10 Athletes Who Took an Unconventional Path to the Pros

Andrew Gould@AndrewGould4Featured ColumnistFebruary 7, 2017

10 Athletes Who Took an Unconventional Path to the Pros

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    Hall of Famer Kurt Warner spent three seasons in the Arena Football League.
    Hall of Famer Kurt Warner spent three seasons in the Arena Football League.Bob Levey/Getty Images

    Some athletes were better off taking the road less traveled.

    Most players vying for a professional sports career follow the presented blueprint. Pick up a ball as soon as your hand-eye coordination allows it. Play for a rec team. Then a travel then. Then in high school. 

    Go to college for as ever long as the respective league requires. Enter the draft. Work into a regular role before truly finding a rhythm in the mid-to-late 20s.

    These guys didn't follow that path. Some navigated eligibility rules to reach the pros earlier or skip college. Others instead honed their craft in independent leagues before reaching the bigs. In some cases, a forgettable debut set them on a long journey before returning new and improved. 

    Let's break down some atypical origin stories from active and retired athletes.

Based on a True Story

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    Jim Morris' turn from high school teacher to MLB pitcher was the basis of Disney's "The Rookie."
    Jim Morris' turn from high school teacher to MLB pitcher was the basis of Disney's "The Rookie."Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    Some plights to the big leagues seem too good to be true. These are the real stories Hollywood turned into movies.

     

    Jim Morris, The Rookie

    After his baseball career flamed out in the minors, Jim Morris retired and became a high school science teacher and baseball coach. Honoring a promise to his team, he tried out for MLB squads.

    At age 35, he made his major league debut for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. He allowed eight runs over 15 career innings, and Disney later told his improbable story in The Rookie, starring Dennis Quaid as Morris.

     

    Vince Papale, Invincible

    Invincible took some liberties with Vince Papale's path to the Philadelphia Eagles. He played in the semi-pro Seaboard Football League before the sensationalized open tryout, which earned him a spot on the World Football League's Philadelphia Bell.

    He then earned a private workout for the Philadelphia Eagles. Not as glamorous as trying out for and making the NFL squad on a whim, but Papale's long path still makes for a compelling journey.  

     

    Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel, Million Dollar Arm

    Million Dollar Arm focused more on J.B. Bernstein, the sports agent (played by Jon Hamm) who created the contest that discovered Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel. Both pitchers signed contracts with the Pittsburgh Pirates, becoming the first Indian men to sign with an MLB organization.

    Patel didn't last past the Rookie league, and Singh is a free agent after missing the 2015 season due to Tommy John surgery. It's not the feel-good ending one would want from a Disney movie, but they opened a door for younger players throughout India.

Nate Ebner

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    Nate Ebner returned to his first sport, rugby, for the 2016 Summer Olympics.
    Nate Ebner returned to his first sport, rugby, for the 2016 Summer Olympics.PHILIPPE LOPEZ/Getty Images

    How many athletes have won a Super Bowl months after competing in the Olympics?

    At 17 years old, Nate Ebner became the U.S. national rugby sevens team's youngest player ever. He continued to play for the IRB Junior World Championships before switching to football as an Ohio State walk-on. Without any high school football experience, the New England Patriots drafted him as a special-teamer with the 197th pick in 2012.

    Ebner has lasted six seasons with an organization notorious for its lack of loyalty. He earned Second Team All-Pro honors and his second Super Bowl ring this season, but not before rekindling his first love.

    As the Patriots started training camp, Ebner joined the U.S. national rugby squad in Rio de Janeiro. In an August interview with USA Rugby's official site, he said he couldn't pass up the chance once the sport was added to Olympic play. His employer allowed him to pursue that dream.

    "It was a lengthy discussion, over many different conversations," Ebner said. "But in the end, they knew who they drafted in 2012 in me being a rugby player, and they understood this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me, and they have shown nothing but support through this entire journey."

    Not a bad year at all.

Bryce Harper

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    By leaving high school early and getting his GED, Bryce Harper became eligible for MLB's draft at age 17.
    By leaving high school early and getting his GED, Bryce Harper became eligible for MLB's draft at age 17.Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

    Unlike NFL and NBA prospects, baseball players can declare for MLB's amateur draft right out of high school. Bryce Harper didn't want to wait that long.

