Print and Go Back ESPN.com: SportsNation [Print without images]

Monday, November 18, 2002
Updated: November 21, 7:21 PM ET
SportsNation: Toughest Performances


In early September, Drew Bledsoe dredged up some painful memories when he got staples in his neck to patch up a nasty cut during a game. On Sunday, Donovan McNabb defined toughness when he broke his ankle on the third play of the Cardinals-Eagles game, but stayed in to throw four TD passes and lead Philly to victory.

Which got us to wondering, who, in the history of sports, has done the mostest when the hurtest? Here are 10 performances that come to mind for us, but feel free to email us about the gritty effort we left out.

Kirk Gibson
Kirk Gibson became an instant hero with his game-winning home run in the opener of the '88 World Series.
Kirk Gibson
In Game 1 of the 1988 World Series, the Dodgers leader hobbled to the plate as a pinch hitter in the bottom of the ninth, and blasted a two-run shot off A's reliever Dennis Eckersley to give the Dodgers a 5-4 victory. Good thing Gibson hit a homer -- his knee was in such bad shape he was unable to swing the bat the day before, and he could barely walk. "We weren't worried about him having to run," Dodgers outfielder Mickey Hatcher said. "Hopefully, he can wheelchair it to first, and we can do something from there." Gibson didn't play again in the Series.

Willis Reed
Where's Willis? That was the buzz before Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals between the Lakers and the Knicks at the Garden. With a torn muscle in his right thigh, Reed electrified the crown when he limped onto the court and scored the first four points of the game. The Knicks won, and Reed's few moments had made the difference. Dave DeBusschere said the Lakers, when they saw Reed, clearly looked demoralized: "At that point, I thought we were winners. I thought they were defeated."

Kerri Strug
Dominique Moceanu fell twice in her vaults, and Strug fell on her first. What had looked like a sure win in the team combined exercises for the 1996 U.S. Women's Gymnastics team in the Atlanta Games now came down to one vault: Strug's final attempt. Strug, with two torn ligaments, was barely able to walk, but she need to land it. And she did. The U.S. women took the team gold. Strug's two torn ligaments prevented her from competing in any individual events.

Michael Jordan
For a two-hour period that happened to begin at the opening tipoff of Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals, Jordan forgot he was dehydrated, with a stomach virus and fever. He scored 38 points as Bulls beat the Jazz 90-88. Chicago went on to win the NBA championship two days later.

Eric Snow
Playing on a broken right ankle in Game 5 of the 2000 NBA Eastern Conference finals, Snow scored 18 points against the Milwaukee Bucks as the Sixers won the game, 98-88, and pulled ahead three games to two in the series. Snow says he was inspired by two other gamers on this list -- Philly coach Larry Brown had played a tapes of Willis Reed and Kirk Gibson before the game. "You understand what coach is trying to get across," Snow said later. "Basically, he's saying, 'By any means necessary." After the game, his teammates took to calling Snow "Willis Reed Jr." The 76ers went on to win the series in seven before falling to the Lakers in the NBA Finals.

Jack Youngblood
The great Rams defensive end got to the Hall of Fame for a lot of reasons, but all he needed, in our opinion, was this one: he helped lead the Rams through the 1979 playoffs and all the way to Super Bowl XIV -- on a broken left leg. He broke the leg in the division playoff against Dallas, and finished that game. The next week, he came back as the Rams beat Tampa Bay for the NFC title. Then, against the Steelers in the Super Bowl, he played every defensive down. That wasn't enough for the Rams to win (the Steelers came out on top, 31-19), but this list isn't about fairy tales. Here's how Youngblood described the feeling in an online chat last month: "What I remember about it was that it was awfully painful." Oh.

Mark Schlereth
Our current ESPN colleague, the former Broncos left guard, went under the knife more than two dozen times during his NFL career, including 15 surgeries on his left knee. But that's just background, making it less remarkable (for him) and more remarkable (for us -- geez, is this guy indestructible or what?) that, one Sunday in 1995, he told the Denver Post's Jim Armstrong the story: "I woke up on a Sunday morning with the kidney stones, and I thought I was going to die. I spent the whole day at the hospital. Finally, at about nine that night, the doctor said, 'Hey, if you're going to have any chance of playing tomorrow, you need to have this done.' So they wheeled me down to surgery, knocked me out and took out the stones. I checked out of the hospital at 11 the next morning and played that night."

Ronnie Lott
The Hall of Fame 49ers cornerback might have, like Tony Bennett, left his heart in San Francisco. But we'll remember him, for, among other things, leaving parts of his pinky finger in the turf. It happened at the end of the 1985 season, when he collided with Cowboys running back Timmy Newsome. He played the next week's playoff game, a wild-card matchup that the Niners lost to the Giants, with his fingers taped. Facing a winter and spring of excruciating pain, Lott had a choice -- a complex operation that would keep him out of part of the 1986 season, or amputation of the tip of his finger, which would allow him to play. He chose, as Sporting News writer David Falkner delicately put it, to have it "chopped off." A gruesome choice, but Lott made had a Pro Bowl season in '86, and San Francisco made the playoffs again.

Drew Bledsoe
We're cringing as we envision this moment. Just two months ago, in a mid-September 45-39 overtime victory over the Vikings at the Metrodome, the Bills QB needed a staple to close a cut in his neck. His teammate, Larry Centers, bore witness: "He comes back to the huddle with a staple in his neck. A staple! A piece of metal holding a cut together. His lip is bleeding. I think he got hit and it bent his helmet somehow. But he comes back to the huddle, and he's standing in front of 10 guys, bleeding, with a staple in his neck, and he's calling the plays, saying, 'Let's go.' " Even though he couldn't get through a metal detector, Bledsoe threw for for 463 yards, a Bills record, completing 35 of 49 passes for three TDs.

Bob Baun
This was old school: April 23, 1964. Game 6, Stanley Cup finals. Maple Leafs vs. Red Wings at the Detroit Olympia. Bob "The Boomer" Baun, a defenseman, falls awkwardly after a collision, and is taken to the locker room. The medics tell him they suspect a broken fibula, and tell him it's hospital time. Baun tells them to forget it -- put the leg in a splint, I'll play. The game goes into OT, and Baun scores on a shot from the blue line to give Toronto the victory. With the series tied at three games apiece, he plays all of Game 7, and the Leafs win their third straight Stanley Cup. After the victory celebration, reporter George Gross went with Baum when he finally got an X-ray. "Good thing there isn't another game," Gross recalled in a 1999 article. "Now that the docs have black and white proof, I couldn't talk them into letting me play."