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Gutsiest Sports Performances of All Time - Part 1

Updated on May 25, 2013
Kirk Gibson
Kirk Gibson | Source

It is hard for people to quantify exactly what the word "gutsy" means in a sports sense. Some think it is about showing fortitude in the face of long odds. Others think is has to do with battling through physical injury. In fact true guts comes from both sides. It is an athlete battling pain and illness under pressure and overcoming it all to prove they are worthy of greatness. Every major sport has seen something like that. So who were the gutsiest of them all?

Baseball – Curt Schilling and The Bloody Sock


Even fans of baseball today will immediately recall the classic moment when Los Angeles Dodgers left fielder Kirk Gibson stepped to the plate against Hall of Fame Oakland A's closer Dennis Eckersley despite a strained left hamstring and banged up right knee. He could barely walk. Yet in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series he battled Eckersley to a full count and then sent the ball over the right field wall, winning the game. It was his only at bat of the series. Los Angeles won in five games.

However, for as heroic and gutsy as the moment was, it was just that. A moment. That is why the greatest display of toughness in baseball history belongs to Curt Schilling. The Boston Red Sox pitcher began Game 1 of the 2004 ALCS against the hated New York Yankees by not only getting shelled for six runs but aggravating an injury from the previous series against Anaheim when he tore the tendon sheath in his right ankle. For most pitchers, that is the ankle used to push off the mound to get velocity on the ball. It requires a lot of force and a lot of torque. Most people wondered if Schilling, who was an ace for the Red Sox, could even finish the series.

In an unprecedented decision, team doctors chose to perform a suture surgery to put the sheath back in place. So when the Red Sox fought back from a three-games-to-none deficit to force Game 6, their hopes were pinned on Schilling who had to have a good outing and had to do it in Yankee stadium. The most indelible image of the game happened when cameras panned on his injured ankle during the game and saw blood seeping into his sock from where the doctors performed the procedure. Schilling later admitted that for much of the game he actually couldn't feel his foot. It didn't matter. He gave up one run in seven superb innings. Boston won 4-2 and went on to complete the most improbable comeback in baseball history by winning Game 7. The Red Sox then ended their 86-year championship drought in the World Series.

Basketball – Michael Jordan and The Flu Game

Having the flu in the most conventional sense is bad enough. The stomach flu is far worse. Not only must a person deal with the typical fever, chills and weakness but also a constant bout of nausea. So when that condition struck Michael Jordan prior to Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals, Chicago Bulls fans went numb. To understand why is knowing the nature of the series. Jordan and his team had watched a 2-0 series lead evaporate when the Utah Jazz won back-to-back games in Salt Lake City. This set up Game 5 as the pivotal tilt. The winner would go back to Chicago with all the momentum. With Jordan crippled by a stomach virus it was clear there was no way Chicago could hold off Karl Malone and John Stockton from a third-straight victory.

Still, the determined Bulls leader refused to sit the game out. He started despite obvious signs he could barely function. As the game began the worst fears of Bulls fans seemed to come true as Utah rocketed out to a 16-point lead in the second quarter. Yet Jordan, pale and sluggish, somehow found the adrenaline to lead the Bulls on a late run to erase the lead. He scored 17 points in the quarter. Things shifted again when Michael spent much of the third quarter doubled over on the bench. The Jazz got the lead back up to 8 going into the fourth. In one last burst, Jordan took the floor. He willed his team forward, chipping away at the lead until they were within one, 85-84. A foul call then sent him to the line where he tied the game but missed on the second try. An offensive rebound allowed him to reset for a pass to Scottie Pippen. When Utah went to double team him, Pippen sent it back to Jordan who buried a huge three-pointer to regain the lead. The Bulls hung on in the final seconds to win 90-88. Jordan finished with 38 points. Chicago clinched their fifth title two days later.

Football – Terrell Davis and The Super Bowl Migraines

Terrell Davis
Terrell Davis | Source

A lot of fans might railroad this choice but in terms of the type of injury coupled with the game it happened in, one must call Denver Broncos running back Terrell Davis very gutsy. While Jack Youngblood famously played on a broken leg in the 1979 playoffs and Emmitt Smith fought through a bad collarbone to help Dallas clinch their division and a first round bye on the way to their second-straight title, Davis fought through his crisis moment in the Super Bowl.

The stage set up like this. Denver battled through three tough playoff games in 1997 to reach their first title game since 1989 but their fourth since 1986. Looming large in the minds of Broncos fans was the crippling pain felt from the three previous trips, which all ended in horrific defeats. At the center of the attention was quarterback John Elway, who had led each of those teams on the strength of his powerful right arm and uncanny comeback ability. At age 37 he was clearly running out of time to get the ring that had eluded him fourteen years. The worst part was he would have to go through the defending champion Green Bay Packers and league MVP Brett Favre to do it.

Luckily this time Elway had a better team around him. Nobody was more important than Davis, who had become the focal point of the Broncos offense. The game began to play out that way. After the Packers took a quick 7-0 lead, Davis and Elway marched the Broncos 58 yards to tie the game. However, things took a dark turn in the second quarter. Denver took advantage of a Green Bay turnover and got the ball down to the 1-yard line. Much of the work was done by Davis but things got serious when he took an awkward spill. The resulting blow to the head caused a series of migraines that was a chronic condition to the running back. They grew so serious that Davis was actually rendered blind for a time. Yet under the careful guidance of Broncos coach Mike Shanahan he went back on the field and assisted in baiting the Packers on a play action. Elway used the fake to run in for a go-ahead touchdown.

Anyone familiar with migraine headaches understands it is very unbearable. Simple things like light and semi-loud noises can cause ear-splitting headaches. So when Davis came out for the second half it was considered surprising decision and a showcase of his toughness. Not that it seemed to matter much. On his first carry after returning Davis fumbled. The Packers took advantage and tied the game with a field goal. It seemed his gutty effort was pointless. The Broncos disagreed. Davis overcame the mistake and guided Denver on a 92-yard drive to regain the lead. Green Bay quickly tied it. By the fourth quarter it was clear Terrell had conquered the migraines. On their last offensive drive, the Broncos drove 49 yards to the go-ahead score on a Davis touchdown. The defense held off the last Packers drive to cap a 31-24 victory. Despite the migraines, Davis finished with 157 rushing yards and three touchdowns, earning him MVP honors.

Stay tuned for Part 2 to see which other sports saw their gutsiest moments.

Which gutsy performance proved the most impactful?

See results


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    • EJ Lambert profile imageAUTHOR

      EJ Lambert 

      5 years ago from Chicago, IL

      Leonard truly was one of that last greats people look at with admiration. Most of the guys today can't touch what he was. It is a shame boxing has been reduced to what it is today. I'll have to do some extra research on that fight.

    • gconeyhiden profile image


      5 years ago from Brooklyn, N.Y.C. U.S.A

      For me Sugar Ray Leonard in Hearns/Leonard I was one of the gutsiest performances I ever saw in sports. In a savage see-saw contest between two of the best welterweight boxers of all time Leonard behind on the judges scorecards and suffering a badly damaged eye that eventually would cause his retirement from boxing got up from his stool beaten but not yet conquered. Through the pain I saw an unbelievable look of determination on his face and he went after Hearns with every bit of energy he had left. His lion hearted attack left the Hit man down and out in one of the greatest finishes to a championship boxing contest in the history of the sport. What he showed the world that night was much more then just the amazing athletic ability of a very fine boxer.


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