It is assumed that most professional athletes began to master their craft when they were still in diapers, and in many cases this is true. These athletes showed their potential very early on and many of them would have been scouted and followed closely from a young age before turning pro. This is not always the case however, and history proves that some of the best athletes in the world were late bloomers. This means they may not have started playing the sport until they were in to their teen years (or possibly even later), or perhaps they did not show any skill or talent until they were much older and took everyone (including themselves) by surprise. There are also many athletes who turned pro, but then years later their abilities rocketed and they took the league by storm.
In many cases, and particularly sports where size and strength are important factors, it is not until the individual had a growth spurt or added plenty of muscle that they became noticed and snapped up by the pros. In some cases it can be better for athletes to learn their trade later and once their body has changed, as this way they can learn the game whilst at full strength. In some sports you will find that athletes have poor form because they learnt how to shoot or pass when they were very young, and therefore were not strong enough to execute properly. Changing technique is notoriously very difficult for athletes, so it could be argued that these late bloomers have an upper hand.
There is no right or wrong way to flourish at a sport, and for some people it simply takes a while longer than others. These are always interesting stories, as you generally imagine professional athletes to be shooting fadeaways, throwing TDs or hitting home-runs before they can read or write.
It may be too late for some of us, but here are 15 late bloomers in sports.
15 Ian Wright
14 Jimmy Graham
From an early age, it seemed that Seattle Seahawks tight end Jimmy Graham was destined for the hardwood. He earned a basketball scholarship to Miami after receiving All-State honors in high school, and here he would play for four years. He then stayed to take graduate classes, but at this time he had a change of heart and decided to play a season of football. As tight end, Graham would finish the season with 17 receptions, five touchdowns and 213 yards, and this saw him attract attention from the NFL.
13 Didier Drogba
12 Ken Norton
11 Brandon Weeden
10 Hakeem Olajuwon
Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon is regarded as one of the all-time great centers and still leads the league in blocked shots. Anyone that has watched him play will know that he has incredible footwork, a soft touch and excellent timing, and this is particularly impressive as the Nigerian did not pick up a ball until he was 15 years old. He did however play both soccer and handball, which certainly helped him to adjust when he began playing basketball at the Muslim Teachers College in Lagos.
9 Bernard Hopkins
8 R.A. Dickey
7 Tim Thomas
After being selected 217th by the Quebec Nordiques in the 1994 NHL Entry Draft, it seemed that Tim Thomas would never lock down a job in the league. He spent many years playing in the minor leagues and even in Finland, but then he would get a shot in the 2002-03 season where he made his NHL debut for the Bruins and played four games. He then returned to Finland, but he would be called up again three years later with injuries to the two Bruins netminders.
6 Josh Hamilton
Although the first pick in the 1999 draft, Josh Hamilton did not show his potential to the world until many years later. He unfortunately became addicted to alcohol and drugs, and was soon in a downward spiral which kept him from playing. He managed to quit alcohol and drugs for a while in 2004, but he would soon fall back into his old ways despite having a wife and child. He finally cleaned up his act but had not played baseball for many years, but he soon found that he still had the skills and the MLB took notice. In 2007, he was taken by the Cubs in the Rule 5 draft who traded him the Reds, and here he began to show glimpses of his potential.
5 Anthony Davis
Anthony Davis is emerging as one of the top talents in the NBA, and his future looks very bright judging by his performances so far in the Association. What is most notable about Davis is his extraordinary length at 6-foot-10 with a wingspan of 7-foot-4, which helps him to be an elite defender, shot blocker and rebounder. He would be almost unrecognizable in his sophomore year in high school however (aside from his famous unibrow), as at this time Davis stood 6-foot-2 and struggled to get any game time.
4 Rocky Marciano
3 Randy Johnson
Standing a towering 6-foot-10, the odds were stacked again “The Big Unit” ever becoming a successful pitcher. The theory goes that no pitcher 6-foot-4 plus would be able to develop the mechanics to become a successful and consistent pitcher, and for a while it looked like this was very much the case for Johnson who did not make it to the majors until the age of 25.
2 Tim Duncan
Tim Duncan is such a fundamentally sound player that it's smart to assume that he was working on his well polished moves and using the glass before he could dress himself, but this is not the case. Timmy always had dreams of being an Olympic swimmer and spent his early years training for this, becoming a top U.S competitor in his age group in the 400-meter freestyle. Hurricane Hugo in 1989 destroyed his team’s pool, and being on Saint Croix in the Virgin Islands he had nowhere else to turn. His mother died shortly after this, and Duncan then gave up swimming for good.
1 Kurt Warner
Kurt Warner’s rise to fame is the type of story you would find in a Hollywood film and is truly inspiring. Warner was originally passed up on in the 1994 NFL Draft, and from here he went to stocking shelves at a grocery store. A year later, he was playing arena football where he impressed, and he was then given his chance when he was signed by the Rams in 1998. Here he was 3rd string QB for a year before progressing to 2nd string. Perfectly scripted, the Rams starting QB then came down with an injury in preseason and Warner was finally given the chance to start as an NFL quarterback.
Top writers would struggle to top what happened next, as that season Warner would throw 41 TDs and tally 4,353 yards whilst helping the Rams to win Super Bowl XXXIV, picking up both league MVP and Super Bowl MVP at 28 years old. Unsurprisingly, Warner is considered to be the greatest undrafted player of all time and his late bloom is one of the best stories in all of sport.
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