Top 10 Rags-to-Riches Sports Stories of the Modern Era

John Altamura@@JohnAltamuraBRContributor IIFebruary 20, 2012

Top 10 Rags-to-Riches Sports Stories of the Modern Era

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    The emergence of New York Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin has been the hot topic in the sports world for the last two weeks. His meteoric rise has brought life to a storied franchise and captivated sports fans from all corners of the globe.

    Lin's rise from obscurity to prominence is rare, but not totally uncommon. There have been other athletes who have burst onto the sports scene and, in some cases, stuck around for a while.

    Here are the top 10 rags-to-riches athlete stories of the modern era.

Jeremy Lin

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    The emergence of Jeremy Lin has unarguably been the biggest story this year in the NBA.

    A native of Palo Alto, California, Lin was passed on by several college squads, including his hometown Stanford Cardinal. He would receive a guaranteed roster spot at Harvard sans scholarship. Lin and wound up amassing more than 1,400 points during his career with the Crimson.

    Lin started his NBA career with the Golden State Warriors and was subsequently cut. He was signed briefly by the Houston Rockets, but was again released.

    The New York Knicks picked Lin up in late Dec. 2011 as insurance to beef up their depleted guard corps. Lin was sent briefly to the Erie Bayhawks of the NBA D-League in early 2012. He would rejoin the Knicks shortly thereafter and would score 25 points on Feb. 4 against the New Jersey Nets.

    Lin scored 136 points in his first five games with the Knicks, the most ever scored since the ABA/NBA merger. Lin has been added to the All-Star weekend and will play for Shaquille O'Neal in the Rising Stars challenge.

Mark Fidrych

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    Mark "The Bird" Fidrych fluttered onto the Major League Baseball scene in 1976 with the Detroit Tigers. His eccentric demeanor and wacky mound antics captivated fans. Fidrych posted a stellar 19-9 record with a major league leading 2.34 ERA during his freshman campaign. This earned him AL Rookie of the Year honors in 1976, and a second place AL Cy Young award finish to Baltimore Orioles ace Jim Palmer.

    Fidrych's success was short lived though, as subsequent arm injuries forced him out of baseball by 1980. He finished his career with a 29-19 record and two all-star appearances. Fidrych died tragically at his home in 2009 as result of an auto repair accident.

Fernando Valenzuela

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    One word can aptly sum up the impact Fernando Valenzuela had on Major League Baseball and the Latino community of Southern California during the 1980s:


    The portly, scruffy-looking southpaw burst onto the scene with the Los Angeles Dodgers in the later stages of the 1980 season

    During his brief stint as a relief pitcher, Valenzuela compiled 17.2 scoreless innings. He helped propel the Dodgers during their playoff run, where they lost a one-game playoff to the Houston Astros.    

    However, his real impact wouldn’t be felt until the 1981 season. Valenzuela was stellar during the strike- shortened season, where he posted a 13-7 record with a 2.47 ERA

    Valenzuela remains the only person in MLB history to win both the Rookie of the Year and Cy Young Award in the same season.        

    Injuries and inconsistency would plague Valenzuela in the later part of his career. His last productive season was in 1996 with the San Diego Padres, where he posted a 13-8 record with a 3.62 ERA.

    Valenzuela retired from baseball in 1997 after spending a year with the St. Louis Cardinals. He now serves as a color commentator for Dodger Spanish radio broadcasts.    

Kurt Warner

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    The Kurt Warner rags-to-riches story was quite an inspirational one.

    Warner played collegiate ball at the University of Northern Iowa and went undrafted in the 1994 NFL Draft. He was invited to try out for the Green Bay Packers and was cut before the season due to heavy competition from the quarterbacking troika of Brett Favre, Mark Brunell, and Ty Detmer.

    Warner would continue to stay active in football as a graduate assistant coach for his alma mater, UNI. It was also during this time where he famously stocked shelves at the local Hy-Vee supermarket.

    In 1995, Warner joined the Arena Football League where he led the Iowa Barnstormers to two AFL title games. After a year in NFL Europe with the Amsterdam Admirals, Warner got his big break with the Dick Vermeil-led St. Louis Rams. After a nondescript 1998 season, Warner took over the team following a season-ending injury suffered by starter Trent Green in the preseason.

    He would command what would be called “The Greatest Show on Turf” and lead the Rams to an improbable victory over the Tennessee Titans in Super Bowl XXXIV.

