Gutsiest Performances in Sports History
Just about anyone who has competed in sports has played through pain at some point. Whether it be physical pain, such as from an injury or illness, or emotional pain that doesn’t show up on a medical test, all athletes have had to summon up the fortitude to get through their sporting event.
But some are able to do this at the highest of levels. Playing through a finger injury in Little League is one thing, but battling through musculoskeletal pain in the World Series is another. Playing 18 holes with a bum knee is honorable, but playing 91 holes with a torn ACL in a major championship is legend status.
Here's a look back at the most heroic performances in sports history in which athletes likely shouldn’t have been competing at all, but they still went out there and performed admirably. These are the gutsiest performances by athletes in sports history.
30. Matthew Stafford’s Separated Shoulder
Date: Nov. 7, 2010
Event: Detroit Lions vs. New York Jets
Stats: 240 YDS, 2 TD, 1 RUSH TD
Bottom line: After being driven into the turf by a 300-pounder, Stafford suffered a separated shoulder to his non-throwing arm. Doctors ruled him out for the rest of the game, but Stafford didn’t rule himself out. He went back into the game with his left arm dangling and proceeded to throw the game-winning touchdown pass with no time left on the clock.
The future Rams’ Super Bowl winner also just happened to be mic'd up during the game by NFL Films. Steve Sabol, who founded NFL Films and had 45 years in the business up to that point, would call it the most dramatic player wiring he had ever heard.
29. Rod Woodson Returns Early From a Torn ACL
Date: Jan. 28, 1996
Event: Super Bowl XXX — Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Dallas Cowboys
Stats: 1 PD
Bottom line: After making six straight Pro Bowls, Rod Woodson missed out on the game in 1995, as he tore his ACL in Week 1 of the season. However, Woodson didn’t miss out on the Steelers’ trip to the Super Bowl that season, doing instead what was thought to be impossible. By suiting up, Woodson became the first player in NFL history to return from reconstructive knee surgery in the same season. During the Super Bowl game, he played limited snaps but had a pass deflection on a throw intended for Michael Irvin, and you better believe he got back to the Pro Bowl the following season.
28. Miguel Cotto Takes a Pounding
Date: July 26, 2008
Event: WBA Welterweight Title Match — Cotto vs. Margarito
Stats: Margarito via 11th round TKO
Bottom line: It was a discovery well after this fight that makes Cotto look so heroic in hindsight for the pounding he took in this boxing match. As for the match itself, it was an instant classic and hailed as one of the best bouts of 2008. Cotto was only knocked down once which came in the 11th round, and his corner threw in the towel afterward.
However, just six months later in Margarito’s next fight, a substance similar to plaster of Paris was discovered in his boxing gloves. The material was confiscated before the fight, and he suffered a TKO defeat subsequently. That discovery made people question if he had the same substance in his gloves when he fought Cotto, meaning Cotto was getting hit by more than just the hands of his opponent. Margarito and his trainer would ultimately be suspended for one year, and three years later, Cotto vs. Margarito II took place with Cotto winning that time.
27. Kevin McHale’s Broken Foot
Date: March 27, 1987
Event: Boston Celtics vs. Chicago Bulls
Stats: 44 minutes, 21 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists
Bottom line: McHale broke his foot during a game and ignored doctors’ advice that the injury could be career-threatening if he continued playing. Thus, he played another three months after the injury, as the Celtics made the 1987 NBA Finals. While McHale’s production notably declined afterward, he still averaged 20.5 PPG and 9.0 RPG in the Finals while playing on a broken foot.
Doctors were also right in their assessment that the injury would affect McHale’s career, as he was never the same player in following seasons. But McHale probably wouldn’t change a thing, seeing as he had a shot at winning another ring.
26. Kerri Strug’s Injured Ankle
Date: July 23, 1996
Event: 1996 Summer Olympics — Team All-around
Stats: 9.712 score on vault
Bottom line: During gymnastics team competition at the 1996 Olympics, Strug was on the vault but under-rotated, which caused her to fall and hurt her ankle. However, she had a second opportunity at the vault right after and had to successfully land on her feet in order to clinch a gold medal for the United States.
