Retirony is especially cruel when it strikes a character down in their prime just as they begin 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 (or right before) they reach the point that would make them bonafide superstars.
Years 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.
Compare Dream-Crushing Handicap, Stage Mom, Glory Days, Trade Your Passion for Glory, Life's Work Ruined. 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.
- 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.
- In Earwig and the Witch, the band Earwig was at its height when Erica's mother suddenly left without warning, presumably having to do with her then unborn daughter. It becomes clear that her bandmates never got over it, her absence why they are both so bitter.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Silver Nina: In his high school days, Shutaro wanted to hit it big and own his own company. Ten years after graduating, however, he's forced to return to his small hometown in failure and poverty, kicking off the plot as he becomes his niece Nina's primary caretaker.
- 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.
- In Yu-Gi-Oh! The Movie: Pyramid of Light, Joey distracts a number of duelists who want to challenge Yugi so that he can escape. When Yugi comes back and asks if the coast is clear, the duelists all charge at him and run over Joey and Tristan. Tristan tells Joey that they respect him alright, while Joey just mumbles that he could have been a contender.
- Zombie Land Saga takes this to its furthest extreme with two of its leads:
- Idol Singer Ai Mizuno, who was killed by a freak lightning strike right around the time she'd risen to the top of the charts and sold her first CD. Once she's reanimated as a zombie, she discovers that the world has largely moved on without her, remembering her more for her untimely death than her accomplishments in life, while she is unable to return to a society that would fear and shun her as an undead monster if she were to step into the light of day again. Her character arc is about her finding her second wind with Franchouchou, an idol group of zombies disguised as the living, once she gets over the sheer absurdity of the situation.
- The late first season Wham Episode twofer of 10 and 11 reveals that Sakura, while she was alive, was an aspiring extracurricular academic achiever throughout her short life, only for each of her attempts to be dashed by some misfortune. First, she gets the lead role in a school play, only to get sick on the day of the performance. Then, she gets sick again when she tries for the relay team after getting some of the best practice times. Her later attempt to get into the top high school in the area, for which she gets some of the highest mock test scores, is dashed when she reaches the testing site late due to running into too many old ladies needing help crossing the street and answering the questions in a panic. She spent the next few years in a depressed funk until she saw Ai, then of the idol group Iron Frill, in a TV interview saying that mistakes aren't the end of the world. Inspired one more time, she ran out the door in the moment circling back to the beginning of the series where she ran into a truck and died. Coming back to the present, she's forgotten everything that happened since she died, pushing her through the Despair Event Horizon. Thankfully, her teammates help her get better.
- 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 FaceHeel 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.
- 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 FaceHeel 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).
- 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 his mid-20s he kept having the same life as his high school days (balancing his Aunt, his relationships, his rent, his superhero work) 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.
- The Superior Foes Of Spiderman: Boomerang deeply misses his days of being a professional baseball player before being kicked out over a bribery scandal and his overarching goal is to play one more game while in disguise.
- 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.
- In Thieves Can Be Heroes!, Izuku feels this way about his inability to get into U.A. after his Chronic Hero Syndrome made him rashly come to the aid of a woman in the midst of being sexually assaulted by a drunken man. This decision ended with him being arrested, charged, and convicted with assault in a rigged trial. The legal proceedings made him miss the U.A. Entrance Exam while his new criminal record all but ensures that getting a job at any Hero Office will be all but impossible. Subverted in that he ultimately doesn't regret what he did despite the consequences of his actions. He completely gets over it after he realizes that he would have left all of his new friends to suffer under Kamoshida's thumb if he had never come to Shujin, allowing him to finally move on from his forlorn wish and look towards what he's able to do now as a Phantom Thief.
- After they beat back the newly emerging New Horde in She-Ra: In The Wake, Hordak still feels like a failure, having needed help in fighting what he views as the person who usurped his accomplishments away from him.
- In Vengeance of Dawn, Breaking Dawn is a highly intelligent, charismatic, and cunning unicorn mare with magical potential so powerful that even Celestia, her personal mentor, has almost never seen the like of it before. But her spoiled attitude and lack of dedication to her studies caused Celestia to set her aside in favor of a young Twilight. Heartbroken, Dawn's academic performance continued to worsen, and when she could not control her rage and assaulted Twilight, she was expelled from the School for Gifted Unicorns. In the present day, Dawn is living in a poor apartment and can't even hold down a job at a clothing store because she thinks her former status as Celestia's personal student makes her too good to work like an ordinary pony.
