Examples of athletes who suddenly became outstanding later in their career

I’m looking for examples of athletes who weren’t necessarily bad (they could have been) earlier in their career, but certainly not outstanding – and then something happened (a new coach, a new team, a new understanding of what it takes, etc.) and they became one of the elite of their particular sport.

Something along the lines of Kurt Warner, except it seems Warner’s greatness was delayed more by lack of opportunity to show it than other factors.

I would use Alistair Overeem as an example, who following a change in weight classes has experienced great success, except MMA is not followed too closely on these boards.

I’m sure there are much better examples out there. Anyone?

Randy Johnson was mainly a curiosity - a very tall, very overpowering (baseball) pitcher, but someone who couldn’t consistently hit the strike zone until he was about 30, from which point on he was one of the best pitchers in major league history.

Rich Gannon was a journeyman QB until he caught fire late in his career with the Raiders. I think he just finally needed a coach that believed in him (Gruden) and a system built for his talents.

Warren (Old) Young was a hockey player with a non-discript career until he ends up on a line with Mario Lemieux. He went from 3 NHL goals over five years to a 40 goal season at age 29.

Granted a fire hydrant could have scored 40 playing with Lemieux but that is besides the point.

Tommy John was a solid, if unspectacular, MLB pitcher in his first 11 years in the majors. In 1974, at the age of 31, he tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching arm. He had a revolutionary type of surgery (known, oddly enough, as “Tommy John” surgery) in late 1974. It was assumed that his career was over, and he missed the entire 1975 season, but attempted a comeback in 1976 at the age of 33. He ripped off a series of excellent years - 10-10 in 76, then 20-7, 17-10, 21-9, then 22-9 in 1980 at age 37. After the age of 33, John won 164 games, playing until the age of 46. After his surgery, he was in three All-Star games, and finished second in the Cy Young voting twice and fourth once.

Steve Stone was a journeyman pitcher for several teams (primarily the White Sox) through the 1970s. In 1979, at age 31, he joined the Orioles; in 1979 and 1980, he went a combined 36-14, and won the Cy Young in 1980 (when he went 25-7).

In 1981, he hurt his elbow, and never played again after 1981.

Lance Armstrong is a perfect fit for the OP. After cancer treatment he rebuilt his body and won several Tours.

There are definitely better examples out there, but the guy who comes to mind for me is Thomas Jones. Drafted 7th overall by the Cardinals (a laughing-stock franchise at the time), his rushing yardage totals for his first three years were 373 (42nd in the league), 380 (49th), and 511 (40th). Then he played a year for Tampa and rushed for 627 yards (32nd). Then he went to Chicago and rushed for 948 yards (19th), which was quite respectable given his 427 receiving yards (16th in yards from scrimmage).

Then, finally, in his 6th season, at age 27, he rushed for 1,335 yards (9th), which is especially notable since RBs tend to develop very quickly, typically hitting their prime by their 2nd year in the league, and by age 27 they’re usually about to start declining in performance. Instead, Jones spent his age 28-31 seasons finishing 11th, 10th, 5th, and 3rd in rushing yardage.

Sandy Koufax. His first six years he was an average pitcher at best. His seventh year, he won 18 games and looked to be a better than average starter. In his next five years he won 111 games and put himself into the Hall of Fame. Basically, Koufax learned to control his fastball and curve and it all fell into place for him.

Hoyt Wilhelm. Played his first major league game at age 29, then went on to the Hall of Fame. He was held back because he threw a knuckleball, which catchers don’t like, but he’s usually considered to have the greatest knuckleball ever, and was still pitching effectively at age 47.

George Blanda was a journeyman quarterback and placekicker for about a decade before getting a chance to start with the Houston Oilers of the AFL. He became their QB and led them to a league championship and was named AFL player of the year. He continued as a placekicker and backup QB until he was 48.

In the case of Koufax, though, he was just 26 when he won his first ERA title, and… to compare him with Wilhelm - was only 30 when he retired. Koufax was not a particularly late bloomer at all; he was brought up younger than he should have been and then his career just stopped midway through.