The 18-year-old Strug, with the help of lots of adrenaline, was able to temporarily block out the pain, ran down the runway and executed the vault. She landed on both her feet, which was mandatory to get the score needed, and then immediately began hopping on her good leg. She did what needed to be done and clinched the gold for Team USA, despite the fact that her coach had to carry her to the medals podium because she was unable to walk.
25. Curt Schilling’s Bloody Sock
Date: Oct. 19, 2004
Event: ALCS Game 6 — Boston Red Sox vs. New York Yankees
Stats: 7 IP, 4 H, 1 ER, 4 K
Bottom line: Contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t actually an injury that led to blood seeping through Curt Schilling’s sock. It was blood related from a surgical procedure he had performed on him 24 hours earlier in which sutures were placed through the skin. Still, the reason the sutures were needed was because of an ankle tendon injury, and Schilling valiantly played through the pain to help the Red Sox reach the World Series. Schilling had two different bloody socks — one was sent to the Baseball Hall of Fame and the other was auctioned off for over $92,000.
24. Terrell Davis’ Migraine
Date: Jan. 25, 1998
Event: Super Bowl XXXII — Denver Broncos vs. Green Bay Packers
Stats: 157 RUSH YDS, 3 TD
Bottom line: Davis suffered a migraine at the worst possible time, during the middle of the Super Bowl. He rushed for 64 yards in the first quarter of the game only for the migraine effects, which included blurry vision, to hit him. Yet, he stayed in the game to serve as a decoy to help the Broncos offense. Davis didn’t receive a single touch in the second quarter and took some medicine to help ease the symptoms. He then got back into action in the third quarter and ran for 93 yards in the second half. That sealed the MVP award for him, which was extra sweet because Super Bowl XXXII just happened to take place in Davis’ hometown of San Diego.
23. Larry Wilson’s Two Broken Hands
Date: Nov. 7, 1965
Event: St. Louis Cardinals vs. Pittsburgh Steelers
Stats: 1 INT
Bottom line: Wilson fractured bones in both hands during a game on Halloween in 1965. But being the tough player that he was, he simply had the trainers place soft casts on both hands so he could play the following week. He did more than just play in the next game, too, as he impacted the game by picking off a pass despite not being able to use his fingers to make the catch. On a ball thrown by Steelers QB Bill Nelsen, Wilson darted from his safety position in the middle of the field to nestle the ball into his chest and intercept the pass. It was the only interception thrown in the game, so Wilson did with no fingers what none of the other defenders could do with fully operational ones.
22. Isiah Thomas’ Sprained Ankle
Date: June 19, 1988
Event: NBA Finals Game 6 — Detroit Pistons vs. Los Angeles Lakers
Stats: 43 points, 8 assists, 6 steals
Bottom line: Every basketball player at every level has suffered a sprained ankle at some point on the court, but Isiah Thomas’ came at the worst possible time. This happened during the middle of an NBA Finals Game with his team leading 3-2 in the series. He then limped to the bench, and most expected his night, if not his series, to be over. But Thomas returned for an epic third quarter in which he scored 14 points in the quarter before the injury and then 11 points in that same quarter afterward. His 25 points in a quarter remains an NBA Finals record, although the Pistons would lose that Game 6 and lose again in Game 7.
21. Byron Leftwich’s Broken Leg
Date: Nov. 2, 2002
Event: Marshall vs. Akron
Stats: 307 YDS, 0 TD, 68.4 CMP%
Bottom line: Leftwich spent 10 years as an NFL QB, but the defining moment of his football career came in his senior year at Marshall University. He broke his leg during the first quarter of a game, went to the hospital for X-rays, came back to the stadium and reinserted himself back into the lineup with his team trailing 27-10. Likely the only reason he was able to go back into the game was because the X-rays didn’t show the fracture that would be discovered after the game.
Playing on a broken leg, Leftwich couldn’t run and could barely even walk. He had to take every snap from the shotgun, and after one long completion, instead of limping all the way down the field, he had two offensive linemen carrying him to the line of scrimmage. It was an incredible display of courage and desire as Leftwich, who would be a first-round NFL pick just six months later, risked his football future by continuing to play through the injury.
