I Coulda Been a Contender!

Charley: Look, kid, I - how much you weigh, son? When you weighed one hundred and sixty-eight pounds you were beautiful. You coulda been another Billy Conn, and that skunk we got you for a manager, he brought you along too fast.
Terry: It wasn't him, Charley, it was you. Remember that night in the Garden you came down to my dressing room and you said, "Kid, this ain't your night. We're going for the price on Wilson." You remember that? "This ain't your night!" My night! I coulda taken Wilson apart! So what happens? He gets the title shot outdoors on the ballpark and what do I get? A one-way ticket to Palooka-ville. You was my brother, Charley. You shoulda looked out for me a little bit. You shoulda taken care of me just a little bit so I wouldn't have to take them dives for the short-end money.
Charley: Oh I had some bets down for you. You saw some money.
Terry: You don't understand! I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am. Let's face it. It was you, Charley.

Retirony is especially cruel when it strikes a character down in his or her prime just as he or she begins embarking on success and glory. At least the old soldiers in combat made something out of their lives even if they found no peace afterwards. These young souls don't have the opportunity to become somebodies — they get just a little taste of it before suffering a Career-Ending Injury or circumstances force them to throw it all away. Naturally, this will be right after they reach the point that would make them bona fide superstars.

Years long after, the disillusioned nobodies still can't get the taste of what could have been out of their mouths. This may lead to them taking their pent-up frustration out on the youths who look to be fast becoming the kind of people Fate prevented them from joining.

The lost opportunity or career is most commonly some form of sports, but non-sports related careers are not unheard of.

A Super Trope to The Pete Best (where they got forced out by others rather than fate).

Compare Dream-Crushing Handicap, Stage Mom, Glory Days, Trade Your Passion for Glory. White-Dwarf Starlet is a related phenomenon, where the person got their moment of glory — it just didn't last long, and the bitterness is tangible. Sometimes associated with Jaded Washout.


Anime and Manga
  • On Eyeshield 21, Doburoku Sakaki blew his chance at a professional sports career when he injured himself while recklessly trying to finish the Death March by himself. He seems to take it in fairly good stride, though, and respects the drive and camaraderie of the Devil Bats.
  • An example outside of sports: Oji Tanaka, the protagonist of The Legend of Black Heaven, was the guitarist for the titular heavy metal band. They had a single hit, and the group then drifted apart for reasons even they can't describe. Oji, now a browbeaten middle-management salaryman with an unaccommodating family, is deeply bitter about his life as it is and as it could have been.
  • Mawaru-Penguindrum provides another music example. Double H, the two idol singers that are all over the place, were originally Triple H before Himari's illness forced her to quit the band.
  • This happens at a pretty young age to Coco in Basquash!. After suffering a traumatic leg injury at the hands of a mecha, she became wheelchair bound and unable to continue playing basketball, which is part of what kicks off the series' story.
  • Invoked and subverted in Bleach with Tatsuki, who broke her arm after getting into the top eight in a fighting competition between girls of her age group, but still managed to earn second place despite the injury. She says that had it not been for the broken arm, she could have won the whole thing.
  • Slam Dunk: The Start of Darkness for Mitsui Hisashi is this. In junior high school basketball, he's an MVP. He's surely on the way to repeat such feats in high school... then Game-Breaking Injury kicked in. As he watched his friend Akagi get most of the glories in his place, Mitsui left the basketball court, bitter with the sport and become a delinquent. Subverted 2 years later, when he's given a chance to redeem himself and be a contender; a great contender he becomes.
  • This is how the plot of I Couldn't Become a Hero, So I Reluctantly Decided to Get a Job starts off. The protagonist Raul was the top of his class to become a hero, only for the demon king to kick the bucket. With peace brought into the world, the hero business was closed down and he's forced to work as a retail sales clerk, unable to find a job with abilities that he can't use in any other businesses.

