NFL players who returned from devastating injuries
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NFL players who returned from devastating injuries

Featuring by far the highest number of significant injuries of the major American sports, the NFL has seen many players display resiliency by returning from severe setbacks. Here are 25 key examples of players who battled back from career-defining injuries to continue playing.

 
1 of 25

William Andrews

William Andrews
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In an elite era for running backs, Andrews is a bit overlooked. But the former Falcon bruiser was a four-time Pro Bowler and presented a grueling tackling assignment to defenders from 1979-83. He led the NFL in scrimmage yards in 1981, managing a staggering 81 catches out of the backfield. But during a 1984 preseason practice, Andrews shredded all the ligaments in his left knee. This caused scary nerve damage and sidelined the fullback for two full seasons. While Andrews was not the same player upon returning in 1986, his final season, bouncing back from these injuries in the mid-'80s was a remarkable achievement. 

 
2 of 25

Rocky Bleier

Rocky Bleier
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Bleier's journey dwarfs most of this list's injuries. Drafted for the Vietnam War late in his 1968 rookie season, the Steelers running back suffered life-threatening injuries to both legs. Enemy fire resulted in Bleier taking a bullet in the left leg, and a grenade explosion the same day sent shrapnel into his right leg. Bleier faced possible leg amputation, but after two seasons away, he returned to the Steelers in 1971 and played 10 more seasons. He was part of all four Steelers Super Bowl teams and joined Franco Harris in being the second pair of teammates to exceed 1,000 rushing yards in the same season in 1976.

 
3 of 25

NaVorro Bowman

NaVorro Bowman
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Forming a dominant inside-linebacking duo with Patrick Willis, Bowman helped the defense-powered 49ers to three straight NFC championship games (and Super Bowl XLVII) from 2011-13. But Bowman suffered a brutal injury in the third of those title games, tearing all the knee ligaments in his left leg in the 49ers' Jan. 2014 loss in Seattle. Bowman missed the 2014 season but returned to deliver one of the best single-season comebacks in NFL history a year later, leading the NFL with 116 solo tackles and earning his fourth All-Pro honor. Bowman even came back from a torn Achilles, finishing his career as a Raider starter in 2017.

 
Teddy Bridgewater
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One of 2020's feel-good stories, Bridgewater is back as a starter after a gruesome 2016 injury sidetracked his career. The 2014 Vikings first-round pick was on track for a lucrative extension after having been Minnesota's starter for nearly two seasons, but a preseason ACL tear and knee dislocation ended his time as the Vikes' QB1. It took Bridgewater until Week 17 of the 2017 season to play again, and he did not become a full-time starter again until Week 1 of this season -- after signing with the Panthers. On his fourth team at age 28, Bridgewater bounced back to score a three-year, $63 million deal. 

 
5 of 25

Ki-Jana Carter

Ki-Jana Carter
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Not all of these rebounds produced success, but the 1995 No. 1 overall pick who often lands on "biggest draft busts" lists managed to play until 2004. Carter suffered a torn left ACL on his third preseason carry and was never the same. The former Penn State superstar played on his seven-year, $19.2 million Bengals deal through the 1999 season. He missed all of the 2000 and '02 slates, suffering upper-body maladies and a dislocated right kneecap along the way. But with Washington in 2001, Carter rushed for 308 yards (4.9 per carry) in 14 games. He finished his career as a Saints backup from 2003-04.

 
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Victor Cruz

Victor Cruz
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ACL tears and Achilles trouble overshadow the injury Cruz sustained, but they should not. Patellar tendon tears are career-crushers, and Cruz was out for a year and a half after suffering the damaging knee injury on a Sunday night in Philadelphia. The salsa-dancing Giants slot receiver broke out with a monster 2011 season (1,536 yards, nine TDs) and helped Big Blue to its fourth Super Bowl title; he earned a five-year, $43M extension in 2013. Cruz took a backseat to Odell Beckham Jr. by the time he returned in 2016 -- his final season -- but still caught 39 passes for 586 yards in 15 games for a playoff-bound squad. 