20. Bobby Baun’s Broken Ankle
Date: April 23, 1964
Event: Stanley Cup Finals Game 6 — Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Detroit Red Wings
Stats: 1 G, 1 A, 2 PTS
Bottom line: In the third period of a tie game in the Stanley Cup Finals, Baun took a slapshot to the ankle from the legendary Gordie Howe. He said it was “like a cannon going off” but didn’t realize he had broken his ankle. He left the game, and trainers heavily taped him up while doctors gave him some pain-killing injections to temporarily block out the pain so Baun could return to the game.
Him returning to the game was one thing, but Baun then scoring the game-winning goal in overtime was another, as he wasn’t known as a goalscorer during his career. The goal would even the series 3-3, and the Maple Leafs would then go on to win Game 7, which wouldn’t have been possible without Baun’s heroics the previous game.
19. Walter Payton’s Flu Game
Date: Nov. 20, 1977
Event: Chicago Bears vs. Minnesota Vikings
Stats: 40 ATT, 275 YDS, 1 TD
Bottom line: Michael Jordan in the Finals wasn’t the first Flu Game involving a Chicago great, as Sweetness battled the illness during a regular season game in his third NFL season. While Payton battled the flu, he battered the Vikings for the best game of his Hall of Fame career. Not only did Payton rush for a career-high of 275 yards, but that was a single-game rushing record that stood for 23 years. And he did it against a great Vikings defense that had three Hall of Famers and another three players who were Pro Bowlers at some point in their careers. Payton also rushed for the game’s only touchdown, and the Bears prevailed 10-7.
18. Kirk Gibson’s Walk-off
Date: Oct. 15, 1988
Event: World Series Game 1 — Los Angeles Dodgers vs. Oakland Athletics
Stats: 1 PA, 1 HR, 2 RBI
Bottom line: In his first year with the Dodgers in 1988, Gibson won the NL MVP, which is amazing in its own right but even more spectacular considering he never played in a single All-Star Game in his whole career. But he hurt both legs during the NLCS, which rendered him unavailable for the World Series – so we thought. A banged-up, limping Gibson was inserted as a pinch hitter in the ninth inning of Game 1 of the World Series versus MLB’s most dominant closer, Dennis Eckersley. Unable to use his lower body, Gibson somehow connected on an Eckersley pitch with a swing using only his upper body and launched the pitch over the outfield wall. The walk-off home run gave the Dodgers a 1-0 series lead, as Gibson limped around the bases in what would be his only appearance of the World Series.
17. Emmitt Smith’s Separated Shoulder
Date: Jan. 2, 1994
Event: Dallas Cowboys vs. New York Giants
Stats: 168 RUSH YDS, 10 REC, 61 REC YDS, 1 TD
Bottom line: Perhaps no player in NFL history hated leaving the field more than Emmitt Smith. That’s a big reason why he’s the NFL’s Rushing King, as he stayed in the game even when the Cowboys were blowing teams out in their Super Bowl years.
So when Smith suffered a separated shoulder in the final week of the regular season — and with the Cowboys having nothing to play for — he did what no one else would have done and played through the pain. Smith suffered the injury in the first half versus the rival Giants, had trainers wrap it up and continued playing with essentially one arm. He would lead Dallas to an overtime victory and piled up 229 scrimmage yards in the game, the second-highest total of his Hall of Fame career.
16. Pete Sampras Plays Through Pain
Date: July 9, 2000
Event: Wimbledon Final — Pete Sampras vs. Patrick Rafter
Stats: 6-7, 7-6, 6-4, 6-2
Bottom line: Tennis certainly isn’t a contact sport, but that doesn’t mean tennis players are immune to injuries. Pete Sampras had already won six Wimbledon championships entering the 2000 event, but various ailments would make his quest for a seventh the most challenging. Sampras had a bum shoulder, a herniated disc, a hip flexor and a sore quadriceps, but he played through the pain. He had to receive medical treatment during his matches and could barely walk once a match was over. Only will and pain-killing injections allowed him to take the grass at Wimbledon, but he persevered and won his seventh and final Wimbledon title.