  • Batman:
    • In the 'Club of Heroes' arc in Grant Morrison's run on Batman, several of the Batmen of All Nations have fallen prey to this since the team-up which could have propelled them to international prominence and fame sputtered out after two meetings, one of which Batman himself didn't bother to show up for. Wingman, however, suffers most of all, since his bitterness at being denied what he sees as his chance to be in the big leagues leads to his Face–Heel Turn in that arc. Batman, naturally, is scathing:
      Batman: You don't understand. We don't do what we do for fame. How much were you paid to throw away your morals?
    • It's common to portray many of Batman's Rogues Gallery as frustrated geniuses undone by trauma and external malice. Mr. Freeze, Poison Ivy and Scarecrow are seen as individuals with enough scientific talent that they can contribute legitimately to society, but instead use their abilities for evil schemes.
    • Batman himself often thinks that his parents will see him as having wasted his considerable potential becoming a crime fighter when he could have done far more for the world as a scientist, engineer and intellectual, skills he displays as Batman but conceals as "Bruce Wayne" to avoid drawing attention. This is of course depending on the writer, and some have Bruce Wayne as far more active and less of an Upper-Class Twit.
  • One of the Spider-Man annuals gave the Sandman an entire story built on this idea, complete with reference to On the Waterfront. One of the highlights was ruining his potential football career by fixing a game in high school (to help a friend square a mob debt, no less).
    • Ultimate Spider-Man portrays scientists like Doctor Octavious and Shocker this way. Genuinely brilliant scientists and technicians who as a result of circumstances end up becoming villains.
    • For a long time in the comics, many saw Peter Parker as this. A science prodigy as a high school student who makes a living as a freelance photographer and was traditionally seen as the underachiever in his social circle. The fact that by the mid 20s he kept having the same life as his high school days (balancing his Aunt, his relationships, his rent, his superherowork) only cemented this. Recently, writers have made him a CEO of his own corporation specifically to challenge this idea, and also to update the setting since it strains credibility for Spider-Man to remain poor and struggling and still operate in a contemporary New York of high student loans, high rent and constant expenses.
  • In Preacher, Jesse Custer becomes the sheriff of Salvation. His key officer is a woman who was going to join the Army, but her mother fell ill and she stayed to look after her.
  • Lex Luthor keeps thinking of how he could have saved the world and humanity with his great intellect if not for Superman, and that he actually hates developing Weapons Of Mass Destruction and other Mad Scientist devices. This is repeatedly shown as a self-delusion however, and both in Pre-Crisis and Post-Crisis stories, Superman has contempt for Luthor for wasting his genius on petty schemes when he could have saved the world years ago if he wanted.

