Patrick Mahomes joins best performances in wake of injury, illness ESPN logo
Monday, January 30, 2023

The sports world is full of stories of athletes pulling off remarkable feats while injured or ill. The list got a little longer after Patrick Mahomes' performance in the AFC Championship Game.

The Kansas City Chiefs' quarterback suffered a high ankle sprain against the Jacksonville Jaguars in the divisional round. The typical recovery time for that type of injury is four to six weeks. Mahomes was back at it eight days later.

While he played with a limp, that didn't curtail any heroics. In the 23-20 win over the Cincinnati Bengals, Mahomes completed 29 of 43 passes for 326 yards and two touchdowns. Mahomes didn't have his usual mobility, but he pulled off a five-yard run on his last play of the game. It will be long remembered if the Chiefs win Super Bowl LVII against the Philadelphia Eagles.

Bad leg and all, Mahomes sprinted to his right to pick up extra yards before going out of bounds. That, combined with an unnecessary roughness penalty on Bengals defensive end Joseph Ossai, who pushed Mahomes after he was out-of-bounds, set up Harrison Butker's game-winning field goal.

"I just tried to do whatever I could to win, and obviously, there were times where you could see that it wouldn't let me do what I wanted to,'' Mahomes said of his injured ankle. "But I was able to do enough on that last play to get the first down and get myself out of bounds and try to give Harrison the chance to win. ...

"I definitely didn't feel good."

Here are some of the other amazing performances by athletes who had every excuse to sit out -- but delivered greatness instead.

Michael Jordan, Chicago Bulls, June 11, 1997, at Utah Jazz

Injury: Jordan contracted either food poisoning or a stomach virus between Game 4 and Game 5 of the NBA Finals, leaving the superstar sick and dehydrated entering the crucial fifth game of a series that was tied 2-2. Jordan was understandably sluggish as Game 5 started.

Was he removed from the game? Jordan's sluggishness allowed the Jazz, who had won the previous two games of the series, to jump on the Bulls early at home, taking a 16-point lead. He rebounded a bit to bring the Bulls within range, but took a seat again in the third quarter due to fatigue.

Performance upon returning: Jordan came back in the game with Chicago down eight and put the Bulls on his back, scoring 15 points in the fourth quarter, including a dagger 3-pointer with 25 seconds left to put the Bulls up to stay in a 90-88 win. Jordan, who leaned on Scottie Pippen in the waning seconds, scored 38 points and added seven rebounds and five assists. The Bulls clinched the title the next game.

Cesc Fabregas, Arsenal, March 31, 2010, vs. Barcelona

Injury: Fabregas was already hobbled going into the Gunners' UEFA Champions League first leg match with Barca, as he injured his knee the game before against Birmingham City. That paled in comparison to what he suffered when he was fouled by Carlos Puyol, as Puyol's tackle in the box fractured Fabregas' leg.

Was he removed from the game?Puyol received a red card for the foul and Arsenal was awarded a penalty shot. Despite barely being able to stand, Fabregas walked up to the spot to take the penalty.

Performance upon returning: Fabregas hobbled to the spot and buried the penalty before going down in pain on his walk back up for the kickoff. His goal brought the Gunners level in a 2-2 draw with Barcelona, but Arsenal was eliminated in the tie.

Kirk Gibson, Los Angeles Dodgers, Oct. 15, 1988, vs. Oakland Athletics

Injury: Gibson was having a banner first season in Los Angeles that would eventually make him the National League MVP, but he entered the World Series suffering from hamstring and knee injuries incurred during the seven-game NLCS win over the Mets.

Was he removed from the game? Gibson was considered doubtful for the World Series against the A's because of his injuries and did not start Game 1. But with the Dodgers down to their final out in Game 1 and trailing 4-3 with a runner on, Tommy Lasorda turned to Gibson for a spark.

Performance upon returning: Despite being hobbled, Gibson was able to work a full count against Dennis Eckersley. Gibson muscled a backdoor slider into the right-field bleachers, giving the Dodgers a walk-off 5-4 win. He limped around the bases pumping his fists. Gibson never played again in the series, but the inspired Dodgers shocked the overwhelming favorite A's in five games to win the World Series.

