Professional athletes are perhaps the most American of American working professionals. Many of our most cherished stars didn’t come from any remarkable circumstances—they had to scrap for everything they earned. Derrick Rose didn’t have daddy’s age-activated trust fund to keep in the back of his mind when deciding whether or not all the work and pain is really worth it. Kids from middle class or impoverished backgrounds are playing throughout NBA arenas and NFL stadiums every season. Their stories are the most straightforward, easy-to-digest versions of the American Dream—that if you work hard, hone your talents, and practice at your craft enough, society will reward you richly. Athletes physically flex for us on live reality TV and get paid for it. Sounds awesome, no?

That alias of life, however, is only half the truth. As season three of House of Cards taught us, the American Dream is either dead or still dying. Paul Pierce and Venus Williams have elite work ethics, but relying on “hard work” to sell the American Dream is disingenuous to Pierce’s and Williams’ respective stories. Dreaming ignores day-to-day reality, and for Pierce and Williams, growing up as two kids in Compton trying to make it out, “hard work” was never going to be enough. Pierce and Williams—and Chris Johnson and Andrés Iniesta alike—have all faced difficult roads to stardom because of exceptionally disadvantageous circumstances. Read into their inspiring stories with Now We’re Here: 9 Athletes Who Powered Through.