- The Trope Namer is On the Waterfront, which has Terry calling out his brother Charley for making him take a dive against Wilson and ending his boxing career before it even had a chance to begin. 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 by Citizen Kane, when he is forced to give up the control of his empire. Hardly a nobody. Very disillusioned, he reflects that it was 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.
- 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.
- The Godfather Played with: Don Vito Corleone expresses his regret to his son Michael that he couldn't turn the family legit in his lifetime, or at least spared Michael from taking over as Don. In this case, it's the father despairing for his son:
Vito: There could have been a Senator Corleone. Governor Corleone. Something.
- Happy Gilmore features the main character becoming a pro golfer under the tutelage of Chubbs Peterson, a former golfer who was hyped up by Sports Illustrated to be "the next Arnold Palmer" until an alligator bit off his hand, forcing him to retire.
Chubbs: Yeah, tournament down in Florida. I hooked my ball in the rough down by the lake...damned alligator popped up! Cut me down in my prime!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 saloon madam from The Lone Ranger could have made it as a ballerina had Butch Cavendish not eaten one of her legs.
- Inverted in Moneyball. Billy Beane 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.
- 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.
- 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 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.
- 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.
- The Rocker, in which The Office's Rainn Wilson plays a Pete Best (see the music category below) analog.
- 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.
- Actually Zig-Zagged throughout the series. After winning his first world title he's portrayed as a paper champion in the third before coming back and then having a forced retirement due to blunt-force trauma from the fourth. The last movie mostly ignores that last plot point but makes his past-his-prime status a reality so that they can focus on strength training to make up for his lack of mobility.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Angelo from Backstreet Dreams was once a highly skilled boxer, but by the time he got his shot at the belt, age had weakened him too much.
- In Aaron Loves Angela, Aaron's father Ike spends much of his time drunkenly looking at slides of his college football days. He's sad and bitter that his career didn't work out, and his biggest wish for Aaron is that he'll have a successful basketball career, even though Aaron doesn't think he'll ever be tall enough.
- 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.
- There was Rhaegar Targaryen, one of the most promising warriors in not only the history of his house but also the Seven Kingdoms, and was prophesied to become the Prince That Was Promised (although he thought that his son, Aegon, was the one). Unfortunately, he was born as heir to the Mad King Aerys, who was jealous of his son's popularity, and then brought the fall of the entire house, the early deaths of Rhaegar and his children, and the exile of the remaining Targaryens to Essos. The only person who doesn't idolize Rhaegar in the present day is Robert Baratheon, and a few lament what could have been had he reigned on the Iron Throne.
- 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.
- His mother Daena Targaryen could have been queen in her own right after her brother King Baelor died, but she had no supporters after her long confinement. Also, the brutal civil war that happened when her grandmother Rhaenyra tried to become queen (after which women were de facto barred from the throne) was still fresh in everyone's collective memories. Her uncle Viserys (who pretty much ruled Westeros for the past decade and a half because his royal nephews couldn't be bothered to) took the throne instead.
- 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 capital instead of The Usurper that caused the siege in the first place.
- Subverted in the case of Willas Tyrell. Willas broke his leg in a tournament he entered at age fourteen, and the break never healed properly, effectively killing his dreams of knighthood. However, he quickly re-invented himself as a Gentleman and a Scholar and became one of Westeros' leading experts on falconry and animal husbandry, as well as something of a political prodigy.
- After her little brother Jaehaerys became king (and generally held to be the best king Westeros ever had), Queen Rhaena spent the rest of her life grumbling about how he and his sister-wife "stole" the throne from her, even though she spent all her time in seclusion, had No Social Skills even before the massive Trauma Conga Line that followed her marriage, and never showed any interest in actually ruling to begin with.
- 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" as 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 hadnt 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
- The first Red Dwarf novel, like the TV version below, has Rimmer blame his whole failed career on the gazpacho soup incident. In this version, he'd only been with the company for five months at the time, but the book still points out that in truth Rimmer keeps failing because he has neither the aptitude nor, at heart, the desire to be a Space Corps officer.