    Warner left the Rams in 2004 and acted as a tutor for New York Giants rookie quarterback Eli Manning. He would finish his career with the Arizona Cardinals, who he led to their first and only Super Bowl appearance in 2008.

    Warner amassed quite a resume, finishing his NFL career with 32,344 yards, 208 touchdowns, and a 93.7 QB rating. He also collected two NFL MVP awards, and a Super Bowl MVP.

Oksana Baiul

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    Oksana Who?

    There was a significant amount of controversy surrounding the ladies figure skating competition at the 1994 Winter Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Norway.

    The competition would feature a dramatic showdown between Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding. Several weeks prior, Kerrigan was clubbed in the knee after a practice session at US Figure Skating Championships in Detroit. It was determined that Harding's ex-husband Jeff Gillooly had hired an associate to carry out the attack.

    Despite attempts by the United States Olympic Committee to bar Harding from the games, she would wind up skating.

    As the games played out, it was neither Kerrigan nor Harding who would take home the gold, but rather an unknown 16-year-old from the former Soviet Republic of Ukraine. Oksana Baiul, who came from a difficult upbringing, would best both Kerrigan, who took home the silver, and Harding, who placed seventh. Baiul would go on to have a respectable professional career.

John Daly

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    Before there was Happy Gilmore, there was John Daly.

    The gregarious professional golfer captivated the golf world with his drive power and his not-so-country-club-like demeanor.

    Daly's improbable victory at the 1991 PGA Championship and a later win at the 1995 British Open garnered him early success. However, Daly's career has never matched up to his early success, as off-the-course issues have affected his consistency on the links.

David Freese

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    The emergence of St. Louis Cardinals third baseman David Freese during the 2011 MLB playoffs was quite unexpected: Freese had an injury-plagued 2011 season where he finished with a .297 batting average, 10 home runs and 55 RBIs.

    In the Division Series against the Philadelphia Phillies, Freese would bat a respectable .278, with four crucial RBI's in a game 4 win. In the National League Championship Series, Freese would bat an astounding .545 with three home runs and nine RBIs. He was named the NLCS MVP as a result of his impressive series.

    Freese would save the best for last, as he led the Cardinals to a World Series championship over the Texas Rangers.

    His extra-inning, walk-off home run to win Game 6 of the World Series conjures up memories of Kirby Puckett and Carlton Fisk. The Cardinals would go on to capture their 11th World Series championship with Freese being named World Series MVP.

Victor Cruz

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    The story of Victor Cruz almost never happened.

    The New York Giants were in need of a replacement for wideout Steve Smith, who decided to leave the Giants for the Philadelphia Eagles at the start of the 2011 season. The Giants tried out several options at the slot receiver position, including Brandon Stokley and the oft-injured Dominick Hixon.

    Cruz would get his chance against Smith's new team, the Eagles, and finished with three catches for 110 yards and two touchdowns. Cruz broke out his patented salsa dance that day and continued to dance his way to the end zone.

    Cruz went on to break the Giants' record for receiving yards in a season, 1,536, which was once held by Amani Toomer. 

    Cruz's contributions helped propel the Giants to the Super Bowl XLVI victory.

Vince Papale

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    For Philadelphia Eagles fans, the story of Vince Papale can be closely equated to another famous—albeit fictional—hometown hero, Rocky Balboa.

    Papale garnished attention from Eagles coach Dick Vermiel due to his play with the Philadelphia Bell, a semi-pro football team.

    The 30-year-old Papale, who had never played collegiate football, went on to make the Eagles against all odds. He would spend three seasons, 1976-78, on the Eagles as a reserve wide receiver, and for special teams.

    Papale’s inspirational story was made into a movie, Invincible, that came out in 2006 and starred Mark Wahlberg as the underdog hero.

David Clyde

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    A highly-touted high school pitcher from the Houston area, David Clyde compiled an impressive 18-0 record, allowing only three earned runs during his senior season.

    It was this impressive resume that led to the drafting of Clyde by the Texas Rangers with the first pick of the 1973 Major League Baseball Amateur Draft.

    Clyde would be brought up to the majors immediately and made a sudden impact, winning his first two major league starts.

    They say that the stars shine a little bit brighter in Texas, and in Clyde's case, they burn out equally fast. He compiled an 18-33 career record before arm injuries forced premature retirement.

    The David Clyde story has provided a cautionary tale for clubs who rush along their prospects before they are ready for the Majors.