In the world of high demand sports, such as football, ice hockey, American football, and basketball, one of the most common – and often most devastating – injuries is to a player’s anterior cruciate ligament (ACL).
The ligament sits inside the knee joint, controlling forward and backward motion in the knee, with a tear or even a strain resulting in a lot of pain and impeded movement. Surgery is required for a torn ACL, leading to an expected recovery time frame of upwards of seven months for sports stars.
So, here we’re breaking down some of the most heroic comebacks from an ACL injury in the world of sport.
Ruud van Nistelrooy
Here is one of the most documented cases of sports irony. When Manchester United attempted to sign Ruud van Nistelrooy in the summer of 2000, the player and club refused to do further fitness tests that the Red Devils demanded.
So, the Premier League team backed down from the potential British-record transfer due to concerns with his knee. Just a day later, Van Nistelrooy ruptured his ACL in training, forcing him to miss the majority of the season.
Manchester United, now 50/1 to win the Premier League, signed him for around £19 million in the following summer, and he went on to score 23 league goals and ten Champions League goals en route to being named the PFA Players’ Player of the Year.
Eventually taken by Real Madrid after a poor choice of words on the Dutchman’s behalf towards Cristiano Ronaldo, Ruud van Nistelrooy finished his United career with 150 goals and 16 assists in 219 games.
Tom Brady has sustained and played through so many injuries and undergone so many surgeries in his storied career that many believe him to be a cyborg at this point – he certainly plays like it at times.
In the opening game of the 2008 NFL season, Kansas City Chiefs safety Bernard Pollard ploughed into Brady’s knee, tearing his ACL and MCL to put him on the injured reserve for the rest of the season. The Pats missed the playoffs for the first time since 2002 in his absence.
But Brady returned to play the opening game of the 2009 season, throwing for 378 yards and two touchdowns in his comeback game.
He went on to win NFL Comeback Player of the Year as well as take the Patriots back to the playoffs by winning the AFC East with a 10-6 record. Then, of course, came the 2015 and 2017 Super Bowl wins, and he’s tipped to grab a sixth in 2019 at 6/1.
When it comes to sports stars, they don’t come any tougher than ice hockey players. Going through 82 regular season games and then the tightly squeezed playoffs is a gruelling task, especially when carrying a serious injury.
Last season, San Jose Sharks’ veteran centre Joe ‘Jumbo’ Thornton tore his ACL and MCL when an attempted check on Vancouver Canucks skater Michael Chaput went wrong and his leg buckled beneath him. But that wasn’t enough to keep the then 37-year-old down for long.
With the injury being sustained on April 2, Thornton missed just three regular season games and two postseason games (two weeks in total) to make a heroic return for what would be his team’s final four postseason games.
Head coach Peter DeBoer said that “basically, his knee was floating.” Thornton played a lot of ice time despite the serious injury and even tallied two assists against the rampant Edmonton Oilers. After surgery in the offseason, Jumbo still leads the line for the San Jose Sharks, who are dark horse options at 19/1 to win the Stanley Cup this year.
With 12 goals and 33 points from 44 games this season, you can see that the 38-year-old veteran has made a full recovery from his ACL injury.
In what is still probably one of the most horrific injuries seen on camera, Shaun Livingston has managed to mount a major, but slow-burned, comeback from a horrifying ACL injury.
On 26th February 2007, Livingston’s failed layup attempt ended in his landing leg contorting underneath him, resulting in a torn ACL, PCL, and lateral meniscus, a bad sprain to his MCL, as well as dislocated patella and tibia-femoral.
It was a slow return for Livingston. Signing for the Miami Heat on 3rd October 2008, he played four games and averaged 2.3 points per game in 10.3 minutes. A long stint of being traded and waived ensued until he finally started to come back.
It all turned around for Livingston when he signed for the Golden State Warriors in 2014, being a part of the world-beating team that set a record 73 wins in an NBA regular season, as well as winning the NBA championship twice.
He signed a new three-year contract with the Warriors in July 2017 worth $24 million, with his team at 11/20 to win it all this season as well.
Christmas Eve 2011 was not a pleasant day for Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson. Looking to break out of the backfield on a trademark, powerful run, DeJon Gomes of the Washington Redskins landed a tackled square on Peterson’s knee tearing his ACL and ending his season.
He finished 30 yards short of a fifth consecutive 1000 rushing yards season – the first year that he failed to achieve the feat during his professional career.
This seemed to awake something in the seventh overall pick of the 2007 NFL Draft, something that would dominate the entire NFL season. He played all 16 games of the 2012 season, finishing with an almighty 2097 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns as well as 217 receiving yards and one touchdown.
Named the league’s MVP that year, his 2097 rushing yards fell just nine yards short of the all-time rushing yards in a single season record.
His old club, the Minnesota Vikings, have turned to defensive prowess without their former star running back – also because their new star rusher Dalvin Cook is out with an ACL injury – but could challenge for the Super Bowl next year.
*Odds subject to change - correct at time of writing*