- Game of Thrones:
- Bran wanted to be a knight, which becomes something of an impossibility after Jaime pushes him out a window. He's very angsty about it at first.
- Ned and Lyanna actually saw a potential in Hodor to be a warrior when they were younger due to his immense size. His great-grandmother, Old Nan, politely brushes off her then little Lord and Lady's suggestions, citing it doesn't suit their social status for him to train with highborn children. Now imagine him as a Mighty Glacier or Lightning Bruiser, maybe even an Acrofatic badass if he trained.
- Even more tragically, Hodor soon after had a seizure that reduced his mind to that of a child and the only word he could speak for the rest of his life was "Hodor". The reason it happened is even more tragic than the incident itself.
- Played with, with Tyrion. Tyrion tells Varys that because of his dwarfism and his father's hatred for him as an Inadequate Inheritor, he never expected to have a real opportunity for his talents and his tenure as Acting Hand of the King is the only real chance he has had to apply himself in a meaningful way.
- 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 Colonels 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 an 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.
- American Horror Story: Freak Show has two examples:
- Elsa Mars is convinced she would have been a big star if not for Marlene Dietrich eclipsing her as the nation's favorite German entertainer.
- Paul believes that his handsome face would have made him a star had he been born with a "normal" body. It's also the reason why he decided not to have his face tattooed.
"I have the face of a pretty lad. Can you imagine this mug on a normal body? I could've ruled the world."
- 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. Subverted in that he actually left the company and sold his share for a paltry $5,000 prior to the company's success.
- Cyrus Beene is one of the greatest political minds in America and by all rights a man that should've been President. Unfortunately, Cyrus isn't particularly physically attractive and an unhappy marriage made him come to the realization that he was gay. The former made the Presidency improbable — the latter made it a pipe dream, so Cyrus had to settle for Chief of Staff (all the power, none of the glory). Though he didn't voice it often, it's clear that he's very bitter about it. Essentially, Season Six was him making one last stab at that pipe dream, saying just the right words to manipulate Luna Vargas into doing the dirty work for him.
- Mellie was first in her class at Harvard Law and could've been successful on her own like Olivia is had she so wished. She gave that all up for her marriage to Fitz in hopes of becoming First Lady. While that did happen, considering what it cost her, it's obvious some part of Mellie regrets choosing Fitz at all. Mellie even admits that the real reason she stuck around after years of a dead marriage and finding out that her husband was cheating on her was in hopes that Fitz would make it up to her by helping her with her own political ambitions, making all the sacrifices worth it because it had to be.
- Season Five is Eli forcing Olivia into thinking she's this so he can have more power, as he sees his children's power as his own. Even though she's the successful head of a crisis management firm and has connections and contacts all over the world with very powerful people, Eli firmly believes she could be so much more than that. Thus, he manipulates his "son" Jake Ballard into taking initiative and becoming the National Security Advisor in hopes of convincing Olivia doing similar things. Olivia does, by becoming Mellie's campaign manager — a path that leads her to murder two US Vice-Presidents and resurrecting B613 with her as Command, all while also doubling as Mellie's Chief of Staff, effectively making her the most powerful person in the world. The Season Six finale implies that Eli has come to regret pushing her that far, even though she's become everything he wanted her to be.
- On Elementary Sherlock tries to avert this for his colleague and friend Detective Marcus Bell. Marcus is a top-notch detective and his cooperation with Sherlock has produced spectacular results. However, Sherlock realizes that Marcus's career has become too tightly tied to Sherlock. When Captain Gregson retires, the new captain might have a less enlightened view of police consultants like Sherlock and Joan, so they would be forced to move and Marcus's career would likely be sidelined. To void this, Sherlock passes Marcus's file to a friend in the US Marshall Service who's more than happy to offer Marcus a job. Becoming a US Marshall would be an ideal job for Marcus and would allow him to progress his career. Marcus is not happy with the meddling but admits that if he did not take the US Marshall job he would probably regret it for the rest of his life.
