Athletes Before They Were Famous

Matt Haupert@@matthaupFeatured ColumnistMay 25, 2014

Athletes Before They Were Famous

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    Matt Dunham/Associated Press

    Once upon a time, long, long ago, Cinderella was not a beautiful princess. There were no ball gowns hanging in her closet, little girls didn't dress like her at their birthday parties and you couldn't find her walking around at Disney World.

    No, before her unexpected rise to fame and prestige, Cinderella was just an ordinary girl living with an evil stepmother, trying hard to stay positive and keep moving forward despite undue oppression.

    And yet, with the help of a fairy godmother and a miraculous course of events...well, you know what happens next.

    Save for the little detail about the fairy godmother, this same story plays out in sports over and over again. Indeed, no one is born a superstar athlete. While some seem on the fast track to success at a very young age, most take paths to stardom that are entirely unpredictable or unexpected.

    Some come from incredible hardship and poverty to beat the odds and become legends.

    Some rise out of obscurity and make the leap to professional sports from careers at construction companies or grocery stores.

    Some seemed destined for greatness in another sport before finding their true calling.

    Regardless of the paths they take, every star athlete comes from somewhere. And where they come from is often far more interesting than where they are now.

Kurt Warner

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Kurt Warner wasn't supposed to be a Hall of Fame-caliber quarterback. He wasn't supposed to win two NFL MVP awards in three seasons. He wasn't supposed to lead the St. Louis Rams to two Super Bowls and the Arizona Cardinals to another.

    Kurt Warner wasn't even supposed to play in the NFL.

    After being signed as an undrafted free agent in 1994 by the Green Bay Packers only to be cut before the season began, Warner's career was seemingly over before it started. He returned to his hometown in Iowa and took up a job at the local Hy-Vee, working the night shift for $5.50 per hour—a slight step down from the minimum NFL salary.

    For most of his life, nobody wanted to give Warner a chance. He didn't start at the University of Northern Iowa until his senior year. Not a single team picked him in the 1994 NFL Draft, and the Packers wouldn't keep him around for a single regular season game.

    If Warner had thrown in the towel right then and there, he'd still just be "Kurt from the grocery store," spending less time on ESPN and more time filling paper bags.

    Instead, Warner kept at it, bouncing around the Arena League for a few years before finally getting an unlikely shot with the St. Louis Rams. The rest, as they say, is history.

    Moral of the story? Next time you're in the checkout line at the grocery store, be sure to tell your bag boy that it's never too late to follow your dreams.

Robbie Gould

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    Robbie Gould is a hero in Chicago.

    Part of the reason is because he's one of the most accurate kickers in the history of the NFL.

    Part of the reason is because Jay Cutler usually isn't giving them much to cheer about.

    Either way, Gould did not seem destined for an ascent to the top of the kicking world in 2005, when he was an undrafted NFL castoff working at his friend's construction company.

    Gould had been cut by both the Patriots and Ravens and was making ends meet with a temporary construction job when he got his chance with the Bears, thanks to a long series of injuries that left the team completely desperate. Then, like any great underdog story goes, Gould impressed at his audition and began his unlikely career as a placekicking superstar.

    As reported by Vaughn McClure of the Chicago Tribune, stardom isn't exactly what the Bears were expecting when they signed him: "Out of those five guys, Robbie had the best kickoff leg,'' special teams coach Dave Toub said. "Nobody came in and just blew us away...he wasn't crappy, so we kept him.''

    I can picture the memoir now: Better Than Crap: A Construction Worker's Guide to Making It in the NFL.

Giannis Antetokounmpo

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    USA TODAY Sports

    It wasn't long ago that Giannis Antetokounmpo was peddling for cash as a young boy on the streets of Athens, working relentlessly with his brother to pull together enough money just to buy a few groceries to bring home for the family.

    Antetokounmpo, the 19-year-old rookie sensation and hopeful savior of the lowly Milwaukee Bucks, has still barely tasted fame in the United States. He hasn't been featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated. He's hardly recognized outside of Milwaukee, where he plays his home games. In fact, he wasn't even selected for the 2013-14 NBA All-Rookie Team.

    People haven't yet started to notice Giannis Antetokounmpo—but it won't be long before they do.

