Super Bowl before Tom Brady came along.
Irish champion jockey Walsh is a legend in the horseracing world. Walsh has steered over 2500 horses to victory. That’s an incredible record. Amongst his many successes are two Cheltenham Gold Cup wins on the back of Kauto Star. 59 of his wins have come at the famous British festival.
But riding a horse very fast is not the safest activity. Walsh has suffered an incredible number of injuries throughout his career. These include two broken legs, cracked jaws, broken vertebrae, various dislocations, a ruptured spleen and many more injuries. Despite this, he still managed to ride winners for 22 years.
The Spanish soccer star is a phenomenal player to watch. His phenomenal vision, ball control, and eye for the spectacular pass make him brilliant. If it weren’t for his injury record, Cazorla could have been one of the best players in the world. However, an ankle injury prevented him from playing for a ridiculous 636 days.
An infection almost resulted in an amputation. But fortunately, it didn’t come to that. Still, it took nine surgeries for him to get his career back on track. Now he’s back in La Liga with Villareal. Cazorla has been one of the best players in the division over the past two seasons. He even earned a recall to the Spanish national team. That’s truly inspiring.
This one is not for the faint-hearted. The Indiana Pacers star suffered one of the worst injuries you will ever see. He was playing for the US national basketball team in 2014 when the horrible moment happened. After stepping back onto a basketball stanchion, his leg totally buckled. George suffered a compound tibia-fibula fracture.
You’d expect an injury like that to totally change an athletes career. Miraculously, George just got even better. He rehabbed hard and even played six games at the end of the season. Then, the following season, he went on to record the best statistical season of his career. He averaged 23.1 points per game and started all 81 games that he played for the Pacers.
Plunkett looked like he had superstar potential before his body started letting him down. Chronic knee and shoulder ailments stifled his career. This prevented him from making a major impact on the New England Patriots. In fact, he even considered stumbling away from the sport that was wrecking his body.
But he kept on going and ended up as a second-string player for the Oakland Raiders. Next came a Hollywood movie moment. After Dan Pastorini went down with a broken leg, Plunkett’s moment came. He led the team all the way to a Super Bowl victory while claiming Comeback Player of the Year and Super Bowl MVP honors.
Today, Ramsey is one of the best midfielders in the world. The Welshman is currently playing for Juventus in Serie A, while he’s one of his country’s most important soccer players. He’s got an eye for a pass and a goal. First of all, he played for Cardiff before moving to Arsenal as a 17-year-old.
But Ramsey suffered a massive setback when he had his leg broken by Ryan Shawcross. It was a brutal injury that slowed down his progress. However, the boredom of the rehabilitation process was the worst part for him. He bounced back to play 11 seasons for Arsenal, before his big move to Italy.
Montana’s story is simply crazy. The four-time Super Bowl winner was also the first player to win the Super Bowl MVP award three times. His brilliance led to the 49ers retiring his jersey while he played for the team. But he also demonstrated incredible resolve and fortitude while starring in the NFL.
In 1986, Montana suffered a gruesome back injury. Doctors recommended that he retire because it was so bad. But did he listen? No, of course not. Montana had an emergency operation to fix his career-threatening injury. Incredibly, he was playing again only two months later. He won the NFL 1986 Comeback Player of the Year Award. Truly deserved.
Shaw is truly aware of the highs and lows of elite soccer. The Manchester United left-back arrived from Southampton with a massive reputation as a burgeoning young star. He was under immense pressure from the off, with question marks about his weight and focus. However, there was even worse to come.
The young man suffered a horrific double leg fracture in 2015. This injury was about as graphic as they get. It took Shaw six months to just walk properly. After 10 months of intense rehabilitation, he was back on the soccer field and playing again. Now he’s a consistent starter for the Red Devils.
Pitchers need their arms. So if they suffer a severe injury to their throwing arm, it’s one of the worst things that can happen to them. Tearing a ligament is the worst because of the length of time it takes to rehabilitate it. Just ask former St. Louis Cardinals ace Carpenter, who tore the glenoid labrum in his shoulder and sat on the sidelines for a year.
He battled back to win the World Series and made the All-Star team for two years straight. But then he tore the UCL in his elbow and missed the entire 2007 season. Carpenter showed incredible spirit to recover and help the St. Louis Cardinals to another World Series title.
O’Driscoll is the legendary former captain of the Irish national rugby team. He’s the highest try scorer in the history of Irish rugby and one of the greatest players in the sport’s history. The Dubliner also holds the record for the most tries scored in the Six Nations Championship. ‘BOD’ was simply brilliant.
But O’Driscoll suffered a savage injury in 2005. He was captaining the British and Irish Lions on their tour of New Zealand. In a match against the All Blacks, a savage spear tackle threatened his career. The Irishman suffered a dislocated shoulder, requiring surgery and stitches. The International Rugby Board literally changed the rules after this game. That’s how bad it was.
The Swedish soccer star is one of the most famous players in the world. His glittering career has seen him play for the likes of Manchester United, Juventus, Barcelona and Inter Milan. ‘Ibra’ is still going strong today with LA Galaxy. The big Swede’s arrogance is part of his charm and has won him fans around the world.
However, he’s also a true fighter. At the age of 36, Ibrahimovic suffered an ACL tear. Many expected him to hang up his boots for good because of the length of time it takes to rehab. But he showed his hunger and made an incredibly fast recovery. His comeback came only six months later. That’s truly remarkable.
