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The 20 Biggest Overnight Sensations in Sports

Jessica MarieCorrespondent IIJanuary 3, 2017

The 20 Biggest Overnight Sensations in Sports

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    You go to bed one night, and you wake up the next day only to find that Jeremy Lin is in every commercial you see on TV and that nobody will stop talking about Tim Tebow.

    Such is the world we live in these days. Overnight sensations have invaded the world of sports.

    It’s not that they don’t deserve the attention they get; some of them do. But others … Well, they just make you think that maybe we should have held our judgment for a little bit longer until we could truly discern whether they were the real deal or flash in the pan.

    Some of these guys are still stars on the rise while others have seen their 15 minutes come and go, leaving us feeling foolish that we ever thought they were going to do big things.

    Here’s a look at some of the biggest overnight sensations in sports.

20. Clay Buchholz

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    Reporters had to learn how to spell Clay Buchholz’s name mighty fast in 2007. That’s what happens when you throw a no-hitter in your second major league start.

    But let’s backtrack. The road to that moment wasn’t easy. Buchholz was always one of those guys who had potential but couldn’t help letting stuff get in the way of it. He was dismissed from his college team in 2004, went on to little-known Angelina College and proved what he could do.

    Theo Epstein and the Boston Red Sox gambled on him, selecting him in the supplemental first round of the 2005 draft. He worked his way through the minors with a mixture of successes and failures before coming up in 2007 and no-hitting the Orioles on the first day of September, becoming the first rookie ever to do so.

    Since then, however, Buchholz’s career has largely been a disappointment. He has bounced between the minors and the majors, he has made a single postseason appearance and he’s only had one decent season.

    Now, he is perhaps better known for the computer-stealing thing than the no-no.

19. Gabby Douglas

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    Prior to the 2012 Olympics in London, all eyes were on the women’s gymnastics team—but they weren’t necessarily on Gabby Douglas. They were on her teammate, Jordyn Wieber, who was supposed to be the U.S.’s next Shawn Johnson.

    Except in the AT&T American Cup, world-champion Wieber was upstaged by Douglas, who came out of nowhere to register the highest all-around score, despite the fact that it was supposed to be Wieber’s premiere event. That set the stage for what would happen at the Olympic Trials, when Douglas would once again upstage her highly-touted future teammate, even bumping her out of the all-around competition.

    In this case, the hype ended up being worthwhile, despite all of the haters insisting Wieber deserved to represent the U.S. in the event rather than Douglas. The little gymnast that could became the first African American to win the individual all-around.

18. Annika Sorenstam

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    When you’re a female professional golfer, and you’re as good as Annika Sorenstam was at her prime, you kind of guarantee that people are going to know your name. It’s like what happened with Danica Patrick.

    Except in the case of Sorenstam, she deserved the early praise.

    Even though she’d been on the LPGA scene for a while, people didn’t really know her name until 2003, when she played in the Colonial, becoming the first female to play in a PGA Tour event since the 1940s. Prior to 2003, she had won four majors—and she’d finish her career with 10—but they meant a lot more after she played with the big boys.

    Not everyone was happy to see her playing alongside the dudes (hello, Vijay Singh), but most of the public was. She may have missed the cut, but it didn’t really matter; she was the first person do what she did in nearly 60 years. That was good enough to get the world acquainted with her on a first-name basis.

17. Andrew Hawkins

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    Remember him?

    If the football season ended in September, Andrew Hawkins probably would have made the Pro Bowl. But it doesn’t, and three or four months later, we feel as though we may have jumped the gun a bit on him.

    We all wanted to root for him because of his story: He jumped from the CFL to the Bengals’ practice squad in 2011 after being cut by two pro teams. Early in 2012, he had a few big games and a couple of touchdowns, leading some to believe that he and A.J. Green would be the two-headed wide-receiving monster the Bengals needed to get to the Super Bowl.

    Not so much.

    After registering 208 yards and two TDs through the first three weeks of the season, he would never again register more than 47 yards and he’d finish the season with just two more scores. But who knows what he’ll be able to do next year? There's still hope.

16. Dustin Pedroia

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    There are some guys who believe all of the scouts and coaches and haters who claim that they’ll never amount to anything because they are too small or too slow. Those guys never amount to much. And then there’s Dustin Pedroia.

    Pedroia was the Little Engine that Could, and the Boston Red Sox believed in him. It was the perfect marriage. Pedroia may be 5’8” and 165 pounds, but he had been able to make a name for himself with Arizona State, and he planned to do the same in the MLB, in spite of all the people saying he didn’t have the size or the speed to ever make his way out of the minors.