    The change in lifestyle has been more drastic for Giannis than it has been for any of the other NBA rookies who were suddenly thrust into the millionaire lifestyle overnight.

    Giannis' brother, Thanasis, described the hardships that the boys faced in Athens not so long ago (via Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports):

    We would be out on the street together, selling a toy, a watch, something, and we raise $10. And that is good, because we didn't starve today. We're going to go home. We're going to have something to eat. And it is a good day.

    Antetokounmpo is still adjusting. He sets aside almost his entire salary and tries to live off his $190 per diem.

    Giannis Antetokounmpo probably won't be a household name anytime in the near future—it doesn't quite have the same ring as "LeBron James"—but, soon enough, the "Greek Freak" will start coming up in conversations far beyond the great state of Wisconsin.

    Who knows, maybe Antentokounmpo will even start indulging in that $1.7 million salary and enjoying the lifestyle of the rich and the famous. Either way, he'll never forget where he was before he got there.

Joe Mauer

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    Ed Zurga/Getty Images

    Joe Mauer's pre-fame story is not interesting because he came out of nowhere to become an unexpected star. Rather, Mauer's story is interesting because he seemingly had a choice as to which sport it would be that brought him that stardom.

    While Mauer spent the first several years of his career playing home games in the Metrodome as the catcher for the Minnesota Twins, he might have ended up playing on that same field dressed in purple and gold as the Vikings quarterback had he made one decision differently a few years earlier.

    When he graduated high school, Mauer was considered one of the top prospects in the country for both sports. He committed to Florida State to play football, and likely would have been the starting QB his Freshman year.

    Instead, before setting a foot on campus, he was picked first overall by his hometown Twins in the MLB draft and never looked back, launching an extraordinarily successful MLB career.

    Mauer's decision to abandon football completely leaves us with many unanswered questions.

    Would Joe have been a successful college QB?

    Would he have gone on to play for the Vikings?

    Would he have turned into the next Peyton Manning or the next Ryan Leaf?

    Most importantly, would the Twins still have won all those World Series titles without Mauer behind the plate?

    Wait...scratch that last one.

Maurice Alexander

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Maurice Alexander, the St. Louis Rams' fourth-round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, will soon begin his second stint as an employee at the Edward Jones Dome.

    This time, he hopes to make the Rams as a safety.

    Two years ago, he worked there as a janitor. 

    Rick Wagoner of ESPN reported on the unlikely turnaround:

    The St. Louis native, who attended Eureka High, had been suspended from the Utah State football team for his role in a fight with a teammate and returned home to spend a year refocusing on his future. To make ends meet, Alexander took the job.

    On Saturday afternoon, Alexander got another job at the Edward Jones Dome, but this one would qualify as far more glamorous than the last. The Rams tabbed Alexander with their fourth-round pick, No. 110 overall in hopes that he can upgrade their secondary.

    How many more janitors are out there picking up trash and minding their own business while secretly possessing NFL-caliber football skills? How many concession stand workers have what it takes to be Pro Bowl quarterback? How many soda vendors could really be future Hall of Famers?

    Time will tell if Alexander can actually turn in a productive NFL career—or even make the Rams' regular season roster—but, at least for now, his story is a Disney movie waiting to happen.

    It's just too soon to know if we'll get a happy ending.

Russell Wilson

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    John Froschauer/Associated Press

    Most people never get a chance of playing one professional sport in their entire lives. Russell Wilson has already had his shot at two.

    While most of the world knows Wilson as the electrifying young quarterback who led the Seattle Seahawks to a victory in Super Bowl XLVIII, residents of Asheville, North Carolina likely remember him as the struggling second baseman of the Class-A Asheville Tourists who batted .229 and struck out far more often than he recorded a hit.

    A two-sport star in high school and college, Wilson finally gave up on his baseball dream. He transferred to Wisconsin to focus on playing quarterback, then became in instant sensation in Seattle after entering the NFL as a third-round pick—a selection that was highly criticized at the time.

    To think, had he not made that difficult decision to walk away from baseball a few years earlier, Wilson might have been staring at a called third strike in a Winter Ball game this past February game while the Denver Broncos hoisted the Lombardi Trophy.

