America loves a comeback kid; always has, always will. Frank Sinatra, Bill Clinton, and, to a lesser extent, the cast of the Police Academy movies (rest in peace, Charles ‘Bubba’ Smith aka ‘Hightower’ and the overall first round pick and a Super Bowl V winning lineman with the Colts).
And this sentimental attachment to an unlikely return to glory is perhaps most poignant in sports, where some of the most remarkable tales of fighting back from the brink (and beyond) can be found. Indeed both the NFL and MLB have an official “Comeback Player of the Year Award” – though it isn’t always necessarily awarded to the player with the most colorful back story, more so directly linked with improvement in that player’s overall performance on the field.
In recent years we’ve seen some diverse tales of redemption: Josh Hamilton [Texas Rangers] returning from crack addiction (and more) to play in a World Series and win a MVP award; Michael Vick rehabilitated (on the field anyway) after disappearing from the NFL for his globally-publicized incarceration, and indeed bagging the aforementioned NFL CPOTY Award.
On a less complex, but no less impactful level, you have less noticeable players like Bartolo Colon. Having played for five MLB teams since 1997 and winning the 2005 Cy Young Award with the Indians, the 38-year-old had seemingly been discarded as the poster boy of washed up, overweight has-beens. He was even reduced to pitching in Winter Ball this off-season to try to earn a ticket back to the Majors. And back he came, only to shock everyone and as a bona-fide starting pitcher (8-6, as I write this) for one of this year’s genuine contenders, the New York Yankees.
Second-guessing who may be the comeback kids next season in the NFL – officially or otherwise – is an interesting subject. Obvious candidates include Plaxico Burress – like Vick, coming back into the league after a period in jail, and recent Patriots’ signings Albert Haynesworth and Chad Johnson, who pack more baggage than Lady Ga Ga and her entourage flying into JFK Airport.
Then, there are some long shots who would represent the Rocky Balboa style underdogs, that includes: Rex Grossman of the Redskins (who took the Bears to the Big Show in 2006 and didn’t so much suffer a Super Bowl hangover as a ‘Super Sunday emergency ward stomach pump’) and Chad Henne of the Dolphins, providing he hangs onto the starter’s jersey, which quite frankly, would represent a success of significant proportions given the fact he’s even been booed in pre-season training by his own teams’ fans – like he’s a WWE heel squaring off against John Cena.
Whoever it is, in whichever league, they’ll have a hard ‘return to combat’ act to follow when it comes to the All-time Comeback Kids in North American sport. Listed below is my take on the best of the best across the four major leagues along with a college wildcard.
NFL – FRANK GIFFORD
Those of you who have been watching ESPN America’s Monday Night Football retrospective this summer will know Frank Gifford as a respected commentator. Less well-known, as a New York Giant, he was elected to the NFL’s 1950s All-Decade Team as a running back. Another of Gifford’s many football-related legacies was to inspire the “Comeback Player of the Year” award … and here’s why.
His All-Pro career came to a crushing halt back in 1960. During a game against the Philadelphia Eagles, Gifford was infamously knocked out cold by Chuck Bednarik – one the game’s hardest and meanest tacklers – suffering a severe head injury that forced him out of football.
Undaunted, Gifford miraculously returned to the Giants two years later. Equally surprising as his return was that he had changed positions from running back to wide receiver – catching 43 TDs (nine more than he’d rushed for), and became a star again. He even made the Pro Bowl again as a receiver, in 1964, and then promptly retired – for good. This makes sense when you consider that he’d made the NFC’s All Star team eight times and at three positions (RB, DB and WR). Frank even found time to pass for a non-QB record14 touchdowns (we’ll ignore the non-QB record six interceptions!). Oh! And to cap the comeback Gifford was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1977.
MLB – BOSTON RED SOX
I’ve not gone for an individual player but a team that made an eight-decade comeback. (Hey, it’s my game, so my rules). The 2004 Sox had lived in the long, cold shadow of the New York Yankees for years. Red Sox Nation was desperate to break the ‘Curse of the Bambino’ having traded Babe Ruth in 1919 to their rivals instigating an 86-year stretch without a World Series crown.
