Given the physical nature of sport, one might assume that injury and recovery are part and parcel of the professional side of sports, when competing for a living. Many athletes suffer such terrible injuries that their careers are over in a split second, with some never reaching their sporting potential, as they are unable to perform as before. Every now and then though, there is someone who does manage to recover and comes back to make a real mark on their sport.
Pele is not only arguably the most famous name in football, but also a household name the world over, for those who don’t follow football. As the greatest player ever, it might be easy to forget that his career was nearly finished before it began, with a knee injury when he was still a teenager. His teammates saw his potential and pushed for him to be included in the Brazil squad for the 1958 World Cup, despite a knee injury and his young age. He is the youngest player in World Cup history to score a goal, when he was on target that year against Wales in the Quarter Final. Confirming his greatness, aged just 17, he scored a hat trick in the Semi Final against France, and a further two in the Final against Sweden. Pele was instrumental in the Brazilian World Cup victory that year, though suffered further injuries that kept him out of the next two world cups. Twelve years after his first appearance in a world cup, Pele returned to the top of the game and scored another goal to seal a win against Italy, becoming a champion after adversity and injury again.
Another household name, whether you’re a sports fan or not, Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all time. But it nearly wasn’t to be. Just three games into the season in 1985, Jordan broke his foot, which led to him missing the following 64 matches. Jordan threw himself into rehab in true champion fashion, and returned for the final 15 games of the Chicago Bulls’ regular season. Since that potentially career ending period, Jordan did not look back and there was no stopping him. He helped his team reach the playoff as soon as he returned from injury, and by 1991, he had won the first of what would be 6 NBA titles.
Hill had built himself a very successful career in basketball, establishing himself as one of the NBA’s elite players. Prior to his injury, he looked destined for the sport’s Hall of Fame, though luck was not on his side, and several injury setbacks, including a broken ankle, meant a sustained period off-court and out of competition between 2000 and 2004. During that time, Hill missed more than 280 regular matches and 15 play-off games. He was able to return to top flight basketball in 2004 and the following year, made the All-Star team. Hill joined Phoenix and soon became one of their most impressive defenders.
Professional athletes know the risks of their career choice, and how to minimise those risks, but injury remains a very real threat. It is tragic for any athlete to have their career limited due to injury, but when that athlete is a sport’s best, it is even more devastating. Ice Hockey player, Mario Lemieux, was at the very top of his game when he suffered a herniated disk. An injury of that nature is bad news for any professional sportsman, but on top of that, Lemieux also announced that he had been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma at the beginning of 1993. He persevered through crippling back pain and energy-sapping radiation treatment to achieve an almost unthinkable list of accomplishments that season, including the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy. Following treatment and his return to competition, Mario Lemieux was instrumental in the 17 wins on the bounce for the Penguins, and consequently their first title win. He was also third-highest points scorer, with an average of 2.67 per game. Since battling with injury and potentially life-threatening illness, Lemieux also won a gold medal at the 2002 Winter Olympics.
In 1971, Morrall suffered a debilitating injury to his shoulder that wrote him off in many people’s eyes, yet somehow, he was able to recover sufficiently to return to the top flight of American Football the following year, and to such a standard that he was named 1972 Comeback Player of the Year. In the same year, he was part of the Super Bowl winning Dolphins team. He didn’t start that game, but did win an APC Player of the Month medal.
With some sports, there is eminently more risk of serious injury or even death than others, and motor racing comes pretty close to the top of the risky list. Niki Lauda joined Ferrari in 1974 and claimed his first World Championship the following year. With such a promising career ahead of him, fate dealt a cruel blow and Lauda was involved in a horrific crash that could easily have claimed his life, yet just six weeks later he was back behind the wheel. During the German Grand Prix, Lauda crashed and suffered broken bones, but the biggest issue for him was being unable to get out of the car. It had burst into flames and Lauda suffered smoke damage to his lungs and burns, going into a coma after the race. He won the championship again in 1977, 1982 and again in 1984.
One of the biggest names in tennis over recent years, Rafael Nadal has entertained crowds the world over, but even at the peak of his career, staying injury-free has been a battle. In 2012, after winning his 7th title at the French Open, the Spaniard seemed to be facing the end of his tennis career, first losing to ‘unknown’ Lukas Rosol in the second round at Wimbledon, and then just a few weeks later, withdrawing from the London Olympics due to tendonitis in his knee. As a result of the missed tournaments, he finished the year ranked 4th, the first time in eight years that he wasn’t ranked number one or two, suggesting that the demise had started. A true champion never gives up though, and Nadal showed the commitment and determination to continue, taking both the French Open and the US Open in 2013, and regaining the number one world ranking. His very physical game is bruising, but his grit means he’s still competing against the very best players.
One of the great Quarterbacks, Peyton Manning suffered a neck injury that required surgery in the offseason, and this forced him to miss the entire 2011 season. Whilst Manning might have had every confidence that he would return to full fitness, his coaches at Indianapolis did not and the Colts let him go, not renewing his contract and instead preferring to sign Andrew Luck from Stanford. This further setback did nothing to dent Manning’s confidence, and rather than leave the game he loves, he simply signed with another team and moved to the Denver Broncos.
He came back better than ever and set NFL records for yards made and TD passes for single-seasons.