15. Philip Rivers’ Torn ACL
Date: Jan. 20, 2008
Event: AFC Championship Game — San Diego Chargers vs. New England Patriots
Stats: 211 YDS, 0 TD, 51.35 CMP%
Bottom line: During a Divisional Round upset of the Indianapolis Colts, QB Philip Rivers tore both his ACL and his meniscus. For 99.9 percent of NFL players, that means your season is over immediately. But Rivers had other ideas with a chance to go to the Super Bowl the following week, so he had immediate surgery to fix the meniscus and still suited up in the AFC Championship Game on the torn ACL.
Rivers said the knee wasn’t very painful, but it was unstable and buckled a few times in the game. He didn’t have his best performance, and the Chargers loss, but a hobbled Rivers was still better than whoever would have replaced him. He then had surgery after losing in the AFC Title Game and never missed a start in his NFL career.
14. Donovan McNabb’s Broken Leg
Date: Nov. 17, 2002
Event: Philadelphia Eagles vs. Arizona Cardinals
Stats: 255 YDS, 4 TD, 80.0 CMP%
Bottom line: On the third play of a midseason game, Donovan McNabb was sacked and fractured his leg in three places. However, the Eagles didn’t take any X-rays of McNabb and simply wrapped his leg and classified it a “sprained ankle.” Thus, McNabb went back into the game and played exclusively from the pocket, as he did no scrambling and had zero rushing attempts. Even with that, he proceeded to throw a career-high of four touchdowns with a passer rating of 132.1, which was his second-highest to that point … all on a broken leg! After the game, the Eagles discovered the broken leg, and McNabb would miss the next six weeks of action.
13. Kobe Bryant’s Torn Achilles
Date: April 12, 2013
Event: Los Angeles Lakers vs. Golden State Warriors
Stats: 34 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists
Bottom line: After playing 40-plus minutes in seven straight games, Kobe Bryant’s body gave out on a mid-April night in 2013. Late in the fourth quarter of a game in which he had played every minute up to the point, Bryant drove to the basket and collapsed. He asked his defender, Matt Barnes, if he kicked him and Barnes replies, “No.” Bryant then let out an expletive, as he seemingly knew that he had torn his Achilles.
But he then did something that only Kobe Bryant would do and tried to move the tendon back down by pressing his fingers into his skin! He then stayed in the game to shoot the foul shots, as Barnes was whistled for a foul on the play, and with a torn Achilles’, a flat-footed Bryant sank both free throws. He was then immediately subbed out with his season ending on that play. The injury would hasten the retirement of Bryant, who played just 107 of a possible 246 games over the next three years.
12. Terrell Owens Returns Early From a Broken Leg
Date: Feb. 6, 2005
Event: Super Bowl XXXIX — Philadelphia Eagles vs. New England Patriots
Stats: 9 REC, 122 REC YDS
Bottom line: The now-illegal, horse-collar tackle wasn’t illegal in 2004, and Roy Williams executing the tackle led to T.O. breaking his fibula. The injury happened in Week 15, and it was thought Owens would be out for the season. However, he defied doctors’ orders and reinserted himself back onto the field for Super Bowl XXXIX, which was just six weeks later. Running with a bit of a limp, Owens was still the best player on the field for the Eagles. His 122 yards led the team, and his nine catches were as many as all the other Eagles receivers combined.
11. Tiger Woods’ Torn ACL
Date: June 16, 2008
Event: U.S. Open
Stats: (-1) 72-68-70-73-71
Bottom line: Two months before the 2008 U.S. Open, Tiger Woods had knee surgery but clearly wasn’t at full strength in the tournament. He winced while hitting several shots and had trouble walking at times, even using his clubs as a cane. But he somehow persevered, overcame a poor opening round and finished the final round tied atop the leaderboard. That then meant an 18-hole playoff, but that also wasn’t enough, so the tournament went into a sudden death. Following 91 holes of golf, Woods emerged victorious while basically playing on one leg throughout the event.
Two days after his win, Woods revealed he had torn ligaments and a double stress fracture in his leg. That necessitated reconstructive surgery, ended his 2008 season, and he wouldn’t win another major for 11 years.
