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Top 10 Gutsiest In-Game Performances By Injured Athletes

BOSTON (CBS) -- It's one of the great sports narratives: a player suffers a serious injury mid-game, one that would debilitate most humans, then returns to not only keep playing but play well. It's the kind of story that might get you laughed out of a meeting at a movie company not named Disney.

But it has happened many times in sports, and most athletes who helped his or her team win while playing with a serious injury have gone down as some of the world's greatest sports heroes. These 10 performances are most exemplary of this feat.

This list almost entirely omits players in losing efforts. Injured players are no less heroic in defeat, but they are inherently less memorable without finishing the job. There's the Bruins' Patrice Bergeron, who played in the 2013 Stanley Cup Finals with a punctured lung, among other injuries; Phillip Rivers, who played the 2007 AFC Championship with a torn ACL but ultimately lost to the Patriots; and former Patriots lineman Logan Mankins, who played most of the 2011 season with a torn ACL and nearly helped the Patriots win the Super Bowl.

No disrespect to those guys and other athletes who overcame serious injuries yet came up short, but the point of this list is to highlight those who closed the deal, whose tough-as-nails performances helped win games for their teams and sealed their immortality for good. Ben Roethlisberger was about to add such a performance to his legacy, coming back into the Steelers' 18-16 Wild Card win over the Cincinnati Bengals after seriously injuring his shoulder, before Pacman Jones and Vontaze Burfict took care of the win for him. Tom Brady also might be playing this Sunday's Divisional matchup against the Kansas City Chiefs on a bum ankle.

"Injured athlete plays hero" is a surprisingly common narrative in sports, but these moments are among the most memorable.

10. Byron Leftwich is literally carried down the field on a scoring drive

Marshall Herd QB Byron Leftwich carried down the field by WeHerdU on YouTube

Byron Leftwich may have never lived up to his potential as a pro, but in college for Marshall, he was a stallion. Early in a 2002 game against Akron, Leftwich snapped his tibia and left the game to confirm the break via x-rays.

When most players would have been out for the game and several weeks after, Leftwich came back in the game in the fourth quarter. He led a drive down the field where his teammates literally carried him to each snap. Marshall lost 34-20, but Leftwich's 300-yard performance on one functional leg will go down as one of the gutsiest performances in history regardless.

9. Emmitt Smith leads Cowboys to victory with dislocated shoulder

In the final game of the 1993 regular season, the Dallas Cowboys had to lean on all-time leading rusher Emmitt Smith in a division-deciding showdown with the New York Giants. They did, until Smith fell hard on a tackle and suffered a separated shoulder. Cowboys trainers could not do anything to treat the shoulder in-game, but that didn't stop No. 22 from going back in and playing with basically one arm.

Smith gained 78 total yards after the injury, all while continuing to get smashed by the tough Giants defense, and finished with 229. The Cowboys won the game and went on to win their second Super Bowl under Jimmy Johnson.

8. Willis Reed plays hero in NBA Finals

1970 NBA Finals by TheNBAHistory on YouTube

Despite putting together a Hall-of-Fame career and winning two NBA Championships with the New York Knicks, Willis Reed will forever be most remembered for a single game in which he scored four points. He is practically synonymous with "courageous athlete plays with serious injury" because of his inspiring return to the court in the 1970 NBA Finals.

Reed tore a muscle in his thigh and couldn't play Game 6, and his status for Game 7 on May 8, 1970, was doubtful. Fans entered Madison Square Garden expecting not to see Reed on the court, but as pre-game warmups started, there he was. Reed may have only scored two field goals (the first two of the game), but his gutsy return to the court undoubtedly helped spark Walt "Clyde" Frazier and the rest of the Knicks to a championship.

7.Donovan McNabb plays out of his mind on a broken ankle

McNabb plays on a broken ankle. by FrenchEaglesFan on YouTube

Donovan McNabb may not be the most admired quarterback in Eagles history. He may not have been the most consistent player. But he nearly won the Eagles a Super Bowl and at times played at otherworldly levels. And his toughness should be unquestioned, as exemplified by his insane performance on November 17, 2002, against the Arizona Cardinals.

On only the third play of the game, McNabb's ankle snapped, giving him easily the most serious injury of his career up to that point. Whereas someone like, say, Jay Cutler would have tapped out at that point, McNabb kept playing. And he not only stayed in the game, he won it with his arm, throwing for 257 yards and four touchdown passes in a 38-14 win.

Had the Eagles found a way to win the Super Bowl that season, this performance by McNabb would have become immortal instead of merely legendary.

6. Michael Jordan's flu game

Michael Jordan Flu Game by hobbsbrother4 on YouTube

Willis Reed may be the name most think of when talking about courage in the face of serious injury, but Michael Jordan's "flu game" may be the most famous single-game example of a player gutting it out under the worst of circumstances. It helps that it was the greatest player in NBA history, but also that Jordan played absolutely out of his mind.