  • On the Waterfront (Trope Namer). A double-layered irony, as the claim is not even "I coulda been a champion" but merely "I coulda been a contender" — that is, he could have had a chance ... at having a chance.
  • Rocky
    • The old trainer Mickey Goldmill is crusty and bitter because he was never a success as a fighter.
    • Rocky himself, which is one of the more realistic twists in the franchise. Despite only being thirty, Rocky is past his prime and missed his calling, stating that his legs are going and soon everything's going to go with them. Of course, the sequels changed all this by making him a successful fighter into his 40s, and even brought him back when he was pushing sixty for another fight.
  • In Napoleon Dynamite Uncle Rico is this character played for laughs. He firmly believes that if his high-school coach had just let him carry a football during a crucial game back in 1982, that he'd be a Hall of Fame NFL star today. Most of his activity in the movie is spent passive-aggressively abusing his nephews and earning enough money for a time machine to transport himself back to his old high school glory days. Double subverted when it's revealed towards the end of the film that he was a benchwarmer and was never actually in the game.
  • It's a Wonderful Life - everything in George Bailey's life conspires to trap him in Bedford Falls. Sure, he eventually realizes it was probably better for everyone else that way, but Frank Capra doesn't sugarcoat the initial regret and frustration as it all piles onto George's shoulders.
  • Subverted in the movie Unbreakable, where Bruce Willis's character faked a serious injury after a car accident as an excuse to get out of a promising future football career so he could have a normal life with his fiancée, and then forgot he faked it through the normal process of memory reevaluation and editing, leading to his dissatisfaction with his "lost chance" at greatness in the movie's present-time.
  • Ladybugs: Rodney Dangerfield sucks up to the boss to get a soccer coach job, claiming the only reason he didn't get to the pros was because of injury.
  • The Rocker, in which The Office's Rainn Wilson plays a Pete Best (see the music category below) analog.
  • Spoofed with the Mary (Had A Little Lamb) character in Mother Goose Rock 'n' Rhyme, who claims she could have been so much more if only that damn sheep weren't following her everywhere.
  • Marty's Bad Future in Back to the Future Part II; A car accident resulted in a hand injury that left him unable to play the guitar.
  • Used directly in the film Muppet Treasure Island. As the pirates sing (without regret) about the different possible paths they could have taken in life, one of them comments "I coulda been a contender!" , prompting chuckles from the rest of the crew.
  • In the film Friday Night Lights, the ex-star of the central football team's obsessing over his regrets turn him into a violent alcoholic. The current team members are painfully aware that a similar fate awaits them after the glory of the sport has long since faded.
  • Inverted by Citizen Kane, when he is forced to give up the control of his empire. Hardly a nobody. Very disillusioned, he reflects that it were his advantages that stole him his chance at true greatness:
    Charles Foster Kane: You know, Mr. Bernstein, if I hadn't been very rich, I might have been a really great man.
    Thatcher: Don't you think you are?
    Charles Foster Kane: I think I did pretty well under the circumstances.
    Thatcher: What would you like to have been?
    Charles Foster Kane: Everything you hate.
  • Double Subverted in the film version of Daredevil. Matt Murdock's father used to be a boxer, and ended up working as an enforcer for the mob. After Matt gets blinded, his father decides to clean up his act and become a boxer again. He does very well for himself. Then, as he's preparing for a fairly major fight, he finds out that the mob's been behind all his victories, paying his opponents to throw fights.
  • Deconstructed in the film The Fan. Robert De Niro's character is convinced that he could have been a major league baseball player, and latches onto Wesley Snipes' character as someone to live vicariously through. Things go downhill fast. Near the end of the movie, it turns out that De Niro's character had never played ball beyond little league.
  • Nixon: Exaggerated by Nixon. He is The Leader of the most powerful country in the world. Even so, that is little compared to his dreams. His tragedy is that is played straight, not parodied. Nixon is full of bitterness:
    John Ehrlichman: You got people dying because he didn't make the varsity football team. You got the Constitution hanging by a thread because the old man went to Whittier instead of Yale.
  • Carrie according to Sissy Spacek. As she explains in A Decade Under the Influence:
    In the book, Carrie, she was just a complete loser and I felt there needed to be some...a little ray of hope...it would make it sadder if Carrie could have been the Prom Queen, that if there was a possibility she could pull it off. It would make it sadder when the walls came tumbling down.
  • Inverted in Moneyball. Billy Bean is bitter because scouts convinced him that he could be a baseball star and he gave up a college scholarship to play Major League Baseball straight out of high school. Instead of ending up with a degree from Stanford he ended up with a mediocre baseball career that went nowhere.
  • The male lead in Wimbledon is a former tennis hopeful who just never quite made it. Ultimately subverted, as the film ends with him winning Wimbledon, but choosing to retire on a high note.
  • The Godfather Don Vito Corleone expressed his regret to his son Michael that he couldn't turn the family legit. Had he done it before they would have gone to politics.
    Vito: There could have been a Senator Corleone. Governor Corleone. Something.
  • In 99 River Street, Ernie had to give up boxing due to an eye injury which could have left him blind if he were ever hit there again too hard. But even though he can no longer compete, he's still able to put his boxing skills to good use when faced with violent criminals.
  • The saloon madam from The Lone Ranger could have made it as a ballerina had Butch Cavendish not eaten one of her legs.
  • Munsen from Kingpin was on his way to becoming a champion bowler until a bunch of guys he tried to hustle chopped off his right hand. Years later, his name is a byword for failure.
  • Parodied in You Don't Mess with the Zohan. Zohan's friend refuses to give him a job at his electronics store because the store sucks out people's ambitions. He points out his many employees initially had other dreams but they got stuck at the store and never left.

  • The book Ethan Frome features a young man's frustration over being unable to pursue his scientific interests because of being tied to his small hometown with the illnesses of his parents and wife.
  • A Song of Ice and Fire:
    • Ned Stark thinks his late brother Brandon would have been the better Lord of Winterfell.
    • Viserys Targaryen II was the longest serving Hand and was already old when he became king. He reigned for only a year and it's thought he could have done the realm more good had he lived.
    • Daemon Blackfyre was considered the greatest uncrowned king of Westeros. His failed rebellion cemented him only as a villain.
    • Prince Baelor Breakspear shared the same reputation as Daemon but he got accidentally killed in a tourney melee.
    • "King" Renly Baratheon was popular but he was assassinated. Thanks to the regime's PR machine, he is remembered as a hero who lifted the siege of the capitol instead of The Usurper that caused the siege in the first place.
  • In Keeping You a Secret, Holland's mother wanted to be a lawyer but never did because she got pregnant in high school. She both resents Holland and wants her to live out her mother's dreams — she relentlessly drives Holland to take advanced classes, become student body president, apply to the country's top universities. She assumes that Holland is going to major in pre-law, and won't let Holland tell her otherwise. Furthermore, she micromanages her daughter's life, even spying on her, constantly telling her that she doesn't want her to "throw away her life" like the mother did.
  • Ursula Vernon wrote a poem which is partly about people who haven't succeeded in life and blame others for it.
    Eventually, it came to you that those people had a future, too,
    but they hadn’t quite realized they weren't going to find it
    and they blamed you for the fact it wasn't here.
    You were not the sort of person that lived in their future.
    You were still too fat and too wobbly and much too weird, and you laughed too loudly
    like a good-natured hyena
    and you were not supportive of their high and lonely destiny.
    And if you were here and their future wasn't
    it was probably your fault
  • Phineas Finn.

