Gridiron Heroes: The All-Time Gutsiest Performances By Injured Players

Darren - February 1, 2023

Gridiron Heroes: The All-Time Gutsiest Performances By Injured Players

Darren - February 1, 2023

It’s no secret at all that NFL players endure all kinds of horrible injuries. From concussions to torn ligaments and broken bones, the list goes on and on. But some players have incredible willpower. They not only played through the pain barrier but rose above and propelled their teams to victory. These rare stars inspired the sports world with their gutsiest performance as they refused to leave the field.

There are many great examples such as Patrick Mahomes’ recent sprained ankle in the 2023 AFC title game or Jack Youngblood’s legendary broken leg. These men showed ridiculous grit and toughness as they did what few other players could do. Football may seem like life or death, but it’s just a sport. These men disagreed because they put their long-term health on the line to win.

The Spun

Aaron Rodgers

It’s obvious by now that nobody should return from a concussion early but that’s exactly what Rodgers did en route to his only Super Bowl win. Technically, he had two concussions in the 2010 season but he desperately wanted to win a ring. The Green Bay quarterback put his long-term cognitive health on the line because his team needed him.


We all know this was a stupid thing to do but athletes are a different breed of people. Sometimes coaches must protect their players from themselves. We can criticize the Packers’ medical staff because they failed in their duty. But Rodgers showed immense heart in a glorious campaign (via Draft Sharks).


Jack Youngblood

Some of the most extraordinary men on the planet played in the NFL. Youngblood is a fine example because he showed ridiculous toughness in 1979. The Rams star played against the Cowboys in the postseason. He broke his leg but this didn’t stop him from having his gutsiest performance ever. Youngblood ordered the doctor to tape his leg and he continued.

L.A. Rams

This may seem dumb but this was a different era. It’s impossible not to admire how he overcome the agony of his injury. Insanely, he played in the championship game and the Super Bowl with his injury. Then he even featured in the Pro Bowl game despite his broken leg. It’s psychotic but that’s who Youngblood was and fans loved it (via CBS Sports).


Emmitt Smith

Smith was one of the NFL’s greatest running backs and had an outstanding career with the Cowboys. He had a ferocious winning mentality and won three Super Bowl rings. But he also demonstrated extreme toughness over and over again. In 1994, he played through a separated shoulder as Dallas won the NFC East.


He attached a thigh pad to his shoulder to protect it, but it was still torture. Nonetheless, he had the gutsiest performance of his career. Smith refused to exit the field and had a crucial role in the game-winning drive. Most people think football is only a sport but Smith treated it like the most important thing on earth (via Dallas Morning News).

Bucs put Simms on IR | The Spokesman-Review
The Spokesman-Review

Chris Simms

Nobody will pretend that Simms was the greatest NFL quarterback. But the former quarterback had a lot of heart as he demonstrated in one game against the Panthers. Simms took a lot of hard hits during this clash and it left him with a ruptured spleen. He also damaged multiple ribs and which forced him off the field.

NBC Sports: Chris Simms joins NBC family full time | NBC Sports
NBC Sports

But he made the brave decision to return to the action despite his compromised state. This was remarkable because he was in serious pain and should have been in the hospital. After the game, he underwent an operation and the surgeon removed his spleen. It was crazy, but this is the NFL (via CBS News).


Drew Brees

The legendary Brees set a host of passing records during his time as New Orleans’ starting quarterback. It’s no surprise that he’s an icon in the Big Easy and he devastated fans when he retired. However, people underestimate his toughness because Brees played through the pain barrier in his final season.


Brees suffered almost a dozen broken ribs in 2021 including eight against the Bucs. Remarkably, he finished that game despite finding it difficult to breathe. The 41-year-old veteran put in his gutsiest performance despite the agony. He also broke three more against the Niners but continued on then too (via Sportscasting).


