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
Most professional footballers are snapped up by academies from a very young age, but not Arsenal legend Ian Wright. He had trials with Brighton and Southend United when he was a teen, but he failed to impress here and just a few years later he found himself in jail for two weeks. Here he vowed to become a professional footballer and get his life on track, and he was given a chance after he was spotted by a Crystal Palace scout whilst playing Sunday league football at 21 years old. He immediately impressed and was signed, starting the beginning of a sensational career which includes a Premier League title, two F.A Cups, one League Cup, two PFA Team of the Year selections, 239 league goals and a number of England caps.
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.
He was selected in the 3rd round by New Orleans, and although he had little experience it turned out to be a very wise move. In 2011 he made his first Pro Bowl and would set a number of franchise records, and he has continued to have a stellar career seeing him traded to the Seahawks in March. In reference to his basketball upbringing, Graham had a trademark celebration where he would slam dunk the ball over the goalpost. This has since been banned after Graham bent the goalpost in 2013.
13 Didier Drogba
Most professional footballers (and even amateur players) first begin playing as a kid, but Chelsea legend Didier Drogba did not begin to play frequently until he was 15 years old. A lack of training and string of injuries held the Ivorian back, meaning that he would not sign his first professional contract until the age of 21 years old. After transferring from Le Mans to Guingamp, he began to earn recognition after helping them to avoid relegation. He then transferred to Marseille where announced himself with an impressive 19 goals in 35 appearances to win Ligue 1 Player of the Year. Now in his athletic prime, the top clubs began to take notice and he was soon snapped up by Chelsea. He now has two Golden Boots, four Premier League titles, four F.A Cups, a Champions League title and he is Chelsea’s 4th all-time top goalscorer.
12 Ken Norton
Incredibly, a man who beat legendary boxer Muhammad Ali did not start boxing until he was in the Marine Corps and was originally destined to be a star football player. Ken Norton attended Truman State on a football scholarship after being a stand out athlete, but he left school two years later due to repeated injuries. He then enlisted with the Marines in 1963, and it is here where he discovered boxing. He quickly took to the sport, compiling a 24-2 record and winning three All-Marine Heavyweight titles. He then turned pro, and in 1973 he stunned the world by breaking Ali’s jaw in a victory. He spent 14 years boxing professionally, becoming WBC heavyweight champion when he was over the age of 30.
11 Brandon Weeden
Cowboys QB Brandon Weeden’s story is a fascinating one, as the 31-year-old originally started off on the baseball diamond instead of the football field. Weeden was drafted by the Yankees in 2002 and joined the minor league, but a string of injuries forced him into early retirement. He then enrolled at Oklahoma State where he went back to football (what he had also played in high school). Here he flourished, despite being much older than everyone else, and he then became the oldest 1st round NFL draft pick when he was selected by the Browns at 29 years of age. He went on to become a starting QB in Cleveland (unsuccessfully) before moving on to the Cowboys.
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.
He then immigrated to the USA, where he attended the University of Houston and led them to three Final Four appearances. He then was drafted by the Houston Rockets with the 1st pick, and would go on to become an NBA legend despite his late introduction to the game.
9 Bernard Hopkins
The 50-year-old Hopkins is widely considered to be one of the greatest middleweight title holders of all-time and has 55 victories to his name, but his first professional fight was not until he was 23 years old. The reason for his late entrance into the ring was due to him not finding a passion for boxing until he was serving time in prison for a number of different felonies, but upon his release he decided that his path to success was through boxing. He soon became known as “The Executioner”, became a world champion and made an incredible 20 consecutive title defences without defeat.
8 R.A. Dickey
Although a first round pick, it appeared that R.A Dickey would never be a star after he quickly fell into obscurity after failing to impress on the mound. He struggled to keep a starting spot after 10 years with the Rangers, but then in 2005 he reinvented himself and became a valuable asset by perfecting the knuckleball. After spending time at a few different teams, Dickey then found himself as starter for the Mets in 2010 at the age of 35. Two years later, he won the NL Cy Young Award and was voted an All-Star in one of the feel-good stories of the year in all of sports. Dickey’s story is an inspirational one as he almost gave up on baseball entirely, but through hard work he proved himself to be great and this is something that many struggling athletes can learn from.
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.
Thomas was no spring chicken by this point in the 2005-06 season, but he was just beginning his famous NHL life. He had a .917 save percentage that season as well as his first shutout, and for this he was offered a new three-year deal. He soon became an All-Star, and even won the Vezina Trophy in 2009. In the 2010-11 season, Thomas broke the NHL record for save percentage (.938), guided the Bruins to the finals where he posted a shutout in Game 7 to win the Stanley Cup and playoff MVP (becoming the oldest player to win the award).
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.
He then moved to the Rangers, where he would become a 5x All-Star and amaze the world. Just a few years later he was voted the AL and ALCS MVP. It is a fantastic and inspirational story, but you can’t help but wonder how things would have been had he not fallen down a slippery slope so early on. He relapsed earlier this year as a member of the Angels. They recently traded him back to Texas.
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.
That summer, Davis had a remarkable 8-inch growth spurt and all of a sudden he was being closely followed by scouts in college and the pros in his Junior year. He would commit to Kentucky, and before long he was one of the hottest prospects in the country and was even named to the 2012 Olympic squad despite not playing a single minute in the NBA.
4 Rocky Marciano
Legendary boxer Rocky Marciano was a late bloomer who did not have his first professional fight until he was 25 years old. He participated in a series of amateur fights at Fort Lewis whilst he was finishing his service, but the jump up to the pros did not faze him like it would many others who came late to boxing. Amazingly, Marciano would win his first 16 fights by knockout, and he would then go on to win the world heavyweight championship in 1952. Marciano defended his title an impressive six times, with five of these won by knockout. Rocky Marciano, who started out playing football and baseball, would go on to a 49-0-0 record (43 by knockout).
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.
At around the age of 28, Johnson found his control and polished his game to become one of the all-time great left handed pitchers and a force to be reckoned with. Unlike most athletes who peak around the age of 30, Johnson was at his best in his late 30s and played until he was 46 years old. During his prime, he would approach (and sometimes exceed) a 100 mph fastball.
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.
He instead turned to basketball in high school, and it is here where he grew nine inches by his senior year and had developed into a sound player. He went on to Wake Forest where he continued to improve and became Player of the Year in his senior year. He was then drafted by the San Antonio Spurs and is widely recognized as the greatest power forward in NBA history to go along with five championship rings.
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.