Live-Action TV
  • Al Bundy from Married... with Children is also an ex-high school football star whose plans for fame were dashed with an injury and marriage to his then-girlfriend, after which he was forced to settle into a banal life as a wage-slave shoe salesman.
  • Star quarterback Jason Street suffers a spinal injury in the Friday Night Lights pilot.
  • The Quincy Jones series In The House had LL Cool J play a football star who gets taken out by a knee injury, and starts a gym. His leg eventually heals, and he gets back in the game. Guess what happens?
  • The prevalence of this in sports films is parodied in That Mitchell and Webb Look, with a film about cricket; the coach is bitter because he used to play cricket for a team that reached the "final of the Ashes", shyeah, but he never found fame, because he bowled a wide.
    You bowled a wide in the Ashes final? How can you live with yourself?
  • In Spaced, Marsha tells Daisy about how she could have been an Olympic sprinter had she not been knocked over by her first husband to be and introduced to alcohol. She still shows interest in it, though, on one occasion persuading Daisy to join her on a run.
  • Ted, the co-pilot in Pan Am, used to be a Navy test pilot...until he crashed his plane, ruining his chances of getting into the space program. The worse part is, that it was probably an equipment malfunction but the faulty equipment was manufactured by Ted's father's company and his father killed the investigation to preserve his contracts.
  • Invoked in an episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Will tries to psyche up the college football team for the Big Game, encouraging them to give it their all because "I know some of you might get into the majors, but for most of you, this is the end of the line!", and then starts to go into detail about how their lives will be once their Glory Days end after graduation. It doesn't work.
  • JAG: Bud's college roommate Ron Katz who became a dot com millionaire at one point had asked Bud to become his business partner. Bud ponders in "The Colonel’s Wife" what could have been if he had taken that path. Ultimately, he realizes that if so, he wouldn't have met his wife and had their kid.
  • In Graceland Johnny could have been a US Navy SEAL but on the last day of Hell Week he was hit by a boat. It's subverted because he is not really bitter about it. His time in the Navy got him US citizenship and after leaving the Navy he easily landed a job as a FBI agent.
  • The central premise of Suits is based on a subversion. Mike could have been a great lawyer but the Poisonous Friend influence of Trevor got him expelled from college. When the series starts he is reduced to taking exams for other people for money and is about to be busted for being a drug courier. A chance encounter with Harvey, a top level lawyer in one of the best law firms in the city, gives him a second chance. Harvey is so impressed by Mike that he hires him as his associate even though Mike has no law degree. Mike now has to use all his skills and talent to keep this dream job.
  • Donaldson, the money-grubbing researcher from Utopia claims he was a real scientific high-flyer until he discovered that the SARS epidemic did not actually exist and he was Reassigned to Antarctica for his troubles, and now the only job he can get is testing pet food. He is bitterly resentful of this and keeps trying to sell out the gradual uncovering of The Conspiracy to the very people that demoted him just so he can be rich again.
  • One episode of Marcus Welby M.D, deals with a promising young boxer who has to end his career due to epilepsy.
  • The UnSub of one episode of Criminal Minds was a former high school football star in a small, football-obsessed town, who was reduced to working as a garbageman after blowing out his knee in his senior year, while his teammates abandoned him and went on to college on scholarships, and had the successful careers and families he believed he should have had. He got his "revenge" on the team by abducting their neglected, soccer-playing daughters and forcing them to kill each other.
    You all have lives, I just clean up your mess. Well now you have to clean up mine.
  • Elsa Mars of American Horror Story: Freak Show is convinced she would have been a big star if not for Marlene Dietrich eclipsing her as the nation's favorite German entertainer.
  • Many of the victims in Cold Case died before realizing their full potential.
  • M*A*S*H: In "End Run", SGT. Billy Tyler, a former college football star suffers a severe leg injury in combat and his dream of playing in the N.F.L. is dashed when Hawkeye has to amputate it.
  • Many otherwise brilliant characters from The Wire turned to crime for one reason or another and never became the people they wanted to be. Season 4 focused on Baltimore's faulty education system that forced kids to graduate despite them not being ready.
  • Walter from Breaking Bad could have become rich had his former friends not "betrayed" him. Considering his later actions, maybe they were right in leaving him behind.

