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Past hardships inspire Leicester's unlikely Premier League title challenge

"I get hit, I get back up."

It's one of those inspirational, slightly cheesy quotes peddled by Little League coaches and inspirational Twitter accounts. But it also can ring true at the top level of sports.

Just about every professional athlete has, to some degree, suffered setbacks. Even Michael Jordan had to settle for playing JV as a high school sophomore.

But when you consider Leicester City's improbable rise to the top of the Premier League ahead of Sunday's trip to Arsenal, you note that the Foxes as a group have had their noses bloodied more than most.

And still, they get back up.

You wonder if this isn't part of the ethos that binds this group of men, guys who have bounced back from setbacks -- sometimes multiple times -- and have scratched and clawed their way to within sight of the summit.

It begins with manager Claudio Ranieri and goes back to his playing days. He grew up a Roma fan in central Rome, yet managed just a half-dozen games before being released and sent off to a bunch of smaller clubs in Italy's deep south.

When he went into coaching, Ranieri did so at the lowest rung of the amateur game and his move up the food chain was equally Sisyphean. He would do very well to build his reputation, and then he'd crash.

And when he crashed, he crashed hard, often with the finish line in sight.

In 1996-97, his Fiorentina team -- with Gabriel Batistuta and Manuel Rui Costa -- advanced to the European Cup Winners' Cup semifinal against a Barcelona side featuring the original Ronaldo in his pomp, as well as a certain Pep Guardiola. Ranieri's men grabbed a draw at the Camp Nou in the first leg and then contrived to lose at home.

Seven seasons later, he coached Chelsea during the first year of the Roman Abramovich era, and after defeating Arsene Wenger's Arsenal -- the "Invincibles" -- in the Champions League quarterfinals, found himself at 1-1 with a man-advantage away to Monaco in the last four. Ranieri threw it away by sending on a striker for a full-back, the footballing equivalent of doubling down on an 18 at blackjack.

He finished second with four clubs in three countries, yet never lasted beyond February of the following season. Count "mutual consent" exits, and he has been let go -- read: unwanted -- at least half a dozen times.

Ranieri can count many kindred spirits on his Leicester squad.

Take the star striker. Jamie Vardy was released by Sheffield Wednesday at age 15 and convicted of assault at 20, which meant he had to submit to a curfew and wear an electronic tag even while playing. At 24, he was still plying his trade in non-league football, yet five years later he's an England international and the Premier League's top goal scorer.

Or how about the captain? Wes Morgan was also told he wasn't good enough at 15, and for a while it looked as if his life, let alone his career, would take a very bad turn. Some of his childhood friends in the Meadows projects in Nottingham got involved in gangs and drugs, and some are serving time in prison for murder. Morgan toiled in the lower leagues, only making it to the top flight at age 30.

Today he co-owns a tattoo parlour -- he himself is thoroughly inked -- and last summer got to play for Jamaica in the Copa America against the likes of Lionel Messi and Edinson Cavani. That was probably the highlight of his career . . . until now.

Morgan's defensive partner at center-back is Robert Huth, who made his professional debut in 2002 as a 17-year-old prodigy for Chelsea -- managed at the time by, yes, Ranieri -- and won his first cap for Germany two years later.

In 2006, Jurgen Klinsmann started him in a pre-World Cup friendly against Italy, but Huth and Germany were disastrous, wiped away 4-1. He would make only one appearance for Die Mannschaft in the tournament and has not played since at the international level.

Seventeen of the 19 caps Huth won came before his 22nd birthday, enough to make him an answer to a trivia question. Chelsea sold him to Middlesbrough in the summer of the 2006 World Cup, and he has spent most of the past decade in bottom-half-of-the-table anonymity.

Leicester's right-back and the holding midfielder -- both named Daniel, both Manchester natives, both graduates of Manchester United's academy -- also saw their early dreams dashed.

It's a safe bet that both Danny Simpson and Danny Drinkwater watched United win the 2007-08 Champions League and wondered whether they'd soon be a part of it. They buckled down and accepted many loan moves -- 10 in total between them -- before ultimately being moved on for paltry amounts. Between them, they made one single, solitary league start for United.

Left-winger Marc Albrighton began his career at Aston Villa and was an England U21 international in his youth, but nine days after the end of the 2013-14 season, the club with which he had played since he was 8 years old said he was no longer needed.

He came to Leicester as a free agent, with little fanfare. Last summer, he endured tragedy when the mother of his longtime girlfriend was gunned down in a terrorist attack at a holiday resort in Tunisia. Albrighton has since celebrated goals by pointing to the sky and saluting her.

The left-back Christian Fuchs -- whose surname happens to mean "fox" in German -- was a standout in Thomas Tuchel's breakout Mainz team of 2010-11 and made the step up to Schalke after the season. But his career stalled in four years there, partly because of injury, partly because of the emergence of younger players. Last summer, he, too, became a free agent, rolling the dice to join this sure-to-struggle side that offered him a contract.

In 2012-13, while playing in Germany for Stuttgart, Leicester's other forward suffered the indignity of going an entire Bundelisga season without scoring a goal from open play. In all, Shinji Okazaki endured 31 games and 533 days, during which time he scored a single penalty in league play. Think he knows a thing or two about bouncing back and loss of confidence?

Then there's the goalkeeper with the burden of the demanding last name. Kasper Schmeichel looks like his dad, Peter, but is two inches shorter, and thus far anyway, several standard deviations less successful. It's not a knock; that's what happens when your dad is one of the greatest of all time: Folks will compare.

Schmeichel is 29 and became a full-time Premier League regular only last season, after coming through the ranks at Manchester City. When his dad was his age, he was already at Manchester United and had led Denmark to victory in the 1992 European Championship. Schmeichel is not the second coming and that's fine. He has had to accept it and so has the commentariat.

Leicester's other two regular starters -- N'Golo Kante and Riyad Mahrez -- do buck the status quo in the sense that at age 24, their careers have followed an upward trajectory, albeit ones that began in the relative obscurity of the French lower leagues. Both are also the players most likely to be able to move on to bigger teams in the long term. (Vardy is 29, and top clubs tend to avoid late bloomers.)

For most of Ranieri's other players, including 35-year-old cult hero Marcin Wasilewski, 5-foot-5 dribbler Nathan Dyer, 43-year-old (no, not a typo) backup keeper Mark Schwarzer, and reserve center-forward Leonardo "El Ciclon" Ulloa, this isn't just as good as it has ever been -- it's as good as it's ever going to get. Most are in their late 20s or early 30s. Football has made them realists.

That's why Leicester seem so carefree. Like their manager, they've had their share of kicks in the face and, no, they generally haven't come through, which is why they can't call themselves champions. Not yet, anyway.

When you've tasted defeat and disappointment, you appreciate the good times more. And somehow, the pressure is less, because you're playing with house money.

Gabriele Marcotti is a Senior Writer for ESPN FC, The Times and Corriere dello Sport. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.

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