Best Late Bloomers in Sports

Eric NewmanCorrespondent IIIApril 25, 2013

Best Late Bloomers in Sports

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    You want to go pro? Start young. That's how it works. Think toddler Tiger Woods showing off his putt on the Mike Douglas show. Think baby LeBron shooting hoops. Think 3-year-old Serena Williams practicing tennis for two hours a day.

    And it's not only about starting young, it's also about excelling early.

    You're not putting up the kinds of points everyone expected you to? Then congrats, you win one (or all) of these stigmatizing labels: Wannabe, Over-Hyped, Bust.


    Unless you are a chrysanthemum, an ugly ducking, a sleeping giant. And people sense that. And they are willing to wait and see.

    Click on to see the best of the late bloomers.

Honorable Mention: Dan McLaughlin

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    Tiger was out-putting Bob Hope on National television at age 2.

    Rory McIlroy was walloping 40-yard drives at age 2.

    Bubba Watson was a marginal late-comer to the sport, first taking up the club at age 6.

    So is there any hope for Dan McLaughlin, who is attempting to go pro at age 33? Dan quit his day job and is "testing the theory that a person can master any skill with 10,000 hours of practice."

    Follow his progress at

Honorable Mention: Jim Morris

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    Though Morris only pitched in 21 games, his short run was impressive, especially when you consider his rookie (and only) year came at age 35.

    As a much younger man, Morris had sought to go pro, but arm injuries ended the hope and he settled into life as a high school science teacher.

    Students coaxed him to go to an open MLB tryout for the Devil Rays. He went. And threw a 98 mph pitch. TWELVE TIMES IN A ROW.

20. Brandon Weeden

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    The dilemma: What to do with the rest of your life after injuries force you to end a five-year minor league baseball career.

    The solution: Become an NFL quarterback.

    In 2012, at nearly 29 years of age, Weeden became the oldest first-round NFL draft pick in history. Weeden got picked up by the Browns and went on to beat out Colt McCoy as starting quarterback. 

19. James Blake

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    As an adolescent, Blake had to wear "a cumbersome back brace 18 hours a day" as a part of his treatment for scoliosis. He played tennis, but didn't become a top junior player in the U.S. until his late teens.

    As a Harvard student, Blake became the No. 1 ranked college player in the 1998-99 season. He left after his sophomore year and went pro, eventually achieving a career high ranking of No. 4.

18. Matt Anderson

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    Anderson was a late starter to volleyball, not joining a club until age 15. “I had a pretty insightful coach at that age," Anderson said. "It's just the way he designed practices, the way he motivated, and made you want to play hard for him,” Anderson said.

    Well the good coaching and natural talent converged to churn out a world-class player who would help his team bring home a gold medal from the 2008 Men's Pan-American Volleyball Cup, and then go on to represent the US in the 2012 Summer Olympic Games

17. Chauncey Billups

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    The first six years of Billups' NBA career weren't pretty. He was bounced around to several teams, was out with injury, and did little but make a deep dent in those planks on the bench.

    But after a run with the Pistons in which he sunk several late-game shots, he became "Mr. Big Shot" and his fortunes/performances/reputation greatly improved.

    Billups became known as one of the biggest clutch players in the NBA and there is even cyber-speculations that he may be a future Hall of Famer.

16. Bernard Hopkins

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    With 53 wins on his record, "The Executioner" "is considered one of the greatest middleweights in the history of boxing." In fact, The Ring has ranked him as the No.3 best middleweight titleholder of the last 50 years.

    And he's 48 years old. And still an active fighter.

    Hopkins developed a passion for boxing while serving time in Graterford Prison. Upon his release, he made his professional boxing debut in 1988 at age 23.

    He first became a world champion at age 30 by defeating Segundo Mercado on April 29, 1995.

15. RA Dickey

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    A nursery rhyme:

    Little Mr. Dickey stood on a mound (for 14 years), pitching in a blah way

    But when at last his knuckler was sprung, it was that he flung

    And found himself the winner of a Cy Young

14. Tim Thomas

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    After 37 years of life that included nine seasons of waiting for a full-time job in the NHL, Thomas peaked as an athlete. 

    His save percentage in the 2010-11 regular season was a supernatural .938.  It was .940 in the playoffs that year.

    After helping the Bruins win the Stanley Cup in 2011, Thomas was awarded MVP for the playoffs.

13. Randy Johnson

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    At a towering 6'10", Johnson was "armed with the tools to dominate." Yet for years he didn't. Control problems kept him out of the majors until he was 25. 

    He was nearly 30 when he finally got those natural pitching tools good and polished. But it was worth the wait. Johnson had become one of the great left-handed pitchers of the game, hurling sizzling fast balls of close to and, at times, over 100 mph.

12. Jonah Barrington

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    Barrington played squash through prep school and then in college where he was "an average journeyman player playing at one of the lower slots on the first team." 

    Then some sort of squash lightning struck and infused him with fervor for the game. He focused. Got fit. Developed his skills until he became the most successful British player in history, winning six British Open titles.

