Greatest Career Comebacks in Sports History
"Success is not final. Failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts."
That quote is often attributed to Winston Churchill, but no one knows who actually said it. The mantra, however, points to a broader truth: Humans love a good redemption story.
Maybe it’s because these stories remind us how difficult it is to be a professional (in any field) or how easy it should be to bounce back from a rough day at the office.
In sports, personal comeback stories can take on various shapes and forms, from overcoming injury and age to rebounding from tragedy and scandal.
These are the greatest career sports comebacks. And they prove that even the biggest winners can lose and the biggest losers still can win.
35. Michael Vick, Football
Michael Vick electrified NFL stadiums as the first overall draft pick of the Atlanta Falcons in 2001. Then, during the prime of his career, he spent 21 months in jail for financing a dog fighting ring in 2007. He lost $100 million and divided a nation of dog lovers.
But Vick, who started writing a book from prison called "Finally Free," signed with the Eagles in 2009, earned back a starting job and made the Pro Bowl the next year. He also became an advocate for dogs and other animals.
Vick's journey showed that almost anyone who can self-reflect and self-improve can find a second chance.
34. Billie Jean King, Tennis
Billie Jean King is one of the top tennis players of all time, but she put her career on the line in 1970 in an effort to achieve equal pay for female athletes by creating a new tennis circuit.
In the midst of societal upheaval over the Vietnam War, civil rights and the passage of Title IX, King battled losses and wrist injuries throughout 1973 to capitalize on an opportunity to beat Bobby Riggs in front of 50 million viewers during the televised "Battle of the Sexes" tennis match.
Following in the footsteps of trailblazing female athletes like Babe Didrikson Zaharias and Wilma Rudolph, King proved that a story of individual growth can inspire broader societal improvements.
33. Josh Hamilton, Baseball
Josh Hamilton was the No. 1 pick in the 1999 MLB draft, but he didn’t make his major league debut until 2007 because of addictions to drugs and alcohol. In fact, he was out of baseball entirely for almost three years.
After rehabbing, Hamilton returned in 2007 to make five straight All-Star games with the Texas Rangers and took home the American League MVP in 2010.
He remained wary of his worst impulses, but showed the public the power of addiction and the potential to overcome it.
32. Aly Raisman, gymnastics
Only a handful of people have made an Olympic gymnastics team twice. Aly Raisman is one of them.
She was a captain of both the 2012 "Fierce Five" and 2016 "Final Five" teams that won their team competitions. Raisman, affectionately called "Grandma" of the 2016 Olympic team at age 22, also won individual all-around and floor medals that year.
In 2018, she became the face of the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal, bravely speaking at sentencing and being part of a lawsuit against USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic Committee claiming both organizations "knew or should have known" about the ongoing abuse.
She and her teammates received the Arthur Ashe Courage award and proved that gymnastics truly is a sport that requires balance, strength, and endurance.
31. Dwayne Johnson, Entertainment
Dwayne Johnson became world famous as "The Rock," but he didn’t start out as a legend.
As a football player in college at the University of Miami, he suffered many injuries, which crushed his NFL dreams. He even got cut from the Canadian Football League and had to return home a failure with just a few dollars in his pocket.
The Rock reinvented himself as a wrestler, making his World Wrestling Entertainment debut in 1996, became one of the greatest entertainment wrestlers of all time.
He’s now one of the highest-paid actors, starring in a hit HBO series about pro athletes called "Ballers," supporting the fact that sometimes you have to cook up your own career.
30. Mike Krzyzewski, Basketball
Now known as "Coach K," Mike Krzyzewski was an average basketball player, scoring just over six points per game while playing for the legendary coach Bob Knight at the United States Military Academy.
In 1980, after a series of beginner coaching positions, Krzyzewski accepted an invitation to become the head coach at Duke University. While his first three seasons at Duke were disappointing, Coach K now has the most wins (1,132 and counting) of any coach in college basketball history.
Plus, he’s led the U.S. men’s Olympic team to three gold medals.
"Sometimes in a defeat, you can set the stage for future victory," Krzyzewski once said.
29. Gordie Howe, Hockey
Fans call him "Mr. Hockey" because he’s the only hockey player in history to play in a professional game over five consecutive decades. And there's a reason Gordie Howe had such a long career.
