It’s being billed as The Return and as Week 4 of the NFL season approaches, it’s the game everyone has been talking about: Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady heads back to Foxborough, Massachusetts, to face his former team, the New England Patriots (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC). Brady won an unprecedented six Super Bowl titles in 20 years with the Patriots before securing a seventh ring with the Buccaneers last season.
It’s not the first time an athlete, whom generations of a single fan base have adored and whose identity had been so closely intertwined with a city and its culture, has gone elsewhere and come back as a visitor. But seldom does it happen when an athlete is still on top, reinventing and reinvigorating a career to keep delivering championships.
Adding to the spectacle of Brady’s return Sunday at Gillette Stadium is it comes almost exactly 20 years to the day since his first NFL start, and with him sitting on the cusp of another milestone. With 80,291 passing yards, Brady needs 68 to break the NFL record held by Drew Brees (80,358).
“I have great respect and admiration for my time there,” Brady said of New England. “I had 20 great years there. … It was a great time in my life.”
When other iconic athletes returned to the places they cultivated their careers and called home, how did it feel? Did they manage to keep their emotions in check? How did the fans react?
ESPN reporters Brian Windhorst, Greg Wyshynski, Mark Ogden, Mechelle Voepel, Rob Demovsky and Dave Schoenfield take you inside other memorable return games in sports. — Jenna Laine
The departure: On July 8, 2010, ESPN aired “The Decision” and James announced he was going to the Miami Heat.
The return: Dec. 2, 2010
LeBron James made his return to Cleveland for the first time since signing with Miami in the summer of 2010, leading the Heat with 38 points in a win.
James had one of the highest-profile free agent departures in American sports history. His announcement lives in infamy and the venom in Cleveland was largely pinned on the public breakup. However, that was a convenient excuse to amplify hatred directed at James.
Cavs fans’ feelings were a mixture of jealously — in seven years Cleveland was unable to find one true in-their-prime star to put next to James and Miami put two next to him (Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade) in one swoop — and betrayal. James played poorly by his standards in Games 5 and 6 of the team’s 2010 playoff loss to the underdog Boston Celtics, at times looking like he was in a fog. James was battling a mysterious right elbow ailment — imaging showed no damage — but he was accused by some of quitting on his team with the knowledge he was soon leaving.
A relentless competitor, this of course was not his style. James struggled with playoff pressure to a degree in that phase of his career, something that played out the following season in the Finals with the Heat. That also could have played a role, but in that time of unbridled emotions there was little patience for nuance.
The Heat looked at Dec. 2, 2010, on the calendar like it was an approaching root canal appointment. The league gave Miami a minor break, scheduling the Heat a home game the night before so the team didn’t arrive at the hotel until after 2 a.m., where extra security was stationed and the players hustled to their rooms.
The arena was nearly full 30 minutes before tipoff so the crowd could boo James loudly in warm-ups. The Cavs’ game operations fed the frenzy, showing him on the scoreboard repeatedly and then showing owner Dan Gilbert walk to his seat just before tipoff to loud cheers like it was a boxing match. James glanced at the scoreboard as it was happening and shook his head. Gilbert had released a public letter that excoriated James moments after he announced his departure and made him the foil in the fans’ eyes. The Cavs’ mascot, Moondog, was wearing a mock bulletproof vest.
Security encircled the Heat bench, but it didn’t stop several batteries that came whizzing over near the bench. Fans organized chants using social media, making insults personal and reverberating. Numerous off-color signs were confiscated — but plenty *of others were not. In the second half, James lingered near the Cavs bench and tried to speak to former teammates Mo Williams and Daniel Gibson but they had to shun him.
“It was like your ex-girlfriend coming to your wedding,” Williams said.
But James was brilliant. He scored 38 in what turned into a 118-90 Miami victory. In the third quarter he broke the fans’ spirit, pouring in 24 points and dancing up the floor. The entire experience energized the Heat. They were just 11-8 coming into the game but won nine straight after beating the Cavs and roared to a 30-9 start. The Cavs were 7-10 entering the night. They would lose 33 of the next 34. — Windhorst
The departure: On Aug. 9, 1988, Gretzky, defenseman Marty McSorley and center Mike Krushelnyski were traded to the Los Angeles Kings for center Jimmy Carson, wing Martin Gelinas, first-round draft picks in 1989, 1991 and 1993 and $15 million.
The return: Oct. 19, 1988
In Canada, it’s known simply as “The Trade.” It’s referenced every time there’s an unthinkable rumor about an NHL superstar being available: “Hey, if the Edmonton Oilers can trade Wayne Gretzky …”
The Oilers sent the 27-year-old, eight-time MVP to the Kings in a seven-player blockbuster deal that included picks and cash — a payment from Kings owner Bruce McNall that separated Los Angeles from other suitors such as the Vancouver Canucks.