Having come up short time and time again in the intervening years, fate pitted the old enemies against each other in the 2004 ALCS. The Yankees took a 3-0 lead in the best of seven series, which led to one of the most extraordinary sporting comebacks ever witnessed. The Sox fought back and ultimately won the series 4-3, exorcising the Curse, before going on to take the World Series.
Games 4 and 5 alone – with Boston so far on the ropes they were sitting in the cheap seats – went into extra innings. This late drama created a surreal atmosphere with play going past midnight in the chill of the October night. The Sox roster delivered a range of exceptional individual performances – from Dave Roberts’ pivotal stolen base in Game 4 to Curt Schilling’s bloody sock in Game 6. Most notable among all these solo efforts was a Series MVP display from David Ortiz who smacked a walk-off homer in Game 4 and a walk-off single in the 14th inning of Game 5.
NHL – MARIO LEMIEUX
There is no doubt that Montreal-born Lemieux is one of the great comeback stories across all North American sporting history.
The NHL’s first overall draft pick in 1984 – who Bobby Orr called “the most talented player I’ve ever seen,” – retired not once, but twice, because of serious health issues. Not forgetting he missed 50 games in 1990-91 after back surgery, number 66 still goes down as one of the NHL’s all-time legends. Lemieux won the Hart Trophy and scoring title in 1995-96 – having sat out the entire previous season. In 1997, he was forced into ‘early’ retirement to battle cancer and was immediately elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame on what he had achieved in his stellar career.
Not content with all that had gone before and having beaten the Big C, he strapped his skates back on in 2000 and played another five seasons for the Pens. He was still at the top of his game and was a key player in Canada’s 2002 Olympic gold winning team.
In 2006, he was then diagnosed with an atrial fibrillation (causing irregular heartbeats), which forced him to retire for the second and final time.
BA – EARVIN ‘MAGIC’ JOHNSON
I haven’t chosen Magic based on his post-comeback performance, despite the fact that he is undeniably one of the games’s all-time greats, but for the symbolic nature of his re-appearance after the announcement that rocked and shocked the sporting world, in 1991, that he was HIV positive.
At that time no major professional athlete – and very few public figures of any kind – had publically announced that they were carrying the HIV virus, and sufferers were overwhelmingly found within the homosexual communities, which propelled Johnson, who contacted the disease from heterosexual partners, into the, then, most unlikely, role of spokesperson for education and awareness of the disease.
Having already built a Hall of Fame, five world titles and three MVP career, his subsequent “post-retirement” performances at the 1992 Summer Olympics – as part of the US Dream Team – were infrequent due to a knee injury, but the inspirational manner of his appearances in Barcelona, and the hope and belief they gave thousands of people, irrespective of the specific nature of their individual problems, was as brave as it gets.
NCAA – MARCUS DUPREE
ne of my favorite back from the scrapheap stories has been poignantly recorded in ESPN’S remarkable 30 for 30 documentary The Best There Never Was. Be sure to catch it next time it airs on ESPN America [or see trailer below]. The clue to my favoritism is in the title: Dupree was a prolifically talented high school running back (87 TDs), so good that when you watch the tape back, it genuinely appears as if you’re watching a video game.
The much courted phenom eventually settled on signing with Oklahoma. He starred in his freshman season and even forced Coach Barry Switzer to adapt his legendary wishbone offense to a Dupree-orientated I-formation. Despite his success on the field, he suffered a series of injuries including a bad concussion, took terrible advice that saw him transfer to Southern Miss and then found himself ineligible to play anymore in the NCAA and left his new team without ever playing for them.
Turning pro, in 1984, he was signed by the New Orleans Breakers to the newly-formed USFL, where he was horrifically injured in the season opener and was told, before he turned 21, that he would never play football again.
Six years later, the great Walter Payton visited him and talked him into getting back into shape. Dupree shed almost 100 pounds and wrote to every NFL franchise. The (then LA) Rams gave him a trial, and offered him a contract. He only carried the ball 68 times in the NFL before retiring, but the very fact he made it there after such a problematic injury and prolonged absence, is all you need to know.