 
7 of 25

Thomas Davis

Thomas Davis
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

This is more of a lifetime achievement award, because the still-active linebacker has surmounted not just three ACL tears but decided to play through a broken arm in order to suit up for a Super Bowl. The 16th-year veteran tore the ACL in his right knee in three straight seasons -- 2009-11 -- and played just nine games in that span. The medical marvel only missed three games due to injury over the next six seasons. This included suffering a broken forearm in the Panthers' NFC title game win over the Cardinals. Davis underwent surgery the next day and made seven tackles in Super Bowl 50.

 
8 of 25

Robert Edwards

Robert Edwards
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A particularly crushing example of a one-hit wonder, Edwards is most remembered for a knee injury in a beach flag football game. The 1998 first-round pick rushed for 1,115 yards and scored 12 TDs as a rookie, helping the Patriot to their final playoff berth of the Drew Bledsoe era. But the injury -- a torn ACL, MCL and PCL -- in a rookie showcase at the Pro Bowl had doctors considering amputation. This ended Edwards' Pats career after one season, but he made it back after three years away. In the 2002 opener with the Dolphins, Edwards scored twice. Those were his final two TDs in what became a one-season comeback.

 
9 of 25

Frank Gifford

Frank Gifford
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The decades-long broadcaster is in the Hall of Fame for his 1950s contributions as a Giants halfback, but Gifford also authored a signature NFL comeback. Eagles linebacker Chuck Bednarik delivered a frightening but legal hit on Gifford during a 1960 game, and the result was ugly even for the day: Gifford unconscious, stretchered off the field, out of football for the 1961 season. Later, it was discovered Gifford suffered a spinal concussion. But he returned as a wideout in 1962 and played three more seasons, making the 1963 Pro Bowl and helping the Giants to two NFL title games. 

 
10 of 25

Garrison Hearst

Garrison Hearst
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A former No. 3 overall Cardinals pick, Hearst peaked with a dominant 1998 season as a 49er. He helped the team to the divisional playoffs with 2,105 scrimmage yards, but on the first play of that second-round game in Atlanta, Hearst suffered a broken ankle. However, complications from the surgery led to a two-season hiatus due to avascular necrosis -- a circulatory condition that affected blood flow to Hearst's ankle. Despite facing a future where walking proved difficult, Hearst recovered by 2001 and, at 30, earned Comeback Player of the Year acclaim and led the 49ers to the playoffs. He played through the 2004 season.

 
11 of 25

E.J. Henderson

E.J. Henderson
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A Vikings starting linebacker for most of the 2000s, Henderson missed out on the team's Brett Favre-centered run to the 2009 NFC championship game. After missing 12 games because of a foot injury in 2008, Henderson suffered a gag-inducing broken leg in December of the '09 season. Fortunate to benefit from modern medicine, Henderson was back on the field by Week 1 of the 2010 season -- thanks to a titanium rod being inserted into his leg. He ended up playing two more seasons, making the Pro Bowl in his first year back. 

 
12 of 25

Priest Holmes

Priest Holmes
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It is hard to overstate how productive Holmes was with the Chiefs in the early 2000s. The Chiefs offense housed three Hall of Famers, and Holmes drove them. He totaled 6,566 scrimmage yards from 2001-03 and broke the NFL touchdown record with 27 in '03. A knee injury ended Holmes' 2004 season early, but he and Larry Johnson were a formidable duo to start the '05 slate. A collision with Shawne Merriman altered the Chiefs' plans, sidelining Holmes 23 months with head and neck trauma. Holmes made a surprising return in Oct. 2007 and started two games. But neck pain recurred early in his comeback, prompting a retirement. 