    Baseball's parallel to LeBron James, Harper graced the cover of Sports Illustrated at age 16. In a sport littered with prospect volatility and prominent busts, the incredibly talented teenager stood out as an eventual top pick destined for stardom.

    After two dominant years at Las Vegas High School, the young catcher left to pursue a GED and spend a year at a Nevada junior college. These actions expedited his eligibility to 2010's draft, where the Washington Nationals spent their No. 1 pick on the 17-year-old.

    As Harper explained in 2009, per ESPN.com's Keith Law, he wanted to find a greater challenge to accelerate his growth on the diamond.

    "High school was a great experience for two years. I loved it," Harper said. "I just want to get out of there where I'm getting walked 40, 50 times a year."

    The prodigy validated his choice by tearing through the minors and making his major league debut at age 19. He immediately proved he belonged at the highest level by hitting .270/.340/.477 with 22 home runs and 98 runs scored.

    Harper will soon reap the financial rewards of his decision. After the 2018 season, he'll turn 26 before netting a record-setting contract in free agency. Depending on the length of his new deal, he may have an opportunity to receive another huge payday down the road because of his earlier arrival.

Brandon Jennings

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    Brandon Jennings opted to play professionally in Italy rather than attend college.
    Brandon Jennings opted to play professionally in Italy rather than attend college.Sam Forencich/Getty Images

    As of 2006, the NBA no longer allowed players to declare for the draft after high school. Brandon Jennings circumvented this rule by instead going overseas.

    League rules require a player to be at least 19 years old and one year removed from high school. With college not mandated, the point guard signed with Italy's Virtus Roma. A teenager playing among men, he averaged 6.3 points and 2.0 assists per game, according to Basketball-Reference.com

    In a 2009 draft featuring four All-Stars (Blake Griffin, James Harden, Stephen Curry and DeMar DeRozan), the Milwaukee Bucks drafted Jennings with the No. 10 pick. During his unprecedented season in Europe, he correctly predicted to ESPN.com's Chris Broussard that skipping college to play outside the United States wouldn't emerge as the new norm.

    "It's tough. I'm not going to lie," Jennings said. "I don't see many kids coming over here to do this. All that stuff about trendsetting? I don't know about that. You really have to be mentally tough."

    Six years later, Emmanuel Mudiay's followed Jennings lead by playing in China. His gambit also ended in a top-10 selection (No. 7), but the overwhelming majority of incoming pros opt for a traditional college detour.

Tommy Maddox

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    Tommy Maddox used the XFL as a springboard back into the NFL.
    Tommy Maddox used the XFL as a springboard back into the NFL.Scott Halleran/Getty Images

    Several football players (Goldberg, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Roman Reigns) have left the gridiron for wrestling, but few joined the NFL after inhabiting Vince McMahon's XFL.

    ESPN recounted the short-lived experiment in a recent 30 for 30, This Is the XFL. An unlikely star of the WWE promoter's over-the-top football league, Tommy Maddox received MVP recognition and led the Los Angeles Extreme to a championship in the "Million Dollar Game."

    The quarterback, who had previously floated around the bench of multiple NFL squads, signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers after the league folded. When starter Kordell Stewart went down in 2002, Maddox led them into the postseason with 20 touchdowns. He ended the Cleveland Browns' lone playoff appearance of the past 22 years with 367 passing yards and three touchdowns in a 36-33 triumph.

    Even though he only started four NFL games prior to the season, he earned Comeback Player of the Year for his breakout campaign. And he didn't even need to hit his opponent with a steel chair when the referee wasn't looking. 

    Maddox, already 32, followed with a subpar 2003 campaign. The Cinderella story ended with rookie Ben Roethlisberger seizing Pittsburgh's quarterback gig the next year.

Thon Maker

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    Thon Maker spent another year in high school instead of going to college.
    Thon Maker spent another year in high school instead of going to college.Mike Stobe/Getty Images

    Thon Maker's story is already different before examining the odd eligibility loopholes. Born in Sudan, he played soccer in Australia until a basketball coach convinced the big man to try basketball. He went to the United States to play high school ball before relocating to Ontario, Canada, where he played alongside Jamal Murray.