Steve Smith

Most ordinary people will scream in agony before going to the emergency room after they break an arm. But Smith is a special breed of human being and refused to allow it to affect him. He infamously caught a pass with a shattered limb when he played for the Carolina Panthers. The insanity of this is almost beyond words.


New York’s Michael Johnson hit Smith hard and broke his arm in December. Smith gritted his teeth in the gutsiest performance of his life and caught the touchdown. Most people didn’t know what happened but it stunned the football world when they learned the truth. Smith became a legend after this iconic but excruciating moment (via Sportscasting).

Justin Herbert

The Chargers returned to the postseason in 2022 with Herbert playing a crucial role. He consistently performed for the franchise and developed a reputation as one of the best young quarterbacks in the NFL. Meanwhile, he played through the pain barrier because he was desperate for the Chargers to progress.


Kansas City beat Herbert and the Chargers in Week Two of the season but it wasn’t his fault. He stayed on the field despite suffering damaged ribs as he showed true grit. Some people think that a compromised player should make way for a healthy backup QB. But an elite franchise quarterback won’t allow this to happen (via USA Today Sports).

Sky Sports

Joe Burrow

Sadly, too many NFL players receive concussions with life-changing consequences. However, it’s interesting to learn their perspective on in-game head trauma. Burrow told Colin Cowherd that it’s part of the game and admitted that he experienced memory loss on the field. Burrow endures an extreme number of sacks so it’s not surprising there are side effects.


He also admitted that there are times when he can’t recall an entire game. This is shocking but it’s something that every NFL quarterback endures. Fans should bear this in mind when they criticize their favorite players. It’s difficult to select one of Burrow’s gutsiest displays because he takes a lot of hits (via 1033 The Goat).


Arian Foster

Foster was one of the best-undrafted players ever. He joined the Texans in 2009 but he had a serious fear of losing his job in his sophomore year. That’s why he played through the pain barrier and failed to disclose his torn meniscus. This is exactly as crazy as it sounds because it must have been agonizing for the running back.


But this story gets even crazier because he led the NFL in rushing yards. It didn’t matter that his knee cartilage caused him brutal pain. Foster broke records and kept running despite the injury. Furthermore, it’s amazing that he retained his pace and mobility because a torn meniscus is no joke (via NESN).


Deshaun Watson

It’s easy to despise Watson because of the way he treats women. But some people begrudgingly respect his toughness after a 2018 display against the Cowboys. The quarterback suffered broken ribs and a partially collapsed lung. However, this didn’t stop him from continuing for Houston against their Texas rivals.


Rib injuries are very painful and frustrating because there isn’t much a doctor can do. They’ll offer painkillers and strap their patient but it’s not like a broken limb. Watson struggled to breathe but this didn’t stop him from delivering for the Texans. Fans always appreciate it when their stars put their bodies on the line (via NBC Sports).


Justin Fields

In 2022, it felt as if Fields was on a one-man mission to keep the Bears in a respectable position. It was exciting to watch him rush for touchdowns but the quarterback couldn’t do it by himself. That’s not to say that he didn’t try because he even performed with a dislocated shoulder against the Falcons.

Sporting News

Fields described the pain as ‘pretty bad’ after the game. It was insane of Chicago’s coaches to leave him on the field because he was the key to their future. But it showed that Fields is a tough customer who won’t back down. He left the game on a cart, but he was brilliant on the day (via Sports Mockery).

NBC Sports

Terrell Owens

Owens had many iconic games but the gutsiest performance of his career came in a Super Bowl. The former Eagles star suffered a fractured fibula and a sprained ankle against the Cowboys in the Championship game. Unsurprisingly, Philly’s medical staff ruled him out of contention for starting in the Super Bowl (via Spokesman-Review).

CBS Sports

But Owens refused to accept this and claimed he was ready. Then he had a ridiculous game against New England. He made an insane nine catches for 122 yards despite his severely compromised leg. Many people didn’t like Owens because of his personality. Nonetheless, he forced them to respect him after he delivered the goods.