10. Muhammad Ali’s Rope-a-Dope
Date: Oct. 30, 1974
Event: The Rumble in the Jungle — Foreman vs. Ali
Stats: Ali via 8th round KO
Bottom line: This performance wasn’t just gutsy, but it was a strategy as well. Facing the bigger and stronger George Foreman, Muhammad Ali leaned against the ropes and took a pounding for multiple rounds. While most thought he was getting beat up, Ali was actually protecting himself from any serious blows, and the rope received as much of a strain as Ali did. Eventually, all of the punching began to tire out Foreman, who was gassed out by the mid rounds. Ali then went on the attack and landed a combo followed by a hard right that knocked Foreman to the canvas in the eighth round. Foreman couldn’t recover, and Ali won via KO to become heavyweight champion.
9. Derek Fisher’s Emotional Day
Date: May 9, 2007
Event: Western Conference Semifinals — Utah Jazz vs. Golden State Warriors
Stats: 10 minutes, 5 points, 3 assists
Bottom line: During the middle of the 2007 NBA playoffs, Fisher learned that his infant daughter had eye cancer and would need surgery. The emotional toll forced him to miss Game 1 of the Western Conference Semifinals, and his daughter’s surgery was scheduled for the morning of Game 2. The surgery took place in New York, so no one expected Fisher to return to Utah later that day for the game, but he did and arrived during the third quarter. Fisher then proceeded to walk from the locker room to the bench, and before he could even take a seat, he was inserted into the game. An emotional Fisher provided a lift for Utah and hit the game-sealing 3-pointer in the closing minutes. The Jazz would go on to win the series. As for his daughter’s surgery, the operation was successful and changed Fisher’s perspective on life.
8. Kellen Winslow’s Epic in Miami
Date: Jan. 2, 1982
Event: AFC Divisional Round — San Diego Chargers vs. Miami Dolphins
Stats: 13 REC, 166 YDS, 1 TD
Bottom line: "I've never felt so close to death before. That's what Muhammad Ali said in Manila, and that's how I felt out there at the end," said Kellen Winslow after the AFC Divisional Round Game.
One of the most famous pictures in sports history came from this game, and that’s the image of Winslow draping his arms around the shoulders of two teammates and being helped off the field. That came after the tight end played on both offense and special teams in a game that wasn’t decided until 14 minutes into overtime. During the game, Winslow was treated for a pinched nerve, dehydration, cramping and a lip gash that required three stitches. Despite all of that, he put on a performance for the ages with an NFL postseason record of 13 receptions to go along with 166 yards, a touchdown and the game-saving blocked field goal to send the game into OT in which the Chargers won.
7. Simone Biles Overcomes the Twisties
Date: Aug. 3, 2021
Event: 2020 Summer Olympics — Balance Beam
Stats: 14.000 score
Bottom line: It’s one thing to have a mental block in a sport like golf or baseball in which the block presents no injury possibility. But it’s another to have one in a sport like gymnastics, which involves lots of jumping, twisting and aerial maneuvers. Biles suffered the twisties during the 2020 Olympics in which she would become disoriented while in the air. It forced her to withdraw from multiple events, but she summoned the courage and mental fortitude to compete in the balance beam. She performed a scaled-down version of her usual routine but was still able to win a bronze medal, which was her seventh Olympic medal and tied Shannon Miller for the most Olympic medals by an American female gymnast.
6. Willis Reed Emerges From the Tunnel
Date: May 8, 1970
Event: NBA Finals Game 7 — New York Knicks vs. Los Angeles Lakers
Stats: 27 minutes, 4 points, 3 rebounds
Bottom line: During the 1969-70 season, Willis Reed was named NBA MVP, as he led the Knicks to the league’s best record while averaging 21.7 points and 13.9 rebounds. But during the NBA Finals, Reed tore a thigh muscle in Game 5, which kept him out of Game 6. The opposing Lakers blew out the Knicks in that Game 6, and no one expected Reed to suit up in the deciding Game 7. However, during warmups, Reed emerged from the Madison Square Garden tunnel to the iconic call of “Here comes Willis” from a young Marv Albert. Reed proceeded to start the game and scored the Knicks’ first four points, which were his only points in the game. However, the emotional lift he supplied was worth so much more, as he got the home crowd and his Knicks teammates revved up. New York would win Game 7 and their first NBA title.