  • The show Unsung on the channel TV One is about black R&B, soul, and gospel artists who didn't manage to make it big.
  • New Jersey band The Gaslight Anthem have a song entitled "I Coul'da Been a Contender" which appears to follow the themes of messed up chances and regret; "You were gonna be my Judy Garland, we were gonna share your tinman heart."
  • The subject, indeed the first line of the chorus, of "Heavyweight Champion of the World" by Reverend and the Makers:
    I could've been a contender,
    Could've been a someone,
    Caught up in the rat race,
    And feeling like a no-one,
    Appearing in the papers,
    With the money and the girls,
    I could've been
    The Heavyweight Champion of the World.
  • "Duchess" by Genesis, about a failed pop star trying to relive her glory days.
    But she dreamed of the times when she sang all her songs
    And everybody cried for more,
    When all she had to do was step into the light
    For everyone to start to roar.

Newspaper Comics
  • Ed Crankshaft in Crankshaft was an aspiring baseball player and playing for the Toledo Mud Hens and the Detroit Tigers called him up to the Major Leagues. At the same time, the U.S. entered World War II and he was drafted into the Army.

Professional Wrestling
  • Christopher Daniels isn't the least decorated of Ring of Honor's three founding fathers (ironically, that would be first champion and "banned for life" Low Ki) but he is the only one never hold the belt that would become the ROH World Title. This was because he was pulled out of the promotion by TNA during the hot Prophecy/Second City Saints feud and again during his attempt to stop CM Punk from leaving with that very world title. While his TNA tenure wasn't completely unsuccessful, he lacked a World Title run because he was too busy setting up The Worf Effect for wrestlers who either ended up being in the promotion short term such as Sean Morley or were much worse for publicity such as Jeff Hardynote . When AJ Styles finally left TNA, Daniels and Frankie Kazarian decided to follow him and he left TNA again (presumably for good). Rather than stay negative, Daniels would return to ROH one more time and set his sights on the ROH television title, openly admitting that he couldn't do everything he used to but also stating he had worked himself into the best shape of his life.(or not, when it was revealed he and Kazarian were the mysterious "Knights Of The Rising Dawn")
  • AJ Styles was the first Ring of Honor Pure Wrestling Champion, a title that faded from existence when the world champion, Bryan Danielson, defeated final Pure Champion Nigel McGuinness and merged the two belts. He fully recognized that that could have been him in that spot but his first Pure reign came to an end when he was pulled out of ROH by TNA, which was technically a breach of contract. Still, he was pretty much the face of TNA, rather than the soon to be face of ROH, until he kept being shoved to the side in favor of former WWE wrestlers, such as Kevin Nash, Scott Hall and Jeff Hardy. By the time Hulk Hogan arrived, Styles basically ended up as a mid carder in the "house he built". Rectifying these events would be his drive in Fortune and Bullet Club, although he still failed in his final bid to take ROH's World title from Jay Lethal.
  • Samoa Joe, much in the vein of AJ, was a major star in TNA when he first debuted and one of its top draws. However, the success didn't last long, as soon after Kurt Angle signed with TNA, starting a floodgate of ex-WWE and WCW talent signing with company, of whom Joe soon found himself playing second fiddle to. However, Joe didn't really get pushed down the card until Hogan and Bischoff came along and he never came even remotely close to winning the TNA World Heavyweight Championship during that time. Eventually, Joe would follow AJ, Daniels, and Kazarian by leaving the company, and would go on to sign a full-time deal with the WWE.
  • Chyna. To Chyna, Stephanie McMahon is to blame for her fall from grace. At one point Joanie Laurer had it all: fame, money, looks, and an awesome guy she thought she was going to spend the rest of her life with. And then (according to her), Steph steals her man, and she can't do anything about it because she's the boss's daughter. Her role on TV is gradually reduced, and eventually they let her go. She's nothing now, all because this one woman coveted her boyfriend. Her life has been in a downward spiral ever since, and she's degraded herself to doing porn for a living.