A 23-time NHL All-Star, he just kept coming back, coming out of retirement twice and eventually becoming the oldest player to ever play in the NHL at age 52.
Even 300 stitches, damaged knees, several broken bones, a dislocated shoulder, and a mid-game near-brush with death couldn’t keep him down.
28. Sue Bird, Basketball
Sue Bird has battled back from as many surgeries as she has Olympic gold medals — four.
She also won two WNBA championships with the Seattle Storm and led the league in assists three times.
After missing the entire 2013 season following knee surgery, and part of the 2017 season following an additional knee surgery, she became the oldest active player and oldest starter in the WNBA at 36, finishing the campaign with career highs in assists and field goal shooting.
The next season, she helped the Storm the WNBA championship, her third WNBA title and the team's first in eight years.
27. Andre Agassi, Tennis
In the mid-1990s, Andre Agassi had an existential crisis around being forced into tennis by his father and plummeting from the top of the pro game. His highly publicized marriage with Brooke Shields fell apart, and he started using crystal meth.
Most fans assumed he was done with tennis, but in 1999, he returned to the tennis court to complete the career Grand Slam and marry tennis star Steffi Graf.
Agassi remains a good example of how to find contentment on and off the court.
26. Pelé, Soccer
Many consider Pelé to be the greatest soccer player of all time. He won three World Cups and is the all-time leading scorer for Brazil.
After retiring from the game in his native country, Pelé single-handedly brought soccer to the only major country that still didn’t care about it, the United States. In 1975, he signed with the New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League (NASL) and played to sellout crowds around the U.S.
During his three-year American tenure, Pelé helped ignite a soccer boom that the U.S. still feels today.
25. Branch Rickey, Baseball
Branch Rickey was not a great baseball player. He played for two different major league teams for two seasons and had a career .239 batting average before deciding to return to college to study athletic administration.
He returned to Major League Baseball’s front offices to help start a minor league farm system and break the color barrier by signing Jackie Robinson with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Rickey was one of the first to prove that you don’t always have to play to demonstrate that passion is a star quality.
24. Monica Seles, Tennis
Before she was 20 years old, Monica Seles won eight Grand Slam titles. No one was as dominant as she was at such a young age.
After being ranked No. 1 in the world throughout 1991 and 1992, during a match in 1993, she was stabbed in the back with a knife by a fan of her biggest rival.
Seles never fully recovered, but she did return to tennis in 1996, even after her father was diagnosed with terminal cancer that year, and won the Australian Open, proving that winning requires bravery on and off the court.
23. James Braddock, Boxing
James Braddock was the world heavyweight champion from 1935 to 1937, but it wasn't an easy road to get there.
Before becoming the "Cinderella Man," he struggled with arthritic hands, lost many fights, and was even forced to collect welfare and work on the docks to provide for his family during the Great Depression.
He took full advantage of a life-changing opportunity in 1935 by defeating Max Baer to earn the heavyweight title, inspiring a depressed nation to rise and fight again.
22. Lindsey Vonn, Skiing
Lindsey Vonn had to be helicoptered off a mountain after a body-crushing crash during training at the 2006 Turin Olympics. But she hopped back on her skis and was competing again 48 hours later.
She’s won four World Cups, a gold medal in the 2010 Winter Olympics, and is one of six women to have won races in all five disciplines of alpine skiing.
She learned how to make career comebacks from Picabo Street, whose all-out ski racing style led to the first World Cup title won by an American in 1995.
21. Magic Johnson, Basketball
Magic Johnson was the first overall pick in the 1979 NBA draft and went on to win the NBA Finals to tie a bow on his MVP rookie season with the Los Angeles Lakers.
A 12-time All-Star and three-time NBA Finals MVP, Johnson retired in 1991 after announcing that he was HIV positive. A year later, Magic was voted into the All-Star Game, and in true Magic form, he still dominated the game and was voted MVP.
He returned to play for the Lakers for one season in 1996, forcing the league and the world to change their thinking about HIV and AIDS.
20. George Foreman, Boxing
George Foreman crushed faces and old age as a boxer.
