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Best Player Comebacks in Sports History

Best Player Comebacks in Sports History - Jason Witten

Best Player Comebacks in Sports History - Jason Witten

Football fans everywhere are wondering what Jason Witten's comeback will mean for the Dallas Cowboys next season. The 11-time Pro Bowl tight end is returning after one year in the broadcast booth to play for his old team.

Thanks to the offseason drama Brett Favre and Roger Clemens produced over the last 15 years, the term “coming out of retirement” has been somewhat cheapened. For it to be a true encore a player has to be out of the game for at least a year before returning and Witten's comeback qualifies.

Will he be successful? Only time will tell, but many other athletes have proven it can be done. Here are the five best encores in baseball, basketball, boxing, football and hockey.


Ryne Sandberg, 2B, Chicago Cubs

Retired from Cubs: 1994

Returned: 1996

Many baseball greats had their careers interrupted because of World War II, nagging injuries and contract disputes with stingy owners, but few truly retired and came back to play for more than a game or two. So while baseball fans disagree on the quality of Ryno’s comeback, it tops this list for those reasons. After getting off to very slow start in the 1994 season, the 10-time All-Star decided he had lost the desire to play and abruptly announced his retirement in June of that year. In 1996, he got his mojo back and returned to Chicago, where he proved to everyone that he still had it. Sandberg smashed 25 home runs in 1996 before retiring for good in ’97.

Related: 10 Greatest Second Basemen in Major League Baseball History


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Michael Jordan, G, Chicago Bulls

Retired from Bulls: 1993

Returned: 1995

Everything about Jordan’s first retirement and comeback seemed surreal. His father was murdered a month after the Bulls won their third straight title in 1993 and an exhausted Jordan announced his retirement in October of that year. In February 1994, he signed a minor league contract with the Chicago White Sox and hit .252 in the Arizona Fall League. After the baseball strike canceled the 1994 MLB season and owners discussed using replacement players from the minor leagues, Jordan returned to the NBA. The comeback announcement was not a drawn out process. He announced his return on March 18, with the words, “I’m back” and then suited up against the Indiana Pacers the next day wearing No. 45 (the Bulls had retired his No. 23 in November 1994). It took a few games, but Jordan found his groove and the Bulls won three more titles from 1996-98. No other comeback in NBA history – including Jordan’s second – tops this encore.

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Related: 5 Players Who Redefined the NBA


George Foreman, Heavyweight

Retired: 1977

Returned: 1987

Very few comebacks have been successful in boxing. One is Floyd Mayweather Jr.’s return to the ring in 2009 after a 21-month layoff and Sugar Ray Leonard’s win over Marvin Hagler is another. Neither was as remarkable as Foreman’s encore though. After losing to Jimmy Young in 1977, Foreman retired and poured himself into his ministry in Houston. In 1987, he needed money to build a youth center and decided the sweet science was the best way to do it. While other comebacks failed, Foreman’s succeeded because he had two things: power and patience. Instead of returning quickly for a big marquee fight, he took his time, fighting club fighters and then contenders before finally facing Evander Holyfield for the heavyweight title in 1991. He lost a decision to Holyfield and then another one to Tommy Morrison for the WBO belt two years later. The third title shot proved to be the charm, however. On Nov. 5, 1994, a 45-year-old Foreman knocked out Michael Moorer to win the WBA and IBF titles and become the oldest heavyweight champion to ever win a belt. The fact that Foreman was much more likable his second go-around also made this a great comeback from the fans’ standpoint.


George Blanda, QB/K, Chicago Bears

Retired from Bears: 1958

Returned to Houston Oilers: 1960

Pro football’s grand old man played both quarterback and placekicker, but retired from the Bears in 1958 when owner George Halas insisted on only using him as a kicker. When the AFL was formed in 1960, Blanda came out of retirement to play quarterback and kicker for the Houston Oilers... and played 16 more seasons. Along the way, he led the Oilers to the first two AFL titles and tossed 36 touchdown passes in 1961. Blanda signed with the Oakland Raiders and played kicker and backup quarterback before calling it a career in 1975.

Related: 10 Greatest Kickers in NFL History


Gordie Howe, RW, Detroit Red Wings

Retired from Red Wings: 1971

Returned to Houston Aeros: 1973

“Mr. Hockey” came out of retirement to play with his sons, Marty and Mark, for the Aeros in the upstart World Hockey Association. The Aeros won the WHA titles in 1974 and ‘75 and the elder Howe won the MVP award in ‘77. The Howe family moved to the New England Whalers (now the Carolina Hurricanes) that year and rejoined the NHL when the league absorbed the team in 1979. The patriarch played one more season before retiring for good in 1980 at the age of 52. Not a bad encore at all.

— Written by Aaron Tallent, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Tallent is a writer whose articles have appeared in The Sweet Science, FOX Sports’ Outkick the Coverage, Liberty Island and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter at @AaronTallent.

(Michael Jordan photo courtesy of