Comeback Athletes

On June 29, 2011, news broke that Tiger Woods had secured an endorsement deal with Kowa Company Ltd., the Japanese manufacturer of Valentin Kowa pain relieving heat rub. It’s his first deal since the very embarrassing sex scandal that broke in December 2009 and cost him his marriage, his squeaky-clean image and four of his sponsors. When news of his personal troubles spilled into the public eye, Accenture, AT&T and Gatorade terminated their sponsorship deals with him, and Gillette allowed their
Streeter Lecka | Getty Images

On June 29, 2011, news broke that Tiger Woods had secured an endorsement deal with Kowa Company Ltd., the Japanese manufacturer of Valentin Kowa pain relieving heat rub. It’s his first deal since the very embarrassing sex scandal that broke in December 2009 and cost him his marriage, his squeaky-clean image and four of his sponsors. When news of his personal troubles spilled into the public eye, Accenture, AT&T and Gatorade terminated their sponsorship deals with him, and Gillette allowed their agreement with him to lapse, hitting the athlete’s $90 million endorsement portfolio hard. The new deal is a three-year agreement that includes advertisements online, in print and on television, and although the price of the deal has not been disclosed, it nonetheless represents sorely needed good news for the golfer. However, it remains to be seen whether or not it’s the beginning of a comeback.

Comebacks are by no means guaranteed. The list of athletes who have retired and then returned with disappointing results is long. Swimming legend Mark Spitz won nine gold medals at the 1972 Olympics, but when he attempted a comeback 20 years later he failed to meet the minimum qualifying time. Tennis great Bjorn Borg won 11 Grand Slam titles before retiring at the age of 26, but when he attempted a comeback eight years later he was beaten effortlessly by 52nd place holder Jordi Arrese. Even Muhammad Ali wasn’t exempt. When “The Greatest” attempted a comeback in 1980, he was defeated by Larry Holmes, and it wasn’t long before he was forced to face reality and walk away.

If this is, in fact, a comeback for Woods, it be remarkable, as it would be the second time his career has rebounded from a potentially fatal blow. In 2008, just two days after winning the US Open, he announced that he was scheduled to undergo knee surgery for a damaged anterior cruciate ligament. The timing would cause him to miss the Open Championship and the PGA Championship, but more worrisome was the effect that it could have on his career. A damaged ACL is a common athletic injury that has taken many pros off the field permanently. However, Woods came back to the links in 2009 and finished in second place in the PGA championship. Whether his luck holds out a second time is an open question. But if he does, he would rejoin an assortment of athletes who recaptured their former glory after physical injuries, messy scandals and even jail time.

Click ahead to see the athletes who defied logic and came back to their respective sports after conventional wisdom pronounced their careers dead and buried.

By Daniel Bukszpan
Posted 30 June 2011

Michael Jordan

Michael Jordan has been declared nothing less than the greatest basketball player of all time. In 1993, he made the very surprising announcement that he was retiring from the game. It was surprising because he was at his peak as a player, the recipient of copious individual and team honors, and in top physical condition. It was also surprising because he was leaving the basketball court to pursue a career in baseball.Jordan intended to pay his dues, so he started at the bottom and signed a minor
Brian A. Westerholt | Getty Images

Michael Jordan has been declared nothing less than the greatest basketball player of all time. In 1993, he made the very surprising announcement that he was retiring from the game. It was surprising because he was at his peak as a player, the recipient of copious individual and team honors, and in top physical condition. It was also surprising because he was leaving the basketball court to pursue a career in baseball.

Jordan intended to pay his dues, so he started at the bottom and signed a minor league contract with the Chicago White Sox. Unfortunately, his performance on the baseball field was underwhelming, prompting his return to the Chicago Bulls in 1995. Despite his absence of a year and a half from basketball, he played as though he had never left, and in the 1995-1996 season he led the Bulls to a 72-10 record, the best in the history of the National Basketball Association.

Kim Clijsters

Kim Clijsters is a Belgian tennis player and the current singles champion of both the US Open and the Australian Open. She has won over 50 Women’s Tennis Association titles in both singles and doubles, and she is also the winner of four Grand Slam titles. However, in 2007 she announced her immediate retirement from the sport, cutting the season short and hanging up her racket age the ripe old age of 23.Clijsters settled down, got married and gave birth to a daughter in 2008, but she couldn’t res
Clive Brunskill | Getty Images

Kim Clijsters is a Belgian tennis player and the current singles champion of both the US Open and the Australian Open. She has won over 50 Women’s Tennis Association titles in both singles and doubles, and she is also the winner of four Grand Slam titles. However, in 2007 she announced her immediate retirement from the sport, cutting the season short and hanging up her racket age the ripe old age of 23.