Someone who did turn it on at age 30 was Dave Stewart. Stewart was effectively a failed prospect up until age 30; after a good start with LA in a swingman role, he bombed out in Texas and had been bouncing around the majors for awhile, finally having a decent half season with Oakland at age 29. And then it clicked, and he ripped off four straight 20-win seasons.

“Irish” Micky Ward had a promising early boxing career of 14-0, but after that suffered a series of defeat in the higher ranks that seemed to signify that he had climbed as high as his skills would take him. He hung up his gloves at the age of 26 in 1991, appearing to be another fighter from Lowell who almost hit the big time but never quite made it.

After three years of working construction, he returned to the ring in 1994 at the age of 29 and won nine straight fights and a shot at some of the biggest names in boxing, including a trilogy of fights with Arturo Gatti. Ward’s fights for 2001, 2002, and 2003 were all named Ring Magazine’s “Fight of the Year.” He retired with a record of 51 fights, 31 wins (27 by KO), 13 losses, and with worldwide admiration for his heart as a fighter.

Jack Iverson had an unremarkable career as a fast bowler in Australian schools and grade cricket, and even gave up the sport.

Then in his late twenties he started goofing around with various spin bowling variations. Someone saw him bowling in his backyard and suggested he join his local club. They put him on the third eleven, and he was then aged 31.

Three years later he was playing for the Australian national side against England.

Way, way back in the 20s, pitcher Dazzy Vance didn’t earn his first major league win until the age of 31, but would go on to rip off seven consecutive National League strikeout crowns, an MVP award, and eventually selection to the Hall of Fame (YMMV if said HOF nomination was deserved.)

Steve Young didn’t really break through until he was 30, although that was mostly due to a crappy Buccaneers team and then getting traded to the 49ers and stuck behind Joe Montana.

Barry Bonds?

Interestingly, Stewart was a mop-up man in his first month as an Athletic. His first start for Oakland was Tony LaRussa’s very first game as A’s manager.

Actually, his second start for Oakland was LaRussa’s debut. My bad.

Bret Boone was pretty average for 9 years and then turned into super man.

Bonds was in the running for Rookie of the Year in 1986, and was the NL MVP at age 25 in 1990. He suddenly became superhuman later in his career, but I think that’s distinct from the “outstanding” that the OP was looking for.

Note: let’s talk about guys who became the best, not just had very good seasons after early disappointment.

I hesitate to suggest anyone that might have the taint of steroids (Clemens,) so I’ll go with:

  1. Nolan Ryan: Started as a reliever on his way to becoming one of the best right handers of his time (the best pitcher at the time was Steve “Lefty” Carlton) and the greatest strikeout pitcher in history. He became a starter after leaving the Mets.

  2. Opposite of Nolan Ryan would be Dennis Eckersley, who, after a lackluster career as a starter with one 20 win season and 2 all-star selections over 13 years, became one of the most dominating relievers of the 80’s, and set a new standard for pitchers by entering the Hall of Fame with 200 wins and 200 saves.

  3. Michael Jordan: as hard as it might be to believe now, Jordan the rookie wasn’t very good. He scored a lot of points, but he was essentially what Kobe Bryant is now: a ball hog and a one-trick-pony. After Phil Jackson arrived with the triangle offense, and Pippen, Horace Grant, Rodman, etc. arrived, Jordan’s game matured and he began playing stellar, shut-down defense. Anybody who has watched Bulls games in the 90’s remembers one thing: defense. His three-point shot was also added relatively late in his career.

Seven Tours de France, to be specific.

However, Armstrong was clearly a star already before his cancer, having won a couple stages in the Tour as well as the World Championship (youngest rider to ever win that at the time) and the U.S. National Championship in 1993, not to mention the one-day classics Clásica de San Sebastián (1995) and La Flèche Wallonne (1996, first American to win).

However, it wasn’t clear that Armstrong would ever be a strong contender for the Tour G.C. (General classification) title; that only happened after he survived cancer.