Byron Leftwich, Marshall, Nov. 2, 2002, at Akron

Injury: Leftwich and Marshall, the Mid-American Conference leaders, looked to have an easy road win to start November when they played against 1-7 Akron. But Leftwich had his left tibia broken on a first-quarter tackle against the Zips.

Was he removed from the game? Leftwich was taken out of the game after the injury and sent to the hospital to get X-rays done on his leg. Meanwhile, the Thundering Herd were lost without their future first-round quarterback, falling behind Akron 24-10 at halftime. He reentered the game in the third quarter.

Performance upon returning: Barely able to walk, Leftwich was carried by his offensive linemen down the field after completing passes in the second half. Despite his lack of mobility, Leftwich led the Thundering Herd on two second-half scoring drives in a 34-20 loss to the Zips.

Joe Montana, Notre Dame, Jan. 1, 1979, vs. Houston (Cotton Bowl)

Injury: Montana came into the 1979 Cotton Bowl already sick, as he was suffering from the flu. A frigid day in Dallas exacerbated the condition, as the Cotton Bowl was played in subzero wind chills. A weakened Montana was ineffective in the first half as the Cougars built a halftime lead.

Was he removed from the game? The conditions contributed to Montana's body temperature falling to 96 degrees. He was kept in the locker room after halftime and fed chicken bouillon while being draped in blankets to raise his temperature.

Performance upon returning: A warmed Montana reentered the game with 7:37 left and the Fighting Irish down 34-12. Foreshadowing his Hall of Fame NFL career, Montana led Notre Dame to three touchdowns, including one as time expired, for a 35-34 comeback victory.

Paul Pierce, Boston Celtics, June 5, 2008, vs. Los Angeles Lakers

Injury: The Celtics were locked in a tight game with the Lakers in Game 1 of the NBA Finals when Kendrick Perkins ran into Pierce on the baseline after trying to block a Kobe Bryant shot at the 6:48 mark of the third quarter. Pierce went down and instantly grabbed his knee.

Was he removed from the game? In one of the more theatrical moments in NBA Finals history, Pierce was physically carried off the court by his teammates. He was then put in a wheelchair and wheeled back to the Celtics' locker room, with TV cameras filming the entire sequence.

Performance upon returning: Pierce's time in the locker room was brief, as he reemerged from the locker room a few minutes after being wheeled in and reentered the game with 5:03 left in the third quarter. He hit a couple of 3s right away, buoying Boston to a 98-88 victory.

Willis Reed, New York Knicks, May 8, 1970, vs. Los Angeles Lakers

Injury: The moment from which all of the other moments on this list are compared, Reed tore his thigh muscle in Game 5 of the Finals and watched helplessly as Wilt Chamberlain and the Lakers won Game 6 to force a Game 7. Reed was not expected to play in Game 7, either.

Was he removed from the game? Despite the lack of confidence about his return, Reed decided to try to give it a go for Game 7. He walked on the court during warm-ups, firing up the Knicks fans and drawing stares from the surprised Lakers.

Performance upon returning: Reed's injury limited him offensively, as he scored only four points and grabbed three rebounds, but his presence on the defensive end made things more difficult for Chamberlain. The Knicks, inspired by their teammate, rolled to a 113-99 victory and their first NBA title

Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers, Sept. 9, 2018 vs. Chicago Bears

Injury: Rodgers and the Packers were struggling in their season opener with the Bears when Rodgers was sacked by a pair of Chicago players early in the second quarter. His left leg was landed on during the sack, and Rodgers fell to the turf after trying to walk off the field.

Was he removed from the game: Rodgers was sent into the injury tent and then carted off the field and into the locker room with what was determined to be a knee injury. The Packers' Twitter account deemed him questionable to return.

Performance upon returning: Rodgers emerged from the locker room with 9:10 left in the third quarter and Green Bay down 20-0. Despite barely putting weight on the injured leg, Rodgers powered a second-half comeback, throwing for 273 yards and three touchdowns after returning to lead the Packers to a 24-23 win.

