Ten Of The Best Zero To Hero Stories In Sport

By Ian John
August 9, 2023

Everyone loves a good underdog-comes-good zero to hero story. Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky won an Oscar for portraying the titular hero’s quest to defeat the fictional World Heavyweight Champion Apollo Creed.

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    In fact, the story of a nobody becoming a somebody has its roots much further back in time. Ever since David slayed Goliath, perhaps?

    When it comes to the modern day, it is sport which has offered us some of the best zero to hero stories of our times.

    Few football fans will forget the season when Leicester City fans gave bookies like bet365 Sport a bit of a shock when their team won the Premier League. At the start of the season, some fans took the 5,000/1 odds on the Foxes to win the title.

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    However, it is not just football which has seen these types of stories capture the imagination of fans across the globe. Almost every sport has its own story.

    And we’ve picked ten of the best zero to hero stories to look at in more detail below, listed in no particular order.

    Ten of the Most Amazing Zero to Hero Stories

    Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards – Ski Jumping

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    At the Calgary Olympics in 1988, the world waited to see the best Ski Jumper in history, Matty Nykaenen claim what looked like an inevitable gold medal. The Finn duly obliged, but he wasn’t the biggest story at the Olympics.

    Along with the Jamaican bobsleigh team, it was the unlikely British Ski Jumper, Eddie Edwards who caught the attention with just how far he was behind the other competitors.

    However, his efforts saw him taken to the hearts of the Canadian fans and he became the star of the games, earning himself the ironic nickname “The Eagle”.

    Lauded as the embodiment of the Olympic Spirit, Edwards fame spread globally and became the subject of a hugely successful film starring Taron Egerton in the titular role.

    Eddie Edwards is the proof that zero to hero stories don’t always end with the subject being a winner!

    Mr Irrelevant to 49ers Starting QB – Brock Purdy – American Football

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    The number of players picked in an NFL Draft can change from year to year. What doesn’t alter, is the man picked with the last pick of the draft. He is known as Mr Irrelevant.

    That’s because generally speaking, players picked last often struggle to make it onto an NFL squad, let alone make an appearance for their team.

    In the 2022 NFL Draft, the San Francisco 49ers held the 262nd and very last pick. With it they selected quarterback Brock Purdy as Mr Irrelevant for that year.

    However, after injuries during the season to first and second choice QBs Trey Lance and Jimmy Garoppolo, both went down with season-ending injuries. With 5 games left of the season, Brock Purdy became Mr very relevant in San Francisco.

    And a chance to go from a zero to hero!

    In his first game, he beat Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and took the 49ers into the playoffs with five straight regular season wins throwing for 1,374 yards, 13 touchdowns and just 4 interceptions.

    He then led the 49ers to the NFC Championship Game, where they lost out to the Philadelphia Eagles.

    Even so, it was a remarkable zero to hero turnaround for a player who is now many people’s favourites to take the 49ers starting job for the start of the new season.

    Pelly Ruddock Mpanzu – Non-League to Premier League with one club – Football

    In 2014, after a short loan spell with the Conference club, Pelley Ruddock Mpanzu left West Ham to join non-league Luton.

    The Hatters had fallen on hard times, with successive relegations seeing them demoted into the Conference and out of the football league altogether.

    Since then Mpanzu has played an important role as Luton have moved through the divisions, earning promotion from the Conference in 2013/14. He was still at the club in 2017/18 when they won the League Two title, and again a year later when they went into the Championship.

    Mpanzu was also a member of the squad that won promotion to the Premier League last season. In doing so, becoming the first player to go from the Conference to the Premier League with the same club.

    Having signed a new deal just days ago, Mpanzu looks likely to be the first player ever to make at least one appearance with the same club in all five top divisions of the English game. A zero to hero story of persistence and patience!

    Rob Cross – From Amateur to World Champion in two years – Darts

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    Back in 2016, Rob Cross was working as an electrician and playing darts part time. He tuned in to the 2016 World Darts Final and decided that he would try to make a fist of things in the professional game.

    After a solid performance at the 2016 UK Championship, Cross went onto the PDC Challenge Tour and won 3 of 16 events to finish top of the order of merit and earning himself a tour card for the 2017 season.

    In 2017, Cross continued to enjoy success in floor events, winning four Players Championship titles and reaching the final of three other events, where he lost each time to Michael van Gerwen.

    In the 2018 World Championship, Cross was seeded 20th and proceeded to stun the world as he defeated Seigo Asada, Michael Smith, John Henderson, Dimitri Van den Bergh and Michael van Gerwen to earn a shot at Phil Taylor in the final.

    He defeated Phil Taylor 7-2 and became the only player to have faced match darts in two previous rounds and to then have gone on to win the final. He is one of very few players to win a World title at the first attempt – a real zero to hero tale!

    Too small, too skinny to the best ever – Lionel Messi – Soccer

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    In the early 1990s, Argentinean football was seeing the final few years of Diego Maradona, but in the streets of Rosario, a new legend was working his way from zero to hero.

    His name was Lionel Messi, a diminutive youngster who signed for Grandoli aged four, but moved on to Newells Old Boys aged six. In six years at the club he scored almost 500 goals but by the age of 10, a deficiency in growth hormones threatened to curtail his career.

    After clubs in Argentina refused to pay the $1,000 per month for the treatment, Messi moved to Barcelona, who did and by the age of 14, he had finished his treatment and was a regular in Barcelona’s greatest ever youth team.

    His progress through the ranks saw him become one of Barcelona’s youngest ever players making his La Liga debut in 2004/05.