- Sherlock discovers that a former Scotland Yard Detective Inspector is sabotaging Marcus Bell's transfer to the US Marshall Service as Revenge by Proxy against Sherlock. Sherlock does not know what he might have done to turn the man into an enemy and is surprised to learn that this trope is the reason for the feud. During his final days as a Scotland Yard consultant Sherlock was barred from going to crime scenes due to his drug-addled behavior but he nevertheless barged his way into the investigation of the murder of a Member of Parliament and solved it with a brilliant deduction in a few minutes. The Inspector was the lead investigator on the case and was responsible for tying up loose ends after Sherlock identified the killer. The Inspector quickly discovered that there was enough physical evidence to solve the case even without Sherlock's help. He could have solved the case himself within a day and reaped all the glory for himself. He figures that if he was allowed to solve the case on his own, the prestige of closing such a prominent case so quickly would have earned him a promotion and led to a stellar career at Scotland Yard. Instead, he was upstaged by Sherlock and is now teaching a criminal statistics course at a US college.
- Midnight Caller: Skip Fillmore from the episode "The Fall" went to college on a basketball scholarship. Five years and a failed tryout for the pros later, he returns to San Francisco a failure.
- Red Dwarf: Arnold Rimmer insists he only ever failed his shot at greatness by a narrow margin. The episode that first delves into this, "Me2", has him claim his failure stems from a gaffe involving soup... wherein Rimmer completely fails to notice the disconnect between his story and the fact he'd been in the Space Corps for fourteen years before that and was still a nobody. A recurring theme of Rimmer is that he'll blame everyone and everything for his total inability to become an officer but himself.
- Rom from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is an absolute genius when it comes to engineering who could have very easily thrived had he pursued a career in that field, but instead chose to follow Ferengi cultural expectations and become a businessman (which he has zero talent for). This is what motivates his son Rom to join Starfleet because he knows that he isn't cut out to be a businessman either and doesn't want to make the same mistake. Ultimately subverted for Rom as well, as Nog's example makes him realize he can strive for better too and he steps away from business to start a career in engineering. Just before the series finale he's appointed to be the new Grand Nagus of the Ferengi Alliance, so that he can oversee the transition of Ferengi society into a democracy.
- Spinning Out: Carol was an extremely skilled skater in her youth, but getting pregnant with Kat put an end to her career and Olympic dreams.
- 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 has 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.
- 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 was gradually reduced, and eventually, they let her go. She basically became nothing, all because this one woman coveted her boyfriend. Her life ended up in downward spiral ever since, degrading herself to doing porn for a living. She was ultimately found dead in her home in 2016.
- A downplayed example would be Randy Orton, which John Cena commented on during a promo right before the WWE and World Heavyweight Championships were unified in late 2013. Cena was actually fourth choice to be the face of the company. Brock Lesnar was first choice, but after he left, the company turned their attention to Orton, leading to his first major push, where he defeated Chris Benoit clean to win the World Heavyweight Championship and was promptly kicked out of Evolution. (Un)fortunately, the reign was cut short, due to a variety of factors: a still inexperienced Orton wasn't over enough with the crowd as a heel to really get cheered as a face, but what really sealed the deal was Orton's poor backstage behavior, including one rumor where he wrecked a hotel room in a fit of drunken rage. While Orton continued to have a steady push, his backstage attitude prevented him from becoming the face of the company, at which point they turned their attention to the third and fourth choices, Batista and Cena, respectively, before settling on the latter when he proved to be the most popular. Orton wouldn't win another world title until 2007, three years later, and it was as the company's top heel.
- Teddy Hart. A member of the famous Hart wrestling family, Teddy was signed to the WWF at the mere age of eighteen. By all accounts, Teddy is one of, if not the most talented wrestler that the family has ever produced, and considering this is the family of Bret Hart and Owen Hart, that says a lot. Teddy had everything in the world going for him — and that became his downfall. As far as backstage attitudes go, Teddy made the above-mentioned Orton look like a saint. He was so bad that WWE released him twice due to his bad behavior. Over the years since then, Teddy has been similarly fired and blackballed from nearly every major wrestling promotion in North America, with more than one promotion admitting to firing him for his own safety, as their respective locker rooms were that close to lynching him alive. More than one fan has lamented how much Teddy has wasted his talents over the years.