5. Ronnie Lott’s Amputated Finger
Date: Dec. 22, 1985
Event: San Francisco 49ers vs. Dallas Cowboys
Stats: 1 Game
Bottom line: Imagine loving playing football so much that you elect to have part of your pinky amputated just so you can play and won’t have to miss any time. That’s the route that Lott chose, and he declined a surgery that would have kept his finger intact but caused him to miss a couple of games. Lott played the last nine years of his 14-year career with 9.5 fingers, and the handicap didn’t limit him on the field. He had 40 interceptions after losing the tip of his pinky and even played one game in between the original injury and the amputation — a Wild Card playoff game after the 1985 season.
4. Michael Jordan’s Flu Game
Date: June 11, 1997
Event: NBA Finals Game 5 — Chicago Bulls vs. Utah Jazz
Stats: 44 minutes, 38 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists
Bottom line: Whether it was the flu or just food poisoning from bad pizza, there’s no doubt that Michael Jordan was battling some sort of sickness during the middle of the NBA Finals. Bulls trainers told Jordan that he shouldn’t play in Game 5, but he ignored their advice to suit up in a 2-2 series versus a Jazz team that was 10-0 at home in the postseason.
But Utah wouldn’t be undefeated at home after the game, as Jordan had another one of his epic performances. He hit the game-winning 3-pointer with 25 seconds left to break an 85-85 tie before collapsing into the arms of Scottie Pippen. Lost in Jordan’s offensive numbers was the job he did on the defensive end, holding Jeff Hornacek to just seven points on 2-for-11 shooting.
3. Brett Favre After His Dad’s Death
Date: Dec. 22, 2003
Event: Monday Night Football — Green Bay Packers vs. Oakland Raiders
Stats: 399 YDS, 4 TD, 73.33 CMP%
Bottom line: During his Hall of Fame career, Favre started 321 consecutive games, which is the longest streak by a QB in NFL history. He played through numerous injuries during the streak, but the closest he ever came to the streak ending was when he played with a broken heart. Favre’s dad died just one day before he was scheduled to start on Monday Night Football versus the Raiders. Favre said that his dad would have wanted him to play, so he fought through tears and had the game of his career on MNF. He passed for 311 yards and four touchdowns … in the first half, as the Packers routed the Raiders in their hometown. Favre would finish with a passer rating of 154.9, which remains the highest mark of his career.
2. Jack Youngblood’s Broken Leg
Date: Dec. 30, 1979
Event: NFC Divisional Round — Los Angeles Rams vs. Dallas Cowboys
Stats: 1 SACK
Bottom line: Youngblood was once called the “John Wayne of football,” and what he did in the 1979 playoffs is a perfect example why. Youngblood fractured his left fibula but continued playing through the injury for three postseason games — and the Pro Bowl! Yes, Youngblood desperately wanted to play football so much that he played in the 1980 Pro Bowl with a broken leg.
And he wasn’t just on the field during the games, as he chased down and sacked Roger Staubach in one of the playoff games. The late, great John Madden would later say that if he was ever asked, “What’s a football player”” then he would go grab Jack Youngblood as the example.
1. Kurt Angle’s Broken Neck
Date: July 31, 1996
Event: 1996 Summer Olympics — Men’s Freestyle 100 kg
Stats: 1-1 score; 3-1 victory by points
Bottom line: For over two decades, Kurt Angle has proclaimed on WWE TV that he won an Olympic gold medal with a “broken freakin’ neck,” and there are no lies in that statement. During the 1996 Summer Olympic trials, Angle fractured two cervical vertebrae and opted for rest and rehab as opposed to surgery. Thus, with the help of several pain-reducing injections into his neck, he went out and won a gold medal wrestling in the heavyweight class at the 1996 Games.
However, not addressing the injury right away with surgery would come back to haunt Angle in ensuing years, as he’s since broken his neck four more times and has had to undergo multiple surgeries on his neck and spine.