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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.
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 Sorry, Billy, but You Just Don't Have Legs, 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.
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.
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. Inverted that 2 years later, he's given a chance to redeem himself and be a contender; a great contender he becomes.
In the 'Club of Heroes' arc in Grant Morrison's run onBatman, 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:
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).
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.
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.
The majority of sports films, it seems. Heck, even some only tangentially related to sports (e.g., Two for the Money, and of course the aforementioned Waterfront). If the coach seems bitter, it's probably because He Coulda been a Contender.
Possibly the most notable sports movie to use this is Rocky, which uses it twice. First, the old trainer Mickey Goldmill, who's crusty and bitter because he was never a success as a fighter. And second is 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.
Doubly subverted when it's revealed towards the end of the film that he was a benchwarmer and was never actually in the game.
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 fiancťe, 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 the second Back to the Future movie: 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!"
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.
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:
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 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.
Bran in A Song of Ice and Fire is, like so many things in that series, a particularly young example. He does have the whole wolf possession thing going for him later on, though.
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 hadnít quite realized they werenít going to find it
and they blamed you for the fact it wasnít 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
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.
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 Colonelís 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 Toxic 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 it 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 you mess. Well now you have to clean up mine"
Pete Best, or, "That Drummer For The Beatles Before Ringo Came Along," was kicked out of the band (with no given reason!) right before they became famous.
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 set backs (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.
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:
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.
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 ..."
Yata/Wiseman in .hack//G.U. 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
Maji De Watashi Ni Koi Shinasai has Hideo, who was apparently a genius baseball pitcher before getting caught up in a terrorist attack and suffering a career-ending injury. Particularly of significance in the Wanko and Ryuuzetsuran routes.
The anime version at the end also had a shot on her looking at the newspaper, and saw Haruka's sister Akane, also Mitsuki's 'protege/successor', eventually making it to the Olympic championship, which makes the ending really bittersweet, even if Takayuki returned his love to her and promises to restart anew together.
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.
Moe is frustrated by the failure of his once promising boxing career.
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 a deadbeat.
Bill Butterfield, a high-school football player from Texas. It was evident that he was bitter about not going beyond high school football, 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).
Ironically, her replacement was discovered, years later, to be a man. He came in 4th.
Speaking of the 1936 Games and Jews, 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 Jessie 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 also 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.
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.
Jesus Chavez was a top Mexican boxing prospect whom many believed would have been the next great boxing star from South America. 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, but he said he'd do it again. Also rather awesome when you remember that donating bone marrow is far from painless.