He first retired from boxing in the 1970s and became a successful entrepreneur, selling more than 100 million grills. A decade after his retirement, Foreman decided to get back in the ring to raise money for his youth center.
In 1994, at age 45, Foreman put on the same red shorts he wore when he beat Muhammed Ali 20 years earlier and knocked out Michael Moorer (who was 26 at the time) to become the oldest man to ever win a world heavyweight title.
Foreman also broke the record for the longest time period between championships.
19. Dara Torres, Swimming
Dara Torres became the first swimmer to attend five Olympics as her career spanned a total of 28 years.
She’s a 12-time Olympic medalist and came back twice, once in 2000 at the age of 33 to win her first individual medal, and again in 2008 at the age of 40 (after having a baby two years earlier), to become the oldest swimmer to ever compete in the Olympics.
She won three more medals and even more aquatic accolades.
18. Niki Lauda, Auto Racing
Formula 1 champion driver Niki Lauda cheated death after a horrific crash in 1976.
Just weeks after the accident, when his car burst into flames and he suffered severe burns, Lauda got behind the wheel again to challenge his rival, James Hunt. Lauda narrowly lost and took a two-year break before returning to race for four more seasons starting in 1982.
He reclaimed his third Formula 1 world title just two years later, in 1984.
17. Jennifer Capriati, Tennis
Jennifer Capriati was a tennis prodigy and won a gold medal at the 1992 Olympics. Then, the following year, after struggling with the game, personal and legal troubles, she decided to take a break.
She returned to tennis in 1996 to recapture the No. 1 world ranking.
Five years later, in 2001, she won the Australian Open and the French Open.
16. Tom Brady, Football
Tom Brady has won six Super Bowls, more than any player in NFL history. But Brady wasn't destined for stardom — or even an NFL career.
Drafted in the sixth round of the 2000 NFL draft by the New England Patriots, he took over as the team's starter in his second season when Drew Bledsoe got injured and then became one of only two quarterbacks to win a Super Bowl in his first season as a starter (the other was Kurt Warner). Brady also was named the game's MVP, beginning one of sports' greatest Cinderella stories.
After winning two more Super Bowls and another Super Bowl MVP, Brady suffered a serious knee in injury in the first game of the 2008 season and missed the rest of year. Not only did Brady return, but he has added three Super Bowl rings and two Super Bowl MVPs to his collection since blowing out his keen.
Now, Brady is the winningest quarterback in NFL history and he's still going strong with the Patriots at 41.
He's learned how to dominate as an underdog from the best, his coach, Bill Belichick, who became the greatest coach in NFL history after being dismissed by the Browns for poor performance in 1995.
15. Bethany Hamilton, Surfing
Bethany Hamilton was a rising surf star at 13 years old in 2003 when a 14-foot tiger shark took her arm and left her surfboard with a 17-inch bite in it.
One month later, Hamilton returned to surfing. Two years later, she won her first national surfing title.
At 17 years old, she realized her dream of surfing professionally, inspiring millions with her courage.
14. Peyton Manning, Football
Peyton Manning won his Super Bowl in 2006, for the Indianapolis Colts. He won his second nine years later in 2015, for the Denver Broncos. In between, he missed the entire 2011 season after needing a "spinal fusion," meaning that his neck was broken.
As the Colts moved on from him, Manning committed everything he had to coming back and joined the Broncos in 2012. A year later, he threw 55 touchdown passes, the most touchdown passes ever in a single season, before leading the Broncos to a Super Bowl title in his final NFL season.
Manning’s doubters touched a nerve, and he used all the negativity from the naysayers as motivation to excel. It was a timeless lesson of how to believe (in yourself) and achieve.
13. Alex Zanardi, Auto Racing
Alex Zenardi was an Indycar race champion when he had to have both legs amputated after a crushing accident ripped his car in half, severing both legs and causing the loss of two-thirds of his blood. His ambitions remained intact, however.
Just two years after the crash, he returned to the same circuit and finished the 13 laps of the race he failed to finish in 2001 in a specially-adapted IndyCar. He went on to win three gold medals at the Paralympics and even took part in an Ironman triathalon.
His ability to get back in the driver’s seat after such a tragedy is an inspiration to any sportsman or sportswoman.
