If you’re a true sports fan, then there’s nothing you love more than supporting athletes with incredible stories – even if they play for a team you don’t like. There’s nothing quite like a good comeback story or underdog story where an athlete overcomes odds en route to greatness.
It’s something we witness in every sport and it’s something that will inspire anyone with a heart and soul. These athletes with incredible stories prove that anything is possible, even the unthinkable and improbable. They give millions of people around the world hope and faith.
The human race is capable of some incredible things, but those capabilities are only explored by those brave enough to test themselves. Even those that fail can say they tried, which is enough to inspire someone else to try – if not yourself. That type of resilience will reciprocate to others.
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You Won’t Believe These Athletes With Incredible Stories
There’s no shortage of athletes with incredible stories – they’re everywhere, they aren’t going anywhere, and they’ll continue to shock those that bear witness to their achievements. Just when you think you’ve seen everything in the sports world, someone new proves you wrong.
We saw a perfect example of this a few weeks ago when Adonis Lattimore, a high school senior who was born without legs and only one finger on one of his hands, won the Virginia High School League Class 6 state wrestling championship. His story quickly spread on social media.
And that’s just one of the many athletes with incredible stories. If you’re looking for some more inspiration or motivation, you’ve come to the right place. Below, we’re going to detail 15 unique athletes with incredible stories that will make you rethink what’s possible and what’s not.
15. Niki Lauda
Niki Lauda is a former Formula One driver from Vienna, Austria. He made his debut in 1971 and eventually emerged as one of the sport’s premier drivers after winning the F1 World Drivers’ Championship in 1975 with Ferrari. The 1976 season looked to be going much the same way.
On 1 August, 1976, Lauda was involved in a devastating crash during the second lap in which his Ferrari 312T2 swerved off the track and burst into flames. Trapped in the wreckage, he was finally pulled out of the car by a fellow driver, but he suffered severe burns and inhaled toxic gas.
Despite his injuries, Lauda was back behind the wheel in just six weeks, finished the 1976 season, and came one point away from a back-to-back championship. Nonetheless, he returned in 1977 to win his second championship and eventually won his third in 1984.
14. Sandeep Singh
Sandeep Singh is an Indian field hockey player that some people might recognize if they’ve seen the 2018 biographical film Soorma, directed by Indian filmmaker Shaad Ali and released in 2018. Field hockey might not be the most popular sport today, but his story will live on forever.
Between 2004 and 2006, Singh was making a name for himself with India’s national team, but his career came to a screeching halt after he was hit by an accidental gunshot in August of 2006. He was just 20 years old and was on his way to join his team for the World Cup in Africa.
Singh was nearly paralyzed and spent a year of his life in a wheelchair, but eventually worked his way back to field hockey. By 2008, he was the top scorer of the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup. He continues to play to this day, is a former captain, and has even embarked on a political career.
13. Vince Papale
If you’ve seen the 2006 film Invincible, directed by Ericson Core, then you know the name Vince Papale. Even if you haven’t seen the film, Papale is a very recognizable name to any football fan that roots for the underdog – which is exactly what he was when he joined the NFL in 1976.
Prior to 1976, Papale was a college track and field athlete that found himself playing in the World Football League in 1974. Though he was a wide receiver, his strength was on special teams. In fact, his special teams play caught the eye of Philadelphia Eagles’ head coach Dick Vermeil.
Despite working as a part time bartender, nightclub doorman, and substitute teacher at the time, Papale earned an invitation to a free agent tryout in 1976. He eventually made the team and played in 41 games for the team over the next three years, primarily on special teams.
12. Tom Brady
We all know who Tom Brady is. He’s the greatest football player of all-time that has more Super Bowl rings than any franchise in the NFL and is the league’s all-time leader in passing yards, passing touchdowns, completions, and wins by a starting quarterback – just to name a few.
While most football fans are aware of his story, many people on the outside looking in might not understand that Tom Brady was a sixth round draft pick in 2000 – he was the 199th overall pick in a draft with just over 250 picks. At the time, not many people knew who Tom Brady was.
That stayed true his rookie season, having appeared in one game as a backup for the Patriots. In 2001, however, he started a legacy no one could’ve ever imagined. Over the next 21 years, Brady appeared in 10 Super Bowls and won seven of them. He had a 243-73 record as starter.
