25 Athletes Who Came Out of Nowhere in 2012
Few stories in sports make bigger headlines each year than the sudden emergence of a bona fide superstar—a man or woman who storms onto the scene and makes us wonder if it’s the start of something special or simply a flash in the pan.
These are the grizzled pros, like former NFL quarterback Kurt Warner, who did their time in goofy-named leagues with team uniforms that look like they were defined by Jamz; or an outside-the-mold underdog who gave little reason to believe they’re capable of a historic, game-changing performance.
Every draft pick, every recruit, every prospect, every athlete—no matter how talented—is a risk, especially when it comes to meeting expectations in live competition. The sports graveyard is littered with the tombstones of promising careers that died before they ever truly begun.
If JaMarcus Russell played like Peyton Manning, it would not have been a shocker—he has all the ability in the world. Now, if JaMarcus Russell defies reality and returns to the field in the near future and makes the Pro Bowl, that would make jaws drop.
Fans love a success story even more than they love a tragic parable. These are the 25 athletes who came out of nowhere in 2012.
25. Lolo Jones, Olympian
Before 2012, Lolo Jones was just the American hurdler who finished fourth at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
Sure, she was planning to give it another go in London, but Jones truly came out of nowhere in 2012 when she revealed the fact that she was a virgin during a segment on HBO's Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel.
After that she got the full-court Tebow treatment for a few months before finishing fourth again at the London Olympics. Jones was adamant that, despite being 30 years old, she'd continue to train in hopes of medaling in the Rio Olympics in 2016.
But then she threw a monkey wrench into the whole thing by making the U.S. women's bobsled team just months later and winning a silver medal at the World Cup opener in Lake Placid in November. Never has a fourth-place finisher had such a breakout year.
24. Heath Miller, Pittsburgh Steelers
It's pretty tough for a tight end in his eighth season in the NFL to come "out of nowhere," but Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Heath Miller has managed to do just that in 2012.
The Steelers have never made proper use of Miller, preferring the tight end position to be one of predominately blocking.
Unfortunately for Miller's standout season, and the Steelers in general, things have rapidly spiraled downhill since Big Ben's injury.
And judging by what we've seen from Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch in his absence, don't expect things to improve until Ben's rib does. The good news is that it looks like Haley recognizes the value in this unsung hero, and Miller won't be coming out of nowhere in 2013.
23. Gabriel Landeskog, Colorado Avalanche
Unlike in the NFL and NBA, MLB and NHL prospects usually take several years to develop before making a major impact in the league.
But every now and again you'll get a first-round standout like the Avalanche's Gabriel Landeskog, who was selected No. 2 overall in the 2011 NHL entry draft and became an instant contributor in Colorado.
Even for such a high draft pick, Landeskong exceeded expectations, with 52 points and a plus/minus of 20, without missing a single game in the 2011-12 season. In June, he edged out the Edmonton Oilers' Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to win the Calder Trophy, which honors the NHL's Rookie of the Year.
And in September, despite the lockout, which could claim the entire 2012-13 season, 19-year-old Landeskog was named one of the Avalanche's four captains, making him the youngest in captain in NHL history.
22. Ace Sanders, University of South Carolina
University of South Carolina wide receiver Ace Sanders had been living in the sizable shadows of Alshon Jeffery and Marcus Lattimore until 2012. That, coupled with former Carolina quarterback Stephen Garcia's struggles and ultimate dismissal, left Sanders surprisingly under the radar.
He won't be the biggest guy on any NFL roster at just 5'8" and 175 pounds, but he could darn well be the fastest and one of the most elusive. Sanders has seven receiving touchdowns for the Gamecocks this season and one punt return for a touchdown—a positively Devin Hester-esque moment.
Whether Sanders will declare for the draft or return for his senior season is yet to be determined, but there's one thing that is not in doubt: Ace Sanders' stock is on the rise.
21. Ryan Lochte, U.S. Men's Swimming
U.S. men's swimmer Ryan Lochte didn't exactly appear out of thin air in 2012; after all, he did medal in both Athens and Beijing the previous two Olympics.
During almost any other stretch of time, Lochte would have been an instant superstar, but his career lining up with that of swimming mega-star Michael Phelps left him in the shadows during that time.