12. Kurt Warner, Football
Kurt Warner went undrafted in 1994, and now is considered to be the best undrafted NFL player of all time. He was a nobody whose play turned him into a somebody after signing with the Rams in 1998 as a third- string quarterback.
The next year, he took home NFL MVP and Super Bowl MVP honors in his first season as a starter. In 2008, he also led the Arizona Cardinals to their first franchise Super Bowl.
A few years before he became an NFL star, Warner was stocking grocery store shelves in Cedar Falls, Iowa, for $5.50 an hour. His story is proof that even if you get overlooked — and life throws tomatoes at you — don't give up on your dream.
11. Ted Williams, baseball
Ted Williams left his All-Star career with the Boston Red Sox to serve in World War II. He also flew dozens of missions in active combat during the Korean War.
He lost part of his hearing on one of those missions, even though about half of them were with John Glenn, who later became the first American to orbit the Earth.
Williams missed four baseball seasons in total as part of two separate service periods, but maintained a .344 career batting average and still holds the major league record for career on-base percentage.
10. Joe Montana, Football
Known as "The Comeback Kid," Joe Montana embodied calmness in chaos. But "Joe Cool" could be considered the king of the comeback in life too.
After sitting out a season at Notre Dame with a separated shoulder, the former seventh-string quarterback led the Fighting Irish to a national championship.
He was was selected by the 49ers in the third round of the 1979 draft and led San Francisco to two Super Bowls before rupturing a disc in his back in 1986 and undergoing a two-hour back surgery.
Doctors told him to give up football. But he returned and led the team to two more Super Bowls, becoming the first player ever to be named the Super Bowl's MVP three times.
9. Ben Hogan, Golf
Ben Hogan nearly died in a car crash in 1949 after the car he was driving to a tournament collided with a Greyhound bus on a foggy night. He was in the hospital for 59 days.
But Hogan was no stranger to battling death. The son of a blacksmith who committed suicide, Hogan sold newspapers and caddied to help his mom keep food on the table, and experienced a long slog to greatness after turning pro at 17 and waiting to win his first major nearly 20 years later.
Even with a limp, he returned to the tour in 1950 and won the U.S. Open, what would be called the "Miracle at Merion." He trailed by eight the first day and moved to within two shots of the lead the second day, winning on the final day when golfers played 36 holes to finalize the Open, testing their endurance as well as their skill.
8. Rocky Bleier, Football
Robert "Rocky" Bleier led Notre Dame to the national championship game in 1966, but the defensive back/running back wasn’t drafted until the 16th round of the 1968 NFL draft.
He was subsequently drafted into the U.S. Army at the end of his rookie season and went to Vietnam, where his platoon was ambushed and a grenade shot shrapnel into his right leg. Doctors told him he would never play football again.
But after receiving a card from the Pittsburgh Steelers owner asking for his help, Rocky arrived at training camp weighing 180 pounds and worked tirelessly for two full seasons to get himself back into playing shape in order to make the roster in 1972.
After quitting the following year, a linebacker convinced him to come back, and in 1974, Bleier carried the ball 17 times for 65 yards against the Minnesota Vikings' "Purple People Eaters" defense to help Pittsburgh win Super Bowl IX, the first Super Bowl of four he would help secure in his 30s.
When asked why he kept coming back, he said: "Some time in the future, you won't have to ask yourself, 'What if'?"
7. Shaun White, Snowboarding
Shaun White holds the record for most X-games gold medals in skateboarding and snowboarding and has the most Olympic medals by a snowboarder.
White crashed on his final run during the 2014 Sochi Olympics, finishing in fourth place, and then cut his face open during a horrific half-pipe landing in 2017.
He needed 62 stitches in his face and bit through his tongue, but bounced back from the injury and overcame his fear to lock up a perfect score in his third and final run of the 2018 World Cup and qualified for the Winter Olympics, where he won another epic gold medal.
6. Serena Williams, Tennis
One of the greatest tennis players in the history of the game, Serena Williams faced recurring shoulder and knee injuries in 2015 and 2016, and had to drop out of tournaments because of them.
She came back to win the Australian Open in 2017 and set the all-time active player standard for grand slam singles titles.
Serena also holds the all-time record for the most women's singles matches won at majors.