 
13 of 25

Tim Krumrie

Tim Krumrie
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The Bengals defensive tackle suffered one of the NFL's most widely viewed injuries, breaking his leg in two places during Super Bowl XXIII in January 1989. Krumrie had gone from 10th-round 1983 draftee to Bengals starter in less than two years, and he operated accordingly after his Super Bowl ended early. With the help of a steel rod, Krumrie was back in Cincinnati's starting lineup in Week 1 of the 1989 season. He played six more seasons, all with the Bengals, and ended a 12-year career without a single injury absence.

 
14 of 25

Bobby Layne

Bobby Layne
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After leading the Lions to two NFL titles in the early 1950s, Layne had the team set to vie for a third crown in 1957. But the future Hall of Fame quarterback could not finish what turned out to be a championship season, breaking his leg in three places in the regular season's penultimate game. Tobin Rote took over and piloted the Lions to the title and ended up sticking around long-term; the Lions stunned Layne by trading him early in the 1958 season. Layne proceeded to make the Pro Bowl in '58 and '59 with Pittsburgh, surmounting the injury to play five more seasons.

 
15 of 25

Andrew Luck

Andrew Luck
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Luck's shoulder rehab turned into a career-threatening ordeal and played a role in the Colts QB walking away in 2019. Luck played through shoulder pain during the 2016 season, and January labrum surgery not producing a desired result began an 18-plus-month recovery process. Luck's timetable continued to be pushed back, and he missed all of 2017. But he returned for a low-key dominant 2018 season, throwing 39 TD passes and powering an off-the-radar Colts team to the divisional playoffs. But, citing burnout concerns after rehabbing another troublesome malady a year later, Luck retired at age 29.

 
16 of 25

Peyton Manning

Peyton Manning
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Arguably the best comeback in NFL history for sheer results, Manning underwent four neck surgeries in an attempt to eliminate years-long pain and growing weakness. Treatment efforts in Europe preceded surgery No. 4 in 2011, a season Manning missed after never missing a start in 13 Colts campaigns. Although Manning 2.0 possessed a fraction of the arm strength his Colts version did, his Broncos edition shattered the single-season touchdown pass record (55) and opened a Super Bowl window for his second team. Manning earned his sixth and seventh first-team All-Pro honors in Denver; no other post-merger QB has more than three.

 
17 of 25

Willis McGahee

Willis McGahee
ICON SMI

McGahee began his NFL career injured. Though his career ran through the 2013 season, his most memorable moment may still be the frightening Fiesta Bowl injury. He tore the ACL, MCL and PCL in his left leg in his final college game and could not play during the 2003 NFL season -- his rookie year. But McGahee showed enough at Miami to convince the Bills to draft him 23rd overall -- higher than ex-Hurricane mates Clinton Portis or Frank Gore -- knowing he needed extensive rehab. Debuting in 2004, McGahee notched the first of his four 1,000-yard seasons and played long enough to retire as a top-40 all-time rusher.

 
18 of 25

Joe Montana

Joe Montana
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Montana could appear on this list twice, having overcome severe back and elbow injuries during his Hall of Fame career. After beating a ruptured disk recovery timetable by returning in two months in 1986, Montana played just one game from 1991-92. Suffering a season-ending elbow injury in the 1991 preseason, Montana needed to have his elbow tendon reattached and a joint issue forced a third surgery in '92. A trade to Kansas City resulted in Montana proving he was not quite done. He returned to the Pro Bowl and piloted the Chiefs to two comeback playoff wins in his two seasons in Missouri.

 
19 of 25

Adrian Peterson

Adrian Peterson
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Peterson does not land here for tearing an ACL, MCL and a meniscus on Christmas Eve 2011. Modern medicine allows for such recoveries. But this cinched up Peterson's case for best running back of his era; Peterson became the standard by which all surgery recoveries are measured. The then-27-year-old running back blazed to one of the all-time great seasons, rushing for 2,097 yards -- eight off Eric Dickerson's record, which was obtained with 41 more carries than Peterson's 348 -- in 2012. "All Day" did not miss a game, totaling 388 touches and carrying a Christian Ponder-quarterbacked team to the playoffs.