- As far as promotions go, TNA. Originally a small-time promotion established by Jerry and Jeff Jarrett to fill in the void left behind WCW, TNA gradually grew as a company, eventually escalating by signing other prominent stars from WWE, such as Christian and (most famously) Kurt Angle. By 2009, they had over a million people watching their flagship show, Impact!, had a roster boasting some of the best young talent around, and all in all, seemed primed for greatness.
Then Hulk Hogan and Eric Bischoff happened. These days, TNA is a running joke, mocked by the fans that once held it up as the future of Professional Wrestling, with constant shots at their nonsensical storylines, idiotic business management, and outright asinine PR decisions. Many are actually hoping it dies rather than continue on as a pale shadow of its former glory because TNA has fallen that far as a promotion.
- 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. Or at least thats what he believes he couldve done.
- 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.
- Aladdin in Twisted: The Untold Story of a Royal Vizier played for laughs. Despite it happening well into his thirties and him being the one who killed them, he thinks he could've been a success if his parents hadn't died.
Aladdin: I could've been a contenderIf not for the fact that my parents are dead
- 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 .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
- 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.
- Devil Survivor 2 reveals Airi Ban to have been a great piano player. She even won several competitions, but because the life of a professional musician is expensive and her family wasn't wealthy enough, she had to give up her playing. Realizing that a world of Egalitarianism would mean lack of money would not keep people from achieving their dreams anymore, Airi chooses to follow Ronaldo's vision of a changed world. The Restorer ending and the Triangulum Arc show that Airi managed to become a professional piano player, performing alongside Hinako.
- 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 implies this, claiming that they used to be an adventurer like the PC, but then they took an arrow in the knee.
- Sander Cohen from Bioshock 1 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 become a Hollywood or Broadway star.
- Kul Fyra in No Straight Roads was considered a rock legend as the lead guitarist of The Goolings. Unfortunately, she was unable to manage the conflicting needs of her bandmates, and they ended up splitting, with Kul Fyra herself unknowingly fading into obscurity afterwards. As it turns out, she was so embittered by the experience that she rejected anything to do with her past, establishing No Straight Roads as its CEO Tatiana, making sure to cater to her EDM megastars and be a better, orderly leader.
- Majikoi! Love Me Seriously! 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.
- Mitsuki Hayase in Rumbling Hearts. At the beginning of the story, she's already a bonafide Olympic-grade swimmer. Then, her best friend Haruka got hit in a car accident, all because she chatted with her other friend, Haruka's would-be boyfriend, Takayuki, way too long on his way to date Haruka. At that point, she became unable to swim further, eventually quits, and ends up as a salary woman. Over time, when she passes a swimming pool, she's always reminded of this fact. And things just go downhill from that point on.
- The anime version at the end also had a shot of 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.
- Simon Wood of Survival of the Fittest was an excellent footballer and was more or less set up for a career in the sport... then he is crippled in a horrible car crash.
- This article from The Onion tells of a contender that no one realized was a contender: 97-year-old Dies Unaware Of Being Violin Prodigy. (Warning: Severe Tear Jerker alert)
- Parodied by Markiplier in this video, featuring Mark in a Shower of Angst over dropping out of college (Mark makes it very clear the scene was purely Rule of Funny, and in reality, he does not regret choosing his fans over his degree).
- The phrase "I coulda been an engineer!" has since been (jokingly) repeated by Mark on several occasions.
- 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. This dream continues even in her adult years. And is even her final words before her fatal overdose.
Sarah Lynn's Mother: Sweetheart, Mommy didn't do what Mommy did to that "Star Search" producer so that you could be an architect.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 John F. 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, occasionally wonders about what she gave up to be with Homer, Edna Krabbappel laments her poor love life and her boring job teaching disinterested fourth graders at a terrible school. Even the kids, however talented they may be, are probably stifled 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.
- Maul in Star Wars: The Clone Wars cites this as one of his main motivations for revenge, lamenting that all of Sidious' plans have proceeded with him being cast aside and forgotten.
Maul: I was apprentice to the most powerful being in the galaxy once. I was destined to become...so much more. But I was robbed of that destiny by the Jedi, by Obi-Wan Kenobi.
