20 Average Athletes Who Became Heroes
There are the LeBron Jameses of the world. And then there are the rest.
Yet how did some of The Rest become almost as famous, and almost as beloved, as LeBron James when they had so much less to work with?
There are no answers. Sometimes it just happens.
Sometimes that's the way the cards fall. A team needs a hero, and the most unlikely oaf steps up to the plate and jacks the series-winning homer. Or the smallest, most unathletic guard launches the game-winning three-pointer.
Yesterday, they were nobodies. Some of them were even jokes. Today, they are superstars.
Here are some of the most average athletes who have ever become heroes. And let their journeys be a lesson to all of us: There's still hope.
20. Mike Jones
If one stellar play is all you need in order to cement your place in NFL history, so be it. It worked for Mike Jones.
When you talk about Super Bowl XXXIV, you're going to be talking about Jones. He did, after all, give us one of the most famous (or infamous) game-ending plays in sports history.
The Rams were up 23-16 and were mere seconds away from the championship, but the Titans were driving, and they were in the red zone. Titans wideout Kevin Dyson was charging for the last-second score and would have made it—if Jones hadn't tackled him on the one-yard line.
And that was it. Game over. St. Louis would take the title, while the Titans would come up one measly yard short. And they had Jones to thank. Or blame.
Jones would never do anything incredibly remarkable throughout the rest of his nine seasons in the league, but when you single-handedly preserve your team's Super Bowl victory, it probably doesn't matter.
19. Tyronn Lue
It seems easy for Lakers to gain national acclaim with the media, the fans and the world. They're the Lakers. They're one of the most storied franchises in NBA history.
It's not so easy, however, for bench players. Still, Tyronn Lue managed to get the job done.
Shortly after he was drafted in 1998, Lue was traded to the Lakers—and it was a good time to be wearing purple and gold, as L.A. won two titles in his first three seasons with the team. On one of those title runs, though, Lue had a very specific purpose: He was the Iverson Stopper.
Legend has it that Lue was so quick, he was specifically assigned to guard Sixers star Allen Iverson during the 2001 NBA Finals. If the Lakers' 4-1 series victory is any indication, he did a pretty good job.
Lue's numbers were never all that impressive, especially during those three years with the Lakers. But he helped build the Lakers back into the dynasty they were destined to be by thwarting one of the best players of that era. Good enough.
18. Rocco Mediate
Most of the time, almost just isn't good enough.
But when you have a super-catchy name and you nearly destroy Tiger Woods in his pre-meltdown days, it's an exception.
Rocco Mediate has experienced some mild success on the PGA Tour. He's won six times, and people like him because of his unconventional name, unconventional putter and the fact that he's overcome a slew of injuries in order to achieve success.
He never won a major, but once, he got pretty darn close: At the 2008 U.S. Open, he matched Tiger's play through regulation and through the playoff, but on the first hole of sudden death, he crumbled.
Still, whenever you're the underdog and you come so close to trumping the perennial favorite in such dramatic fashion—and when your name is Rocco—people are going to love you. Even if you've never won a major.
17. Harold Miner
Who could ever be expected to live up to the moniker "Baby Jordan"?
Considering that was the nickname Harold Miner was stuck with, it seemed as though he was almost destined to fail, or at least underwhelm.
Coming out of high school in Inglewood, Miner was labeled Baby Jordan because of a dunking ability that called to mind the biggest and brightest NBA star of them all. For a little while during college, it looked like he might live up to the hype: He captured the hearts of basketball fans in Southern California when he led the Trojans to a No. 2 seed in the 1992 NCAA tournament and was named the player of the year by Sports Illustrated.
But while he experienced mild success at USC—and, it should be noticed, in the NBA's Slam Dunk Contest—his skills never really translated into the spectacular NBA career that was expected of him. In fact, he only lasted four years.
Yes, Baby Jordan peaked in his amateur years, like so many others. He may have looked like a superstar back then, and even though he didn't end up panning out in the pros, he'll at least be remembered forever because of that cursed nickname—for better or worse.
16. Kevin Millar
Every baseball team needs a character guy or two. Every team needs someone who's going to keep the rest of the guys loose, who's going to remind them that it's just a game and losing isn't the end of the world, who's going to supply a much-needed shot of Jack Daniels on occasion.
When you don't have those character guys, you end up like the 2012 Boston Red Sox. And when you do have those guys, you become the 2004 Boston Red Sox.
