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Top 10 Gutsiest Sports Performances Of All-Time

Michael Jordan was one of the gutsiest of all-time. (Creative Commons)
Michael Jordan was one of the gutsiest of all-time. (Creative Commons)
It could have been heroic. If anything, inspiring.

Instead, it was pathetic.

With the Super Bowl on the line, Jay Cutler sat on the bench sullen and defeated last weekend. In the meantime, his backup tried desperately to lead the Bears to victory over the Packers. Cutler couldn’t play with a bum knee, but neither did he cheer for his teammate.

After the game, fans burned his jersey. Fellow NFL players trashed him on Twitter. Many questioned his heart.

What separates the Cutlers from the Kellen Winslows? The Michael Jordans? The Greats?

Winslow needed to be carried off the field after one of the greatest single-game efforts in NFL history. Willis Reed needed a pain-injection just to get on the court. Jordan “could have died for a basketball game,” he said after “The Flu Game.” 

They are just a few of the most heroic efforts in sports history.

So, in honor of the dishonorable Cutler, and for your enjoyment, here is the Neon Tommy sports staff’s Top 10 Gutsiest Performances in Sports History:


10. Kerri Strug

Kerri Strug’s vault-landing at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics is often cited as one of the greatest moments in sports history. Strug fell during the landing of her first attempt at the vault in team competition, badly injuring her ankle in the process (it turned out later she had suffered a third degree lateral strain). It seemed at first that she wouldn't have to vault again, that the U.S. could clinch gold against the Russians without a second vault from her, but rules dictated that she had to go again.

Noticeably hurt, Strug pulled through her pain and completed her second attempt, landing cleanly and guaranteeing a gold medal for her team. Immediately after her successful landing, she fell to her hands and knees, no longer able to walk. Strug showed the world what it takes to be a champion — never giving up, no matter what.

Sarah Sotoodeh


9. Byron Leftwich

Nov. 2, 2002 -- In a battle of future NFL starting quarterbacks, Charlie Frye commandeered his Akron Zips to a 34-20 home victory over the Byron Leftwich-led Marshall Thundering Herd.

The result of this 2002 MAC regular season game has become secondary to the enduring image of Leftwich being carried down the field by offensive linemen Steve Perretta and Steve Sciullo. Leftwich had his left shin broken after a hit in the first quarter, but he stayed in the game to finish a touchdown drive. After a trip to the hospital for x-rays, the senior quarterback returned in the third quarter. Limping and needing assistance to the line of scrimmage by his teammates, Leftwich went 14-of-24 for 108 passing yards in the second half.

James Santelli


8. Philip Rivers

One of the cockiest quarterbacks in the history of the NFL, Philip Rivers has never been a favorite of the fans or the players as far as his attitude is concerned. However, nobody, and we mean nobody, can question his toughness and his passion for the game.

During the Chargers’ AFC Divisional playoff matchup against the Indianapolis Colts in 2008, Rivers hurt his knee and was unable to finish the game. It turns out he had a partially torn ACL. However, the following day, Rivers underwent arthroscopic surgery to fix whatever he could and started the AFC Championship game the following Sunday, playing the entire game.

The Chargers ended up losing to the Patriots, but the physical and mental toughness that Rivers showed was more than enough for him to earn the respect of his peers and fans alike. Being able to play with a torn ACL — risking his career for his team — showed just how tough and passionate Rivers truly is.

Victor Marticorena


7. Kellen Winslow

He needed help getting off the field.

His opponents needed help on it.

In one of the greatest single-game efforts of all time, Kellen Winslow — not the punk that currently plays for the Bucs; rather, the Senior, the one who played for the San Diego Chargers — single-handedly beat the Miami Dolphins in 1982 in what is known as “The Epic in Miami.”

The Hall of Fame five-time Pro Bowler caught 13 passes for 166 yards with a touchdown, and also blocked a field goal in the waning seconds of regulation to ensure overtime.

But it gets better. He did it after enduring cramps, dehydration, three stitches to his lower lip and a pinched nerve in his shoulder.

Afterward, his teammates carried him off the field in what is one of the more famous photos in football history.

Dan Watson


6. Ronnie Lott

Have you ever played football with nine fingers?  Well, Ronnie Lott can say he did.

Lott, the former USC All-American who was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers in 1981 and helped the team win Super Bowl XVI the same year, was one of the best and most feared defensive players in the league. In a 1985 game against the Dallas Cowboys, Lott had pinky crushed during a play and wasn’t expected to return to the field anytime soon.

Instead of sitting out the rest of the game and having surgery on his finger later like a normal player would, Lott sucked it up and got back on the field. In the offseason, the finger had to be amputated, but Lott finished the game with, essentially, nine fingers. He was a warrior. Nothing could keep him away from the field.

Lott continued to play and earned two more Super Bowl rings without a 10th finger. After retiring from the NFL, Lott was voted into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility (2000). He is undoubtedly one of the best players of all time.