Clijsters settled down, got married and gave birth to a daughter in 2008, but she couldn’t resist the siren call of the tennis court, so in 2009 she announced her return to the sport. It was a tall order, as in the intervening years she had lost her ranking and wasn’t qualified to play in the US Open. However, she entered as a wildcard, and in defiance of all logic and probability she won the tournament. She credited the experience of pregnancy with strengthening her game.

Mario Lemieux

Mario Lemieux is considered one of the greatest players in hockey history. During 17 seasons as a player, he led the Pittsburgh Penguins to Stanley Cup victories twice, won three Hart Trophies and six Art Ross trophies. However, the regular punishment he took on the ice exacted a severe toll on his body, and he was racked with physical ailments, including back pain so severe that he had to have someone else tie his skates for him.His various injuries paled in comparison to the diagnosis he recei
Jamie Squire | Getty Images

Mario Lemieux is considered one of the greatest players in hockey history. During 17 seasons as a player, he led the Pittsburgh Penguins to Stanley Cup victories twice, won three Hart Trophies and six Art Ross trophies. However, the regular punishment he took on the ice exacted a severe toll on his body, and he was racked with physical ailments, including back pain so severe that he had to have someone else tie his skates for him.

His various injuries paled in comparison to the diagnosis he received of non-Hodgkins lymphoma, for which he underwent radiation treatment while still an active player. He finally retired in 1997, and the following year, the team declared bankruptcy after years of mismanagement. Lemieux saved the day by buying the team, and incredibly, he came out of retirement in 2000 to become the first player-owner in the history of the game. He played for six more seasons before finally retiring for good.

Kelly Slater

Kelly Slater is the most successful professional surfer in history. He has won the Association of Surfing Professionals World Championship 10 times, including five consecutive wins between 1994 and 1998. He began winning championships in his teens, and when he won his first ASP World Championship title, he was 20 years old, making him the youngest person ever to win it. However, in 1999, he ditched it all for acting and retired to join the cast of .Slater’s infatuation with acting was short-live
Steve Robertson | Getty Images

Kelly Slater is the most successful professional surfer in history. He has won the Association of Surfing Professionals World Championship 10 times, including five consecutive wins between 1994 and 1998. He began winning championships in his teens, and when he won his first ASP World Championship title, he was 20 years old, making him the youngest person ever to win it. However, in 1999, he ditched it all for acting and retired to join the cast of Baywatch.

Slater’s infatuation with acting was short-lived, and he left the show after one season. In 2003 he decided to come out of retirement and return to his beloved sport, and he quickly took back his place in the ranks of its greatest achievers. He won further ASP titles in 2005, 2006 and 2008, and in 2010 he won it for the tenth time. This was an unprecedented feat, made sweeter by the fact that he won it at 38 years old, making him the oldest person ever to win the title.

Michael Vick

Michael Vick played six seasons as quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons. He was drafted in 2001, and the team saw dividends immediately as Vick excelled on the field time and time again. However, in 2007, he was implicated in an illegal dog fighting ring that had operated across state lines, and he went to prison for almost two years. Conventional wisdom held that his career was probably over.Controversially, Vick was signed to a one-year contract with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2009. Not only di
Al Bello | Getty Images

Michael Vick played six seasons as quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons. He was drafted in 2001, and the team saw dividends immediately as Vick excelled on the field time and time again. However, in 2007, he was implicated in an illegal dog fighting ring that had operated across state lines, and he went to prison for almost two years. Conventional wisdom held that his career was probably over.

Controversially, Vick was signed to a one-year contract with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2009. Not only did he play up to his old standards, but in January 2010 he threw a 76-yard touchdown pass, the longest of his career. He became the team’s starting quarterback that September, and in the team placed their franchise tag on him. But although Vick has been welcomed back into the fold of the NFL, he still has a long way to go to rehabilitate his public image.

George Foreman

People who only know George Foreman as that nice man on TV who sells the grills will no doubt be shocked to find out that he was once considered one of the most ferocious punchers in boxing history. The two-time World Heavyweight Champion first won the title in 1973, just a few days after his 24th birthday. However, in 1974 he fought Muhammad Ali in Zaire, in a fight dubbed “The Rumble in the Jungle,” and he was beaten with an 8th round knockout so humiliating that Foreman disappeared from the s
Ferdaus Shamim | Getty Images

People who only know George Foreman as that nice man on TV who sells the grills will no doubt be shocked to find out that he was once considered one of the most ferocious punchers in boxing history. The two-time World Heavyweight Champion first won the title in 1973, just a few days after his 24th birthday. However, in 1974 he fought Muhammad Ali in Zaire, in a fight dubbed “The Rumble in the Jungle,” and he was beaten with an 8th round knockout so humiliating that Foreman disappeared from the sport for two years. He returned in 1976 but in 1977 he stopped boxing entirely and became an ordained minister.

