Rags to Riches in the NFL

Rags to riches stories are nothing new in American culture; it is the foundation of what our nation was built on and the inspiration for many immigrants seeking today’s version of the American Dream. The miracle of people rising above their circumstances to realize not only fame and fortune, but also personal success, captures the essence of the American spirit and revives hope in all that we imagine to be good about the world.

Arguably, there are few industries where this type of rags to riches story is more prevalent than in the world of professional sports. With Sandra Bullock’s recent blockbuster, The Blind Side, individuals overcoming adversity and life circumstances are at the forefront of our culture once again. With the Super Bowl just two days away, what better time than now to review some of the greatest rags to riches stories of the NFL?

1. Michael Oher

Naturally, first on our list has to be the player who inspired the story of The Blind Side, Michael Oher. With an absent father figure and a mother addicted to cocaine, Oher came into the world with the odds mounted against him. Foster homes and failing grades dotted this young man’s childhood, until Leigh Anne and Sean Tuohy stepped up to the scrimmage line and drastically altered the course of Oher’s life. Going on to become one of the most heavily recruited high school athletes, Oher played college ball for Ole Miss, earning recognition as a first-team All-SEC and first team All-American. In 2009, the Baltimore Ravens scooped up Oher as the 23rd pick in the first round of the NFL draft. On that fateful day, Oher signed a five-year contract for $13.8 million.

2. Marshall Faulk

As the youngest of six boys, Faulk grew up public housing in New Orleans until the age of 12 when the family moved to a dilapidated home where they used the kitchen stove for heat. His mother once told reporters that a black boy making it out of that rough and tumble neighborhood was a blessing because you could never tell when a stray bullet was coming. Once, when revisiting New Orleans to play for the St. Louis Rams, Faulk told Sports Illustrated, “I love coming home. I just [never] wanted it to stop there. I didn’t accept just getting a high school education as it. I wanted to go to college, I wanted to move on. I wanted better things for myself and my family.”

Better things he surely got. He was drafted for the No. 2 spot in 1994. His $17 million contract, which included a signing bonus for $5.1 million, was one of the largest at the time for a rookie. He went on to earn a Super Bowl ring and MVP award. Like him or hate him, Faulk’s rags to riches story cannot be denied. Today he is one of only three NFL players, alongside Marcus Allen and Tiki Barber, to reach 10,000 rushing yards and 5,000 receiving yards in his career.

3. Kurt Warner

While some may question the validity of Warner’s past in rags, the fact still remains that when googling NFL rags to riches stories, his name pulls up the most hits. Perhaps it is not that he experienced extreme poverty like Faulk or Oher, but more so that he never gave up in the fight against adversity. His work as a grocery store clerk has been well documented, and he certainly wasn’t earning the riches at his time in the Arena Football League. So when Kurt Warner came on to the roster of the St. Louis Rams at the age of 28, no one expected much—except for Warner himself. He proved all the doubters and the haters wrong throughout the 12-year span of his NFL career, earning a Super Bowl ring with the St. Louis Rams and two MVP awards. In the midst of Miami’s Pro Bowl and Super Bowl mania over recent weeks, he announced his retirement from the NFL.

4. Warrick Dunn

Warrick Dunn, born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, may not have come from the same meager surroundings that Oher experienced in his early life, but the death of his mother while in high school is just as inspiring of a story. Dunn’s mother, Betty Smothers, worked as a police officer to support her six children as a single mother. In 1993, when Dunn was a senior playing high school football, Smothers was working overtime as an off-duty officer at a local supermarket. On the night of January 7, she was ambushed by armed robbers and killed, leaving Dunn, the oldest of the siblings, to support his brothers and sisters just weeks before making his college selection. He accepted a scholarship to Florida State University and went on to help the Seminoles secure their first national title for the 1993-94 season. The rest of his college career included setting rushing records, including that as the only Seminole to rush for more than 1,000 yards for three consecutive seasons.

Dunn was selected in the first round of the 1997 NFL draft and signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for millions. He went on to play as a running back for the Atlanta Falcons and in 2008 went back to the Bucs for a two-year, $6 million contract. He asked to be released from his contract early, and this past December news reports surfaced that he became a minority owner in the Falcons for an undisclosed amount. Dubbed “one of the good guys in pro sports,” Dunn is not only revered for his financial success and athletic prowess, but for his dedication to community and philanthropy.

5. Jameel McClain

From starving on the streets to a Philadelphia homeless shelter, Jameel McClain certainly knows the rags side of the story. Just completing his second year with the Baltimore Ravens, the linebacker is now realizing the riches side of the dream, one yard at a time. He was the only undrafted rookie free agent to show up on the Ravens’ roster in 2008. And though he may still be climbing his way up into the millions-of-dollars classification, a figure close to half a million a year is certainly an inspiration of hope to anyone who has been down and out.