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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.
Retirony is especially cruel when it strikes down a character 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 even 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, usually because their family disapproves of it. 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.
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 very long, and the bitterness is tangible.
- 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.
- 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. Subverted that 2 years later, he's given a chance to redeem himself and be a contender. And a great contender he becomes.
- 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 ended up sputtering out after two meetings, one of which Batman himself didn't even 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 ends up prompting his Face Heel Turn in that arc. Batman, naturally, is pretty scathing:
- On the Waterfront (Trope Namer)
- 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.
- 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 that way, but Frank Capra doesn't sugarcoat the initial regret and frustration as it all piles onto George's shoulders.
- Subverted in the movie Unbreakable, where Bruce Willis's character faked a serious injury after a car accident as an excuse to get out of a promising future football career so he could have a normal life with his fiancée, and then forgot he faked it through the normal process of memory reevaluation and editing, leading to his dissatisfaction with his "lost chance" at greatness in the movie's present-time.
- Ladybugs: Rodney Dangerfield sucks up to the boss to get a soccer coach job, claiming the only reason he didn't get to the pros was because of injury.
- The Rocker, in which The Office's Rainn Wilson plays a Pete Best (see the music category below) analog.
- Spoofed with the Mary (Had A Little Lamb) character in Mother Goose Rock & 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 Trope 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.
- 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.
- 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 Preacher (Comic Book), 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.
- 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 titular Chuck is this after his ex-best friend Bryce framed him for cheating which got him kicked out of Stanford university and forced Chuck to get a dead end job at Buy More. Bryce did it because he didn't want Chuck to be recruited by the CIA, so he can have a normal life.
- 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:
I could've been a contender,
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 on a swimming pool, she's always reminded with this fact. And things just go downhill from that point on.
- 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.
- 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)
- 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.
- Doesn't anybody remember Moe's frustrated boxing career?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.