But in 2012, the suddenly disinterested Phelps made it clear that the London Games would be his last and even admitted he didn't train quite as hard as he had in the past.
Enter Ryan Lochte. This kid may be kind of a dummy, but he's smart enough to know that Phelps' retirement means it's his time to shine.
The suddenly in-demand Lochte is going to be in our faces for the next four years and loving every minute of it.
20. Stevie Brown, New York Giants
A safety out of the University of Michigan, Stevie Brown was selected in the seventh round of the 2010 NFL draft by the Raiders. He lasted just one season in Oakland before being released and going on to be signed by the Indianapolis Colts in 2011, where he played in just eight games and did not impress.
The New York Giants signed Brown in April, and when safety Kenny Phillips went down early in the season with injury, he stepped up in a most unexpected way.
Brown, months earlier considered a throwaway late-round pick, suddenly became an integral part of the Super Bowl championship Giants defense.
He was named the NFC Defensive Player of the Week in October and finally feels like he's found a home in New York. Even with Philips returning from injury, Brown, who has seven takeaways in 11 games, will remain in his expanded role.
19. Andrew McCutchen, Pittsburgh Pirates
Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen has been an up-and-coming talent for a few years, but he really gave the downtrodden baseball fans in Pittsburgh something to cheer about in 2012.
And jeez, they needed it after a late summer collapse killed their playoff hopes and secured their 20th consecutive season of finishing under .500.
But at least Cutch upped his game in a big way, giving them hope for the future. His batting average jumped from .259 in 2011 to .327, as did the rest of his stats—across the board.
Things have been bleak for Pirates fans for two decades and counting, but there's no reason to think that the 26-year-old McCutchen has even reached his ceiling.
Perhaps their reign of futility has an end in sight…finally.
18. Devin Gardner, University of Michigan
Wolverines quarterback Denard Robinson has had early Heisman buzz the last couple of years, but it looks like his team may have already stumbled upon a future without him in Ann Arbor.
In November, Robinson was a last-minute scratch against Minnesota, which gave Devin Gardner, who had played wide receiver to that point, the start.
Gardner turned a tenuous situation into a triumph, winning his first game as a starting QB and tying a school record with a win against Iowa two weeks later. Gardner scored six touchdowns (three passing, three rushing), gained 513 offensive yards, averaged 8.3 yards per play and converted for 25 first downs in their 42-17 blowout of the Hawkeyes.
Who knows what the future holds for Gardner, a junior who recently applied for a medical redshirt, at Michigan in 2013 and beyond—but he definitely came out of nowhere in 2012.
17. Oscar Pistorius, South African Sprinter
South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius may have been well known in the track and field world before, but his history-making performance at the 2012 Summer Games made him a global sensation for a few weeks this year.
Pistorius was the first double amputee to run at the Olympics and even finished second in his 400m heat. He went on to compete at the Paralympics a month later, but suffered a shocking loss to Alan Oliveira, an athlete whose prosthetic legs Pistorius claimed were too long.
Pistorius was so incensed by the loss that he requested the International Paralympic Committee to address the broad issue of blade length in prosthetics.
16. Wade Miley, Arizona Diamondbacks
Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports
Everyone saw the ascendance of the Washington Nationals' 20-year-old rookie Bryce Harper coming from a mile away—after all, the kid was on the cover of Sports Illustrated at the age of 16.
But the Diamondbacks' 26-year-old pitcher Wade Miley, who finished second to Harper in voting for NL Rookie of the Year Award, was more of a surprise, finishing just seven votes behind the Nationals phenom.
He started eight games in 2011 with an ERA of 4.50 but showed enough potential to earn him a place in the starting rotation. Miley earned NL Rookie of the Month honors in April and won 16 games for the Diamondbacks this past season on a 3.33 ERA.
Miley definitely made an impact this year and will be a star on the rise in 2013.
15. J.J. Watt, Houston Texans
As the 11th overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft, it’s not like J.J. Watt entered the league with low expectations. But after a solid rookie season, the Houston Texans defensive end truly announced his presence in January during the playoffs.
Watt was terror on the field, picking off Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton and returning the ball for a TD in the Texans' playoff opener, while sacking Baltimore Ravens QB Joe Flacco 2.5 times in a losing effort the next week.