Curt Schilling, Boston Red Sox, Oct. 19, 2004, at New York Yankees

Injury: Schilling had been battling an injured ankle throughout the 2004 season, which gradually worsened to the point where he was ineffective during a Game 1 start in the ALCS, helping contribute to the Yankees taking a 3-0 series lead over the Red Sox.

Was he removed from the game? With the Red Sox extending the series, Schilling had a quick procedure to have his injured tendon sewed back to his ankle in an attempt to stabilize the joint. He then took the mound for Game 6 at Yankee Stadium hoping to keep the Red Sox alive.

Performance upon returning: With his glued-together ankle, Schilling kept the Yankees at bay for seven innings, allowing one run despite his ankle bleeding to the point of seeping through his sock. That sock became part of Boston lore, as the Red Sox won Game 6 and went on to finish the first comeback from a 3-0 series deficit.

Emmitt Smith, Dallas Cowboys, Jan. 2, 1994, at New York Giants

Injury: The NFC East championship and home-field advantage during the playoffs were on the line when the Cowboys played the Giants in the Meadowlands. Dallas was cruising 13-0 when Smith's right shoulder was slammed to the turf by Greg Jackson after a 46-yard run.

Was he removed from the game? Smith remained down for several minutes before leaving with what was diagnosed as a separated shoulder. Because he couldn't damage it further, Smith was given the option to return to the game if he could handle the pain.

Performance upon returning: With a shoulder brace that consisted of taped-together knee pads, Smith returned to a game that the Giants sent to overtime tied 13-13. Despite a useless right arm, Smith ran for 41 yards on an overtime drive that was concluded by Eddie Murray's game-winning field goal.

Kerri Strug, USA Gymnastics, July 23, 1996, Olympics, Atlanta

Injury: Strug was doing the first of her two vaults in the team all-around competition, where the Americans were in a close competition with Russia for the gold. Strug's left ankle cracked on the first vault and she fell, putting her Olympics and American gold in jeopardy.

Was she removed from the competition? Despite barely being able to put weight on the ankle, because of what was later found to be two torn ligaments, Strug tried to walk it off and put herself in position to perform the second vault, which she needed to land for the gold.

Performance upon returning: Strug ran down to the ramp and did her vault, She landed on both feet and held her position long enough to get a score of 9.712, enough to give the U.S. its first team gold.

Isiah Thomas, Detroit Pistons, June 19, 1988, at Los Angeles Lakers

Injury: Thomas started the third quarter of Game 6 of the NBA Finals hot, scoring 14 points to help the Pistons erase an eight-point deficit. But with roughly four minutes left in the quarter, Thomas jumped and landed on the foot of Lakers guard Michael Cooper, spraining his right ankle.

Was he removed from the game? Thomas was helped off the floor and to the bench, with his right ankle quickly growing in size. Despite the rapid swelling of the ankle, Thomas reentered the game 35 seconds later on the game clock.

Performance upon returning: Despite his hobbling, Thomas put the Pistons on his back during the rest of the third period, scoring 11 of Detroit's last 15 points of the quarter to put the Pistons ahead. Detroit lost Game 6 and, eventually, the series, but Thomas' 43 points in Game 6 weren't to blame.

Tiger Woods, U.S. Open, June 12-16, 2008, Torrey Pines Golf Course

Injury: Woods injured his knee before finishing second in the Masters that April, then underwent surgery on the torn ACL in his left knee. It was also revealed that Woods was suffering from two stress fractures in his lower leg, severely hobbling him and putting the U.S. Open in jeopardy.

Was he removed from the competition? Doctors advised Woods to skip the U.S. Open to rehab his knee and leg, but Tiger refused that advice. After some rough rounds with a knee brace, Woods scrapped the brace and entered the Open without any medical assistance.

Performance upon returning: Woods double-bogeyed the first hole three times, but he gutted out a legendary performance to force an 18-hole playoff with Rocco Mediate. Woods and Mediate had to play another hole after that, a hole that Woods parred after Mediate bogeyed to give Tiger his 14th (and most current) major victory.

Related Video