Matthew Stafford

Stafford spent the bulk of his career as the NFL’s most underrated quarterback. That’s because he played for the Lions and it was difficult for him to truly shine in Motor City. But there’s a good reason why the Rams saw him as a safe pair of hands for their 2021 Super Bowl run. Stafford has a lot of talent but he also has an amazing heart (via Deadspin).

Sporting News

One of the most impressive moments of his career came in a regular season game against the Browns. He threw a Hail Mary attempt before the pass rusher smashed him into the ground. This left him with a compromised collarbone but Stafford kept going. He eventually even threw the game-winning touchdown in the gutsiest performance of his life.


Tom Brady

Brady has one of the longest careers in NFL history. While he is very good at avoiding hard hits, he’s taken his fair share of damage over the years. Arguably, the gutsiest performance of his career came against the Jaguars in the AFC Championship game. That’s because his finger was almost hanging off his hand.


It could have been a career-threatening moment but Brady didn’t care. The main problem was that there might not have been enough space for all of his Super Bowl rings on his hands. Brady is a hardcore individual and famously played 20 games with an MCL injury. There’s no stopping the GOAT (via CBS News).

New York Post

Tony Romo

Some Dallas fans think that the franchise held onto Romo for too long. He didn’t always demonstrate the technical ability of an elite quarterback but there’s no questioning his heart. Romo famously completed one game against the Niners with a broken rib and a punctured lung. This came after a hard Ahmad Brooks hit.

Sports Illustrated

Romo took painkillers and waited for them to work their magic. Then he returned to the field for the fourth quarter and it was like there was nothing wrong with him. NFL stars are a special type of human because they endure physical brutality that most of us couldn’t dream of (via NBC Sports).

Fox News

Byron Leftwich

Leftwich spent most of his NFL career as a backup quarterback. While he wasn’t the greatest player to step onto a football field, he had a lot of heart. He showed this during his time in school with Marshall. The Herd played Akron when Leftwich broke his leg. He knew the potential consequences for his long-term career but refused to quit the game.

Florida Times-Union

Everybody knew what happened because he underwent an x-ray during the break. But he returned to the action in the gutsiest performance of his career. This is even more impressive because he was a young college athlete. There are NFL players who wouldn’t push themselves this hard but Leftwich kept fighting (via Sportscasting).


Y.A. Tittle

Tittle was one of the greatest quarterbacks of his era. He also reflected the mindset and values of players in the ’60s. Remember, this was a time before sports science or concerns over athlete welfare. That’s why his coaches allowed him to continue in a brutal meeting with the Steelers in 1964. It gave rise to the iconic image above (via ESPN).


This was Tittle’s final season but that’s not a surprise because he suffered a beatdown. He played through a concussion in this game and had a cracked sternum. This is crazy but it shows the mental strength of these brave men. We don’t approve or recommend this to up-and-coming footballers but it’s impossible not to admire him.

Arizona Cardinals

Larry Wilson

Wilson also demonstrated psychotic toughness in 1965. The safety starred for the St. Louis Cardinals against the Giants on Halloween. He endured the horror of breaking both of his wrists but it didn’t force him off the field. Instead, he had the gutsiest performance of his career with an iconic moment.

New York Times

The doctors wrapped up his hands with bandages but he insisted on continuing. Then he famously intercepted a pass with his two broken hands in an almost impossible play. This was beyond the imagination of most fans and made him an instant legend. If he retired immediately, we’d still be talking about it (via

AP News

Philip Rivers

Rivers was one of the longest-tenured quarterbacks of his generation. Most analysts agree that he was a tier below the likes of Tom Brady and Drew Brees. But he was a loyal servant to the Chargers and a tough individual. His gutsiest performance came against the Patriots in the 2007 AFC Championship Game.

