Philadelphia

Tim Tebow's release and other memorable athletic comeback bids

Philadelphia

The comeback is always stronger than the setback.

Athletes regularly make inspiring comebacks, whether a healthy return after injury or a return to glory after ineffectiveness. Tim Tebow's return to the NFL playing field was cut short Tuesday morning when the Jacksonville Jaguars released the converted tight end after one preseason game. Like Tebow, these athletes endured a more unusual hiatus from the sport they played. Some were forced to leave because of a life-threatening diagnosis, others went to serve their country, some made poor decisions that paused their career, a few simply wanted to play a different sport.

Whatever the reason for their departure, all eventually made their way back. Here are some of sports most memorable hiatuses:

Tim Tebow

There's only one professional athlete who has gone from being a star quarterback, to a minor league baseball player, to a tight end.

Most QBs selected in the first round of the NFL draft spend a few games holding a clipboard on the sideline before taking over the starting job in what becomes a long career in the league. Things began that way for Tebow after being drafted by the Denver Broncos with the No. 25 overall pick in 2010. He got some starts late in his rookie season, had a thrilling game-winning touchdown pass in the playoffs and enjoyed mild success in his second year.

 

Then things started getting weird.

The Broncos signed Peyton Manning and traded Tebow to the New York Jets, where he attempted eight passes and was used mostly on special teams. After being cut by the Jets in 2013, Tebow got a chance with the New England Patriots but was cut just before the regular season. Tebow gave it another shot with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2015, and was cut after playing in all four preseason games. He wouldn't be back in a helmet and pads for a long time.

Tebow spent the next four years playing minor league baseball in the New York Mets organization, where in 306 games he hit .222 with 18 home runs and 109 RBIs. He retired from professional baseball in February, and now three months later, signed a one-year deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars to return to the NFL, play a new position at 33 years old, and end a six-year hiatus.

Michael Jordan

Tim Tebow isn't the first athlete to leave one sport and go play minor league baseball. 

Michael Jordan did so in the prime of his career, just months after winning a third straight championship. He retired from the NBA at 30 years old to play Double A baseball in the Chicago White Sox organization, hitting .202 with 3 home runs, 51 RBIs and 30 stolen bases in 127 games. After missing a season and a half with the Chicago Bulls, he returned and went on to win three more championships. 

That was the first of two NBA hiatuses for Jordan, who again would return in 2001 after a three-year second retirement to play for the Washington Wizards.  

 

Lance Armstrong

Armstrong was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 1996, and not only made a healthy return to cycling but became a worldwide source of inspiration after winning the Tour de France for seven straight years from 1999 to 2005. 

Armstrong’s legacy was later tarnished after a steroid scandal resulted in him being stripped of his victories. 

Rocky Bleier

One of the few professional athletes who have earned both a Super Bowl ring and a Purple Heart. 

The Notre Dame halfback was drafted by the Steelers in 1968, and then by the U.S. Army the following year during the Vietnam War. While on patrol, Bleier was shot in the leg just before a grenade exploded nearby, sending shrapnel into his leg. Doctors informed him he’d never play football again. By 1971, he was back with the Steelers playing special teams and then, in 1974, earned a starting job. He went on to rush for 3,865 yards in his career and won four Super Bowls. 

Ben Hogan

Hogan, the top golfer at the time, suffered a series of injuries after his car was struck head-on by a Greyhound bus in a near-fatal accident in 1949. 

Hogan’s injuries, according to Golf Digest, included a broken ankle, broken collarbone, cracked rib, leg contusions, double fracture of the pelvis, a head abrasion and internal injuries. Survival was in question, walking again was in doubt. Hogan won the 1950 U.S. Open just 16 months after the accident. In 1953, he captured the Triple Crown of Golf -- The Masters, The U.S. Open and The Open Championship. Six of Hogan’s nine career major wins came after the accident.

Muhammad Ali

Ali was suspended from boxing and stripped of his heavyweight title after refusing induction into the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War in 1967 for religious reasons. Convicted of draft evasion, Ali was sentenced to five years in prison (which he avoided after an appeal) and fined $10,000. 