She not only competes on the biggest public and media stages, but also opened up about the challenges of returning to the game after giving birth at the age of 35.
"Some days, I cry. I’m really sad. I’ve had meltdowns. It’s been a really tough 11 months," she shared. "If I can do it, you guys can do it, too."
5. Lance Armstrong, Cycling
Lance Armstrong might have one of the dirtiest sports halos, but there’s no denying his comeback from testicular cancer, which should have killed him.
Diagnosed in 1996 at the age of 25, Armstrong went on to become synonymous with seven Tour de France victories and the yellow bracelets of his cancer foundation, Livestrong.
After admitting to a long history of doping, Lance angrily stated, "I hold the keys to my redemption."
He was banned from all sports that follow the global anti-doping code and had to forfeit all awards and prizes after 1998.
But Lance is a survivor, and it seems that some athletes, like Alex Rodriguez, learned from him.
4. Mario Lemieux, Hockey
Mario Lemieux is one of the best hockey players of all time. He led the Pittsburgh Penguins to two Stanley Cups in 1991 and 1992, but was plagued by chronic back pain and Hodgkin’s lymphoma for the majority of his career.
Lemieux missed the entire 1994-95 season and retired in 1997 and was immediately inducted into the Hockey of Hall of Fame. But he returned to the NHL in 2000 and played another 170 games, including leading the Canadian hockey team to gold in the 2002 Winter Olympics.
He also is the only man to have his name on the Stanley Cup as both a player and an owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
3. Michael Jordan, Basketball
Playboy magazine once described Michael Jordan as "more popular than Jesus." But Jordan dealt with his fair share of fearful moments.
He saw his friend drown at 8 years old, didn’t make the high school varsity team at first, and experienced massive societal blowback in 1993 when news of his gambling addictions became public.
That same year, after winning three straight NBA championship rings, his father died, and Jordan left the NBA to pursue a career in baseball, where his batting average was a lousy .202.
He returned to the NBA in 1995 to start another run of three straight titles from 1996 to 1998.
The great ones fall harder, and fail faster, than normal mortals. That's why they can rise the highest.
2. Tiger Woods, Golf
By the time he was 30, Tiger Woods rose to the winning levels of Jackie Robinson and Michael Jordan. But Tiger’s fall from grace started in 2009, when his wife caught him cheating with multiple women, and continued through 2017 as he pleaded guilty to reckless driving.
The combination of issues he dealt with during that period, including agonizing back pain and multiple back surgeries, might have led to an Icarus-like collapse, but Tiger Woods returned to glory through a spectacular come-from-behind win at the 2019 Masters, his fifth Masters win and first since 2005, the longest gap between Masters championships in history.
Two presidents from two different parties congratulated him on the win. President Trump awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. And Michael Jordan even stated that"“it was the greatest comeback I've ever seen."
Tiger Woods not only transformed the game of golf. He also evolved himself.
1. Muhammed Ali, Boxing
Muhammed Ali is known as the "athlete of the century" for good reason. He was an international superstar and anti-establishment before anti-establishment was cool.
Ali did more than just defeat some of boxing's toughest foes: Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier, and George Foreman. Ali also battled the most powerful government in the world, becoming one of the greatest contributors to political dialogue in the 20th century.
In 1967, during his prime athletic years, he lost his boxing license, had his heavyweight title belt revoked, and was sentenced to five years in prison for refusing be drafted into the Vietnam War. But his title was reinstated after the Supreme Court unanimously overturned his conviction in Clay v. United States.
After being banned from boxing for three years, Ali lost his first fight as a pro in 1971, to Frazier, in the 15-round "Fight of the Century." Three years later, Ali battled back to beat Foreman in the infamous "Rumble in the Jungle” to reclaim the title. He remained in the public spotlight following his days in the ring, even traveling to Iraq in 1990 to negotiate the release of American hostages.
Muhammed Ali was the greatest master of reinvention and got back up after every single one of life's knockouts.
Who’s due for the next big career reinvention after recent setbacks?
James Conner, a Hodgkin's lymphoma survivor?
LeBron James in Los Angeles with the dysfunctional Lakers?
Simone Biles on another world stage?
Only time, persistence and history will tell.