11. Randy Coutre

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    Start late in tennis and you might end up with broken dreams and a sore shoulder. Start late in MMA and you might end up a bloodied piece of meat splayed on a hospital emergency room table. Yeah, not a sport you want to start later in life.

    However Randy Coutre, didn't agree. He entered the world of MMA in 1997 when he was already 33 years old. That didn't stop him from setting an all-time record for most appearances in UFC bouts (15), and at nearly 44 years of age, to become the oldest fighter to ever win a UFC championship.

10. Sandy Koufax

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    It was only the potential of his supersonic fastball that kept the mediocre-performing Koufax from getting cut his first six seasons in the majors (1955-1960). 

    In 1961 his command of his pitches greatly improved. By 1963, when he was already 27 years old, he had become the Titan of the mound that he is now remembered to be. 

    Accolades include three Cy Youngs, an MVP, four no-hitters, and  three World Series appearances.

9. Steve Nash

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    In 1996 the Phoenix Suns drafted a relatively unknown Steve Nash who came to be thought of as "a poor man's John Stockton."

    A couple of unimpressive years with the Suns, then a couple more with the Mavericks, and it looked like Nash was going full-fizzle. 

    And then with the turn of the millennium came the turn of Nash. He broke out in the 2000-01 season and became "Nashty," "Captain Canada," and with 2005 and 2006 MVP awards, "MVSteve."

8. Kurt Warner

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    Warner is the archetype of a late-blooming athlete. Heck, he's even the Wikipedia example. From supermarket stock boy to Arena Football QB, to NFL Europe QB, to NFL third-string QB, to NFL starting QB, to 28-year-old Super Bowl winner and MVP

    That's not late blooming, that's late supernova-ing.

7. Lefty O'Doul

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    Injuries mucked up O'Doul's pitch and the former Yankee and Red Sox pitcher got booted down to the Triple-A Pacific Coast League. He was out of the majors from 1924 through 1927.

    But there must've been something in the Pacific breeze that altered O'Doul's DNA and transformed him into a behemoth of the bat, a savage of slugging, a hitting hellion.

    He came out swinging and swinging hard and kept it up.

    He finished his career with a lifetime batting average of .349.

6. Didier Drogba

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    Whereas most big soccer stars break out in their teens, injuries held Drogba back. He made his professional debut at 18, signed his first professional contract at 21, but didn't rattle the soccer world until the 2002-2003 season when he was in his mid-20s.

    He went on to become one of the top scorers of all time for Chelsea in the Premier League.

    Currently playing for Galatasaray, he has recently discussed a playing comeback with Chelsea. 

5. Dazzy Vance

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    At 31 years of age, pitcher Dazzy Vance had an embarrassing 0-8 record. Not the usual makings of what would become a Hall-of-Fame career.

    When he bloomed, it was with a dazzling technicolor blossom. He owned National League hitters with a furious fastball, leading the league in strikeouts for seven straight seasons.

    He kept pitching—and pitching well—until his mid forties.

4. Ken Norton

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    "I never intended to be a fighter," Ken Norton once said. "In the [Marine] Corps I only started boxing because I was unhappy with the football team and I was bored with getting up for reveille every day."

    Despite his late and uninspired foray into the sport, "Norton first became WBC Heavyweight Champion at an age of over 30 and beat the great Muhammad Ali in his illustrious but slow-burning career." 

3. Hakeem Olajuwon

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    While most big NBA stars starting playing ball as soon as they could walk, Olajuwon first took up the game at a very late age 15.

    Once he picked up the game, though, he really picked it up. After leading the University of Houston Cougars to three NCAA Final Four Appearances, Olajuwon became "The Dream" for the NBA's Houston Rockets. He was a 12-time all-star, a one-time MVP, and earned to championship rings. He is the NBA's all time leader in blocked shot.

2. Rocky Marciano

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    As a young man Marciano dabbled in amateur boxing and baseball. He didn't dedicate himself to professional boxing until 1948 when he was already nearly 25 years old. 

    He won the first 16 fights of his professional career by KO or TKO.

    After winning the heavyweight title in 1952, he defended it an amazing six times.

    He finished his career in 1955, with a 49-0-0 record. 

1. Fauja Singh

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    When 2-year-old Tiger Woods was putting against Bob Hope on the Mike Douglas show in October 1978, Fauja Singh was already 67 years old. 

    And his career as a distance runner still wouldn't begin for another 22 years. In 2000 (at age 89) he ran the London marathon. He went on to compete in eight more. 

    The "Turbaned Tornado's" best time was 5 hours and 40 minutes in the 2003 Toronto marathon.

    Among his many records, he is the oldest person to run a marathon (at age 100), the fastest male over the age of 90 to run a marathon, fastest (over age 100) to run the 5,000 meters, the fastest (over 100) to run the 3,000 meters.

    Finally in 2013, the man who was born a year BEFORE THE TITANIC SANK, decided to retire at age 101 after finishing the Hong Kong Marathon's 10k race.


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