Watt’s playoff run was merely the beginning: In his second NFL season, J.J. “Swat” has made a strong case for the NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award. Watt is currently near the top of the league in sacks with 14.5 and has batted down 11 passes—with four leading to interceptions.
In his second year, at age 23, Watt is already a game-changer and one of the best defensive players in the league.
14. Webb Simpson, PGA
American golfer Webb Simpson joined the PGA Tour in 2008 at the age of 22. He didn't make much of a splash on the tour until 2011, when he won the first two tournaments of his career after beginning the season with three top-25 finishes in his first five events.
But in 2012, Simpson finally won his first major, charging back from out of nowhere (also known as a four-shot deficit) to win the U.S. Open.
It turned out to be a nail-biter right down to the final holes, unlike Rory McIlroy's eight-shot win in 2011, but Simpson defeated Graeme McDowell and Michael Thompson by a single stroke when all was said and done.
13. James Neal, Pittsburgh Penguins
Right-winger James Neal was drafted 33rd overall by the Stars in 2005 and made his rookie debut in Dallas during the 2008-09 season.
Neal played most of the next three seasons for the Stars, but was largely considered an underachiever who racked up more penalty minutes than points and was traded to the Penguins in early 2011. It took him the rest of that season to acclimate in Pittsburgh, but Neal had a breakout season in 2011-12.
He finished the season with 81 points, besting his previous high by nearly 30 points, leading the Penguins into the playoffs, and he even earned a place on the All-Star team. Unfortunately, due to the NHL lockout, we've seen the last of Neal on the ice in 2012.
12. DeAndre Hopkins, Clemson University
Junior wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins had two productive seasons at Clemson in 2010 and 2011, averaging 802 yards a season and finding the end zone for the Tigers nine times.
But it wasn't until 2012 that Hopkins truly elevated his game to elite status, making him a top-three prospect at his position in the nation.
This season, he has racked up over 1,200 receiving yards, averaging 17.6 yards per catch, and has scored 16 touchdowns. Hopkins and quarterback Tajh Boyd have led the Tigers to a 10-2 record this year, and he can expect to have an even more exciting season in 2013.
11. Ronda Rousey, UFC Fighter
Image via MMA Weekly
Unless you're a big women's judo fan, you probably hadn't heard much about Ronda Rousey before 2012. Rousey actually won a bronze medal in judo at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and has five other medals (three gold) in other international competitions.
But it wasn't until she made her Strikeforce MMA debut in 2011 and won her first two fights by submission that she really started to attract attention. This past March, Rousey defeated her toughest opponent yet in Miesha Tate, also by submission, dislocating Tate's elbow in the process.
She also scored her own special on Showtime, was featured in ESPN The Magazine's annual "Body Issue" and became the first female fighter to sign with UFC. All in all…not too bad, girl.
10. Alfred Morris, Washington Redskins
Washington Redskins rookie running back Alfred Morris, who was drafted in the sixth round out of Florida Atlantic in April, is a prime example of why most NFL teams are moving away from drafting running backs in early rounds. Take Alabama superstar running back Trent Richardson, a Heisman finalist, for example.
Richardson was drafted third overall by the Cleveland Browns and has been largely disappointing this season. Through Week 15, he's averaging 3.5 yards per carry, could finish the season under 1,000 yards and has fumbled three times.
By contrast, Morris has amassed 1,322 yards and is averaging 4.7 yards per carry for the Skins.
In recent years, more standout running backs have been coming out of the late-round woodwork than out of the first round, making Morris just the most recent at the position to rocket into relevancy.
9. Mike Trout, L.A. Angels of Anaheim
Outfielder Mike Trout was drafted 25th overall by the L.A. Angels in the 2009 MLB draft. In 2011 he was named one of the top prospects in all of baseball by most experts, but even they had to be surprised by the rookie year that Trout put together in 2012.
His stats across the board were stellar, including a .326 batting average, 83 RBI and 30 home runs. Trout earned an All-Star selection, won the Silver Slugger Award, led the AL in runs scored and in stolen bases, and was named the 2012 AL Rookie of the Year.