Local politicians asked the Canadian government to stop the trade. Fans were devastated and confused: at first blaming Gretzky’s new wife, actress Janet Jones, for luring him to Hollywood, then turning their ire toward Oilers owner Peter Pocklington for shopping Gretzky before “selling” him to the Kings. When he claimed Gretzky’s emotional news conference featured “alligator tears,” fans burned Pocklington in effigy outside Edmonton’s arena.
In Gretzky’s first game in Edmonton as a King, Los Angeles (4-2-0) had been off to the best start in franchise history. Gretzky had 15 points.
The Oilers faithful treated the night as the farewell they never had a chance to give The Great One. They chanted “Gretz-ky!” and gave him two standing ovations: During the pregame skate and when the Kings hit the ice before the opening faceoff. Some expressed their disdain for the owner who traded Gretzky: a fan in full L.A. Kings regalia held up a sign that read “DOWN THE DRAIN WITHOUT WAYNE.”
Gretzky had two secondary assists — one shorthanded, one on the power play — and former teammate Grant Fuhr stopped four of his shots. The Kings trailed 3-1 after the first period and lost to Edmonton, 8-6.
“The first time I had to play in Edmonton was the first time I felt like an L.A. King, because it was so hard,” Gretzky recalled on “King’s Ransom,” an ESPN 30-For-30. — Wyshynski
The departure: On June 11, 2009, Manchester United accepted a bid from Real Madrid for a then-world-record fee of £80 million for Ronaldo.
The return: March 5, 2013
Manchester United supporters have idolized Cristiano Ronaldo since he left the club in a transfer to Real Madrid in 2009. The Portuguese forward became a star during his first stint at Old Trafford from 2003 to 2009, but he took his game, and his celebrity, to another level with Real.
And when he returned to face his old team for the first time in March 2013, in the Champions League Round of 16 match, Ronaldo was at the peak of his powers and the United crowd was desperate not only to see him, but to display its affection for a player who, in reality, had spent his final two years at the club attempting to force a move to Madrid.
United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, regarded by Ronaldo as a father figure, also wanted to make a special show of his old favorite and he instructed the stadium announcer to break with tradition and read out the visiting team second, with Ronaldo’s name left to the very end.
When the announcer reached Ronaldo, he urged Old Trafford “welcome back our magnificent seven, Cristiano Ronaldo.” The crowd erupted, afforded him a standing ovation and sang “Viva Ronaldo” until the game kicked off.
“It was an unbelievable night, a very emotional night and what the supporters did for me was massive,” Ronaldo said after the game. “I am never going to forget that moment. For one side I feel happy, for Madrid to go through to the next round, but for the other side I feel a little bit sad because it is not easy to forget this home. I played for six years here and the people were very nice to me.”
Ferguson would later admit, while wanting Ronaldo to realize how much he was loved by the United crowd, the ploy was also designed to make him lose his focus and become distracted by the occasion. As it turned out, Ronaldo would score the decisive goal in a 2-1 win for Real — a goal he refused to celebrate.
Unbeknown to everyone at the game, including Ronaldo, it was to be Ferguson’s final Champions League match. He had privately decided earlier that season that he would retire at the end of the campaign after 27 years in charge.
For the next eight years, United tried and failed to bring Ronaldo back to Old Trafford. In the summer of 2021, however, it achieved its goal. Eighteen years after his debut for the club, he was given another hero’s welcome on his first game back and went on to score twice in a 4-1 win against Newcastle. — Ogden
The departure: On Feb. 2, 2017, the sign-and-trade that sent Delle Donne to the Washington Mystics brought center Stefanie Dolson and Kahleah Copper to Chicago, along with the Mystics’ 2017 first-round draft pick, No. 2 overall.
The return: May 24, 2017
Delle Donne quickly grew fond enough of Chicago to name her dog “Wrigley” and become a Cubs fan. She helped lead the Chicago Sky to the 2014 WNBA Finals and three other playoff appearances. She is the only Sky player to win the WNBA’s MVP award.
But after four years in the Windy City with the team that drafted her No. 2 overall in 2013, Delle Donne wanted to be back on the East Coast. She pushed for a trade to Washington to be closer to family in her home state of Delaware — especially her sister, Lizzie, who has cerebral palsy and is deaf and blind. Delle Donne was prepared to sit out the 2017 season if the trade didn’t happen.
When it was time for Delle Donne to return to Chicago as a member of the Mystics on May 24, 2017, she was greeted mostly by high-pitched singing. The game was an 11:30 a.m. matinee for student day. Allstate Arena, then-home of the Sky, was filled with kids excited about accompanying the songs played on the speaker system and seeing themselves broadcast on the Jumbotron. Far from a hostile environment.
“Flying here, getting to the arena, it almost felt like it was a whole different lifetime,” Delle Donne said that day of her Sky career. “It’s weird how things change, and you move on. But when you go back to a place you made home for four years, it can be kind of an odd, eerie feeling.”
