Fans often scoff when they see players hold out for larger contracts. Do they really need that extra million? Why don’t they just sign the contract. After all, in their lifetime, most fans will make well below what an NFL star makes in a single season.
It’s hard to justify the hold out. It’s hard to understand the whining and the pleading to the media. However, like the old cliché says, “don’t judge a book by its cover.” Look deep inside that book–the player’s history–and you’ll see why many of these athletes want to grab the very last dollar of their non-guaranteed contract.
Every player listed here once was or currently is a top paid player at their position, but they faced many hardships before they found the pot of gold.
Though hard work and dedication, many overcame poverty, child abuse, drugs, and jail. They overcame poor grades, personality disorders, and family dysfunction. Many were homeless. They all lacked enough money to put food on their tables. These players worked endlessly to escape the shadows they lived in, so they could stand under the lights cast by NFL stadiums. In this article, we define “dirt poor” in many ways. It obviously means lacking money, but is also indicates a below standard style of living, which we should understand means many things to different people.
20. Herschel Walker, RB, Retired
Walker had to work hard to become a star athlete. When he was in high school, Walker was so heavily picked on for being overweight and having a speech impediment that he found himself eventually going through a rigorous training regiment to become one of the best athletes in the state. We’re sure those kids regret not getting on his good side.
Due to his tough childhood, Walker also developed multiple personality disorder, which is something he is still battling today. Since then, he’s written a book on his disorder, and hopes it will provide hope and inspiration for others.
19. Ray Lewis, LB, Retired
Lewis’ has been a leader since childhood. With his father’s absence, he became the man of the house and took care of his four younger siblings. Eventually Lewis dropped his birth name, Ray Jenkins, because of his father’s absence and took on the last name “Lewis.” He became a star athlete at Kathleen High School and entered the University of Miami with a full scholarship, eventually making his way into the NFL and helping lead the Ravens to two Super Bowl victories.
18. Daunte Culpepper, QB, Retired
Prior to throwing touchdown passes to Randy Moss as the Vikings’ quarterback, Culpepper was growing up under less than ideal conditions. He was born to a single mother, who, while pregnant with Daunte, served time in a correctional institute. When Daunte was a day old, Emma Lewis Culpepper adopted and raised him along with 15 other children. He credits her for helping him grow into a well educated athlete with direction and focus.
17. Knowshon Moreno, RB, Miami Dolphins
While growing up, Moreno lacked a structured family life, often bouncing around homeless shelters in upper Manhattan. Born to 16-year-old Varashon McQueen and 17-year-old Freddie Moreno, Knowshon’s grandmother finally gave the future running back a place he could call home. Eventually that home became the NFL, but things became all too familiar and uncertain for the 12th overall pick when he was relegated to scout teams duties on the Broncos. He overcame those challenges to help his former team, the Broncos, make it to the Super Bowl.
16. Michael Vick, QB, New York Jets
Vick grew up in a part of town known more for drug and gang activity than developing future NFL stars. Despite the unstable area, Vick still grew up in a stable family environment, which makes it all the more surprising those outside his circle of trust brought him down. After he served jail time for dog fighting, Vick eventually returned to the field and played stand-out football for the Eagles.
15. Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota Vikings
Peterson grew up under rather harsh circumstances. In recent interviews, he’s stated he was relegated to the same punishments from his father that his children currently receive by him. When he was 13, police arrested his father for money laundering. Six years prior, he witnessed his brother die after the latter was hit by a drunk driver. Despite the rough path, he eventually made it to the NFL as the seventh overall draft pick.
14. Terrell Owens, WR, Free Agent
When most think of Terrell Owens, they likely don’t view him as a humble individual. If anything, most know him to be outspoken and controversial. Yet, if they learned about his past, they’d realize he actually came from very humble beginnings. Born to a seventeen year old, Owen’s over-protective grandmother raised him. She was so protective of Owens, he wasn’t allowed to leave the yard to play with the other children. He’d often watch from the windows as others frolicked in the street. Owens’ most devastating moment came when he found out that his father and sister were actually living across the street from him his entire life.
13. Tyrann Mathieu, FS, Arizona Cardinals
Mathieu faced hardship from the outset. A jury convicted his father of murder, and his grandparents and then aunt and uncle, raised him. Aside from facing at-home problems, Mathieu also lost many of his possessions in Hurricane Katrina. The last of his struggles came at LSU, when a tough final season caused him to fall swiftly down the 2013 draft boards.
12. Dez Bryant, WR, Dallas Cowboys
Bryant grew up in a dysfunctional home, better known for destroying lives than creating future NFL stars. When he was eight-years old, police arrested his mother for selling illegal substances. While in school, teachers often cited Bryant’s random outbursts, and prior to entering the NFL , police arrested him for allegedly assaulting his mother. His life is a work in progress, but it’s trending in a positive direction.