Trout's season was so impressive that it led many to argue that it was he who should have won the AL MVP over Detroit Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera, the first Triple Crown winner MLB has seen since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967.
Obviously nonsense, but Trout certainly had a season to remember.
8. Missy Franklin, U.S. Women's Swimming
U.S. women's swimmer Missy Franklin's hero is fellow American Olympian Natalie Coughlin, one of the most decorated female athletes of the last decade.
But at the age of 17, Franklin already has more Olympic gold to her name than Coughlin collected in her 11-year career.
She first competed for Olympic qualification in 2008 at the age of 13 but failed to qualify in any events. And what a difference four years make.
Franklin qualified for the 100-meter backstroke, 200-meter backstroke, 4x200-meter freestyle relay and 4x100-meter freestyle medley, and she won gold in every event. Franklin also brought home a bronze for her part in the 4x100-meter medley relay.
After that performance, let's just say she won't be catching anyone by surprise at the Rio Olympics in 2016.
7. Jeremy Lin, Houston Rockets
Sure, we aren't in the national vice grip of "Linsanity" anymore, but there's no doubt that now-Houston Rockets point guard Jeremy Lin appeared out of thin air with the New York Knicks in February.
Lin, a benchwarmer out of Harvard (ironically), had been cut by two teams before getting some playing time during superstar Carmelo Anthony's extended injury timeout.
He performed admirably in Melo's absence, but the two failed to make magic happen together, ultimately sealing Lin's fate in (actually, out of) New York. A season-ending knee injury probably didn't help Lin's case though.
Management and Lin negotiated in the offseason, but the Rockets made the best offer and the Knicks chose not to match it, likely saying goodbye to "Linsanity" forever.
6. Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M
In August, USC seemed to be the team that would finally vanquish the SEC’s BCS title dominance. The chief architect behind the Trojans’ march toward a national championship would be quarterback Matt Barkley—the Heisman favorite who had just forgone a Top Five NFL draft selection to chase greater NCAA glory and honor.
Unfortunately for Barkley, the story is rarely written how we dream it.
A relatively unknown redshirt freshman quarterback at Texas A&M affectionately called “Johnny Football” exploded onto the national college football scene, putting up eye-popping numbers in the air and on the ground—like Robert Griffin III the year before.
Johnny Manziel not only vaulted into front-runner status for the Heisman Trophy to eventually become the first freshman to ever win it, he also helped lead the Aggies—and first-year coach Kevin Sumlin—to an inaugural SEC season that far exceeded expectations.
Ultimately, Manziel can claim the mantel of SEC “dragon-slayer” by making one amazing play after another in the stunning upset of the seemingly unstoppable Alabama Crimson Tide in early November.
5. Jonathan Quick, Los Angeles Kings
At the start of the 2011-12 NHL season, Las Vegas gave the Los Angeles Kings 14-1 odds to win the Stanley Cup—or double the number of goals Jonathan Quick gave up in a six-game sweep of the New Jersey Devils in the Cup Final.
The 26-year-old Conn Smythe winner was nothing short of spectacular during the Kings' postseason run, building off a regular season that was nearly as good—recording a franchise-best 10 shutouts and finishing the season with 35 wins and a .929 save percentage. Quick posted those numbers despite playing for the NHL’s lowest-scoring team.
Simply put: Without Quick, the Kings wouldn’t have won the first Stanley Cup in team history.
And, it’s not like the man is emulating Martin Brodeur—rather than years of outstanding goaltending betrayed by larger team failures in the playoffs, Quick was only in his third full season as a starter. A third-round pick in 2005, Quick was undeniably talented, but no one expected him to achieve this level of success so quickly.
4. Jim Johnson, Baltimore Orioles
In 2006, Baltimore Orioles relief pitcher Jim Johnson had an ERA of 24.00, and the team went 70-92. Sure, Johnson only pitched one game that season, but you can certainly see why.
Between 2006 and 2011, the number of games Johnson played fluctuated dramatically, as did his stats, but the Orioles record stayed below .500 regardless.
And then Jim Johnson and the Orioles finally turned a decade of futility on its ear in 2012.
Johnson jumped from being maybe a top-20 relief pitcher to, arguably, the best reliever in MLB in the span of a season. He led the league in saves with 51—second place had 48, and it dropped off dramatically from there.
