As fans, we often get caught up in the awe-inspiring talent of so many pro athletes both today and in the past. Their talent is enviable; we wish we could be them and play a sport for a living. However, some athletes come from difficult childhoods just like many people do in normal life as well. They are just like anyone else, except for their standout ability at a sport of course.
Some sports stars were adopted while they were infants, others were adopted later on in childhood, and others didn’t find stability until their adolescence or early adulthood. Some of these athletes showed that, despite having an incredibly challenging childhood, were able to persevere and achieve success on a national stage.
Perhaps some of these stories you might already be familiar with. Probably the best-known adoption story is of Michael Oher, who was taken in and adopted by the Tuohy family before going on to become an NFL star.
Oher’s story is similar in some way to all of the other athletes on this list. They were all adopted at some point. These athletes show that you do not need to have a perfect childhood to go on to achieve greatness. With that in mind, let’s take a look at fifteen pro athletes who were adopted during their childhood, and went on to achieve great things in pro sports.
15. ERIC DICKERSON
Eric Dickerson played 11 seasons in the NFL, most of them with the Los Angeles Rams (1983-1987) and Indianapolis Colts (1987-1991). Dickerson is a heavily decorated football player with several awards and accomplishments to his name. Among them, he holds 2 NFL records – rushing yards in a season, with 2,105, and rushing yards in a rookie season, with 1,808. Dickerson often credited Viola Dickerson for encouraging and supporting him in his football dreams as a child and when he made it to the NFL.
Viola, as he learned at age 15, was actually his great-great Aunt. As it turned out, Viola adopted Eric from his biological mother – Helen Johnson – who also lived with him. Dickerson has said that he viewed his mother (Helen) as more of a sister and Viola as being a mother to him.
14. CURTIS JOSEPH
Curtis Joseph – or Cujo – is one of the most popular goaltenders in recent decades in the NHL. Despite his talents and having played on some very good teams, Cujo never won a Stanley Cup. The prominent Canadian goalie is probably most recognized for his awesome masks, which featured a snarling dog. The dog is inspired from the Stephen King novel Cujo, which is Joseph’s nickname. Joseph did not always have the fame and admiration, of course. In 1967, Joseph was born out of wedlock to teenager parents and marriage was obviously not an option back then. His mother put him up for adoption, and he actually ended up being adopted by a nurse who befriended Joseph’s mother during her hospital stay!
In a 2000 The Sporting News article, it was revealed that his adopted parents often showed little obvious affection for the boys they adopted, while imposing strict discipline. Joseph, while glad there was always food in the fridge, said, “I didn’t feel underprivileged. I don’t think I’d change anything. They say everything you go through in your childhood builds character and inner strength.” Even though he had a disciplined childhood, it helped shape him into the person he became.
13. COLIN KAEPERNICK
Colin Kaepernick has become quite controversial to say the least. Long story short, Kaepernick gained significant attention by refusing to stand for the U.S.A. national anthem before games. He did this as a protest against what he perceived as being oppression of coloured people in the United States. We’ll leave it up to you to decide if he is still a free agent because of his protests. Kaepernick’s adopted parents have publicly come out in support of Kaepernick’s protests.
They wrote a statement issued to The Undefeated in December 2016, where they wanted to set the record straight to say that they fully support Kaepernick and admire his strength and courage. Rick and Teresa Kaepernick, both white, adopted the biracial Colin Kaepernick when he was just 5 weeks old. They raised him in an all-white household but did their best to reaffirm that having a different skin colour was okay, and even drove him to get cornrows when he was a teenager.
12. AARON JUDGE
Odds are you have heard the name “Aaron Judge” at least once or twice over the past several months. It would be for good reason too – Judge has set the baseball world on fire in 2017 and emerged as one of the brightest young stars in MLB. As of writing, Judge has has 45 home runs, 100 RBIs, scored 100 runs, and walked 100 times. On top of that, Judge won the Home Run Derby and beat several New York Yankees franchise and MLB records for a rookie. Despite his sudden rise to fame and stardom, Judge has been praised for his humble personality and being a complete team player.
Perhaps one reason for his humility is his upbringing. Judge was adopted by two middle-aged parents, both educators, and lived in California. He was taught to be polite, be respectful of those around him, and the important of manners as cliché as that might be. It certainly seems as though being raised that way by his adopted parents will be useful since Judge will probably get much more attention in the coming years.
