Athletes Who Set the Sports World on Fire Right Away
LeBron James, Tiger Woods, Lionel Messi, RGIII and most others of the superstar ilk had massive followings before they went pro. They had already left a smoldering trail of trophies won and records broken.
And then there were those who entered the pros having never made a headline, having never smirked out from the cover of a magazine, having never endorsed so much as a mom-and-pop corner store. But when they first stepped out on the court/field/pitch as a pro, when those high-pressure sodium lights first bathed them in intense white light, something clicked and they erupted into a blaze of stardom.
Click on to see the athletes who instantly combusted the sports scene.
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Going into the 2012 NFL season, no one had heard of Greg Zuerlein. No one had even heard of his alma mater Missouri Western State.
But by mid October, the Rams kicking phenom was all the buzz upstaging even such illustrious teammates as Sam Bradford and seven-time 1,000-yard rusher Steven Jackson.
"Greg The Leg" was successful on the first 14 kicks of his pro career. He broke a record by becoming the first player "to make two kicks of 58 yards or longer in a single game." According to Fox Sports Midwest, he gained "a cult-like following for his willingness to attempt lengthy tries."
Oh, he set the sports world on fire, all right. But then he tanked in the second half of the season and quenched those flames as quickly as he had lit them.
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Russell Henley turned pro in 2011 and already has four tour wins (three Web.com and one PGA). Back in January 2013, The New York Times noted that Henley was "quietly off to one of the fastest starts in PGA Tour history."
Since then, Henley has become more and more of a presence on the PGA scene and in the media. Recently he gained an exemption into the British Open off his FedExCup ranking.
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Jennifer Capriati was slightly more than 5,000 days old when she made her professional debut, advancing all the way to the finals before losing to world No. 3 Gabriela Sabatini. According to Biography.com, that stunning debut "caused a sensation in the tennis world."
Tournament wins would follow soon. At 14 years, 235 days, she became the youngest player ever to be ranked among the top 10.
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While some had followed Lillard's college career and subsequent draft into the NBA, he was much more under the radar than high-profile rookies like Anthony Davis and Bradley Beal. Going into the 2012-2013 season, few (no one?) could have foreseen that the Trailblazer point guard would not only win Rookie of the Year, but would take it by unanimous vote.
Mir debuted as a professional MMA fighter in July 2001. He won his first bout by unanimous decision and then mopped up his next three opponents with submission wins. The cherry on that sundae was submitting UFC veteran Pete Williams by shoulder lock 46 seconds into UFC 36.
According to Mir's bio on About.com, that submission heralded Mir as one of the most dangerous submission fighters in the world.
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As of this spring, 22-year-old Derek Ernst was ranked 127 in the world. Wait, whoopsie, missed a digit there. He was ranked 1,207 in the world.
Then a host of no-shows allowed him to enter the 2013 Wells Fargo Championship. Remarkably, Ernst—who, by the way, has limited depth perception out of his right eye—won. He became an instant millionaire (taking home a $1.2 million purse), a media sensation.
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Outside of his native Russia, Nabokov was a virtual unknown when he made his NHL debut in 2000 for the San Jose Sharks. In his first three appearances, he blocked an astounding 57 of 58 shots. The lone goal he "allowed" came while he "was skating to the bench on a delayed penalty."
The rookie would go on to win the Calder Memorial Trophy as the Rookie of the Year, play in the 2001 All-Star Game, and help lead the Sharks to a playoff appearance.
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The once-backup QB for the 49ers created some CoLINsanity of his own. In just his second season with the NFL, he became the starting QB, broke a single-game rushing record and led his team to an NFC Championship title. But most impressive of all, was the raging torrent of Kaepernicking photos that gushed through the cyber world.
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Can we all agree that you're not anybody in sports until you get Wikipedia-ified?
Then consider this? Puig has only had a Wikipedia page for 115 days, as of the time of this writing.
Now the Dodgers right fielder is a certified sensation. With eight home runs, a current batting average of .391 and a mysterious past, the recent defector from Cuba is igniting curiosities across the globe.
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Dhawan blazed into the domestic cricket scene with his first-class debut in 2004 playing for India in the U-19 World Cup in Bangladesh. He racked up 505 runs at an average of 84.16 with three centuries and came away with the Player of the Tournament title.
Though a heavyweight for the Delhi team, he stagnated at the domestic level for years. Now he has re-emerged on the international scene in a very, very, big way. He electrified the world of cricket fandom in 2012-2013 with the fastest Test century ever by a debutant. And then in June of 2013, he became only the seventh batsman ever "to notch back-to-back centuries in the Champions Trophy."
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The 19-year-old Valenzuela made his MLB debut as a relief pitcher for the Dodgers in September 1980. Through his first 38 team games (he became a starter the following season), Valenzuela pitched 62.2 innings and allowed just one run.
The cyber world was still a puddle of primordial circuitry at that time; nonetheless Fernandomania was born. You know, the old fashioned way—ink and paper, cathode ray tubes, and the like.
Source: Flickr Commons project, 2009
Ouimet out-Cinderellas Cinderella herself. A kid from a working-class home. A caddy. A boy who built his own practice course using sunken tomato cans as cups.
When he gets his shot (literal and figurative), he nails it. The 20-year-old Ouimet defeated golf demigods Harry Vardon and Ted Ray in the 1913 U.S. Open.
According to he World Golf Hall of Fame, Ouimet's "stunning triumph captured the imagination of sports fans across the globe, sweeping away the notion that golf was a stuffy game for the old and rich."
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Pujols, a 13th-round draft pick, a player no team really wanted to gamble on, absolutely torched the sports world with his entry into the pros. In his rookie season, he played four positions, hit .329 with 47 doubles, 37 homers, 130 RBI and 112 runs scored.
Just a few years later, fans and analysts alike were calling him the best in the game.
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Asian-American. Ivy Leaguer. Two adjectives not readily associated with NBA players. In fact either one of those applied to your description could almost guarantee you a closed door, statistically speaking. And just to put a deadbolt on that already-closed-and-locked door, let's add another adjective: undrafted.
But Lin's talent and perseverance paid off, and the world plunged into Linsanity.
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Sixth-round draft pick Tom Brady rode the bench as a fourth-string quarterback for most of his rookie season (2000). The next year, circumstance brought him to helm the team.
After a few mediocre performances, Brady caught fire. He ended his sophomore season with 2,843 regular season passing yards, 18 touchdowns, an invitation to the Pro Bowl, a Super Bowl ring and the Super Bowl MVP title. At that time, he was the youngest QB ever to win a Super Bowl.