From Zero to Hero: 10 Famous Athletes Who Made It Big
It’s true that the majority of professional athletes have made it big, but that doesn’t mean the road to get there was easy. Some of the most inspiring athletes have rags to riches stories that will make your heart happy. You’ll appreciate the hard work and dedication needed to reach the top.
Michael Oher’s story is so inspiring that a movie was made in his honor – An Academy Award-winning film, The Blind Side. Oher was born in Memphis, Tennessee, and initially raised by his mother (who had 11 other children). His mom was addicted to crack cocaine, and his father was in and out of jail. With little parental supervision or discipline available to him, Oher had to repeat several grades in elementary school and attended 11 different schools within a nine-year period. Perhaps some of the saddest parts of Oher’s story begin at age seven when he was placed in numerous foster care homes and at times was homeless. To top it off, his father was murdered in prison.
When Michael was in high school, however, a family of a girl he went to school with (the Tuohy family) took notice of his homeless living situation and lifestyle, became familiar with his troublesome home life situation, and offered to have Oher stay with the family in their home. The Tuohy’s eventually fell in love with Michael and adopted him. He worked with a tutor to get his grades up and really excelled in sports (especially football, but also in basketball and track and field) in high school.
Oher stood out so much for his high school football achievements, he went on to play at Ole Miss University. Michael eventually made it in professional football as a first-round draft pick and earned himself a ring at the Big Game. As an offensive tackle, Oher understands the importance of padding up properly with protective football gear. Michael’s heartwarming story shows that drive and determination are stronger than being dealt a difficult hand as a child.
Motivational speaker Rudy Ruettiger, who played college football at Notre Dame University, has a ‘rags to riches’ story like no other. Sparking inspiration for the 1993 hit film Rudy, Ruettiger was small, which is often a big disadvantage when you want to play college football. He was 5’6” and 165 pounds. To top it off, Rudy’s grades weren’t high enough to get accepted into Notre Dame, and he also suffered from dyslexia.
After completing two years at nearby Holy Cross College, Rudy was finally accepted at Notre Dame after his fourth attempt. But getting into the university was just half the battle, as playing football there was part of his dream despite others telling him that goal was too far-fetched. But Rudy proved everybody wrong, as willpower and perseverance earned him a spot on Notre Dame’s practice squad as a walk-on, despite his small size. While he typically didn’t suit up for games, his coach suggested he do so the last game of his senior year at Notre Dame. Rudy didn’t just suit up, he got into the game for three plays, sacked the quarterback, and was carried off the field by his teammates.
Thought of by some as one of the best boxers in the world, Manny Pacquiao’s life wasn’t always smooth sailing. He was born in the Philippines, lived in a shack with a dirt floor, and scrapped for food when he had to. As a child, Manny would help out his family by selling bread on busy city streets. At just age 16, Pacquiao discovered his true gift for fighting – often in times of self-defense.
Pacquiao went on to become a professional boxer, is the only eight-division world champion, and has won 11 major world titles. He’s won titles in four weight classes: welterweight, lightweight, featherweight, and flyweight. As if his professional boxing ‘rags to riches’ story wasn’t enough to make history, Pacquiao went on to become a politician (serving as a Senator) in the Philippines. His story is truly that of success.
Few athletes have accomplished as much as Herschel Walker, but the road to get there was far from easy. In his earlier years, Walker was overweight, had a speech impediment, and was bullied by kids because of that. Instead of giving up and succumbing to all that negativity, Walker started a rigorous training regimen to get in shape and worked his way up to be a professional athlete.
The accomplishments of this once bullied athlete are endless. He played college in football and ran track as a sprinter for the University of Georgia. Walker is a Heisman trophy winner and played pro football for the Dallas Cowboys, Minnesota Vikings, Philadelphia Eagles, and New York Giants. He even made it to the pro bowl! If that wasn’t enough for a huge list of accomplishments, Herschel also competed in the 1992 Winter Olympics as part of a two-man bobsled team.
Just a kid from Akron, LeBron James is another example of an athlete who overcame all odds to play a professional sport -- basketball. He’s even known to some as one of the greatest basketball players in history, and LeBron James is a household name in many families. But, his early years took him through some tough times.