    Since then, he has gone on to become arguably the best player in history, playing 885 games and scoring 715 goals in club football, 103 goals in 175 caps for Argentina, winning the Copa America and World Cup for his country as well as immeasurable team and personal honours.

    In 2022, he led Argentina to the World Cup Final success over France to put any doubt as to his greatness aside. From zero to hero, Messi has won it all.

    YouTube video

    Kurt Warner – $5.50 per hour, to Super Bowl legend and NFL Hall of Fame – American Football

    Kurt Warner went undrafted in the 1994 NFL Draft, signing with the Green Bay Packers as a free agent following the draft, but being released before the start of the NFL season.

    He spent four years out of the NFL, before the St Louis Rams took a chance on him on a futures contract, whereupon he spent the season with NFL Europe team Amsterdam Admirals, where he led the lead in passing yards and touchdowns.

    In 1999, the Rams reshuffled their QB pack, signing Trent Green as the starter and letting Tony Banks and Steve Bono leave, meaning Warner was second choice, although expected to hold a clipboard for most of the season.

    However, when Trent Green went down injured in a pre-season game, with an ACL injury that meant he’d miss the season. Rams coach Dick Vermeil named Warner starting QB, despite not having seen the QB work with the first team offense.

    Warner then stunned the world putting together the best ever season by an untried QB. He played in all 16 Rams regular season games, leading the team to a 13-3 record, throwing 41 touchdowns and just 13 interceptions. He passed for 4,353 yards with a QB rating of 109.2,

    He then led the Rams to Super Bowl victory over the Tennessee Titans and was admitted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in the class of 2017. Not bad for a player who not too long before the Rams signed him, was earning $5.50 an hour packing groceries.

    His zero to hero life story was told in the 2021 film American Underdog.

    Homeless and begging, to Boxing Legend and Superstar Status – Manny Pacquiao

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    Aged 14, Manny Pacquiao had moved to Manila, lived on the streets and had to choose between eating, or sending money to his mother. He could not finish high school due to the extreme poverty he and his family suffered.

    The diminutive youngster turned to boxing and became one of the greatest fighters of all time. Turning himself from a zero to hero for millions of Filipinos.

    After a 60-4 record as an amateur Pacquiao turned professional and became the only eight-division world champion in the history of the sport.

    He was the first to win the lineal championship across five weight divisions. He also was the first to win world titles in four of the eight more glamorous divisions (flyweight, featherweight, lightweight and welterweight).

    He retired with a record of 62 wins, 39 by KO, 8 losses and 2 draws from 72 professional fights to move into a secondary career in politics.

    His rags-to-riches life is one of the great zero to hero stories in boxing!

    Joe Johnson stuns the world with his World Championship win – Snooker

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    In 1986, Steve Davis was the almost unbeatable big name in snooker. In the previous year he had lost to Dennis Taylor in an epic final but in 1986, he had moved smoothly into the final once again.

    He beat Ray Edmonds, Doug Mountjoy, Jimmy White and Cliff Thorburn on his way to the final.

    Davis was the huge favourite against his opponent, the 150/1 outsider at the start of the tournament Joe Johnson, who had not won a ranking event previously.

    In fact, Johnson had not won a televised game until 1985 but he was playing his best snooker as he progressed through to the final.

    There he shocked the world, beating Davis comprehensively 18-12. To go from zero to hero.

    He reached the final the following year too, only for Davis to gain revenge for that defeat with am 18-14 win over Johnson.

    Johnson has been a commentator on snooker for Eurosport for many years since retiring.

    His story remains one of the best zero to hero tales in snooker history.

    On The Streets to the NFL – Blind Side inspiration Michael Oher – American Football

    YouTube video

    In a story famously told in the hit film The Blind Side, Michael Oher’s childhood was awful.

    With an alcoholic mother, who also was addicted to cocaine, and a father who was killed in prison, Oher spent time in foster care and on the streets. But when he applied to Briarcrest Christian School, his life changed for the better.

    There the Tuohy family took him under their wing and under them he progressed as both an academic and a football player, earning the grades to attend Ole Miss where he was a five-star recruit.

    His journey from zero to hero was underway!

    Rated as one of the best offensive linemen in the 2009 NFL Draft, Oher was selected by the Baltimore Ravens 23rd in the 1st round and achieved Super Bowl success with his team before ending his career with the Titans and Panthers.

    A real zero to hero story and one told on film too!

    Drafted 199th to the Greatest of All-Time – Tom Brady’s Story – American Football

    YouTube video

    Michigan quarterback Tom Brady ran one of the slowest 40m dashes in NFL Combine history and his rather unathletic look meant that few teams were willing to spend a top pick on the youngster.

    In the end, despite a stellar college Career, Brady fell to 199th in the draft before Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots took a gamble on him.

    What followed was the greatest zero to hero story in sport.

    In his first NFL season, Brady was fourth choice QB, but by the end of the season he had moved up to number 2 on the depth chart behind Bledsoe ahead of the 2001 season.

    In just the second game of that season, Bledsoe suffered a bad injury and Brady was brought in. He lost that first game against the Jets but rallied to beat Indianapolis the following week.

    Brady’s poise began to grow and he produced a stellar remainder of the season, holding on to his place when Bledsoe was fit again and leading the Patriots to a Super Bowl victory over the Los Angeles Rams.

    That was the start of a 23 year career in which Brady won more Super Bowls than any one franchise (7), five times being the Super Bowl MVP as well as a string of other achievement that will likely never be bettered.

    Tom Brady’s story is the ultimate zero to hero to the greatest of all time tale in sports.

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