11. MICHAEL OHER
Michael Oher is maybe the one athlete on this list that most people would recognize as being adopted. That is because his story was the subject of The Blind Side, a 2009 movie starring Sandra Bullock and Tim McGraw. Oher was one of twelve children born to Denise Oher in Tennessee, who was a drug addict. Oher had a rough childhood, continually struggled in school, and had no father figure in his life. In 2004, Sean and Leigh Ann Tuohy adopted Oher and he became part of their family. This meant taking him in, giving him support, and helping him improve academically and otherwise. In this case, Oher might not have made it to the NFL if it were not for the Tuohy family. Oher has since won a Super Bowl in 2013 with the Baltimore Ravens. However, Oher is still a free agent after having been released by the Carolina Panthers in July after failing a physical.
10. SIMONE BILES
Anyone who at least casually followed the 2016 Olympics would know who Simone Biles is. She has received national attention all over for her performances during the Olympics, and deservedly so. Only 20 years old, Biles is already the most decorated American gymnast! Biles has won a combined 19 Olympic and World Championship medals, 14 of which are Gold. The road to stardom was not easy for Biles, though. She was born to a mother with a drug and alcohol addiction and a father who similarly suffered from addictions but was never involved. Because of this, Biles and her sister Adria were placed in foster care and later adopted by their maternal grandfather and his wife. Biles and her sister refer to their adoptive parents, Ron and Nellie, as their parents.
In 2016, Biles told PEOPLE, “They [Ron and Nellie] support me in any way possible. My parents make sure we have everything we need so that we can compete to the best of our abilities.” It was Ron and Nellie who put Biles in gymnastics at age 6, and she hasn’t looked back because of the support from her parents.
9. ALONZO MOURNING
Alonzo Mourning is a 7-time NBA all-star who spent all but a few years of his 15-year NBA career with the Miami Heat. The Hall-of-Famer became the first player to have his number retired by the Miami Heat, battled back from having to undergo a kidney transplant, and overall had an incredible basketball career. Mourning’s parents divorced when he was 12, which resulted in him having to live with family friends as foster parents until he turned 18.
Sadly, Mourning got too old for foster care at 18 and did not really have a family to call his own. That being said, Mourning said that his first foster mother always encouraged him and shaped to become the man he is today. As hard as Mourning’s early years were, Mourning has been a family man as he and his wife have three children.
8. BABE RUTH
Babe Ruth is arguably one of the most legendary baseball players of all time. Even casual baseball fans know who he is, probably because of the “Curse of the Bambino” caused by the 1920 sale of Ruth from Boston to the New York Yankees in 1920. Ruth was a larger than life player with tremendous power, even if he had a reputation for being wild and reckless. Because of his impact on the game, baseball historians have tried to delve deeper into the early years of his life but have had limited success.
They do know that Ruth was sent to the St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys, a reformatory and orphanage, when he was 7 years old. It had been believed that city authorities considered the environment Ruth’s father gave him was inappropriate, so they sent him to St. Mary’s.
7. JIM PALMER
Jim Palmer was a pitcher who spent 19 years in the MLB, all with the Baltimore Orioles. The MLB Hall-of-Famer had a remarkable playing career. He won eight 20-win seasons, 3 Cy Young Awards, and 4 Gold Gloves – as a pitcher! Palmer is yet another one of those ‘feel good’ stories about a player who had a rough childhood before persevering to go on to do legendary things in pro sports. Shortly after being born in 1945, Palmer was adopted by Moe Wiesen, a garment industry executive, and his wife. His adoptive father was a good role model in his life, but he passed away when Palmer was 12.
This resulted in him, his adoptive mother and sister moving from New York to California, which is where he began playing baseball as a youth. Palmer went through some rough childhood experiences, but they say everything happens for a reason. Who knows if Palmer would be an MLB Hall of Famer if all those events didn’t happen to lead to Palmer to playing baseball in California?
6. TED DIBIASE
Ted DiBiase is probably best known as “The Million Dollar Man” during his time with the WWE during the 1980s and 1990s. DiBiase was a frequent headlining act for the then-WWF, and has since been inducted in the WWE Hall of Fame in 2010. In his 1997 book, Every Man Has His Price, DiBiase shared interesting facts about his childhood. He always had wrestling in his blood, since he was born to Helen Nevins, who was a wrestler. During his childhood, DiBiase was then adopted by “Iron” Mike DiBiase who, of course, was a wrestler himself. Sadly, Iron Mike died during a wrestling match with Man Mountain Mike when Ted DiBiase was just 15. Although this must have shaken up DiBiase, it evidently did not stop him from actively pursuing a career in wrestling. After all, he was born with the wrestling blood through both his biological mother and his adoptive father.