Woods has achieved so much in golf that it’s difficult to hone in on just one moment. But arguably his most career-defining win was the 2008 US Open. It was obvious early in the week at Torrey Pines, that Woods was not healthy. He was wincing at each hole on Torrey Pines, one of the longest courses in the United States.
Imagine somebody walking around that course on a broken leg. Oh, and a torn anterior cruciate ligament. In short, that’s exactly what Woods did as he overcame agony to beat Rocco Mediate. The tournament went to sudden-death and Woods won on the first hole. After this incredible win, he sat on the sidelines for eight months to recover.
‘Le Magnifique’ is a Pittsburgh Penguins legend. He led them to back-to-back Stanley Cup wins in 1991 and 1992. Furthermore, he was a brilliant player, capable of the most outrageous moments of skill. But Lemieux was also very prone to injury and illness, tarnishing his reputation.
His problems were so bad that he never completed a full season. Lemieux retired twice in his career. However, he bounced back from Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and won the Hart Trophy in his return season. But an irregular heartbeat would eventually force him to hang up his skis. Lemieux’s teammates even had to tie his laces for him, as he suffered from back pain.
If you want an example of a player who came back from a tough injury and plays even better, then look no further than Brady. The New England Patriots quarterback is one of the most successful stars in NFL history. He’s also almost as famous for his longevity as he is for his record six Super Bowl victories.
But in 2008, he had to overcome a major obstacle when he tore his ACL and MCL in the first week of the season. That ended his streak of 111 straight starts for the Patriots. The incumbent MVP made it back for the following season and was as good as ever. To sum up, he’s the best quarterback to ever play in the NFL.
Say what you like about Lance Armstrong, but you can’t deny he’s got some character. Of course, he brought the cycling world into shame. But before the whole doping chaos, Armstrong was one of the most respected and popular athletes on the planet. He even recovered from testicular cancer to race again.
Armstrong’s illness was in an advanced stage. The disease had spread to his brain, lungs, and abdomen. However, against all the odds, Armstrong managed to survive. The American battled back to win seven Tour de France titles in a row. Unfortunately, then along came cycling’s worst-ever doping scandal and he had his Tour titles ripped from him.
An injury to the throwing arm of a quarterback usually spells disaster. Former Chargers star Brees tore his labrum and his rotator cuff in his throwing shoulder. The Chargers didn’t show much sympathy and offered him backup money to go on the reserve list. Brees turned them down. Meanwhile, the Miami Dolphins pulled out of a contract offer.
Then the New Orleans Saints decided to take a chance. It was a gamble that paid off as he led the Saints from 3-13 to 10-6 and the NFC South division crown. To cap it all off, Brees helped the Saints to the 2009 Super Bowl. Meanwhile, the Chargers went on a downward spiral. That’s karma for you.
The Canadian basketballer played for 17 seasons in the NBA. Nash was a two-time NBA MVP during his time with the Phoenix Suns. Meanwhile, the former Lakers and Mavericks point guard was an eight-time NBA All-Star. Time also named him as one of the 100 most influential people in the world in May 2006.
But Nash didn’t have it all his own way. In fact, he had to fight against his own body to keep playing. He has a rare condition called spondylolisthesis which causes muscle tightness and back pain. As a result, Nash used to lie on his back, instead of sitting on the bench, to prevent his muscles from stiffening.
The American skier is one tough cookie. Vonn helped to propel downhill skiing into the spotlight. A tremendously gifted athlete, she was the first American woman to win gold in the sport at the Winter Olympics. She also won two World Championships and four World Cup titles.
But downhill skiing is an insanely dangerous sport. Injuries are very common in this sport. In 2006, Vonn had a horrific crash where she literally bounced her body off the mountain during a training session. Emergency services airlifted her off of the mountain. Remarkably, she was able to compete again just two days later.
Johnson is one of the NBA’s most iconic figures. A legendary point guard for the Los Angeles Lakers, Johnson deserves his place amongst the best to play in the league. He made nine NBA Finals appearances and won three NBA MVP Awards. Also, he played in 12 All-Star Games. However, he had to overcome an intense challenge.
The NBA star had a crazy lifestyle and ended up with HIV. In the early 90s, this was drastic news because of all the stereotypes and myths around the disease. Johnson ended up coming back to play professionally again. Not only that, but he was also a massive awareness advocate for the illness.
‘The Notorious’ is an MMA fighter fighting for Bellator, the second biggest promotion in the United States. With a professional record of 16 wins and 3 losses, Newell is an excellent fighter. He’s got a very wrestling-heavy style that he uses to great effect. But the craziest thing about Newell is that he only has one arm.
Newell was born with a congenital amputation of his left arm, which ends just below his elbow. However, he refused to let this define or stifle him and continued to follow his dreams. His arm has a short muscular stump which presents a challenge to his opponents. Newell continues to inspire youngsters all around the world.
If ever you’re feeling sorry for yourself, just take a look at Abidal’s career. The Frenchman is one of the most inspiring athletes on this list. He overcame a life-threatening illness and still played at the highest level of soccer. Things were perfect for the Barcelona star for a couple of years. He won every trophy on offer between 2009 and 2010.
However, he suffered a devastating blow when doctors found a cancerous tumor on his liver. Sensationally, just two months after emergency surgery, he played in the Champion’s League final, beating Manchester United. But then his health deteriorated and he had to have a liver transplant. Another seven months of painful fighting went by and he came back to play again. In short, he’s a true sporting hero.