He returned to the ring in 1970, knocking out Jerry Quarry, and later went on to become boxing’s first three-time heavyweight champion.

 

Magic Johnson

The basketball world was shocked by Magic’s sudden retirement at the age of 32 after he tested positive for the HIV virus in 1991. 

Johnson made an honorary return during the 1992 NBA All-Star Game, where he’d be named MVP, and then made his way back to the sidelines as Lakers head coach at the end of the 1993-1994 season, going 5-11. Johnson was back on the court with the Lakers during the 1995-1996 season at the age of 36, averaging 14.6 points 6.9 assists and 5.7 rebounds in 32 games as he got the opportunity to go out on his own terms.

Bethany Hamilton

At the age of 13, Hamilton’s dreams of becoming a professional surfer were in doubt after she was attacked by a 14-foot tiger shark while surfing in Hawaii, severing her left arm. 

She taught herself how to surf with one arm and was back on a board less than a month after the incident. Within two years, she would capture her first national surfing title. 

Ted Williams

In 1942, Ted Williams won the American League Triple Crown and joined the Navy with the hope of becoming a fighter pilot. Williams, in the discussion for the greatest hitter of all time with a .344 batting average and 521 home runs, missed three seasons in the prime of his career to serve in the military during World War II. Williams returned to baseball for the 1946 season and was named Most Valuable Player after hitting .342 with 38 home runs and 123 RBIs. 

His playing career again was interrupted during the 1952 season after he was recalled to serve in the Korean War, where he flew 39 combat missions with the Marine Aircraft Group 33, twice having his plane damaged by ground fire. 

He missed most of the 1952 and 1953 seasons, before hitting .345 with 29 home runs and 89 RBIs in 1954.

Yogi Berra

Berra is best remembered for having won 10 World Series with the Yankees and for his Yogisms. Not mentioned often enough is the role he served in the military. 

In 1943, after his first year in the minor leagues, Berra was drafted into the Navy and volunteered for a secret mission. On that mission, he helped pilot rocket boats during the United States’ invasion of Normandy on D-Day, firing at -- and drawing fire from -- the enemy to allow U.S. troops to storm Omaha Beach. 

 

Berra went on to collect 2,150 major league hits, 358 home runs and three MVP awards.

Bob Feller

Cleveland Indians’ Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller, after leading the league in wins for three seasons, enlisted in the Navy the day after Japan’s attack Pearl Harbor. 

He missed nearly four full seasons and spent more than two years aboard the USS Alabama. In his first full season after returning from combat, Feller went 26-15 with a career-low 2.18 ERA.

Mario Lemieux

When Mario Lemieux retired at age 31 in 1997, the NHL waived its customary three-year waiting period and immediately inducted him into the Hall of Fame. Deserving as the honor was, they probably should have waited. 

Lemieux had made comebacks before, most notably after missing the entire 1994-1995 season because of Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He had another successful one in him -- returning in 2000 at the age of 35. Just 33 seconds into his first shift, he assisted on a goal by Jaromir Jagr and would later add a goal and another assist. He went on to tally 35 goals and 41 assists in 43 games that season as runner-up for the Hart Memorial Trophy. 

Monica Seles

Monica Seles, while still a teenager, won eight Grand Slam events.

That included becoming the youngest French Open champion at the age of 16. In 1991, at the age of 18, she overtook Steffi Graf the world’s No. 1 women’s tennis player during a dominant two-year run. In April of 1993, while still the sport’s top-ranked player, Seles was stabbed between the shoulder blades by an obsessive Graf fan in Hamburg, Germany. Seles suffered a roughly half-inch wound that required surgery, but the psychological impact also took a toll and she wouldn’t play competitive tennis for two years. 

Seles returned in 1995 and went on to win the 1996 Australian Open, her ninth and final Grand Slam title.  

Tommy John

Many baseball fans are familiar with Tommy John surgery. Not as many are as familiar with Tommy John, the baseball player. 

The left-handed pitcher had won 124 games in the majors, and was 13-3 during the 1974 season with the Dodgers, when he tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow. Dr. Frank Jobe performed an innovative and career-saving ligament replacement surgery on John, using a tendon from elsewhere in the body to replace the torn ligament. John missed the entire 1975 season before going 10-10 with a 3.09 ERA in 1976. The following season was the finest of his 26-year career as he went 20-7 with a 2.78 ERA and finished second in NL Cy Young voting.

