With 11 players on the field working in unison, football is the ultimate team sport in many ways. When we talk about comeback stories in the NFL, it’s usually a team overcoming a large deficit or turning things around after a bad season. But the NFL also has plenty of great comeback stories about individual players who overcame great adversity in one way or another. While there can be plenty of debate, here are what we believe to be the best individual comeback stories in NFL history.
Everyone is entitled to their own opinion about why Vick spent two years out of football while serving a prison sentence. But it’s hard to deny how impressive it was for Vick to sit out two full seasons, spend another season as a backup, and then play as well as he did as a starter for the Eagles for three seasons.
He threw for over 3,000 yards and led Philadelphia to a division title while making 12 starts in 2010, the year he won Comeback Player of the Year. Even after that, he played five more seasons in the NFL, spending more time in the league after his suspension than he did before it.
There were always doubts about Flutie because of his height, even after a standout college career at Boston College. He spent some time with the Bears and Patriots early in his career but was ultimately exiled to the CFL, where he played for eight seasons, winning the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player Award six times and leading his teams to three Grey Cup wins.
Of course, the Bills finally gave him a chance in 1998 with Flutie going to the Pro Bowl that year while also winning Comeback Player of the Year honors. After eight brilliant seasons in Canada, Flutie was able to return to the NFL, playing four seasons as a starter and four more as a backup.
Late in an injury-plagued 2014 season, Berry received a cancer diagnosis. While every other NFL player went through their normal offseason routine, Berry was battling Hodgkin’s lymphoma. By July, barely seven months after his diagnosis, he was back doing football activities.
While the Chiefs wanted to bring him back slowly, Berry was back in the starting lineup by Week 2 and went on to regain his pre-cancer form, winning Comeback Player of the Year and going to the Pro Bowl in 2015 and 2016. Unfortunately, injuries got the best of Berry after he became the highest-paid safety in the league. However, the guy beat cancer and ultimately became a member of the NFL 2010s All-Decade Team.
Let’s be honest, we all thought Manning was finished when he missed the entire 2011 season after multiple neck surgeries. Keep in mind he was 35 at that point. Not only did he return with a new team but he had three seasons in which he performed at an elite level. In his second year back, Manning won MVP for the fifth time while leading a historically good Denver offense.
Manning set NFL records that year with 5,477 passing yards and 55 touchdowns. He also won another Super Bowl in his final season, even if it was the Denver defense doing most of the heavy lifting.
It’s hard to imagine any comeback story topping what Smith did. The video of Smith’s leg injury will give anyone chills. His leg almost needed to be amputated and Smith’s life was in danger following the injury. But he survived surgery after surgery and went through a grueling rehab process. The fact that Smith was cleared to return to the NFL is miraculous enough.
However, he took things to another level by becoming Washington’s starter and helping them to the playoffs in 2020, putting a bow on the greatest comeback story in NFL history.