  • In the musical Bye Bye Birdie, Albert Peterson plans to attend NYU and become an English teacher, until a need for money requires him to go into the music business. He ends up being the producer for a pop sensation (the titular Conrad Birdie) and stays for eight years. He spends most of the show trying to get out so he can marry his girlfriend and secretary, Rosie.
  • Willy Loman could have been running the New York office by now.
  • Blood Brothers has an interesting variation, in the final words of Mickey I could have been him! - to his mother, who gave his twin brother to an upper class family.
  • In Million Dollar Quartet, Carl Perkins is portrayed this way. He was well on his way as a musician when a car accident put him on the shelf for months, meanwhile Elvis Presley exploded onto the scene. He's frustrated that even though he wrote "Blue Suede Shoes", everyone thinks of it as Elvis's song.
  • In Starlight Express, when Rusty is disqualified from the race, the boxcars sing about how they could have been famous but failed to reach glory; including the line "Could'a been a contender, could'a been a star ..."
  • James from That Championship Season thinks he could have been a successful congressman by now had he not been so busy taking care of his father, despite having no political experience.

  • The protagonist of Digimon World -next 0rder- is said to have been a runner-up in the Digimon national tournament in fifth grade, but by the time the game begins he's an Ordinary High-School Student studying for exams that's long put games behind him. Interviews with the game's character designer suggest his primary arc revolves around rediscovering his love for Digimon.
  • Yata/Wiseman in Dot Hack GU was once quoted as having a tremendous enthusiasm for football. His career ended up after he got a career-ending injury, ending his hopes of going pro. He's now one of the shareholders of CC Corp at seventeen, yet he's still Desperately Looking for a Purpose in Life
  • The title character in the Sierra game The Adventures Of Willy Beamish uses this line in one of the game's many It's a Wonderful Failure screens.
  • While he doesn't seem bitter about it, Left 4 Dead 2's Coach used to be a potential star football player in his youth - before a knee injury meant he had to be content with being a high school coach.
  • One of the NPCs in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim imply this. They used to be an adventurer like the PC, thus they could have the glory now! But then they took an arrow to the knee...
  • Sander Cohen from the Bioshock1 moved to Rapture because his career on the surface was waning and he liked the idea of being the only headliner in the city. Eventually, he grew bitter about giving up the opportunities to revive his career and becoming a Hollywood or Broadway star.

Visual Novels

Web Original

Western Animation
  • Hank Hill in King of the Hill definitely qualifies, albeit a milder example of the trope. He was a star high school running back that brought Arlen High to the Texas state championships, but a busted ankle pretty much ended his chances for the NFL. It's likely that his failure is why he's pushing sports and other activities toward his son. Nevertheless, Hank ended up content with selling propane and propane accessories.
    • It's also revealed in a flashback that Hank had an ambition since childhood to be a propane salesman.
  • Parodied in Family Guy, where in one flashback, we learn Cleveland was a fast-talking auctioneer until a bop on the head turned him into the slow-talking man we know today.
  • The Simpsons: This is a broader theme across the show in general, with Matt Groening noting that the show reflected the Small Town Boredom he experienced and feared growing up.
    • Homer admired Kennedy and dreamt of being President one day during his childhood. As a middle-aged man he remarks the constant disencouragement and contempt he received from his father turned him into an alcoholic and a deadbeat. For similar reasons, he also failed to be a gymnast.
    • Barney's alcoholism caused him to squander his talents.
    • Moe blames politics for the failure of his once promising boxing career. That and his 46 straight losses.
    • This is also true of some of the women characters. Marge Simpson while a dedicated housewife, occassionally wonders about what she gave up to be with Homer, Edna Krabbappel laments her poor lovelife and her boring job teaching disinterested fourth graders at a terrible school. Even the kids, however talented they may be are probably stiffled by the town and the education system and Lisa Simpson constantly fears that she will never fulfill her potential.
  • Mr. Garrison from South Park hated Kathie Lee-Gifford for beating him in a talent show that he thought could have made him famous.
  • Francine from American Dad! blamed George Clooney for stealing her one movie line that she believed could have made her a star.
  • Despite having a life of fame and fortune, Sarah-Lynn of Bojack Horseman always wanted to be an architect - an aspiration shot down by everyone around her, including her own mother.
    Sarah's Mother: Sweetheart, Mommy didn't do what Mommy did to that "Star Search" producer so that you could be an architect.

