RealSport Top 10: Athletes who beat the injury bug

Our first RealSport top 10, featuring athletes who suffered through injuries early before going on to forge out a respectable (or remarkable) career.

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(Photo credit: Keith Allison)

We hear every day about athletes who overcame tremendous hardship to go professional in their sport, and rightly so, but how about those who overcame physical hardship when they got there?

Injuries are a slippery slope, as there is more than enough evidence for, and it takes only one for an unlucky athlete to start a treacherous slide down that hill and out of the pros.

Here are 10 athletes who overcame injury troubles through a portion(s) of their career and saw successful afterwards.

Honorable mentions

Pat Cummins, Cricket

After a successful return to test cricket in 2017, including a Man of the Match performance in the Fifth Ashes Test, Pat Cummins looks to have finally beaten the injury bug. Let’s not jinx him though, shall we?

Brent Tate, Rugby

At just 21 years old, it looked like Brent Tate’s rugby career may have been over when he suffered a serious neck injury while playing for Australia. Not even close. Tate went on to play 11 more seasons in the NRL, including 26 caps for his country, all while wearing a supportive neck brace.

10. Benji Marshall, Rugby

A schoolboy prodigy out of the vaunted Keebra Park State High School by way of Whakatane, New Zealand, there was fears Benji Marshall may never reach his full potential when he began to break down with frequent injuries early in his career.

Continual shoulder injuries saw the playmaker miss games in the first seven seasons of his career, and earned him the nickname ‘Benchi Marshall’, for his propensity for the pine.

It was fitting that in 2010, his first injury-free season, Marshall immediately showed the world what he could do on a full tank of gas, winning the Golden Boot for the world’s best player. He’s now into his 16th season at age 32, with 269 appearances.

9. Tomas Rosicky, Soccer

Arguably the greatest soccer player ever to come out of the Czech Republic, Tomas Rosicky seemed to catch the injury bug upon completing a 10 million Euro move to Arsenal from Borussia Dortmund.

Unfortunately, ‘the Little Mozart’ earned just 170 appearance in 10 years in the EPL, struggling with multiple leg issues relating to his thighs, tendons, hamstring, Achilles and knee, the culmination of which forced him into retirement.

Still, he amassed 372 professional appearances across three clubs, and captained his country on his way to 105 games for the Czechs. He also holds the distinction of being the youngest (19) and oldest (35) player to appear for the nation. 

8. Don Mattingly, Baseball

As legend has it, Don Mattingly and fellow New York Yankee Bob Shirley were mucking about in the clubhouse in 1987 when he slipped disks in his back. At the time, Mattingly was a career .323 hitter, with 1,298 hits, including 272 doubles.

The following two seasons, aged 29 and 30, Mattingly showed signs of regression, and by 1990, it was clear he would never reach the lofty goals his earlier career had projected.

Despite no longer being a wizard with the bat, ‘Donnie Baseball’ still had a plus career, winning four Gold Gloves in the second half of his 14 years in MLB. Some even thought Mattingly was the best defender in the league over this period. 

7. Sidney Crosby, Hockey

One of the most sought-after draft picks of all-time, the Pittsburgh Penguins picked Sidney Crosby first overall in 2005, and he promptly put together four 100-point seasons in five years, won a Stanley Cup, and a Hart Trophy.

In 2009, the concussions arrived, as he missed 142 games from 2009-2012. People feared the ailments might plague Crosby for the rest of his career, the way the injury had with so many other hockey superstars.

Fortunately, Crosby got over the symptoms, winning another two Cups, another Hart, and avoiding another concussion until the 2016-17 season. That’s a win, right?

6. Juan Martin del Potro, Tennis

Only three men have defeated Roger Federer in a Grand Slam final: Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Juan Martin del Potro. This is perhaps the most stunning measure of talent possessed by the 29-year-old Argentine.

To cut a long, painful, six-year story short, del Potro’s wrist decided it no longer wanted to play tennis, and in 2010, the 22-year-old world number four fell out of the rankings for the first time.

He’d made his way back to the top-four again by 2014, but this time, his other wrist decided the same, and it would be January 2018 before he’d reach the top-12 again. At 29, and with a Slam and Olympic silver medal, he has plenty of time left.

5. Brett Lee, Cricket

One of two athletes actually to improve after their struggles, Australian cricket player Brett Lee was known for his good looks and 150km/h bowling before back injuries from his junior days first started to give him trouble as a professional in 1997.

Lee struggled with injuries and form issues from his test debut in 1999 until 2004, which threatened to curtail his career, but by 2005 he looked to have finally beaten the problems, and he became one of Australia’s most important bowlers.

Lee’s test career ended in 2008, after anchoring his country through the post-Warne/ McGrath era, but he continued to play internationals through to 2012, and retired from all forms of cricket in 2015, a decade and a half after his injury struggles.

4. Grant Hill, Basketball

Basketball player Grant Hill suffered a similar fate to Mattingly; the first six years of his career yielded 9,393 points, 3,417 rebounds and 2,720 assists, marks eclipsed only by Larry Bird, LeBron James and Oscar Robertson.

However, just one week before the start of the 2000 Playoffs, the Detroit Pistons small forward sprained his ankle – a seemingly innocuous injury at the time, as he continued to play throughout the postseason.

Unfortunately, that injury would keep the 28-year-old out for the majority of the next season. For the remaining 12 seasons of his career, he would eclipse 16.8 points per game only once, but still maintain a double-digit average until his final season.

3. Tommy Haas, Tennis

Tommy Haas’ continual ability to overcome injuries is remarkable. Twice the German has dropped out of the world rankings completely, and twice he has returned to the top-11.

Haas first missed a full season of tennis in 2003 with a major shoulder injury, which kept him out of the top 10 until 2007. He then missed all of 2010, before making it all the way back to number 11 in 2013, and reaching his first French Open quarterfinal.

Haas owns the rare distinction of having made the quarterfinals of every Grand Slam, having made three Australian Open semifinals and once at The Championships, and at age 39, he is still touring. Could he have won a Slam had he stayed healthy?

2. Rick Ankiel, Baseball

Rick Ankiel owns perhaps the most remarkable career in baseball history. He first came up to the Majors in 1999 as a pitcher with the St. Louis Cardinals, and dominated until the 2001 postseason, when he caught the “yips”.

He started 2002 in the Minor Leagues, and attempted to recapture his magic, but after suffering for three years, he decided to switch to the outfield. Ankiel then honed his hitting skills, and in 2007, came back up to the big leagues as a position player.

Ankiel enjoyed success as a hitter, hanging around MLB for another seven seasons and five more teams as a position player. He and Babe Ruth are the only two baseball players in history to win 10 games as a pitcher and hit 50 home runs.

1. Stephen Curry, Basketball

Despite all the incredible athletes on this list, only Stephen Curry has won not one, but two MVP awards after suffering through injuries in the early part of his career.

Plenty of skepticism surrounded Curry when he was picked in the lottery in 2009. The Davidson senior stood at 6 ft 3 and 190 pounds wringing wet, and many thought he would not have the frame to dominate at NBA level.

For the first four seasons of his professional career, the doubters were right, as he earned a reputation for “glass ankles”, missing a career-high 55 games in 2011-12. 

He was back with a vengeance in 2012, broke three-point shooting records the season after, and the rest is history.

Thoughts on the choices? Discuss in the comments below!

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