    Boston took him in the second round of the 2004 draft, and when he finally got his shot at the Show, it didn’t go so well. In 2006, he hit .191 with just seven RBIs in 31 games, and the Red Sox faithful wondered why there was so much hype surrounding this scrub. And then, in 2007, he hit .317, became the starting second baseman, helped the Sox win the World Series, won the league MVP the next year and the haters were nowhere to be found.

    Pedroia may have come out of nowhere his sophomore season, but he has proven that he is here to stay.

15. Missy Franklin

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    Going into the 2012 Olympics, we were all supposed to be focused on Michael Phelps. Then, along came a high-schooler named Missy Franklin.

    We didn’t know much about Franklin as the trials approached; we just knew we were supposed to care about her because she, allegedly, was the female version of Phelps. After she qualified for four individual events at the trials, she would establish herself as the talk of Olympic Village and as America’s sweetheart, and she would only enhance that image when she spearheaded the swim team’s viral “Call Me Maybe” video (above).

    Franklin was easy to like and easy to root for, which certainly made the hype that much stronger. But when she finished the Olympics with four gold medals, two world records and two American records, she ensured that she had lived up to it.

14. Andre Brown

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    Back when the New York Giants were still competitive, Andre Brown’s early success in 2012 was a lot more meaningful.

    In the offseason following their second Super Bowl victory in four years, the Giants lost (or freed themselves from?) Brandon Jacobs, leaving Ahmad Bradshaw as the No. 1 guy in the backfield. But what were they to do when he went down in the second quarter of the second game of the season with a neck injury?

    Turn to Brown, of course.

    Head coach Tom Coughlin didn’t trust David Wilson, so that left Brown to do the heavy lifting in a game that was already critical, since the Super Bowl champs had lost their season opener in embarrassing fashion to the Dallas Cowboys. And do the heavy lifting, he did: He had the fantasy waiver wires buzzing after scoring the game-tying two-point conversion and the game-winning touchdown to give the Giants an exhilarating win.

    Unfortunately, the exhilaration didn’t last very long—for Brown or the Giants. He suffered a season-ending fibula injury, and the Giants blew it down the stretch.

13. Bubba Watson

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    In the golf world, 2012 was supposed to be the Year of Tiger. 2012 was supposed to be the year he rebounded, once and for all, from the injuries and personal struggles that threatened to permanently derail his career a few years back.

    But Bubba Watson had something to say about it first.

    Heading into the 2012 Masters, Tiger was the favorite—big surprise. He entered the weekend with 3.25 odds of winning it all, while Watson had 40-1 odds. He had never won a major, and mostly, people were into him because he had a fun name and a quirky personality.

    But that weekend in April, he gave golf lovers worldwide a new reason to care about him. After an impressive first three rounds, he shot a 68 in the final round, beating Louis Oosthuizen in a playoff and hitting one of the best shots maybe ever (above) to seal up the win.

    And suddenly, everyone knew his name—not just because it was Bubba.

12. Fernando Valenzuela

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    Let’s harken back to 1981, when a 20-year-old southpaw by the name of Fernando Valenzuela was the savior of the L.A. Dodgers.

    As has been the case for so many other pitchers before and after him, early success had the baseball world thinking he was the next Cy Young. In fact, he won the Cy Young and Rookie of the Year in the same season, becoming the only major league player in history to do so while leading the Dodgers to the World Series.

    And unlike some of the pitchers who came before and after him, Valenzuela actually managed to stay relevant. After winning the first eight decisions of his career, he would go on to register 21 W’s in 1986 and threw a no-hitter in 1990. Imagine! A rookie pitching sensation who actually panned out.

    He finished his career with a 173-153 overall record and a 3.54 ERA.

11. Michael Oher

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    That’s what happens when they make a movie about your life. You become an overnight sensation.

    Before The Blind Side, Michael Oher was still a good football player. It’s just that he wasn’t exactly a household name. What left tackle is? Some of them may be household names in their own cities, but very few are nationally-renowned.

    Some even credit Oher with redefining what it means to be a left tackle. The story made for a good Michael Lewis book, and though there have been plenty of guys who have adeptly protected their quarterbacks' blind sides, few of them are as famous as Oher.

    The Memphis native had a rough childhood that swiftly altered course when he was taken in by the Tuohy family and started playing football at a prestigious prep school. Football helped him turn his life around. It made him into a better student and a better person. It earned him a Division I scholarship and, eventually, a spot on the Baltimore Ravens.