Kevin Millar was never an offensive powerhouse. He was competent at best, frustrating and inconsistent at worst. But he didn't do his best work at the plate; he did his best work in the clubhouse, where he helped his teammates bond over his love for Creed and his affinity for alcoholic beverages.
Among Millar's many accomplishments with the Red Sox were creating the "Cowboy Up" movement of 2003 and motivating his teammates toward completing the best comeback in sports history in 2004. He would never be anybody's first fantasy pick, but at least in the eyes of Red Sox fans, he'll always be beloved for the intangibles.
15. Todd Hamilton
As a golfer, all you need is one shining moment to become a legend.
The best golfers don't always win the top-tier tournaments; in fact, of late, the same guy has rarely won any two majors in the same year, never mind the top players getting the job done.
For a brief time in 2004, Todd Hamilton became a hero. All he needed was a win at the British Open.
2004 was a good year for Hamilton, who spent years trying to gain entry to the PGA Tour. That year, he birdied the last two holes to earn his first tour victory at the Honda Classic, and a few months later, he reached the mountaintop in dramatic fashion when he came out on top of Ernie Els in a four-hole playoff to win the British Open. That led to Hamilton, at the age of 39, being named the Tour's Rookie of the Year.
Since then, Hamilton hasn't come close to winning another major, but his one win is a win plenty of guys would love to have. And more likely than not, it will be the only one he ever gets.
14. He Hate Me
Sometimes—rarely, but sometimes—athletes can become heroes because of something that is pretty much entirely unrelated to anything they have done on the field.
Meet Rod "He Hate Me" Smart.
Smart skyrocketed to superstardom in 2001 when, as a member of the ill-fated XFL's Las Vegas Outlaws, he chose to adorn the back of his jersey with the words "He Hate Me" rather than his name. He seemed to use the idea that everyone hated him as a motivational tool, hence, the nickname. Unsurprisingly, the jersey was the league's bestseller.
As for Smart's on-the-field performance, it wasn't incredibly impressive. He did manage to parlay his mild success with the Outlaws into a contract with the CFL's Edmonton Eskimos and, eventually, the Philadelphia Eagles and Carolina Panthers.
But he won't be remembered for his stat line. He may just be an average, run-of-the-mill, almost successful running back, but he will always be remembered for that name.
13. Spike Albrecht
College basketball stars come and go, but the few who propel their teams toward March Madness glory will be remembered forever.
Spike Albrecht was one of those unlikely heroes. He and his Wolverines may not have been able to achieve the ultimate prize, but because of him, they at least had a chance.
Albrecht was no Shabazz Muhammad or Nerlens Noel. He wasn't a highly-targeted recruit coming out of his prep school in Massachusetts. But just a few minutes into the 2013 national championship game between Michigan and Louisville, all of those coaches who didn't know his name before knew exactly who he was.
The backup point guard stepped up big when Trey Burke headed to the bench with two early fouls, notching 17 first-half points and going 4-for-5 from beyond the arc. A couple of days earlier, it was his accuracy from three-point land that helped Michigan best Syracuse.
Pretty good for a freshman who averaged 1.5 points coming into the tournament.
12. Larry Brown
Sometimes, a stellar Super Bowl performance is all you need to earn perpetual fame and glory and, of course, millions of dollars.
It worked for Larry Brown, even if, in retrospect, it was obvious that he was something of a one-hit wonder.
Brown came into his own in 1995, when—a few years after becoming the first rookie cornerback to ever start for the Dallas Cowboys—he led his team to victory in Super Bowl XXX and was named MVP on the heels of an electrifying performance in which he made two picks.
But despite the fact that Brown has three rings to his name, he wasn't exactly a star and was, in fact, often considered to be a weak link on his unit. Still, that reputation didn't bother the Raiders, who gave Brown a lucrative five-year deal in the aftermath of his breakout Super Bowl performance.
Sadly for the Raiders, Brown would last just two years in Oakland before heading back to Dallas for one last unimpressive campaign.
11. Marco Scutaro
When you've been an average player for your entire career and you suddenly experience a renaissance of sorts during a World Series run at the age of 36, it's good enough to immediately vault you to legendary status.
Marco Scutaro wasn't a bad shortstop throughout his career, but he also wasn't the kind of guy you'd lose your mind over if your team managed to acquire him. Defensively, he was pretty solid, but offensively, he was nothing to brag about: Prior to 2012, he hit .270 over 10 seasons with 68 homers.
He was fine, but he didn't make pitchers cower in fear—until he became a Giant for the second half of 2012.