Delle Donne joked that maybe it was good fortune that her return fell on student day.
“The kids will cheer for anything,” she said. “But there were some really great fans who I saw a lot when I was playing here. They were really sweet; I gave them hugs.”
Delle Donne had 21 points and eight rebounds as the Mystics won 82-67. The trade ended up working for both teams: Delle Donne won another MVP and her first WNBA title in 2019. Plus, she said of her proximity to her sister, “Having Lizzie this close by is so great because as many know, I can’t call her, I can’t FaceTime her. I’ll be able to see her a lot during the summer.”
Meanwhile, Copper and Dolson still play for Chicago, which advanced to the WNBA semifinals and faces Connecticut on Tuesday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN 2). — Voepel
The return: Nov. 1, 2009
There was a reason the Green Bay Packers traded Favre to the New York Jets in August 2008. They didn’t want to face him.
When Favre unretired that summer, the Packers refused to turn back. They were ready to begin the Aaron Rodgers era. They also knew Favre wanted to go to the Vikings and went so far as to accuse their NFC North rival of tampering. So when they finally came to a trade agreement, they had similar deals with the Jets and the Buccaneers. They knew Favre preferred Tampa Bay, so they sent him to New York.
After a year in exile with the Jets, he retired and then unretired again to play for the Vikings. It meant facing his former team twice in the 2009 season. The first one was bad enough for Packers fans, but that one was in Minnesota. Less than a month after Favre beat the Packers at the Metrodome, he returned to Lambeau Field and did it again.
Favre’s return to Green Bay as a member of the Vikings elicited a predictable response: An avalanche of boos from many in the crowd of 71,213 — the largest for a regular-season game at Lambeau to that point. It was a reception that Favre expected.
“A Packer fan cheers the Packers first,” Favre said after throwing four touchdowns without an interception in a 38-26 win. He added: “I hope anyone who stayed until the end said, ‘I hate that that joker plays for another team, but he can still play.'”
Six years later, when Favre was welcomed back into the Packers family for his induction into the team’s Hall of Fame and to get his No. 4 retired, he stood at the center of Lambeau Field and, perhaps playing to the crowd, claimed: “I’ll say this, I’ve also run out of that tunnel,” Favre said as he pointed toward the visitor’s entrance to the field. And then he turned toward the home team’s entrance and said, “I’d much rather go out of that tunnel right there.” — Demovsky
The departure: On March. 2, 2019, Harper signed with Philadelphia Phillies for $330 million.
The return: April 2, 2019
Bryce Harper reflects on his first game back in Washington since signing with the Phillies in the offseason.
The most hyped prospect in baseball history, Harper reached the majors with the Nationals at age 19 in 2012, won Rookie of the Year and helped them to their first division title and playoff appearance since the franchise moved to D.C. Still, his seven-year tenure with the Nationals wasn’t always smooth sailing.
There was the unanimous MVP season in 2015 at age 22, when he hit .330 and led the NL with 42 home runs, 118 runs, a .460 OBP and a .649 slugging percentage. He might have won another MVP Award in 2017 if he hadn’t hurt his knee in August slipping on first base.
But there were also injuries, a fight with reliever Jonathan Papelbon, the annual playoff disappointments (losses in the NLDS in 2012, 2014, 2016 and 2017). His final season with the Nationals in 2018 was the most disappointing of all. The team finished 82-80, Harper struggled on defense and hit just .249.
It became clear he was going to test free agency, although the Nationals, according to the Washington Post, reportedly offered Harper a 10-year, $300 million contract in September — an offer given to him in an envelope in the middle of a rain delay. It felt more like an attempt by the Nationals to save face in public, that they at least “tried” to re-sign him.
— MLB Network (@MLBNetwork) April 2, 2019
Instead, Harper signed with the Phillies for $330 million over 13 years. In the fourth game of the season, the Phillies visited the Nationals. A midweek crowd of more than 35,000 booed when the Nationals played a video tribute to Harper before the game and then booed loudly again during his first at-bat, pausing the game for more than a minute.
Max Scherzer struck him out.
“I feel like it’s a little different coming back here and getting booed,” Harper would say after the game. “But for me, it’s exactly like going to another ballpark and facing somebody that’s lights out, electric, like Max, or going to New York and getting booed. It’s the same thing for me.”
Harper later doubled off Scherzer and then in the eighth inning, facing Jeremy Hellickson, he launched a 458-foot home run into the second deck in right-center. He flipped his bat toward the Nationals dugout, an exclamation point on the Phillies’ 8-2 win.
“Bryce is obviously a polarizing figure,” longtime Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “I don’t mean that in a bad way at all. That’s the way he’s been, whether he likes it or not, since he was 12 years old or whatever.”
The final exclamation point, however, would eventually go to the Nationals: without Harper they would go on to win the World Series. — Schoenfield