Johnson's 2.49 ERA in the regular season was the second best of his career and was a major contributing factor to the Orioles' first trip to the postseason since 1998.
Let's just hope this wasn't a one-hit wonder.
3. Gabby Douglas, U.S. Women's Gymnastics
American women's gymnast Gabby Douglas wasn't expected to do poorly in London, but going into the Olympics, she was certainly not the favorite to win the all-around gold. Far from it, actually.
Douglas' teammate Jordyn Wieber, the reigning world champion who had only lost two all-around competitions in the last four years, was the heavy favorite to score all-around gold for the U.S. But in a stunner, Wieber failed to qualify for the all-around, which left Douglas with one heck of an opportunity—and she made the most of it.
Douglas became the standout star of the "Fierce Five" and scored that coveted cover of a cereal box, which is apparently now Corn Flakes.
Probably because Wheaties are disgusting.
The "Flying Squirrel" has been pretty much everywhere the last few months.
2. Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco 49ers
Remember when Jim Harbaugh and the San Francisco 49ers were in the mix for the Peyton Manning sweepstakes this spring? Well, if you don't remember, don't feel bad, because apparently neither does Jim Harbaugh.
Whatever your version of history may be on that specific issue, it became glaringly apparent during the offseason that the Niners were not married to the idea of Alex Smith as their franchise quarterback.
Smith had the best season of his painfully inconsistent career under Harbaugh in 2011, but the No. 1 overall pick in the '05 draft just isn't the guy in San Francisco.
Enter Nevada's Colin Kaepernick, the Niners' second-round pick in 2011, and Harbaugh's pet project.
He delivered when Harbaugh decided to out-Jet the Jets early in the 2012 season, and one Smith concussion later, Kaepernick seems to be here to stay.
And, judging by the helmet-wearing, eye-rolling Smith I've seen on the sidelines since then, I suspect he is out in 2013.
1. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Hornets
In terms of pro basketball, nobody had a better 2012 than Miami Heat superstar LeBron James. But coming in a not too-distant second has to be the uni-browed one himself, Anthony Davis.
At first glance that may seem like a bit of an overreach, but let's take a look at the 2012 of each.
- Won his first NBA championship as a member of the Heat's "Big Three" since making his infamous "Decision."
- Was selected as the NBA's MVP for the third time in his career and was named NBA Finals MVP.
- Was selected to the NBA All-Star game for the eighth time in his career.
- Was a member of the American men's Olympic basketball team that won gold at the London Olympics.
- Won an NCAA championship with Kentucky before being drafted first overall by the New Orleans Hornets in the NBA draft.
- Was selected as the NCAA tournament's Most Outstanding Player.
- Was selected as the 2012 Freshman of the Year and was an NCAA consensus First Team All-American.
- Was a member of the American men's Olympic basketball team that won gold at the London Olympics.
Uh, pretty impressive stuff, Davis. Now let's see if you can keep it up for the next decade like LeBron.
Bonus Pandering Slide: Notre Dame Football
I'm going to be honest here and just say right up front that I am not a Notre Dame fan. And I never have been, despite being raised Catholic.
But at least I'm not too much of a hater to recognize that their success is, ultimately, a good thing for college football. As much as it pains me, personally.
Most of all though, I'm thankful that I'm not a self-declared former Notre Dame lover who forsook them this past August—like ESPN's resident ego-maniacal ignoramus Rick Reilly, whose absolute lack of football insight is second only to his tragically unfunny sense of humor.
In his August commentary, Reilly compared Notre Dame to a European soccer team that gets demoted for sucking and even narced out his dad for flunking out of the university. He went on to outline some new rules of operation for ND and to tell everyone who disagreed essentially to "suck it" and go watch Rudy if you're feeling weepy.
So, whether or not you like the Fighting Irish, the odds are that you probably dislike Rick Reilly—so go menace him on Twitter: @ReillyRick (see what he did there?!)
And whether or not you like Notre Dame, you should respect my honesty and loyalty to not liking them.
Which is why you should go follow me on Twitter: @Blamberr (see what I did there?! No? It sounds like my name…which is Amber).
Seriously. Follow @blamberr