Sports Illustrated

The quarterback had a torn ACL and nobody expected him to play. But he didn’t care and showed unbelievable toughness on the day. In the end, New England won the game but Rivers didn’t let anybody down. He also set a new standard because he showed what people are capable of if they put their minds something (via

SF Gate

Brock Purdy

Purdy had a remarkable season after the Niners selected him with the final pick of the 2022 Draft. The so-called “Mr. Irrelevant” became one of the most important players in the league against the odds. Injuries to Trey Lance and Jimmy Garoppolo gave Purdy an unexpected opportunity. He helped San Francisco make it to the NFC Championship Game.


The Niners fell short against the Eagles after Purdy became their third injured starting QB of the season. But he came back into the game after journeyman Josh Johnson suffered a concussion. Purdy’s torn UCL meant that he could barely throw the ball. But it was arguably the young man’s gutsiest performance (via Forbes).


Ronnie Lott

It’s amazing the lengths that elite athletes go to when they want to win. Tennis star Simona Halep famously underwent a breast reduction because she didn’t want her physique to restrict her. But one former Niners star took this to the next level after he broke his finger against the Cowboys.

New York Post

The bone breached his skin so Lott made an impulsive decision. He demanded that the medics cut off the tip of his finger before he returned to the field. This was in 1985 so it wasn’t even that long ago. They taped his hand and he set off after the gutsiest moment of his sporting career (via

Lehigh Valley Live

Donovan McNabb

Anybody who broke their ankle will know that it’s agonizing to put their weight on it. Now imagine playing an NFL game against some of the biggest athletes on the planet. That’s exactly what McNabb did in the gutsiest performance of his career in 2002. He rejected medical concerns over his foot after an injury during a game against Arizona.

L.A. Times

McNabb refused to undergo an X-ray and went back into the fray. Amazingly, the QB had one of his greatest games with a broken ankle. He completed 20 of 25 pass attempts for four touchdowns. Perhaps the acute pain sharpened his mind and forced him to make everything count. Whatever happened, it was an outstanding day for the Eagles star (via Bleacher Report).


Kellen Winslow

Now, first a disclaimer as we all know Winslow is a sick and horrible person, but this was a great on-field display. He battled against extreme dehydration and injuries in the 1981 AFC divisional game. San Diego played the Dolphins on an iconic day that we remember as ‘The Epic in Miami.’ There were a bunch of great displays in this game but Winslow stole the show. That’s because he flung the pain barrier out of the window.


He endured an agonizing pinched nerve and received multiple stitches but kept going. Winslow famously blocked a field goal and had an amazing 13 receptions with one touchdown. In the end, his teammates carried him off the field because he couldn’t walk. Winslow put in the gutsiest performance of his life. (via

NBC Sports

Ben Roethlisberger

‘Big Ben’ is in a similar position to Deshaun Watson because of his serious personal flaws. However, he also demonstrated a lot of mental strength and physical toughness in Super Bowl XL. This doesn’t make up for his off-field behavior but it shows that he was an excellent football player and an inspirational leader.

CBS Sports

Roethlisberger took some hard hits but he didn’t slow down. He refused to check his injuries during the game but it emerged that he had two broken ribs. This made it difficult for him to breathe and it slowed him down on the field. Nonetheless, he delivered the gutsiest performance of his life and led his team to victory (via CBC).

Pro Football Network

Patrick Mahomes

Mahomes had a legendary AFC Championship game against the Cincinnati Bengals in 2023. The quarterback sprained his ankle badly against the Jags in the divisional round. This instantly made it unlikely that he would be fit to face the Bengals but Mahomes wouldn’t sit out. He had the gutsiest performance of his career and guided his team to a third Super Bowl appearance.

Sky Sports

The Kansas City superstar played on one leg but still delivered for his team. He completed 29 of 43 passes for 326 yards and two touchdowns in a heroic display. It was also extraordinary that he achieved this as his wide receivers fell to injury around him. This will go down as one of the greatest individual games ever (via ABC 7).