    But that’s not why everyone knows his name. Everyone knows his name because a movie about his life starring Sandra Bullock and Tim McGraw almost won Best Picture at the Oscars.

10. Matt Ryan Circa 2005

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    One day, the Boston College Eagles were an OK ACC team. The next, they were a national championship contender. Why? Matt Ryan.

    At the time, the Eagles had one stud quarterback in their history, and it was he who gave them the Miracle in Miami. And long before Ryan was a Heisman contender, he had his Heisman moment—two years before, to be exact. The Eagles had their starter, and his name was Quinton Porter—but unfortunately, he wasn’t any good. That was readily apparent on one rainy day in October, when Porter put BC in a 30-21 hole against Wake Forest.

    Tom O’Brien subbed in Ryan for Porter, and it was history from there. Ryan led the Eagles to two touchdowns in the final 2:30 to give BC the unlikely victory, and though it wouldn’t quite earn him the starting job, it set the stage for what was to come over the next two seasons in Chestnut Hill—and the next several after that in the NFL.

    When the 2007 Heisman race began heating up, many look to that as the period in which Ryan emerged as an overnight sensation, but in fact, he gave us glimpses of what he was capable of long before then.

9. Keegan Bradley

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    One day, he was just a big Red Sox fan from New England who also was good at golf. The next, he was throwing the first pitch at Fenway Park because he won the PGA Championship.

    Keegan Bradley turned pro in 2008 and played on his first PGA Tour in 2011, and he certainly made a name for himself right off the bat. He gave people hope that there could be another American star on the tour in the aftermath of Tiger Woods’ scandal. And he did it by achieving the near-impossible.

    In 2011, Bradley was still a no-name rookie heading into the final round at the PGA Championship. He was down five strokes that Sunday, and even after triple-bogeying the 15th hole, he somehow managed to slide into a tie for first at the end of the final round and won a playoff to become the third golfer ever to win his first major in his first try.

    Forget about Tiger. There was a new American sensation in town.

8. R.A. Dickey

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    An overnight sensation at the age of 37 is hard to come by. But that’s R.A. Dickey for you.

    Life was tough for Dickey when he first got into the MLB. As a result, he learned how to throw a knuckleball, and the pitch ended up saving his career. He suffered through nine seasons of mediocrity; nobody thought he was anything special, and there were times when he looked like he might be able to do something special, but the winning streaks were always short-lived.

    Then came 2012. Dickey went 11-1 through mid-June, and even then, nobody was really sure about him. They expected the other shoe to drop, and it never did. He finished the season with 20 wins—eight more than he’d ever registered in his career—and just six losses, with a career-best 2.73 ERA, a career-high 233.2 innings pitched. Oh, and he became the first knuckleballer ever to win the Cy Young.

7. Mike Trout

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    He may have been a highly-touted prospect, but he wasn’t as highly touted as, say, Bryce Harper. And he’s just as famous.

    Trout’s success in the major leagues didn’t come immediately. Many may have expected it to because he was a first-round draft pick, but that certainly doesn’t guarantee success. Neither does going 0-for-3 in your major league debut. In fact, very little about Trout’s first stint under the bright lights suggested he was going to be a future All-Star. In 2011, he hit .220 with a .390 slugging percentage in 40 games.

    But 2012—that was when he turned it on. He hit .326 with 30 homers and 83 RBIs in his rookie season for the Los Angeles Angels, unanimously winning the AL Rookie of the Year and coming in second to triple-crown winner Miguel Cabrera in the MVP race.

    People were actually upset that a triple-crown winner won MVP over him. When that happens, you know you’ve made it.

6. Russell Wilson

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    Isn’t it funny the way things work out sometimes? There were four quarterbacks selected in the first round of last year’s NFL draft. Two of them made the playoffs. Both of them lost in the first round.

    And yet one third-rounder—who was passed over by some of those teams once, twice, even three times—still has his team in it. Even more, most people didn’t think the No. 1 seed in the NFC had a chance against him and his team.

    When Pete Carroll named Russell Wilson his starting quarterback at the end of the preseason, we thought he was nuts. Now, he looks like a genius. Wilson finished the 2012 regular season with the fourth-best passer rating in the NFL and led his young team to a huge road win over Washington in the Wild Card round of the playoffs. He may have dropped his next game at Atlanta this weekend, but it wasn't his fault—in fact, it was his crazy fourth-quarter comeback that almost led to another unthinkable comeback win.

    This is one overnight sensation who isn’t going anywhere any time soon.

5. Katherine Webb

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    It is a sad national championship for your team when the opponent’s quarterback’s girlfriend gets more screen time on national television than you do. (I’m not trying to pretend I came up with that joke. Everyone on Facebook did.)