11. James Jones, WR, Oakland Raiders
Jones took a long, hard road to become the Raiders’ number one receiver. For the first 15 years of his life, he was in and out of homeless shelters and motels. His father and mother, or lack thereof, as well as much of his family were heavy drug users. He found stability when he moved in with his grandmother. He then went to school at San Jose State before being drafted in the 3rd round and becoming a favorite of Aaron Rodgers.
10. Devonta Freeman, RB, Atlanta Falcons
Atlanta’s fourth-round pick in the 2014 draft grew up in Pork ‘N Beans projects, which he considers to be the toughest neighborhood in Florida. “You never know what you’re going to get [in Pork ‘N Beans],” said the running back. Freeman and his family often went to bed hungry. His mother worked in a warehouse for minimum wage, so Freeman had to work three jobs to help his family. That hard worked paid off this past spring when the Falcons drafted him.
9. Demaryius Thomas, WR, Denver Broncos
Thomas came from a life of illegal substances and homelessness. While in sixth grade, police raided Thomas’ home and arrested his mother and grandmother on federal charges of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute illegal substances. From the time of their arrest until Thomas was in 10th grade, he stayed in four homes. His aunt finally took him in and raised him. He ended up going to Georgia Tech before being drafted in the 1st round by the Denver Broncos.
8. Michael Sam, DE, Dallas Cowboys
Sam was the first gay football player to be drafted by the NFL and the first to be currently on an active roster (the Cowboys). However, getting to the NFL as a gay man may not have been his greatest challenge. Did you know Sam was the seventh of eight children, and that he briefly lived in the backseat of his mother’s car? Or, did you know three of his siblings died and two of his brothers currently reside in prison?
7. Curtis Martin, RB, Retired
Martin brought the crowd to tears at his Hall-of-Fame ceremony as he recalled his tough upbringing, his mother’s pain, and their eventual healing process. He recalled how his alcoholic father once abused and tortured his mother by setting her hair on fire and burning cigarettes into her leg. Urged by his Pasture, Martin used football to make a difference in people’s lives, including his own and his mother’s.
6. Brandon Marshall, WR, Chicago Bears
Marshall has never shied away from controversy, likely because he was always part of it while he grew up. When he was younger, his father abused and assaulted his mother in a variety of ways. And in 1991, police found a large amount of illegal substances in his father’s truck. Prior to entering the NFL, Marshall also had a number of encounters with authority himself, but has worked through that to become one of the premier receivers in the game.
5. Michael Oher, OL, Tennessee Titans
Oher escaped a violent upbringing in north Memphis, Tennessee to become one of the NFL’s best offensive lineman. The movie, “The Blind Side,” portrays Oher’s journey from the slums to the Ravens. He walked parallel to gang violence and illegal substance trafficking before breaking away and living with the Tuohy family. Their structured environment helped Oher channel his frustration into hard work on and off the field. In 2013, Oher won his first Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens.
4. Adam Jones, CB, Cincinnati Bengals
Much of Jones’ early NFL struggles stemmed from his tough upbringing. He heard the gunshots, which killed his father outside his apartment in Bankhead, Boat Rock. In the ensuing years, his mother and grandmother raised him. When he entered the NFL, Jones carried a lot of baggage, and it was only two years ago that a judge ordered him to pay $11.65 million in compensatory damages for his role in a shooting outside a Las Vegas Strip Club. Since then, he’s turned his life around, often speaking to rookies at symposiums about how not to live a similar life.
3. Darnell Dockett, DE, Arizona Cardinals
When Dockett was younger, he became more familiar with death and shoplifting than football. At the age of 13, Dockett returned home one day to find his mother dead. She was killed execution style from a gunshot wound to the head. His father died of pancreatic cancer. As he worked his way through college, poor grades and the perception of being a shoplifter caused teams to shy away from the defensive standout. But the Cardinals took a chance and were eventually rewarded on and off the field by the 2004 third-round pick.
2. Jimmy Graham, TE, New Orleans Saints
Graham is now worth $21 million guaranteed, but at one point, he believes he was only worth $98. That is how much his father refused to pay his mother for child support each month. Because he refused to pay, the father dropped Graham off at social services, and Graham’s mother eventually surrendered her son to the state. While at the home, a group of teenagers took turns beating Graham, and when he called his mother, she hung up on him. Eventually finding his way to the Abundant Life Fellowship Church, he met Becky Vincent who took on the role of being his mother. She raised him and watched him grow into a star athlete.
1. Tamba Hali, LB, Kansas City Chiefs
Born in 1983, Hali grew up in war-torn Libera. When he had just turned nine, fighting around his hometown of Gbarnga forced his mother to gather her children and flee into the countryside. They got by on whatever food they could gather. Eventually the family fled to the Ivory Coast and then to America when Hali’s father was able to bring his children across the Atlantic. Because the United States only granted the children visas, his mother stayed on the Ivory Cost. In 2006, when Hali became a citizen, he finally brought his mother to America.
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