    Unsurprisingly, the Tourists have become significantly more interested in Wilson since his emergence with the Seahawks, putting up a billboard that congratulated him on his Super Bowl victory and reminded fans that he once played in Asheville.

    Where were all the billboards encouraging Russell when he couldn't seem to get that batting average above .230, Tourists?

    Bandwagon fans.

Darin Erstad

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    MARCIO JOSE SANCHEZ/Associated Press

    Darin Erstad helped the Anaheim Angels win the World Series in 2002, but that wasn't the first time he got to call himself a champion.

    Before he was the first pick in the MLB draft or a two-time All-Star, Erstad was the punter for the 1994 National Champion Nebraska Cornhuskers.

    It's one of those classic "punter-to-riches" stories that you just never see coming. Erstad was highly capable with his right foot, finishing the 1994 season as the 14th best punter in the country in yards per punt. Most guys can only dream of being a Top 15 Division I punter, but Erstad's dreams were even bigger than that.

    An excellent hitter and outstanding fielder in college, Erstad proved to be as capable with a bat and glove as he was with his right foot, forging the way for a very successful Major League career.

Jeremy Lin

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    It's been two years now since Linsanity hit New York City, and the story is just as Linspiring today as it was in 2012.

    Jeremy Lin graduated from Harvard University, which is known for a whole lot of things, one of which is definitely not producing successful professional athletes.

    After finishing school, Lin signed with the Warriors, but he was cut before getting much of a chance. He was then scooped up off of waivers by the Knicks, who stuck him at fourth on the depth chart, and started staying in his brother's living room, via Howard Beck of The New York Times.

    Then, all of a sudden, Jeremy Lin had way more than his own couch. Seemingly overnight, Lin became the Knicks' superstar starting point guard and the biggest story in sports. Over a 15-game stretch, Lin averaged a startling 25 points and 9 assists, taking the basketball world by storm.

    Lin has since come back to earth. After finishing the season on the bench with an injury, he signed a huge contract with the Houston Rockets, where he went on to eventually lose his starting job and prompt a lot of conversations that included the word "bust."

    Although that initial rise to fame still today seems completely Linexplicable, there was no denying that he was Linstantly the most captivating player in the NBA.

    His story was a Linstant classic.

Michael Oher

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    Gregory Bull/Associated Press

    Many of the men on this list have lived lives that seem capable of becoming Hollywood movies.

    Michael Oher's story is so good that it literally did—The Blind Side, starring Sandra Bullock, was released in 2009 and told the story of Oher's unlikely rise.

    Now decorated with a Super Bowl ring on his finger, Oher's path to success could be safely described as miraculous. He encountered more obstacles before age 16 than most deal with in an entire lifetime:

    • Mother was a cocaine addict
    • Father was in and out of prison
    • Lived in various foster homes and was frequently homeless
    • Repeated first and second grade
    • Attended 11 different schools

    Oher was adopted by a wealthy family at age 16 and started to play football. And he played it really, really well. Though the world seemed to be against him, Oher managed to beat the odds and use the one thing he loved most in the world—football—to turn his whole life around.

    Today, Oher makes millions of dollars living the dream as a professional football player. A few short years ago, he would have been happy enough just to have a roof over his head.

Usain Bolt

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    Anja Niedringhaus/Associated Press

    There was a Usain Bolt long before the world knew his name.

    A Usain Bolt that lived before the gold medals, before the world records, before the questionable celebrations and cocky interviews, before the international acclaim, the multimillion-dollar endorsements or the undisputed title of "Fastest Man On Earth. Ever."

    Back then, Usain Bolt had nothing.

    Bolt grew up in Trelawny Parish, where his life didn't look much like it does today—there are no streetlights and running water is scarce.

    Though he spent his childhood living in extreme poverty, there is at least one thing poverty can never stop you from doing: running really, really fast.

    And that's exactly what Bolt did.

    Training on the hills of his hometown, Bolt ran and ran until he had run all the way to the top of the podium at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, bringing more than just pride to the small village where he grew up (via Anna Kessel of The Guardian): "Usain's three gold medals brought us running water," an elderly woman from the village says. "Now we [are] praying for another gold medal to fix up the road."

    I don't know about you, but when the 2016 Summer Olympics roll around, I know exactly who I'll be rooting for.