Against All Odds
It's National Underdog Day! Here, to mark the moment, are the uplifting stories of a dozen unexpected winners who came out on top even when the odds were seriously stacked against them.
Her career dates back to the 1960s, when she sang behind such giants as Sam Cooke, the Beach Boys, even Elvis. But backup singing can be a thankless task, and two decades later Darlene Love was down and out and cleaning houses in L.A. That's when she decided to return to singing, and in 1986 David Letterman invited her to sing "Christmas (Please Baby Come Home)" on his late-night show. Love's solo career gradually took hold, and Letterman had her back every December for nearly three decades.
Eddie "The Eagle" Edwards
Nobody would sponsor him, so Eddie the Eagle worked as a plasterer while training for the 1988 Winter Olympics. During the competition, he had 20 pounds on the other ski jumpers and wore thick glasses under his goggles (the press dubbed him "Mr. Magoo"). No, this underdog didn't win the gold—in fact, he finished last—but his grit and determination inspired millions. At the closing ceremony, Olympic Committee president Frank King was referring to Eddie when he said, "Some of you have even soared like an eagle."
As an amateur boxer, Cassius Clay won a gold medal in the 1960 Summer Olympics. Even so, when it was announced that he would go toe to toe with heavyweight champion Sonny Liston in February 1964, no one thought the brash young fighter stood a chance. In a stunning upset, Clay beat the champ in just six rounds, and when they met again in 1965, Liston didn't last a single round. By then, Clay had changed his name to Muhammad Ali—aka The Greatest.
Raised in a Scottish coal-mining town, Susan Boyle suffered from Asperger syndrome, which was long undiagnosed. She looked frumpy and eccentric when she first appeared on the TV show "Britain's Got Talent" in April 2009. And then she began to sing. "Stunning, an incredible performance," said judge Piers Morgan after the audience was done giving Boyle a standing ovation. She went on to a successful singing career, selling nearly 20 million records worldwide.
A seventh-grade dropout, Harland Sanders lied about his age and joined the Army when he was 16. He later tried his hand at everything from selling tires to operating ferry boats before opening a small restaurant in Kentucky. Then, traveling the country and often sleeping in his car, he set out to spread the gospel of his secret recipe for frying chicken in a pressure cooker. Colonel Sanders was 62 when he sold his first Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise in 1952. In 1964, at 73, he sold the company for a cool $2 million.
A divorced mom with three kids, she quit a job at Kmart to enter a beauty contest. That may not sound like the resume of a social activist, but in the early '90s, through sheer force of will, Erin Brockovich helped to hold Pacific Gas & Electric accountable for deliberately contaminating the drinking water in Hinkley, California. PG&E settled the case for a record $333 million in 1996. Four years later, Julia Roberts played Brockovich in the Oscar-winning movie that bears her name.
His mother was a teenage prostitute; his father, a factory worker who abandoned the family soon after Louis was born. At 11, he was arrested for firing a handgun and sent to the Colored Waif's Home, a tough New Orleans juvenile facility. Before that, he'd done odd jobs for a Jewish family, and they took him in and helped him buy his first cornet from a pawn shop. Honing his musical skills, Louis Armstrong went on to become the best-known trumpet player who ever lived. He wore a Star of David pendant for his entire career.
It took Jack Ma four tries in four years to get into college in China. Meanwhile, determined to succeed in business, he rode his bike hours daily to work at a hotel where he learned English by interacting with guests. In 1995, he came to the U.S. and, after a rejection from Harvard, borrowed money and started a business creating websites for other companies. Today Ma's high-tech conglomerate, Alibaba Group, is one of the biggest in the world, with a market cap above $485 billion.
She rose from living in a homeless shelter in Toronto to become one of the best-selling country music artists of all time. Then, in 2004, Shania Twain shocked her fans by retiring and moving to Switzerland, where she underwent medical treatments for lesions on her vocal chords. Now the Queen of Country Pop is back on tour, having overcome tough odds yet again. Twain has sold more than 100 million records, more than any other female country music stars.
Before her first book was published, J.K. Rowling was a divorced mom on welfare who'd been diagnosed with clinical depression. Yet in 1995 she completed "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone." Dozen publishers rejected the manuscript, but then one didn't. To date, more than 400 million of her books have been sold, making Harry Potter the best-selling book series in history.
When Jim Carrey was a teenager, his family was so strapped that they slept in a VW van, and his debut at the comedy club YukYuk's in Toronto was a flop. In 1980, Carrey did a failed audition for "Saturday Night Live," but he kept at it and Rodney Dangerfield hired him as an opening act. Then along came "In Living Color" on TV, followed by "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective" and "Dumb and Dumber" on the big screen. The poor kid from Canada emerged as one of Hollywood's highest-growing stars.
One of 12 children born to a mother addicted to crack and a father who was in and out of prison, Michael Oher spent his childhood moving from one foster home to another. But his life changed when an affluent family took him in, nurtured his natural talents as an athlete and hired tutors to help improve his grades. Oher went on to play football at his guardians' alma mater, the University of Mississippi, and win a Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens in 2013. His story inspired the 2009 film "The Blind Side."
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