- F is for Family: Frank and Sue both suffer from this. Frank had dreams of becoming a pilot and joining the Air Force (which he started dreaming of during his days in the Korean War), and Sue wanted to become a scientist and went to college for that reason. One Teen Pregnancy later, and they were forced to settle for an average life in suburbia, and by the time the series starts 14 years and two more kids later, the weight of their failed dreams is becoming unbearable. The first episode shows Sue having a breakdown over how boring and pointless her life as a homemaker is.
- 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 spent 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.
- 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 other two on the original team.
- Subverted by the Manning Family. While father Archie Manning was an NFL quarterback in the '70s (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 Broncos and Eli with the Giants), there's a third Manning brother, Cooper (the oldest, actually), 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 and later on getting his own football analysis show on Fox Sports; he has admitted to wishing he could have played professionally like his brothers did, but it's not because he wanted the fame or success so much as that he just loved playing football and wishes he could have had a chance to make a living out of it. (Although he can't resist the urge to tease his brothers on occasion by telling them he would have been more successful than either of them if he'd had the chance.)
- American Football safety Nick Collins, a three-time Pro Bowler with the Green Bay Packers who had set records with his interception returns, was on the path to a Hall of Fame career until a freak accident on a routine play in 2011 left him with a herniated disc in his neck. Collins was forced to undergo major spinal surgerynote , and was never able to play professional football again. Collins did get several standout years and a Super Bowl ring prior to the injury, but he could have been one of the best safeties of his era (alongside legends like Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu) if his career hadn't been cut short.
- 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 a vehicular accident that 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.
- Michael "The Force" Watson was a serious contender for the WBO Middleweight Title, getting a highly controversial loss (that the general public thought he won) against reigning champ Chris "Simply the Best" Eubank. In their rematch, he was unquestionably winning and ahead on all scorecards, beating Eubank soundly, when in the closing seconds of the 11th (out of 12) round, Eubank somehow managed to land a thunderous uppercut that left Watson dazed and groggy. When he came out for round 12, Eubank swiftly dispatched him to a TKO. Unbeknownst to everyone involved, Eubank's uppercut permanently damaged Watson's brain, sending him to a coma shortly after the match and rendering him effectively a vegetable for several months. Watson later woke up from the coma and miraculously regained his consciousness, speech, and movement over the years, but his career was finished as Watson is to this day partly paralyzed, suffering the lingering effects from that punch.
- 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.
- Russian gymnast Elena Mukhina, the 1978 All-Around World Champion, was considered one of the stars of the Russian team and had a pretty good shot at a medal in the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Two weeks before the Games, Mukhina had a catastrophic fall while attempting a dangerous roll-out skill and was paralyzed from the neck down. (The skill and all other similar skills were later banned because of the potential for serious injury.) However, by this point, Mukhina was so fed up with her brutal training regimen that, far from being upset at missing her shot, she was actually relieved that she wouldn't be going to the Olympics.
- Similarly, American Julissa Gomez was considered a potential contender for a spot on the 1988 US Olympic Team but broke her neck in a vaulting accident at a smaller competition in May of that year. Though she was initially aware and responsive following the accident, Gomez was accidentally disconnected from her ventilator while in the hospital, and the lack of oxygen caused her to lapse into a vegetative state. She died three years later, never regaining consciousness.
- In a less extreme example, any number of athletes in Olympic sports have lost their chance at the Olympics because of an ill-timed injury. Since the Olympics occur only once every four years, even if the injury wasn't career-ending, that sometimes turns out to be their only chance at an Olympics, because an athlete who was in the prime of their career leading up to one Olympics may be past his or her peak by the time the next Games comes around. (This is especially true in some sports, like women's gymnastics, where most athletes' peaks are a few years at most.)
- 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?"
- Charles Laughton directed 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 to or greater than Shakespeare.
- There are many cases where princes that were seen and loved by many as The Wise Prince and potential harbinger of the Golden Age die before their time, leaving the throne to be taken by Hidden Backup Prince to whom nobody had paid any attention.
- The most famous example, in English history, is Edward the Black Prince, heir to King Edward III, a key commander at the Battle of Crecy during The Hundred Years War, seen by many as the "flower of chivalry". He died in his 40s, a year before his father, and the reign passed to his young son, Richard II. Indeed, historians note that the Black Prince's death and the Succession Crisis that stemmed from the Wars of the Roses could have been averted had the Prince lived longer.