11. Roberto Clemente
Roberto Clemente is one of the greatest baseball players of all-time. Over his 18-year career in the MLB, the Puerto Rican right fielder recorded 3,000 hits, 240 home runs, 1,305 runs batted in, and 1,416 runs scored with a .317 batting average. He won two World Series and one MVP.
During the offseason, Clemente made it a tradition to do humanitarian and volunteer work in Caribbean countries that needed it most. Whether it was delivering baseball equipment to inspire younger generations or delivering food to those in need, Clemente was always ready to help.
Clemente would’ve achieved much more in his life if he hadn’t passed away during the 1972 offseason. He was involved in a plane crash while delivering aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. It was a tragedy then and it’s a tragedy today, but he remains an inspiration to all.
10. Shaquem Griffin
Shaquem Griffin was born in 1995 with amniotic band syndrome in his left hand. The syndrome caused his fingers to not develop properly and introduced a great deal of pain in his life. By the age of four, the pain was so unbearable he threatened to cut his hand off with a butcher knife.
His mother interjected and decided to amputate his left hand the next day. Despite his disability, Griffin played sports his entire childhood alongside his twin brother Shaquill Griffin. The two would later play football for Central Florida University – Shaquem Griffin was a linebacker.
Shaquem was the AAC Defensive Player of the Year in 2016 and entered the 2018 NFL Draft as an interesting prospect. He had an impressive combine and was drafted by the Seattle Seahawks in the fifth round. He’s a free agent right now, but he does have two career sacks.
9. Jim Abbott
Before the sports world had Shaquem Griffin, it had Jim Abbott. Despite being born without a right hand, the only thing Abbott wanted to do was play baseball. Unfortunately, baseball is largely viewed as a two-handed sport – one hand for the glove and one for throwing the ball.
As a child, he would throw a rubber ball at the wall and try to put his glove on in the time it took the ball to come back to him. The better he got at this, the closer he would move to the wall. He became so good at this that he began playing little league baseball at the age of 11 years old.
10 years later, Abbott was one of the best amateur pitches and was selected in the second round of the 1988 MLB Draft. He started 254 games in the MLB and had a record of 87-108. Not many people can say they have 87 wins as a pitcher in the MLB – Abbott did it with one hand.
8. Pat Tillman
Pat Tillman started focusing on football in his sophomore year of high school and eventually earned a football scholarship to play at Arizona State University. He was a star both on the field and in the classroom, earning honors in both roles – including Arizona State’s MVP in 1997.
Despite a successful college career as a linebacker, Tillman wasn’t drafted until the seventh round and made the move to safety his rookie season. He played in all 16 games that year and even started in 10 of them, recording 73 tackles and one sack for the Arizona Cardinals.
He spent the next three seasons with the Cardinals, but put his football career on hold following the 9/11 terrorist attack in 2001. He joined the United States Army in 2002 and served several tours in Iraq and Afghanistan before being killed in action due to friendly fire on April 22, 2004.
7. Ted Williams
Ted Williams is one of the greatest baseball players of all-time and is the last MLB player to record a season batting average above .400. Over a 19-year MLB career, Williams was a two-time MVP, two-time Triple Crown winner, 19-time All-Star, and won six batting titles.
When he wasn’t carving up pitchers with his consistent and precise batting, he was serving his country as a member of the United States Navy and Marine Corps. He served for three years during World War II. At the time, he was just 23 years old and finished his fourth MLB season.
In his first season back from war, he won his first MVP award and won his second just three years later in 1949. During the 1952 and 1953 seasons, he returned to service as a Marine combat aviator during the Korean War. He played seven more seasons before retiring.
6. Kurt Warner
Kurt Warner had a unique and inspiring path to the NFL – similar to that of Vince Papale, but with far more glory on the sport’s biggest stages. He played football in high school, but was a third string in college up until his senior year, at which point he was the starter and played well.
Despite being named Gateway Conference’s Offensive Player of the Year, Warner went undrafted in the 1994 NFL Draft. Over the next four years, he tried out for the Packers, was released by the Packers, worked at a grocery store, and played in the Arena Football League.
In 1998, he signed a futures contract with the St. Louis Rams. By 1999, he was the team’s starter and led them to a 35-8 record over the next three years – which included two MVP trophies and a Super Bowl victory. After a 12-year career, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame.
