Real-life rags to riches stories

Derek Simon, INVESTOPEDIA.COM

, Last Updated: 4:26 PM ET

North Americans love a good rags-to-riches story, whether it involves a fictional character like Rocky Balboa or a real-life underdog like Chris Daughtry of "American Idol" fame. Nowhere is this more evident than in the world of sports.

Old-time football fans undoubtedly recall the story of Johnny Unitas, a ninth-round draft choice by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1955 who was released and wound up playing semi-pro ball for the Bloomfield Rams for $6 a game. Given a second chance by the Baltimore (now Indianapolis) Colts, Unitas went on to a Hall of Fame career that included 10 Pro Bowl appearances and three league MVP awards. What's more, his record of 47 consecutive games (between 1956-60) in which he threw at least one touchdown pass still stands today.

Here's a look at some other athletes that would have made Horatio Alger proud.

Kurt Warner

If Johnny Unitas was getting $6 a game for playing semi-pro football in the 1950s, imagine the pittance Kurt Warner would've made bagging groceries back then. Of course, the story of Warner's ascent from the guy bellowing "paper or plastic" at a Hy-Vee grocery store for $5.50 an hour to the guy barking out signals in Super Bowl XXXIV is well known, and makes him one of the ultimate rags-to-riches success stories.

Undrafted out of college and later cut by the Green Bay Packers following a 1994 tryout, Warner played in the Arena Football League before he was signed by the St. Louis Rams of the National Football League and assigned to NFL Europe's Amsterdam Admirals. Ironically, during his tenure with the Admirals, Jake Delhomme, who recently signed a contract with the Cleveland Browns after being released from his monster contract with the Carolina Panthers, was Warner's backup.

Among the highest-rated QBs of all time, Warner is a two-time NFL MVP and Super Bowl MVP. Better yet, he can still sack foodstuff with the best of them.

"I go to the grocery store and I still want to bag my own groceries," Warner noted on "Best Damn Sports Show Period" in December of 2008. "I still think I can do it better than anyone else in the grocery store."

Mike Piazza

With all the time and money that is spent on scouting in pro sports, it boggles the mind that Mike Piazza, whom many consider to be the best-hitting catcher of all time, almost didn't make it to the Major Leagues. Chosen by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 62nd round of the June 1988 Free Agent Draft, Piazza was the 1,390th of 1,433 total players selected that year, partly as a favor to then-Dodgers' manager Tom Lasorda, who is a Piazza family friend.

In his 16-year career, Piazza was a 12-time All-Star, as well as a 10-time winner of the Silver Slugger Award, given annually to the best offensive player at each position in the AL and NL (as voted on by coaches and managers). And while Piazza's take-home pay in the early '90s was slightly more than Warner's, the $126,000 he made in 1993 pales in comparison to the $12 million to $16 million he routinely banked while playing for the New York Mets later in his career. (These multi-million dollar contracts have haunted the players who scored them, then failed to deliver. Don't miss Top 10 Most Hair-Raising Sports Contracts.)

Tony Parker

Standing just six feet, two inches tall and weighing a mere 180 pounds, Tony Parker is not your prototypical New Millennium point guard. Add to that no college basketball experience and an erratic jump shot and it might seem unlikely that Parker would one day become an NBA All-Star, much less a three-time All-Star and Finals MVP.

Selected by the San Antonio Spurs with the 28th pick of the 2001 NBA draft, Parker became the first foreign-born player - he hails from Bruges, Belgium, although he grew up in Paris, France - to be named to the All-Rookie First Team. A year later, he earned the first of his three NBA Championship rings.

In 2007, the same year he was named NBA Finals MVP, Parker married actress Eva Longoria in Paris. For his career (through March 14, 2010), Parker is averaging 16.7 points and 5.6 assists per game, along with 1.0 "Desperate Housewives."

Luc Robitaille

Although he was selected in the ninth round of the 1984 NHL draft, the 171st player taken overall, Robitaille was an instant hit with the Los Angeles Kings. In his inaugural season, the 6-foot-1 winger tallied 45 goals and 39 assists (84 points) en route to the Calder Trophy as the league's top rookie in 1986-87.

By the time he retired in 2006, Robitaille was the all-time leading scorer among left wings with 1,394 points in 1,431 games. Though he is most identified for his three stints with the Kings (from 1986-94, 1997-2001 and 2003-06), Robitaille also played for the Pittsburgh Penguins, the New York Rangers and the Detroit Red Wings, where he won his only Stanley Cup championship in 2002.

Robitaille became only the fifth Kings player to have his jersey (number 20) retired in 2007 and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2009. (If you do a little sleuthing and stay flexible on which teams to follow, you can still enjoy all the excitement of live sporting events. Learn more in Money-Saving Tips For Sports Fans.)

The Bottom Line

As these players prove, it's not where one starts, but where one ends in life that matters. So the next time you're at the supermarket and witness a bag boy going deep with a loaf of bread, take notice. He might just be a future Super Bowl MVP.


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