Famous sports figures become known for such extraordinary achievements they sometimes seem almost mythical. But they too were high school students who sang in the choir, ran track, and dreamed about their futures.
And because most did not escape being captured in high school yearbooks that documented their sometimes awkward teenage years, we are often able to get a glimpse of their earlier lives.
The vast database of school yearbooks on Ancestry® is a treasure trove, whether you’re looking for your grandparents’ senior class pictures or checking to see what your favorite basketball player looked like in high school.
Here are some interesting yearbook reveals.
Wilton Norman Chamberlain, born in 1936 in Philadelphia, became the first NBA player to score 100 points in a game (a league record he still holds). He was already 6’11” when he attended Overbrook High School, where his yearbook reveals his nickname was “The Stilt.”
His yearbook also declared him, “one of the greatest basketball players of our time,” which was partly prophetic, but also due to the more than 2,200 points he scored during the three years he played varsity basketball.
Walter Jerry Payton, born in 1954, grew up in Columbia, Mississippi. He was the star running back for the Chicago Bears in the 1970s and 80s, and his nickname was “Sweetness.” He attended the all-Black Jefferson High School, which combined with and integrated Columbia High School when he was a junior.
Payton played drums in the marching band, ran track, and sang in the school choir. He also played high school basketball. The well-rounded athlete joined the school’s football team on the condition he was still allowed to play in the band.
The quote paired with his photo in a Columbia High School Yearbook was, “Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers.”
Mildred Ella Didrikson
Mildred Ella Didrikson’s nickname, as noted in her high school yearbook, was “Babe,” after Babe Ruth, since she once hit five homers in a single childhood baseball game. Didrikson, who the Associated Press named “the greatest female athlete of the 20th century” in 1999, was already an athletic phenomenon when she took her high school yearbook photos.
She left Beaumont Senior High School in Beaumont Texas to play on the Golden Cyclones in Dallas, one of the best girl’s basketball teams in the country, although she did return and graduate with her class.
She won gold medals in the 80-meter hurdles and the javelin throw at the 1932 Olympics. In spite of all those accomplishments, the multi-talented athlete was primarily known as a golf champion and helped found the Ladies Professional Golf Association.
When his 1940 Berkeley High School photo was taken, in Berkeley, California, Donald Argee Barksdale was dealing with a basketball coach who wouldn’t let him on the team—because there was already one Black player, and that was deemed enough.
Barksdale went on to not only be the first African American player on the U.S. Olympic team, but also the first African American to win an Olympic gold medal in the sport.
Lawrence Eugene “Larry” Doby was a celebrated athlete at Eastside High School in Paterson, New Jersey, where his 1942 yearbook described him as, “among the best ball handlers in the state.” Not only did Doby letter in baseball, basketball, football, and track, but he also, as a high school senior, played semipro baseball under the name Larry Walker.
The Garfield (N.J.) Guardian wrote this about him playing in a state high school basketball tournament: “When a particular gent by the name of Doby is feeling good—woe be it to any team, barring none.” He joined the Cleveland Indians in 1947, where he was the first African American player in the American League. A seven time All-Star, he later managed the Chicago White Sox.
Who Will You Discover in Yearbooks?
You might find out how your mom wore her hair in high school or uncover your dad’s senior quote.
It’s even possible someone in your family could have gone to school with a legendary athlete.