Not only did Scutaro help lead his team to the World Series for the first time—and that was saying a lot, because when he was in Oakland and Boston, they were legitimate contenders—but he somehow garnered 14 hits while batting .500 during the NLCS and was subsequently named series MVP.
And all of us in Boston and in Oakland wondered, Where did that come from?
10. Aaron Boone
There are plenty of heroes in the history of the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry, but Aaron Boone was one of the most unlikely of them all. He is the second coming of Bucky Dent.
Each year (or every year aside from 2013), the Yankees' lineup is stacked with some of the best hitters in baseball. Boone was not one of those.
Midway through the '03 season, he was traded from Cincinnati to New York, and much like Bucky Dent, he wasn't exactly considered to be a force at the plate. Up to that point, he averaged .271 with a .446 slugging percentage, and save for 2002, he had never hit more than 14 home runs in a season.
Yet he will forever go down in Yankees history for being the guy who allowed the Curse of the Bambino to endure for just a little bit longer. In Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS against Boston, he stepped up to the plate against Tim Wakefield in the bottom of the 11th inning and launched the series-winning homer.
He may not have helped New York win a championship that year, and he may have been cut just a few months later for wrecking his knee during a contract-violating pickup basketball game, but he helped the Yankees break the Red Sox's hearts—and it doesn't get much better than that in New York.
9. Timmy Smith
When you are a member of an NFL franchise that is starved for championships and you have the best game of your career in a Super Bowl victory, you will be forever beloved by that franchise, no matter what.
Timmy Smith knows.
The Redskins drafted Smith in 1987, and just a few months later, they were rewarded for it. Smith's regular season was far from remarkable: He finished his rookie year with less than 150 yards and not a single touchdown. But in the aftermath of Super Bowl XXII, everyone had forgotten about that.
In Washington's 42-10 win over Denver, Smith set a Super Bowl rushing record, finishing with 204 yards and two scores.
That game marked the one and only high note of Smith's NFL career. He would retire after just two more seasons at the age of 26, and in 2006, he was sentenced to federal prison for two and a half years for conspiring to distribute cocaine.
8. Buster Douglas
When you knock out Mike Tyson, people are going to know your name. And they're going to remember you forever, even if knocking out Mike Tyson stands as the only big accomplishment of your entire career.
Welcome to Buster Douglas' reality.
Heading into a matchup against undefeated, undisputed heavyweight champion Tyson in February 1990, Douglas was the 42-1 underdog. Tyson, at that stage, could not and would not be beaten. And if he was going to be beaten, it wasn't going to come at the hands of a guy who had gone an unimpressive 29-4-1 throughout his career.
But then, Douglas knocked out Tyson in the 10th round and suddenly had one of the biggest upsets in sports history to his name. The legend of the real-life Rocky lives on.
7. Mario Manningham
It seems that if the New York Giants are going to win a Super Bowl, several factors need to be in place: They need to be playing New England. They need to be the overwhelming underdog. They need to be losing heading into the final drive of the game. And they need a wide receiver to step up out of nowhere and make the game-winning grab.
First, there was David Tyree. Then a couple of years later, there was Mario Manningham.
Prior to making the barely-in-bounds catch that would propel New York's game-winning drive in Super Bowl XLVI against New England, Manningham wasn't much to brag about. That regular season, he accumulated a meager 523 yards with just four touchdowns.
Yet it was him Eli Manning targeted with the clock winding down to zero, and it was he who made a spectacular catch that would once again shatter the hopes and dreams of little children across New England.
It ended up being a several-million-dollar catch, too: The ensuing offeseason, Manningham was rewarded with a two-year deal from San Francisco. And he proceeded to garner 513 yards and one lone touchdown.
But he'll always have Super Bowl XLVI.
6. Tim Henderson
Louisville may have been college basketball's 2012-13 Team of Fate. No matter what befell the Cardinals, they couldn't be stopped. Someone would always step up and make magic happen when they needed it the most.
That included walk-ons who were never supposed to be on the court in the first place.
When Kevin Ware went down with a gruesome leg injury in Louisville's Elite Eight matchup against Duke, the team needed guys to step up. They needed everyone to step up. That's how Tim Henderson—a walk-on who, according to USA Today, had to beg Rick Pitino via handwritten letter for a chance to make the team—ended up on the court in the waning minutes of a semifinals nail-biter against Wichita State.
After sinking two critical three-pointers in the final minutes to bury Wichita State and send the Cardinals to the finals, Pitino isn't doubting his Little Walk-On That Could anymore. Even if that walk-on had accumulated just 208 minutes of playing time in three seasons and averaged a whopping 0.6 points per game.