Real Life: Sports
  • Bill Butterfield, a high-school football player from Texas. It was evident that he was bitter about not going beyond high school football due to a Teen Pregnancy, given the way he tried to force his son, Lance, into the spotlight. Said actions eventually resulted in his murder, when after years of abusive training Lance snapped and turned a .38 on him.
  • Todd Marinovich, who briefly played for the Los Angeles Raiders. His dad, Marv Marinovich, was a coulda-been himself, and resolved to train Todd from an early age to be the perfect athlete. It almost worked, and Marinovich seemed set for a lengthy professional career. The problem was that his sheltered upbringing - he had been forbidden from eating chocolates or takeaway food - failed him when he left home for college, and he quickly transformed into a drunk party animal who spend his free time smoking dope. He had enough residual strength and talent to last a year in the NFL but was eventually suspended for failing drug tests (he tried to avoid this by switching to LSD, which did nothing for his concentration). After a six-year layoff he attempted to return to professional football, but his career was permanently derailed by injury and a new heroin habit. Frustratingly he was still capable of producing good results right up until the end of his career.
  • Common enough in Real Life for Monster.com to advertise "When you were a kid, did you ever imagine that your job would suck this much?"
  • Lenny Mancini was a promising and talented young boxer during the 30s and 40s, having actually become the # 1 contender for the world lightweight champion before he was drafted into the Army when World War II broke out. He was wounded in action, and when he came back to the ring when the war ended, he simply wasn't the same. Instead, he supported his son Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini in his own boxing career, who in turn dedicated his title win to his father.
  • Subverted by many people who succeeded later in life, such as Carmen Herrera.
  • Gretel Bergmann was a world class high jumper in the 1930s, setting national records. She should have competed for her native Germany in the 1936 Games, but she was Jewish. In fact the Germans initially let her on their team to placate the IOC and to prevent an American boycott. Once the Americans were on their way (and under the thumb of the pro-German Avery Brundage) the Nazis expelled her from the team, though she tied the German record a month before (and that height would have won her a medal in the event).
  • The only two Jews on the US track and field team, Sam Stoller and Marty Glickman were removed from the 4x100 relay and replaced by Jesse Owens and Ralph Metcalfe. They were the only two healthy track and field athletes not to compete, even though their times were faster than the two gentiles on the original team.
  • Subverted by the Manning Family. While father Archie Manning was an NFL quarterback in the 70's (a good player on the abysmally bad Saints teams at the time) and both Peyton and Eli are Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks (Peyton with the Colts and Eli with the Giants), there's a third Manning brother (the oldest, actually) Cooper who was a hot prospect wide receiver in high school before a diagnosis of a spinal condition ended his career. He's not bitter about it, having gone into finance.
  • Jesus Chavez was a top Mexican boxing prospect whom many believed would have been the next great boxing star from México. He even gave Floyd Mayweather Jr. one of his toughest fights at the 135 division. However, that all ended when he got into an vehicular accident which permanently damaged one of his knee caps. He tried to make a comeback afterwards, but the injury clearly interfered with his boxing, forcing him to retire.
  • A heartwarming variant: A New Hampshire college track star, Cameron Lyle, who registered as a potential bone marrow donor got a call that he was a match for a man with leukemia. Agreeing effectively ended his track career for the rest of his college life, but he said he'd do it again. Also rather awesome when you remember that donating bone marrow is far from painless.