5. Magic Johnson
Magic Johnson is one of the greatest point guards in NBA history and helped revolutionize the position for future generations. At 6-foot-9, he was taller than most point guards and showed off his versatility as a passer, shooter, rebounder, defender, and leader on the basketball court.
He was drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers with the first overall draft pick in 1979. Over the next 12 seasons, Johnson helped lead the Lakers to five championships and won three MVP awards, three Finals MVP awards, and two All-Star MVP awards. He was a 12-time All-Star.
Unfortunately, his playing career was cut short after a physical revealed he tested positive for HIV ahead of the 1991-92 season. He retired immediately, but returned in 1995 and played 32 games for the Lakers before retiring for good. He’s now one of the richest athletes in the world.
4. Michael Jordan
We all know who Michael Jordan is. Even those who aren’t fans of the NBA know who Michael Jordan is. He’s one of the most recognizable and profitable brands in all of sports and is one of, if not the greatest basketball player of all-time. His talent and competitiveness are unmatched.
Many people know of his greatness at the NCAA and NBA level, but not many people know the adversity he faced in high school. After failing to make the varsity team as a sophomore, he played a year on the junior varsity team and lit it up with several 40-point games in the process.
He made the varsity team the next two years, tearing it up as a junior and senior. He then played three years at North Carolina before being drafted third overall in 1984 – which is when his legacy really took off. He even dabbled in the professional baseball scene for several years.
3. Bethany Hamilton
Bethany Hamilton has become one of the most inspirational figures in the surfing community. You might recognize her if you’ve read her autobiography Soul Surfer: A True Story of Faith, Family, and Fighting to Get Back on the Board or watched the subsequent film Soul Surfer.
Hamilton learned how to surf at the age of three, started competing at the age of eight, and was a sponsored surfer by the age of 10. Unfortunately, she was involved in a tragic shark attack at the age of 13, leaving her without her entire left arm. It happened along Tunnels Beach, Kauai.
Despite losing over 60% of her blood during the attack (in addition to her arm), she was back on her board one month later. Just a few months after that, she entered her first competition since the attack. She still competes to this day, though she hasn’t won a competition since 2007.
2. Michael Oher
Michael Oher didn’t have an easy life growing up. His mother was an alcoholic and drug addict. His father was frequently in prison and eventually died in prison. He didn’t have anyone to look up to or guide him until Tony Henderson, a local mechanic, stepped in to help the young boy.
Henderson allowed Oher to stay in an extra room in his house. During that time, Oher started to attend school and play football. While he excelled at football, his grades were abysmal. Nonetheless, he managed to increase his grades high enough to play Division I college football.
He played for the University of Mississippi, also known as Ole Miss, for four years before declaring for the NFL Draft in 2008. He was a first round draft pick and played eight seasons in the NFL, eventually winning a Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII.
1. Jackie Robinson
Jackie Robinson had one of the most historical and legendary baseball careers of all-time. When he made his MLB debut in 1947, he became the first African American to play in an MLB game, effectively breaking the color barrier that plagued the sport of baseball since the 1880s.
Not only was a key contributor to the civil rights movement, but Robinson displayed his talent in a major way during his 10-year MLB career. He won Rookie of the Year in 1947, the MVP award and batting title in 1949, and was named a World Series Champion during the 1955 season.
Robinson’s No. 42 was retired by the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1972 and later retired by all MLB teams in 1997. In 2004, the MLB adopted ‘Jackie Robinson Day’ where every player on every team wears the No. 42 in-game. It goes to show the impact he had on the baseball community.
Which Athletes With Incredible Stories Inspire You?
The athletes with incredible stories that we highlighted above are so inspirational that their legacies will live on forever. They’ve inspired young athletes around the world and many of those young athletes will have or already have had successful careers in their respective sports.
From Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in the mid-1940s to Niki Lauda recovering from a massive Formula One crash in the mid-1970s and most recently Adonis Lattimore winning the state wrestling championship without legs and only one finger in one of his hands in 2022.
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There’s so much inspiration in the world of sports and history is being written on a daily basis. If you’re ever feeling down about yourself or need a source of motivation, you can always turn to some of the amazing athletes with incredible stories that overcame extreme odds in life.
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