Will Henderson go on to be a superstar in the NBA? Um, no. But at Louisville, he'll always be a legend.
5. Dexter Jackson
Remember that time the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won Super Bowl XXXVII?
Don't worry, no one else does either. But we do remember the guy who was named MVP of that epic showdown between the Bucs and the Raiders.
Dexter Jackson is a reminder of the good old days for Tampa Bay, however short-lived they were. In 2002—the year he helped them win a Super Bowl and was subsequently named MVP—the Bucs won a franchise-record 12 games and destroyed the Niners and the Eagles en route to the Super Bowl.
There, the Raiders met the same fate as the opponents that had come before them. They were demolished, in large part due to Jackson, who secured two first-half interceptions to set the tone.
And what has become of Jackson since then, you may ask? He registered an unremarkable six seasons in Tampa Bay, Arizona and Cincinnati, accumulating just 10 more interceptions and not much else.
But he'll always have that one championship and that one MVP.
4. Mike Eruzione
If you can get through Miracle without crying, you're not human. And one of the best lines comes from Mike Eruzione himself (or at least the dude who plays the movie version of him):
I play for the United States of America!
Eruzione was the linchpin of the 1980 U.S. men's hockey team that, against all odds, captured the gold medal by beating the Soviets in the legendary Miracle on Ice game. And he'll always be revered for that. It was one of the single most exhilarating accomplishments in the history of American sports.
But as far as Eruzione's actual hockey talent goes, it hasn't really been there since 1980.
Team USA wouldn't have been able to win without him, whether his impact was emotional or physical or whatever. But when it became clear that a pro career wasn't in the cards for him—and it became clear fast, when he didn't get drafted—he declared himself retired from competition.
3. Bucky Dent
Bucky Freaking Dent.
It is a name detested by Red Sox fans and beloved by Yankees fans—not necessarily because Bucky Dent was all that spectacular. He was just good enough at the one time it mattered the most.
It was the end of the '78 season, and bitter rivals New York and Boston were engaged in a tiebreaking playoff game that would determine the winner of the AL East. The Yankees were down 2-0, and Dent—the Yankees' nine-hole hitter who had just 40 home runs to his name over the course of his 12-year career—was at the plate.
Needless to say, nobody expected him to jack a three-run homer that would give the Yankees the lead and propel them to eventual victory.
Dent wasn't a bad player, but he wasn't Babe Ruth. You'd think he was, however, by the way people talk about him. And it's all because of this one game.
2. David Tyree
One acrobatic, seemingly impossible, ridiculous catch simultaneously made dreams and nightmares come true.
What would have happened if Rodney Harrison's coverage had been just a tiny bit tighter? What would have happened if Eli Manning's pass hadn't nearly gone over his receiver's head—which, against all odds, happened to be the perfect spot?
Then New York wouldn't have won Super Bowl XLII, and the Patriots would have completed the perfect 19-0 season.
Alas, David Tyree did catch that ball.
If it wasn't the greatest catch in NFL history, it was at least the greatest in Giants history. When you watch replays of it, it's impossible to believe Tyree managed to hang on; it's impossible to believe he secured the ball against his helmet and maintained enough control as he fell to the ground to continue New York's Super Bowl-winning drive.
It was largely the only significant moment of the middling receiver's now-defunct NFL career, but it is enough to make him a hero in Giants lore forevermore.
1. Dave Roberts
Dave Roberts isn't in the top spot because he's the least athletic of all the candidates. Not at all.
He's in the top spot because if he had been one millisecond later with this one slide, the entire course of history would have been changed. He went from zero to hero because of the perfect steal at the perfect moment.
Everyone knows the story. The 2004 Red Sox were facing elimination in Game 4 of the ALCS against the Yankees in the bottom of the ninth with two outs. Utility man Roberts—who rarely even played at all—pinch-ran for Kevin Millar after Millar drew a walk from legendary New York closer Mariano Rivera. Roberts stole second, scored on Bill Mueller's single to tie the game and Boston would eventually win in 12.
Of course, they'd then go on to complete the biggest comeback in the history of sports, win the ALCS and win their first World Series since 1918. And if Roberts had been picked off at second, it all would have ended right there.
Without Roberts, the Curse of the Bambino would never have been broken. Without Roberts, we wouldn't have the most exciting, most legendary comeback in sports. Pretty good for a guy who hadn't played in 10 days before that stolen base and wouldn't even play in the World Series.