 

John, after the surgery, spent 18 more seasons in the majors before retiring in 1989 at age 46 with a career record of 288-231. 

Tommy John surgery is now commonplace for pitchers, with the man’s name associated with successful athlete comebacks. 

George Foreman

Long before becoming a beloved TV pitchman, the Olympic gold medalist and former heavyweight champion first retired from boxing in 1977 to be an ordained minister. 

He made his return to the ring 10 years later at age 38 -- and at nearly 300 pounds, put the heavy in heavyweight. He defeated Steve Zouski in a fourth round stoppage in what would be the first of 20 straight wins for Foreman. In 1994, at age 45, Foreman knocked out the 26-year old, undefeated Michael Moorer to become boxing’s oldest heavyweight champion.

Greg Lemond

Greg Lemond in 1986 became the first American to win the Tour de France. 

A year later he was accidentally shot in a near-fatal hunting accident, which left buckshot in his liver, kidneys, intestines, heart lining, back and legs. By 1989, he was back in the Tour de France, making a dramatic comeback on the final day of the three-week race to win by eight seconds. He captured a third Tour de France win in 1990. 

Andre Agassi

Andre Agassi went from being the No. 1 men’s tennis player in the world to No. 141.

That was during a tumultuous two-year span from 1995 to 1997 that included a wrist injury, trouble in his marriage with actress Brooke Shields, and the admitted use of crystal methamphetamine. He focused on his recovery and would have a dominant four-year stretch, reclaiming the No. 1 ranking along the way. In the 1999 French Open, he became just the fifth male tennis player at the time to win all four Grand Slam singles titles.   

Michael Vick

Michael Vick revolutionized the quarterback position early in his career.

The No. 1 overall pick in the 2001 draft made three Pro Bowls over his first six seasons with the Atlanta Falcons. He would miss the next two seasons after being suspended by the NFL indefinitely after pleading guilty to federal charges for his role in a dogfighting enterprise. Vick spent 19 months in prison and was released by the Falcons. 

 

Vick returned for the 2009 season after signing with the Philadelphia Eagles. He made his fourth Pro Bowl in 2010 after throwing for 3,018 passing yards and a career-high 21 touchdowns to go with 676 yards on the ground and nine rushing TDs. Vick, after his two-year absence, spent seven more seasons in the NFL.   

Gordie Howe

A 43-year-old Gordie Howe announced his retirement in 1971 after 25 years with the Detroit Red Wings. But there was still plenty of hockey left in … well, “Mr. Hockey.”

Howe came out of retirement in 1973 to sign with the Houston Aeros of the newly-formed World Hockey Association and tallied 31 goals and 69 assists en route to winning MVP. The Aeros won the league championship. Howe spent six seasons in the WHA, later signing with the New England Whalers. After the NHL-WHA merger, Howe returned to the NHL with the Hartford Whalers for the 1979-1980 season, becoming the oldest player in NHL history at 52 years old. That season, during which he played in the NHL in his fifth different decade, he had 15 goals and 26 assists. 

Tiger Woods

It seemed Tiger Woods would get no closer to Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major victories. 

Woods had captured 14 majors by the age of 33 before the beginning of a downfall that included marital issues and lingering injuries. Woods underwent spinal fusion surgery in 2017, the fourth procedure on his back. Woods played in his first tournament less than eight months later, shooting a final-round 68 to finish ninth in the Hero World Challenge. Woods took part in his first PGA Tour event the following month. Then in his fourth start since surgery, he was one shot off the lead to take second place, his best finish since 2013. A few months later, he finished second in the PGA Championship. The following month, he captured the 80th PGA Tour victory of his career by winning the Tour Championship at East Lake as the comeback continued to gain steam.

In April of 2019, just over two years after having spinal surgery, Woods ended an 11-year major drought by winning The Masters by one stroke for his 15th major title.

Woods is now working towards another comeback after suffering multiple leg and ankle injuries in a single-car accident in February 2021.

 

Mike Gavin contributed to this story.