With a chance to win his fifth NBA Championship in the 1997 NBA Finals, Jordan caught a nasty virus in his hotel room. Bedridden, weak, and nauseous, Jordan found a way to roll out of bed at 5:50 PM and stagger onto the court for a 7:00 tipoff against the Utah Jazz. Jordan clearly wasn't his usual self, but he still made plenty of shots, scoring 15 points in the fourth quarter and finishing with 38 in what's now known as the "flu game."

And, of course, the Bulls won that game and went on to win Game 6 and the championship.

5. Kerri Strug lands dismount on a broken ankle, Team U.S.A. wins gold

An event as storied as the Olympics has no shortage of legendary moments. For the United States, Kerri Strug's fearless vault on a broken ankle at the 1996 Games in Atlanta qualifies as one of the greatest in history.

Needing a perfect vault to earn Team U.S.A. the gold medal over Russia, Strug botched her first attempt when she landed awkwardly and injured her ankle. But with one last chance, Strug nailed her dismount and in an instant became an American hero. There hasn't been a moment in U.S. gymnastics nearly as iconic since.

4. Kirk Gibson hits walk-off home run in the World Series with two bad knees

Game Changer: Kirk Gibson's 1988 World Series Home Run by MLBFanCave on YouTube

"I don't believe what I just saw!" Jack Buck's call of Kirk Gibson's unforgettable World Series home run is my preference, but Vin Scully had a great call too. For a moment this awesome, it deserved two classic calls.

Hobbling to the plate with not one but two bum legs, Gibson made his only plate appearance of the World Series in Game 1 against the Oakland Athletics, when the Dodgers trailed 4-3 with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning and a runner on first base. Gibson wasn't expected to play at all, lights-out A's closer Dennis Eckersley wasn't expected to blow the game, and this moment wasn't expected to be anything surprising.

Except, Gibson managed to crank a 3-2 slider just over the wall in right field, winning the game for the Dodgers and instantly creating one of baseball's most iconic moments. The shot of Gibson fist-pumping as he rounded the bases remains one of the game's most famous images.

3. Tiger Woods wins U.S. Open with a broken leg

2008 U.S Open Tiger Highlights by Monty8 on YouTube

Tiger Woods may have done serious damage to his legacy with his nasty marital troubles and questionable off-the-course behavior, along with a sharp decline in play in the past several years. He may no longer be able to catch Jack Nicklaus's record of 18 major championships, which once looked like a foregone conclusion. But if the 2008 U.S. Open goes down as Tiger's final major win, it would be an unforgettable closing chapter to what is already a legendary career, regardless of how it ends.

Woods suffered a stress fracture during rehab for arthroscopic knee surgery just two weeks before the U.S. Open. That didn't stop him from turning in an excellent four rounds at Torrey Pines and ultimately beating Rocco Mediate in a playoff. Of all the majors Tiger won, and all the dominant performances in his career, the most famous win will be the one he got on one leg.

2. Jack Youngblood keeps playing, records sack with a broken leg

Youngblood sack on broken leg by John Turney on YouTube

In one of the great "Is this guy serious?" moments in sports history, former Rams defensive end Jack Youngblood delivered perhaps the ultimate example of the toughness of pro football players (and athletes in general) when he played the entire 1979 NFL Playoffs with a broken fibula, including Super Bowl XIV. He famously sacked Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach near the end of the Divisional Round.

Youngblood even went on to play the Pro Bowl with the broken leg that season, which perhaps is starting to get silly. But it just showed that he was all about the game on the field, dedicated to playing and winning as long as he can make it out there. It would have apparently taken much more than just a measly snapped leg to stop him.

1.Curt Schilling in the "bloody sock" game

2004 ALCS Gm6: Schilling's epic performance through adversity by MLB on YouTube

Potential Boston biases (and conspiracy theories) aside, Curt Schilling forever became a baseball playoff legend in 2004, in both Boston and across the entire sport. Schilling may one day make it into the Hall of Fame on the strength of his dominating postseason performances, in no small part due to the game he played wearing the bloody sock that may one day get him a bust in Cooperstown.

After struggling in his first start against the New York Yankees in the 2004 ALCS, and further injuring tendons in his ankle in the process, Schilling's status for Game 6 was up in the air at the time, and when Schilling was named the starter for Game 6, it was questionable as to how he would fare.

With an ankle that had been crudely sutured together multiple times throughout the playoffs, to the point of bleeding through to his sock, Schilling turned in a masterful 6-inning, 1-run performance against the Yankees, on New York's home field at Yankee Stadium. Of course, the Red Sox went on to win Game 7 in the most memorable comeback in baseball history, and rode their momentum to a sweep in the World Series to vanquish the mythical "Curse of the Bambino."

Schilling also pitched well in his only World Series start that season, but he will forever be remembered for the game he literally played while bleeding the entire time.

Join the conversation!

What other famous performances have players turned in after an injury? Share your favorite memories in the comments.

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