 
20 of 25

Philip Rivers

Philip Rivers
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Like Peterson, Rivers' malady does not fall into the "devastating" category. However, Rivers knew he had suffered a torn ACL and meniscus going into the 2007 AFC championship game and played through it. Sustaining the injury in the Chargers' divisional-round win over the Colts, Rivers underwent a secret arthroscopic surgery the next day and faced the Patriots six days later. The then-second-year starter did not exactly shine in New England, throwing two INTs in a 21-12 loss, but those Pats did go 16-0 and faced a Bolts team that lost LaDainian Tomlinson during the game. Rivers did not miss a start in 14 years as the Bolts' QB1.

 
21 of 25

Gale Sayers

Gale Sayers
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Sayers highlights before his 1968 right ACL and MCL tears are must-watch, even though the Bears did not make the playoffs during the superstar running back's tenure. But Sayers' 1969 season is historically impressive. Knee injuries of this sort ruined careers for decades, but Sayers rehabbed and won the rushing title -- his second in three seasons -- despite not possessing the elite gifts he did pre-injury. He earned All-Pro acclaim in his injury-shortened 1968 slate and in '69. While a left knee injury in 1970 doomed Sayers, he soon become the youngest Pro Football Hall of Famer.

 
22 of 25

Alex Smith

Alex Smith
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An early-season Rams rout in Washington will be one of this year's defining NFL moments. Smith completed nine passes for just 37 yards but completed an unprecedented comeback to suit up again. Smith's Nov. 2018 broken leg -- 23 years to the day that Joe Theismann suffered a career-ending broken leg no one wants to watch twice -- began a life-threatening sequence that included infections and ultimately 17 surgeries. After missing the 2019 season, the 36-year-old passer is Washington's backup -- to the surprise of just about everyone. Even if Smith does not play again, he still may win Comeback Player of the Year honors.

 
23 of 25

Bubba Smith

Bubba Smith
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A dominant prospect who went No. 1 overall to the Colts in 1967, the future "Police Academy"-franchise mainstay was one of the league's top defenders. He helped the Colts to an NFL title in 1968 and a Super Bowl championship three years later. Super Bowl V, however, was Smith's final game with Baltimore. A freak knee injury in the 1972 preseason occurred when he ran into a first-down marker -- formerly anchored by sharp metal points, a setup Smith's setback helped change -- and led to the Colts trading the D-lineman to the Raiders. Smith rehabbed to play four more seasons, though the 6-foot-7 standout was not the same after the injury.

 
24 of 25

Cadillac Williams

Cadillac Williams
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Drafted fifth overall in 2005, Williams showed immediate promise by leading a quarterback-needy Buccaneers team to the playoffs and claiming Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. While Williams never topped this season, it should be noted what the Auburn alum was able to overcome to play until 2011. Williams suffered torn patellar tendons in both knees -- in 2007 and '08, respectively -- and missed 22 games. He re-emerged in 2009 and totaled 1,040 scrimmage yards and seven TDs in 16 games. Williams did not miss a game in 2010, either, collecting more than $30 million in total from the Bucs.

 
25 of 25

Jack Youngblood

Jack Youngblood
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Youngblood submitted one of the most maniacal stretches in NFL history to close out the 1979 season. The Rams sack artist suffered a fractured fibula late in the team's divisional-round win over the Cowboys. The future Hall of Famer played through a broken leg, suiting up against the Buccaneers in the NFC title game and against the Steelers in Super Bowl XIV. And in what should perhaps have warranted a psychiatric evaluation, Youngblood -- who notched a career-high 18 sacks in 1979 -- participated in the Pro Bowl. Youngblood did not miss a game in his first 13 NFL seasons.

Sam Robinson is a Kansas City, Mo.-based writer who mostly writes about the NFL. He has covered sports for nearly 10 years. Boxing, the Royals and Pandora stations featuring female rock protagonists are some of his go-tos. Occasionally interesting tweets @SRobinson25.

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