Sports entertainment is drenched in drama. On the field, crowds go crazy for a jaw-dropping Hail Mary to beat the clock, a grand slam to take the home team over the top or an underdog’s team’s epic rise through the ranks of a tournament to win a championship against all odds. And now, in the age of reality television, fans love following the storylines of each individual athlete.
Just look at the recent NFL Draft – it seems like every single prospect had their own inspirational backstory. And sometimes, the sports world produces a story even more dramatic than any soap opera currently on TV, as was the case with the saga of Manti Te’o and his dead imaginary hoax of a girlfriend in 2013.
In the sports world, much of the drama and inspiration comes from athletes who made a name for themselves after starting with nothing. Many of the biggest names in sports got their starts far from the fame, glamour and excess they know today. In fact, it’s hard to picture the glamorous, well-loved athletes who made this list as the same people who went through the hardships uncovered in their pasts.
However, the struggle and hard work demonstrated by these athletes is what makes them so inspirational to watch, and so fun to celebrate with. Whether it’s an underdog like Rocky, a Cinderella Man like boxer James Braddock, or a good old-fashioned rags to riches story, we love watching athletes overcome impossible odds to rise to the top.
Here are 5 of the best rags to riches stories in sports history.
5. Jadeveon Clowney
When asked on The Tonight Show if he’s already living the big life, Jadeveon Clowney replied simply, “Nope. Still broke.” But that was before the colossal college football star easily landed the first pick in the NFL Draft – going from unemployed to raking in millions in just one night.
Before becoming an overnight multi-millionaire – Clowney’s NFL rookie contract is estimated to earn him more than $22 million, along with a signing bonus of $14 million and several high-profile endorsements already lined up – he was born and raised in Rock Hill, SC. His father entered a 12-year prison sentence for robbing a check-cashing business when J.D. was just a small child, and his mother worked as a technician in the Frito-Lays factory to support them both.
It wasn’t a glamorous upbringing by any means, but the two, always knew they were headed for greatness. As a child, when Josenna Clowney came home from the factory exhausted, Jadeveon would remind her that one day he was going to spoil her and make it possible for her to quit. The first words out of the 6’5, 266 pound rookie when the Texans announced he was their man? “Mom, you can quit now.”
4. LeBron James
Born to a 16-year old mother in Akron, Ohio, the man now known as King James had it tough in his early life. His only father figure wasn’t around much, being arrested multiple times on drug charges and fraud, and his mother struggled to find steady work. He lived in multiple homes in rough neighborhoods around Akron until finally settling in with a more stable family who introduced him to basketball when he was nine.
After that, LeBron played for St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, a private school renowned for its athletic programs, and quickly garnered national attention. As a high school player, James appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated and was selected as the first overall pick of the 2003 NBA Draft – breaking records right out of the gate.
In his first game, he set the NBA record for most points scored by a “prep-to-pro” (players who skipped collegiate programs) with 25, became the youngest player in league history to break 40 points in a game, and tied Michael Jordan’s average stats per game in his rookie year.
Despite his humble beginnings, King James has certainly earned that opulent title for himself – raking in an NBA salary around $20 on top of numerous endorsement deals, including a Nike contract for $90 million.
3. Manny Pacquiao
Today we know him as one of the greatest players in boxing history, the only boxer to ever win world titles in 8 different weight divisions. But before he was a Filipino boxing hero, raking in $56 million in salary and winnings, he lived on the streets of Kibawe, Philippines in dire poverty.
One of six children, Pacquiao’s father once got so desperate that he ate the family dog. Soon after, Pacquiao ran away from home, living on the streets and selling bread and doughnuts for a living. He’d often get into street fights with other vendors and kids interfering with his business, leading him to channel that energy into pursuing a career in boxing.
He’s since gone down in history as one of the toughest, most determined sportsmen in history, being named the #2 highest paid athlete behind only Floyd Mayweather and even venturing outside of the ring to run for Congress in 2010.
2. Lee Trevino
Raised by his mother and his grandfather – a gravedigger in Dallas, Texas – Lee Trevino started working in cotton fields at age 5. He also shined shoes and worked odd jobs on the street to help support his family throughout his childhood. By 14 he finally set foot on a golf course and started work as a caddy, often practicing after work by hitting at least 300 balls on the short holes behind the shack.
Trevino enlisted in the Marines when he was just 17 years old and served 4 years, attributing several promotions he earned in his military career to being a golf partner.
After he was discharged, he finally got his start as a pro golfer, gambling for even higher stakes in head-to-head matches to make a few extra bucks. In 1966, he qualified for the U.S. Open and came away with his first $600 after placing 54th. The next year, he began claiming his stake in golf history by becoming a key rival to legendary golf greats like Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. Throughout his pro golf career, Trevino became a six-time major championship winner, earning the nickname “Merry Mex.”
1. Michael Oher
Even if you don’t know the name Michael Oher, chances are you’ve heard his story. The Oscar-winning 2009 movie The Blind Side details Oher’s hardships and his inspirational rise to fame and fortune after finally finding a home with a family who helped him fulfill his potential.
One of 12 children in a broken home, his biological mother was a drug addict and his estranged father was in and out of prison, eventually falling victim to murder while Michael was in high school. He then lived in foster care for a number of years, occasionally winding up on the streets when times were really tough. It was on one of these occasions that Sandra Bullock Leigh Anne Tuohy picked him up and invited him to come live in her home.
Finally in a stable home, Michael began to excel both on and off the field. He quickly became a top football prospect in Tennessee, eventually becoming a star offensive lineman for University of Mississippi and the 23rd draft pick overall in 2009. After winning the 2013 Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens, a shocked Oher told the press, “I came so far – from nothing to a Super Bowl championship.”
From living on the streets to going to bed with a Super Bowl ring on his finger, Oher’s will certainly go down as one of the greatest rags to riches stories ever recorded in sports history.