Foreman announced his return to boxing in 1987. Then 38 years old, he was already one year older than Jersey Joe Walcott had been when he became the oldest man ever to become heavyweight champion. However, in 1994, he fought Michael Moorer, a man almost two decades younger than him, and scored a tenth-round knockout. At age 45, George Foreman had become the oldest heavyweight champion in history, a feat that stands to this day.

Josh Hamilton

Outfielder Josh Hamilton plays for the Texas Rangers. He started his baseball career in 1999 with the Tampa Bay Rays and the tantalizing prospect of a career in the majors, but in 2001 he was involved in a serious car accident. He suffered a major back injury that threw into question whether he would ever play baseball again, and worse yet, that ultimately stopped him from playing until 2006.Hamilton achieved sobriety in 2007. After one season with the Cincinatti Reds he was traded to the Texas
Stephen Dunn | Getty Images

Outfielder Josh Hamilton plays for the Texas Rangers. He started his baseball career in 1999 with the Tampa Bay Rays and the tantalizing prospect of a career in the majors, but in 2001 he was involved in a serious car accident. He suffered a major back injury that threw into question whether he would ever play baseball again, and worse yet, he developed problems with alcohol and crack that ultimately stopped him from playing until 2006.

Hamilton achieved sobriety in 2007. After one season with the Cincinatti Reds he was traded to the Texas Rangers, and in 2008 he made the All-Star team, a feat he repeated the following year and the year after that. In October 2010, he was chosen as the Most Valuable Player of the 2010 American League Championship Series, and one month later he won the American League Most Valuable Player award.

Kobe Bryant

NBA player Kobe Bryant is a shooting guard for the Los Angeles Lakers. He was selected by the Charlotte Hornets in the 1996 NBA Draft and traded to Los Angeles, where he quickly endeared himself to the team’s fans. Alongside Shaquille O’Neal, he helped lead the team to three consecutive NBA championships.In 2003, Bryant was accused of sexually assaulting an employee at a Colorado hotel. The accuser refused to testify, and the case was dropped in 2004, but Bryant’s reputation was ruined, he had l
Ronald Martinez | Getty Images

NBA player Kobe Bryant is a shooting guard for the Los Angeles Lakers. He was selected by the Charlotte Hornets in the 1996 NBA Draft and traded to Los Angeles, where he quickly endeared himself to the team’s fans. Alongside Shaquille O’Neal, he helped lead the team to three consecutive NBA championships.

In 2003, Bryant was accused of sexually assaulting an employee at a Colorado hotel. The accuser refused to testify, and the case was dropped in 2004, but Bryant’s reputation was ruined, he had lost many of his endorsement deals and he had to rebuild his name from scratch. He did so with gusto, leading his team to consecutive championships in 2009 and 2010. Today he is the all-time leading scorer in the history of the Lakers, and in 2009 The Sporting News named him Player of the Decade.

Lance Armstrong

Lance Armstrong is a former professional cyclist. He competed in the 1992 Summer Olympics and won multiple events in 1993, including ten different single-day events. That was also the first year that he competed in the Tour de France, but his 97th place finish was not particularly impressive. However, he kept competing and his performance kept improving.In 1996, the 25-year-old cyclist was diagnosed with stage three testicular cancer, which had already spread to his brain and lungs. The athlete
Bryn Lennon | Getty Images

Lance Armstrong is a former professional cyclist. He competed in the 1992 Summer Olympics and won multiple events in 1993, including ten different single-day events. That was also the first year that he competed in the Tour de France, but his 97th place finish was not particularly impressive. However, he kept competing and his performance kept improving.

In 1996, the 25-year-old cyclist was diagnosed with stage three testicular cancer, which had already spread to his brain and lungs. The athlete had little choice but to forge ahead with an exhausting regimen of chemotherapy and drugs, but when he did the cancer went into full remission, and he made his return to professional cycling in 1998. In 1999 he participated in the Tour de France and came in first place, which he would do again six more times consecutively, a record that no one has broken since.

Monica Seles

Monica Seles is a former professional tennis player. Born in Serbia, she was the youngest person ever to win the French Open, doing so in 1990 at the age of 16. She was the number one female player in the world in 1991 and 1992 and she is the winner of nine Grand Slam singles titles altogether.In April 1993, a deranged man named Gunter Parche emerged from the crowd in the middle of a game in Germany and stabbed Seles in the back. Her injuries healed quickly, but it was two years before she would
Clive Rose | Getty Images

Monica Seles is a former professional tennis player. Born in Serbia, she was the youngest person ever to win the French Open, doing so in 1990 at the age of 16. She was the number one female player in the world in 1991 and 1992 and she is the winner of nine Grand Slam singles titles altogether.

In April 1993, a deranged man named Gunter Parche emerged from the crowd in the middle of a game in Germany and stabbed Seles in the back. Her injuries healed quickly, but it was two years before she would return to the sport. Seles came back in 1995 and won the Canadian Open, then won the Australian Open in 1996. She was elected to the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2009.

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