Regina Graham

5. Clint Malarchuk

Hockey is known for being a rough and tumble sport, but there aren’t many injuries worse than having your neck slashed open by a skate.

That is exactly what happened to Clint Malarchuk on March 22, 1989. The Buffalo Sabres’ goalie was defending his net when some of the visiting St. Louis Blues got tangled in front of it. A skate severed Malarchuk’s internal jugular vein, spilling blood all over the ice.

The team trainer ran to his side and, based on instinct and army medic training, reached into Malarchuk’s neck and pinched the vein shut till doctors were able to begin applying stitches.

Three hundred stitches and four days later, Malarchuk was back on the ice for practice. One week later, he was back in net against the Quebec Nordiques.

Beware: The video below is not for the faint of heart.

Sara Ramsey


4. Curt Schilling

Orel Hershiser isn’t in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Neither is Tommy John. But Curt Schilling’s bloody sock? Yes, that’s on a shelf in Cooperstown.

It was 2004; it was the ALCS; it was Red Sox vs. Yankees. Schilling was pitching on a torn ankle tendon and had a dismal Game 1 start. When he took the mound again for Game 6, Boston was halfway through its historic comeback to take the series. 

Talk about pressure. 

So Schilling had the ankle temporarily sutured. By the time he had pitched six shutout innings to lead the Sox to victory, his sock was half soaked with blood.

And he didn’t stop there. Schilling entered Game 2 of the ensuing World Series with fresh stitches. Those didn’t hold either, and as he pitched through seven innings, allowing just one hit, the (literal) bloodbath continued.        

The Red Sox won that championship, of course, and Schilling donated Sock No. 2 to the Hall of Fame. Whether he and his sock will be blood brothers in the Hall remains to be seen.  

Kate Rooney


3. Michael Jordan

When he collapsed into Scottie Pippen’s arms, Michael Jordan was on the brink of fainting.

But who could blame him?

After Jordan was told by trainers he would not be able to play after complaining of severe flu-like symptoms the morning of Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals, he yet again defied the odds and rose from the dead to lead the Bulls to an all-important victory over the Jazz.

During the game, Jordan noticeably lacked his typical quickness and that led to a 16-point lead by the Jazz. It wasn't until the second quarter that Jordan got his swagger back. He scored 17 points in that quarter to cut the lead to four going into the half. In the third quarter, Jordan again looked on the verge of death but as the fourth quarter began, the Michael Jordan that sports fans admired came to life. He scored 15 in the final quarter and willed the Bulls to beat the Jazz, giving Chicago a 3-2 edge in the series.

His final stat line: 38 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals and one after-game I.V. treatment for dehydration and exhaustion.

— Miles Cooper

2. Kirk Gibson

At times, Kirk Gibson had to use his bat as a walking cane. Not just one but both of his legs were injured. His tenacious, hard-nosed play throughout the 1988 season had broken down his body. He was so beat up that when the Los Angeles Dodgers beat the New York Mets in the National League Championship, manager Tommy Lasorda refused to let Gibson run to the pitcher's mound for the team celebration, fearing he might injure his legs further.

It was doubtful Gibson would even play in the World Series, much less Game 1. After Gibson had to be carted in from the player's parking lot to the locker room, Vin Scully told a national audience, "Well, the man who's been there for the Dodgers all season, Kirk Gibson, is not in the dugout and will not be here for them tonight."

But there was Gibson climbing the dugout steps and limping to the batter's box after Mike Davis drew a walk from Oakland closer Dennis Eckersley. Gibson couldn’t run, but he could still hit. Davis stole second and the Dodgers only needed a single to tie the game. Eckersley missed outside with a backdoor slider, pushing the count to 3-2. Gibson was looking for another backdoor slider. Eckersley fired a slider. It hung over the plate.

"High fly ball into right field, she i-i-i-is... gone!!" Scully exclaimed. He then went silent for over a minute as Gibson fist pumped his way around the bases, celebrating a World Series walk-off home run.

Scully couldn't have summed it up better: "In a year that has been so improbable... the impossible has happened!"

The Dodgers won the series in five games and Gibson was named the Most Valuable Player.

Shotgun Spratling

1. Willis Reed

It was “the one great moment you play for all your life,” he later said. “I didn’t want to have to look at myself in the mirror 20 years later and say I wished I had tried to play.”

Forty-one years later, it stands as one of the most inspiring moments in NBA history.

Having sat out Game 6 of the 1970 NBA Finals, Reed, the league's regular season MVP, received an injection to dull the pain of a torn muscle in his right thigh.

And then, moments before Game 7 started, he limped through the tunnel at Madison Square Garden and into lore. Reed only scored two buckets — the first two for the Knicks — but it was enough to inspire the team to victory and cement his place in sports history.

Dan Watson



Craig Gillespie directed this true story about "the most daring rescue mission in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard.”

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