- In the case of Indian history, the great example is the Mughal Prince Dara Shikoh (son of Shah Jahan of Taj Mahal fame). Dara Shikoh was an Interfaith Smoothie, who translated the Gita from Sanskrit into Persian. Aurangzeb was a religious fanatic. As a result of the Mughal's fratricidal succession policy, Aurangzeb went in rebellion against his father and his brother, leading to Dara's death. Aurangzeb's conquests created widespread resentment against the Mughals, leading to many revolts and breakaway kingdoms, marking the end of the Golden Age of medieval India, the decline of the Mughal Empire, the power vacuum of the 1700s that would eventually be exploited by the East India Company and greater religious intolerance. As such, you can't blame later writers for romanticizing poor Dara Shikoh.
- 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 conceivably had rocked the world.
- Charles Stewart Parnell is this for Ireland. He was a Protestant who was popular and liked by Catholic Irish, sought to create consensus for Home Rule in the Parliament and he was a partial Trope Maker of the "Boycott" protest tacticnote . He was regarded by historian A. J. P. Taylor as a founder of Irish nationalism. Yet, Parnell's career was undone by a sex scandal which led him to be abandoned by the fragile coalition that was kept around him, with the Catholic clergy especially abandoning him, creating divides between them and the Liberal Republican (such as James Joyce who kept referring to Parnell in his books in a very positive, even hagiographic, manner). Parnell is seen as the one politician who could have healed the Catholic-Protestant Divide and many in Ireland and England think that if his career was not disgraced, the The Irish Revolution and The Troubles could have been avoided entirely. He was known as "the Uncrowned King of Ireland".
- 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 then built and ruled a united Carthago-Roman Empire? Could Britain 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 she got fired from the station over the song "USA for Indonesia", aka the Tsunami Songnote , which mocked the victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. 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 considered the greatest Filipino politician who never became president, but even before his assassination, he said his long imprisonment caused him to have a HeelFaith Turn and made him quit politics.
- This trope is the reason why John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy are seen as icons by American liberals. John was a famously photogenic President who proposed a series of massive anti-poverty and infrastructure programs called the "New Frontier", while Robert, as John's Attorney General, was his brother's most trusted advisor and a key player in his campaigns for civil rights and against The Mafia. Wondering how The '60s and beyond would have turned out had they not been assassinated is probably the most popular Alternate History scenario of modern, postwar American history, and a big part of the reason why so many conspiracy theories circulate around their deaths.
- After she made the cover of Time at the age of eighteen around the time Pretty in Pink was released, big things were expected of Molly Ringwald, who had made a splash with Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club. However, an acrimonious split with John Hughes, failed attempts to gain more respect as a young actress, and her own personal crises led to her career going downhill by the end of the eighties. Since The Secret Life of the American Teenager, she's mainly been playing smaller parts, particularly mothers or mother figures, for an easy paycheck. The remnants of her fanbase aren't exactly pleased with what she's become.
- Richard Harris' first passion was rugby, but a childhood bout of tuberculosis put an end to that. He did get to put his skills to use in This Sporting Life.
- Sean Connery had a talent for football in his younger days and was offered a trial for Manchester United. He made the difficult decision to focus on acting. It's a decision that may have saved his life, as he possibly avoided the Munich Air Crash of 1958.
- Christopher Eccleston also wanted to play for Manchester United but an injury put an end to that. Future Doctor Matt Smith also had the same aspiration and outcome.
- Johnny Marr had aspirations to be a professional football player. He was approached by Nottingham Forest and had trials with Manchester City.
- In science:
- Perhaps the two best known cases of a career cut short by death are those of Évariste Galois and Henry Moseley. The former was a mathematical Teen Genius who got into a duel at only 20 and died from it, while the latter was a physicist who made a breakthrough contribution to nuclear theory before dying in the battle of Gallipoli in 1915 at the age of 27.
- Among those who petered out for other reasons, a controversial, but much-discussed because of the stakes and names involved case is that of Mileva Marić. The story as it is generally told is that she was a promising young female physicist who might have contributed to the first formulation of theory of relativity, but then got pregnant by Albert Einstein and had to drop out.