LeBron’s mother was 16 years old when he was born, and she raised him as a single mom, struggling to find steady work until he was nine. He didn’t really have a father figure, at least one who wasn’t getting in trouble with the law. He and his mother moved around every few months, from one apartment to another. Eventually, his mom allowed James to live with a local youth football coach who could provide him with a more stable family environment. That coach introduced LeBron to the sport of basketball, and the rest is history.
After graduating high school, LeBron was recruited as the first overall pick by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2003. He now has championship rings and MVP awards under his belt as one of the greatest professional basketball players to date. As a pre-game ritual in his early career, you could see James performing his signature chalk toss while sporting some of his trademark gear – a headband and compression arm sleeves.
A household name in the sport of professional golf, Lee Trevino didn’t always have an easy life. He never knew his father, who left the family when Lee was young. At the early age of five, Trevino was working in cotton fields, shined shoes, and completed other odd jobs to help support his family. Eventually, Trevino got a job working as a caddy after his uncle introduced him to golf by giving him an old golf club and a few balls. As a full-time caddy, Trevino was always around golfers. After work shifts, he would hit 300 (or more) balls to practice his game.
Trevino served four years in the U.S. Marine Corps after enlisting at the young age of 17. He was able to play golf with Marine Corps officers during part of that time and participated in Armed Forces golf events. After he was discharged, Lee became a club professional in El Paso, Texas, and qualified for the U.S. Open in 1966. As a pro golfer, he was one of the greatest, winning six major championships and numerous awards. Trevino was even inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1981, making his rags to riches story one of the most inspiring you’ll hear.
Considered the greatest sprinter of all time by many, Jamaican superstar Usain Bolt is an Olympian (with eight gold medals) who holds world records in speed. His accomplishments are numerous, and what’s more inspiring is the difficulty, hard work, and perseverance he endured to achieve the titles “Fastest Man In The World” and “Lightning Bolt.” Compression shorts are in Usain Bolt’s closet to help him recover, boost circulation, minimize wind resistance, and maximize performance.
In his early years, Usain lived in a small town in Jamaica with his parents, brother and sister, who ran a local grocery store. He played football and cricket in the streets just for fun with his brother, in a town with no running water and no street lights. But while Usain didn’t live a life of luxury growing up, he was blessed with the gifts of speed and determination -- which are major ingredients in his recipe for success.
It’s often difficult for children without a mother or father present in their lives to excel. But that’s just what Tyrann Mathieu has accomplished. This professional football star didn’t have ideal family influences early in life. His father was in prison (incarcerated for murder), and his mother wasn’t involved in his life the majority of the time. He was raised by his grandparents, but when his grandfather died in 1997, Mathieu’s aunt and uncle adopted him.
Through difficult training, drive and determination, Tyrann became a successful high school athlete in track and football. He accepted a scholarship from Louisiana State University where he was an All-American and Heisman Trophy winner and now plays professional football for the Arizona Cardinals.
Darnell Dockett experienced something no child should ever have to. His mother was murdered in her home when he was just 13 years old. Four months later his father died of cancer, so Dockett was raised by his uncle. But Darnell didn’t let his home life (and the fact that during his first youth football game he ran the wrong way and scored for the opposing team) get him down.
He set records while playing high school football, and went on to play in college at Florida State University. Despite previous run-ins with the law, he was drafted by the Arizona Cardinals pro football team where he stayed until retirement in 2016 -- fairly soon after tearing his ACL in 2014.
Former pro football player Jameel McClain has a ‘rags to riches’ story like no other. Growing up, he was raised by his mother with his three siblings. The family spent numerous nights in Philadelphia Salvation Army shelters during McClain’s younger years. Sometimes, he wouldn’t know where his next meal was coming from or if he’d have a place to sleep. But when he turned 14, his aunt and uncle took over raising Jameel and his siblings to allow them a chance at better education and a more stable home life.
Jameel began excelling in sports as a boxer and football player and made captain of his high school football team. He went on to play at Syracuse University and was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens. McClain also played for the New York Giants, and eventually became the Assistant Director of Player Engagement for the Ravens. He’s also a spokesperson for the Salvation Army, participating in Salvation Army Holiday Gift Distribution events for families in need. He’s even worked with United Way on renovation projects.
All of the athletes listed above have overcome obstacles to prevail and become successful in athletics and in life. They all give back to their communities to help those in need, and many have experienced successful professional careers after retiring from the sport they love.