5. TIM GREEN
Tim Green had it all – he spent 8 years in the NFL with the Atlanta Falcons as a linebacker and defensive end. Green evidently was drawn to other ventures, including law, writing, and TV sports commentary. In 1997, he wrote a book called A Man and His Mother: An Adopted Son’s Search. He is the only person on this list to have written a book specifically about having been adopted.
In it, Green revealed that he had always longed to find and connect with his biological mother. One could only imagine how hard it would be to not have ever known who your birth mother is. It might have taken Green a while to understand the full emotional impact of what it means to have been adopted, and to have put your child up for adoption. Even though he may not have been the best NFL player, it is a testament to Green that he lasted that long in the NFL. It is even more impressive knowing that Green never even had the chance to know the woman who had given birth to him during that time.
4. ROB REFSNYDER
Most MLB fans would probably not know who Rob Refsynder is, for a couple of reasons. He was a top prospect in the New York Yankees farm system but he has yet to live up to expectations, having mostly been used as a bench piece in the majors or spending time in Triple-A. Refsynder certainly merits inclusion on this list because of his fascinating story. If you are not familiar with who Refsnyder is, the picture above is actually Rob Refsnyder. Now, you’re probably thinking that the name does not match the face. Refsnyder has heard it all before. In a 2015 interview with the New York Times, Refsnyder explained that people often look at him in bewilderment because the face does not match his name. That is because Refsnyder was born in South Korea, but adopted by parents who have German and Irish backgrounds.
Since his adoption occurred when he only five months old, Refsnyder lived in the California area. Refsnyder has since made it to the majors in 2015 with the New York Yankees but has bounced between Triple-A and the MLB, before being traded to the Toronto Blue Jays in July 2017.
3. SCOTT HAMILTON
Scott Hamilton is a retired American figure skater, who has won multiple championships all around the world. While figure skating is probably not the most popular sport out there, he is worthy of a great deal of respect for all he has accomplished. Hamilton won 4 U.S. Championships and 4 World Championships in figure skating during the 1980s. Furthermore, Hamilton also won a Gold Medal at the 1984 Olympics. Hamilton was adopted when he was only six weeks old, to two professors in Ohio. Growing up, Hamilton had two siblings – a brother who was also adopted and a sister who was biologically related to Hamilton’s adopted parents.
It seems that Hamilton’s adopted parents inspired him, as Hamilton and his wife adopted kids from Haiti in 2014. When asked about adopting two kids from Haiti, Hamilton said, “They’re beautiful, beautiful children and our hearts are twice the size they were before. We’re blessed beyond our wildest dreams.”.
2. RIC FLAIR
Ric Flair is quite honestly a living legend in the land of WWE and sports entertainment. It would not be surprising if a movie were made about his life – he has done it all. He wrestled for several years with WWE, where he is recognized as a 16-time World Champion. Flair is regarded as the greatest professional wrestler of all time based on his career which lasted over 40 years! In his book, To Be The Man, Flair talked about his life growing up. There are conflicting reports on what his birth name was, but it was believed to have been Fred Phillips. Flair was adopted as a child through the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, an orphanage. Flair and his adopted family lived in Minnesota during most of his childhood years, but eventually was sent to Wayland Academy – a boarding school in Wisconsin. That is where Flair first started wrestling, and if that never happened maybe we would never have had The Nature Boy!
1. DAUNTE CULPEPPER
Daunte Culpepper was a quarterback in the NFL, mostly for the Minnesota Vikings between 1999 and 2005. Culpepper enjoyed a good amount of sucess during his time in the NFL. At one point, he held the record for most yardage by a quarterback with 5,123. A serious knee injury unfortunately pretty much ended his playing career. Despite his respectable playing career, Culpepper did not have an easy childhood. Culpepper was born to a single mother who was the sister of former NFL linebacker Thomas Henderson, but his mother was in prison for armed robbery while she gave birth. Culpepper was adopted at only a day old by Emma Culpepper, who raised 15 children with her husband. Amazingly, none of the children were biologically her own! Emma passed away in 2007, but Culpepper praised her for instilling great values in him and for focusing him on reaching his goals.
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