Coming back from an injury or rough day at the office can be challenging for your average Joe. With that in mind, one can imagine how difficult it is for premier athletes to return to elite condition after a disappointing or injured season.
With all the odds stacked against them, many players across sports have overcome adversity and returned to elite performance. The NFL and MLB recognize these feel-good returns with an award unlike any other: the Comeback Player of the Year Award. The NBA stopped giving out this award in the mid-1980s, and the award has now been replaced with the Most Improved Player Award.
Let’s take a look back and appreciate the past winners of this award across the NFL, MLB, and NBA.
The Unstoppable Comeback Kid
The inaugural NFL Comeback Player of the Year Award was given to Earl Morrall, best remembered for leading the Baltimore Colts to a Super Bowl victory in 1971. Morrall continued this knack of spectacular backup work the following year with the Miami Dolphins. Morrall’s age of 38 made him a tough sell, and he ended up being claimed off waivers by the Dolphins. Despite bouncing from team to team, Morrall persevered and led the Dolphins to a perfect regular season after starting quarterback Bob Griese sustained injuries.
A name from this timeline that doesn’t need much introduction is Joe Montana. Whether you’re familiar with football, you’ve likely heard of one of the greatest football players to ever grace the gridiron. However, “The Comeback Kid” may have never earned his nickname if he had taken doctors’ advice. Physicians told Montana that he should consider retirement after suffering a gruesome back injury in 1986. Montana returned to the NFL only two months later, and football fans around the world rejoiced. After suffering what was once thought to be a career-ending injury, Joe Cool carried the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl in 1989 and 1990. Montana is the epitome of perseverance and dedication.
Due to the competitive and physical nature of the sport, the NFL has seen a number of its players overcome adversity. More recent examples include Peyton Manning’s 4,600-yard season following neck surgery and Eric Berry’s return from cancer.
Never Count Chris Out
The MLB’s spring training, a 162-game regular season and postseason forces players to stay in season-form nearly the entire year. Considering the longevity of many players’ careers, it’s entirely expected for players to have multiple injuries over time. Naturally, the MLB recognizes those who have overcome a poor performance or injury for a full season with their own award.
Chris Carpenter, a former St. Louis Cardinals flamethrower, faced every pitcher’s worst nightmare: arm injuries. The only thing scarier than an injury? Recurring arm injuries.
The MLB only began officially presenting the Comeback Player of the Year Award in 2005, but it’s not far-fetched to believe that Chris Carpenter could have been the first two-time winner if they began just a year sooner. Carpenter overcame a shoulder surgery that sidelined him for the 2003 season and finished with the 13th best ERA in the NL in 2004. Additionally, Carpenter missed nearly two seasons due to elbow and shoulder injuries later in his career but made another heroic return in 2009 – finishing with an NL best 2.24 ERA.
Buster Posey’s return from an ACL tear to win an MVP award and World Series championship and Mariano Rivera’s return from injury in his retirement season with a 2.11 ERA highlights some of the most electric returns in recent history.
The Career of a King
Although the NBA hasn’t distributed nearly as many Comeback Player of the Year awards as the NFL or MLB, its five-year lifespan provides many inspiring stories.
Bernard King appeared in only 19 games of the 1979-80 season due to treatment for substance misuse. After this disappointing season from the budding star, King was shipped off to the Golden State. He didn’t let lowered expectations or a new environment bring down his performance, though. Instead, King averaged a respectable 21.9 points per game while maintaining a .588 field goal percentage.
King was dealt again after his 1980-81 season, this time to the New York Knicks. Ironically, the Knicks gave the Warriors a young Micheal Ray Richardson, who would later go on to claim one of the five Comeback Player of the Year awards given after King’s historic 1980-81 season. The year King secured this prestigious accolade award wasn’t the only time his tenacity inched him closer to his Hall-of-Fame career. King missed the entire 1985-86 season with an ACL tear, but once again returned the following season. His post ACL-tear ascent was complete once he reached the all-star team in 1991.
Rise Up to the Challenge
While your favorite players face challenges on the field, you can cheer them on by picking up their official gear at Fanatics.com.