    On Monday, Jan. 7, a star was born. It wasn’t A.J. McCarron. It wasn’t Eddie Lacy. It wasn’t even Barrett Jones. It was Katherine Webb. One pan of the camera to Miss Alabama as she watched the Crimson Tide embark on their second touchdown drive of the game, and the entire male population of the U.S. was done for.

    Brent Musburger (above) helped her out a bit. So did Arizona Cardinals defensive lineman Darnell Dockett, who helped her earn more than 90,000 Twitter followers during the course of the game by tweeting his phone number at her. Days after Alabama won its second straight national championship, it wasn’t McCarron getting all the glory—it was his girlfriend, who was making talk show and radio appearances left and right for no reason other than looking flawless.


4. Tim Tebow

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    Ugh.

    By all indications, Tim Tebow shouldn’t have been an overnight sensation. It’s hard to win the Heisman Trophy at a mighty SEC school and still qualify as an overnight sensation. But he came into the league as a backup in 2010 and stayed that way until a couple of months into the 2011 season, when the Broncos were so bad that John Fox had no choice but to start him.

    And at first, Fox was rewarded for his decision. Tebow made a solid transition from backup to starter, helping Denver win six in a row down the stretch. The team lost three straight to end the year, but who cares? It was Tebow Time! After he miraculously led the Broncos to an overtime win over the Steelers on Wild Card weekend on a fittingly miraculous pass (see above), people actually thought he was going to beat the Patriots at home. He was the talk of the NFL town. Literally, no pundit wanted to talk about anything else.

    Then, Tebow and Broncos lost big to New England, the messiah was shipped off to the Jets and he was never heard from again.

3. Colin Kaepernick

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    Last season, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith seemed to be getting his act together—finally. He got his team to the playoffs and almost got it to the Super Bowl, but it fell in overtime to the Giants in the NFC Championship.

    Fast forward a year, and we find the Giants in a similar position—except with a different QB at the helm. Ladies and gentlemen, Colin Kaepernick.

    When Smith went down with a concussion midway through the season, it was all the motivation head coach Jim Harbaugh needed to bench him—and when he was ready to come back, there was no job waiting for him because Kaepernick hadn’t missed a beat. He lost a couple of games down the stretch, but he also scored huge wins over New England on the road and against Chicago.

    His biggest, however, came against Green Bay on Saturday night. In a game nobody thought he was going to win, Kaepernick threw for 263 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for another 181 yards and two scores while setting an NFL record for rushing yards by a quarterback in a playoff game.


    In him, we have yet another quarterback who was passed over in the first round of the draft (in 2011), didn’t start a single game his rookie season and now has the 49ers in excellent position to win it all.

2. David Tyree/Mario Manningham

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    At this point, they are pretty much interchangeable. They are wide receivers who hauled in Eli Manning’s critical, game-saving pass in Super Bowls against New England. And there are two of them.

    David Tyree was the first. Pre-Super Bowl XLII, he was a middling Giants receiver who finished the regular season with four receptions for 35 yards. Yes. Four. Post-Super Bowl XLII, he was a god. He was New York’s savior. He gave us the against-the-helmet catch (above) that ruined New England’s bid for a perfect 19-0 season and helped Eli shed the Other Manning label. And thereafter, Tyree would finish his career with zero additional receptions and zero additional yards.

    Mario Manningham was the second. His catch earned him $7.375 million. Pre-Super Bowl XLVI, he was just a guy who finished the 2011 season with 523 yards and four touchdowns. Nothing special. Post-Super Bowl XLVI, he was the guy who stayed in bounds to make a miraculous grab and extend the Giants’ eventual game-winning drive. That catch, in fact, got him a four-year deal from the San Francisco 49ers, and though he only finished 2012 with 513 yards, a single TD and two fumbles, he’ll always have that one shining moment.

1. Jeremy Lin

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    Here is one guy who, it seems, was worthy of all the hype.

    Last year, Jeremy Lin was the definition of an overnight sensation. One day, he was a bench player with little hope of ever getting into a game, never mind starting, and literally the next, he was the savior of the New York Knicks. Once he got an opportunity to show  Mike Woodson what he could do, he was a no-brainer. He led the Knicks to a seven-game winning streak after getting into the lineup and helped them transition from a bad team to a playoff team, overnight.

    Obviously, things didn’t work out for him and the Knicks—he missed most of the latter part of the season due to injury and signed an offer sheet with Houston as a restricted free agent this summer—but the fans will never forget him, or what he did for them.

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