Real Life: Others
  • Charles Laughton made just one film, The Night of the Hunter and it was a flop in its day though it would be Vindicated by History well after Laughton's death. It's such an accomplished film that many feel that Laughton could have been a great film-maker had he started directing earlier in his career. As it is Laughton is still a highly respected stage and screen thespian.
  • Barbara Loden, the wife of Elia Kazan (aka the semi-Trope Maker) was a Broadway actress who played character roles in two of Kazan's films. In the late 60s, she directed a film called Wanda that would be highly praised in film festivals and be cited as one of the greatest film debuts of its age and the start of a promising new talent. Then just as she was getting funding for her next film, she was diagnosed with cancer and would die a few years after her debut.
  • Christopher Marlowe was 29 years old when he died in a bar brawl at Deptford. He was the most popular and successful playwright of his time, and highly admired. Today he's remembered for being the guy who influenced William Shakespeare which is a high honor at any rate, but his own plays Doctor Faustus, Edward II, The Jew of Malta, Tamburlaine are far less performed and adapted than Shakespeare's, and he's read by academics and Elizabethan scholars rather than general public. Jorge Luis Borges noted that many of Marlowe's lines have power equal to Shakespeare, and note that at the time of Marlowe's death, Shakespeare had still to find his voice. Many critics have argued that if he had lived longer, he would perhaps have had a body of work equal or greater than Shakespeare.
  • There are many cases where Princes seen and loved by many as The Wise Prince and potential harbinger of the Golden Age dies before their time leaving the throne to be taken by Hidden Backup Prince who nobody paid any attention to.
  • The French Revolution was a young-man's revolution (most of them being early to mid 30s) with a High Turnover Rate resulting from bitter factional strife. The historian Jules Michelet especially lamented the downfall of Louis Antoine de Saint-Just. At the age of 25 he entered politics and in his less-than-two-year career he was co-author of the constitution of 1793, introduced wealth redistribution measures, won the respect of troops while serving as The Political Officer, he reorganized the Army of the Rhine from defeat to victory. His association and loyalty to Maximilien Robespierre led to his death at the age of 27. He would serve as an inspiration for young revolutionaries everywhere and he inspired Enjolras in Les Misérables. Michelet even went as far to assert that had Saint-Just lived, the rise of Napoleon might well have been averted, and R. R. Palmer wrote of him:
    This young man is one of the mysteries of the Revolution. He shot briefly across it, his time of prominence lasting less than two years, a flaming personality whose youth had been anything but promising, but whose mature years had he lived to attain them, might concievably had rocked the world.
  • The history of Ancient Rome and Greece offers several examples:
    • What would history have been like had Hannibal Barca conquered Rome? Or if Queen Boudicca liberated Britain? Or Spartacus triumphed in the Third Servile War? Of if Arminius succeeded in uniting Germany into a counter-Empire of Rome as he envisioned? Could Hannibal have sustained and consolidated his conquests and build and rule a united Carthago-Roman Empire? Could Britian have maintained its matriarchal traditions and become a proto-feminist Kingdom? Could slavery have been abolished in the classical world? The spectacular, prodigious displays of talent in these individuals brief careers, have made them a favorite of alternate historians and novelists.
    • Mike Duncan of The History of Rome cites the little-known Emperor Aurelian as someone who would have been one of the all-time greats instead of the glorified footnote he is, had he not been assassinated. His seven year reign and victory over Queen Zenobia, potentially extended the lifetime of the Empire. Another example, more well-known than Aurelian, is the emperor Julian the Apostate, famous for his attempts to halt the rise of Christianity. He is cited by Gore Vidal as a figure who could have preserved Rome's multi-religious and secular culture and halted the hegemony of Christianity, as well as provide competent, administrative reform across the Empire. He reigned for two years before dying in battle against the Parthian Empire. Mike Duncan, while skeptical of Julian, admits that he's someone "we'll never stop talking about".
  • Dave Mustaine was kicked out of Metallica shortly before they became famous. Although Megadeth is still a respected and fairly well-known band, it's nowhere near as popular as Metallica.
  • In the mid-90s, people thought that the Dayton Family was going to be the next big gangsta rap group. However, they were derailed by legal troubles and never made it out of their underground fanbase in Flint, Michigan.
  • R&B singer Miss Jones had a lot of buzz in the mid-90s after her guest appearance on Nas' Sugar Hill. Especially since she was a singer's singer. However, a lot of setbacks (as well as a reportedly bad attitude) derailed her music career. She went into DJing after that, hosting the morning show on the New York City rap station Hot 97, before controversy got her kicked off of that station (look up "Hot 97 tsunami song" for a particularly noteworthy sample of her antics). She's now a DJ for a Philadelphia radio station.
  • Subverted by Conway Twitty. Baseball was his second passion and he received an offer to play for the Philadelphia Phillies but he was drafted into the Army. After Conway got out of the service, he made it big as a country singer; country music was actually his first passion.
  • Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino is the considered the greatest Filipino politician who never became president but even before his assassination, he said his long imprisonment caused him to have a Heel–Faith Turn and made him quit politics.

Alternative Title(s): Could Have Been A Contender