    First he reclassified to the high school class of 2015, setting himself up for the 2016 draft. That's where he ended up, but Maker sidestepped college to instead spend another year at Orangeville Prep. 

    As explained by ESPN.com's Dana O'Neil, he successfully claimed the extra year in high school counted as his required year after high school:

    Then, presto chango, during that school year, Maker's camp argued that his final year was, more accurately, a postgraduate year. That, they challenged, meant Maker was a year removed from high school graduation and therefore eligible for the draft.

    Stunningly, the NBA agreed. (Why? Well ..."The league is the league; they do what they want,'' one source says.)

    This bizarre plot made him one of 2016's toughest prospects to project. Not facing college competition could have cost him, but the Bucks instead continued to chase high-upside talent with freakish wingspans. After getting snagged with the No. 10 selection, the unpolished 19-year-old has spent most of his rookie season watching on the bench.

    Not playing in college stifled his development, but Maker wields game-changing talent if the Bucks stay patient.

David Peralta

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    David Peralta changed positions, played on the independent circuit and worked at McDonald's before making the majors.
    David Peralta changed positions, played on the independent circuit and worked at McDonald's before making the majors.Norm Hall/Getty Images

    In 2005, the St. Louis Cardinals signed Venezuelan pitcher David Peralta. In 2014, Peralta made his MLB debut as an outfielder for the Arizona Diamondbacks.

    Two shoulder injuries derailed the southpaw's early career on the rubber. According to Bleacher Report's Scott Miller, he worked at McDonald's while learning the outfield in Rio Grande Valley's independent North American Baseball League.

    "He worked the crappiest shifts," Peralta's wife, Jordan, told Miller. "I remember he worked overnight a few times. Late nights, early mornings. It cracked me up seeing him work at McDonald's. It was his first job out in the real world, away from baseball. He would get little old ladies flirting with him in the drive-thru. Making fries. Worst job ever."

    He signed a minor league contract with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2014. The following year, he realized his dream by earning a big league promotion.

    Yet the real breakout occurred in 2015, when Peralta batted .312/.371/.522 with 17 home runs. Injuries stalled his breakthrough, but the 29-year-old will get another chance to demolish right-handed pitching this season.

Eric Thames

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    Eric Thames signed with the Milwaukee Brewers after raking in the Korean Baseball Organization.
    Eric Thames signed with the Milwaukee Brewers after raking in the Korean Baseball Organization.Brad White/Getty Images

    In late November, the Milwaukee Brewers signed Eric Thames to a three-year, $16 million deal. This prompted MLB fans reeling to remember him.

    Back in 2011 and 2012, Thames hit .250/.296/.431 for the Toronto Blue Jays and Seattle Mariners. Looking like a platoon bat at best, he then dominated the Korean Baseball Organization (.348/.450/.720, 124 home runs) over three seasons.

    The 30-year-old will now receive a second chance as Milwaukee's first baseman. Per Bleacher Report's Danny Knobler, an American League scout noted Thames' vast improvement hitting breaking balls.

    "No one can deny that," he said. "He's got a plan now. Do I think he can play in the big leagues? No doubt. He can definitely play in the big leagues."

    Don't completely dismiss his Bondsian KBO numbers. According to FanGraphs' Josh Shepardson, Thames' 2016 slash line (.317/.425/.676) translates to a .258/.341/.513 Major League Equivalency (MLE). The Steamer projection model has penciled him in for 30 home runs and an .865 OPS this season.

Tim Thomas

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    Tim Thomas was 31 when he broke into the NHL with the Boston Bruins.
    Tim Thomas was 31 when he broke into the NHL with the Boston Bruins.Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    In 1994, 216 players were selected before the then-Quebec Nordiques selected Tim Thomas. For nearly a decade, the goalie clawed through the IHL, ECHL, AHL and native Finnish Elite League before proving worth the wait.

    After playing four games for the Boston Bruins in 2002, he returned to Finland. By the time he circled back to Boston, he was already 31. Stardom usually isn't an option for veteran reserves, but Thomas defied the odds.

    Capitalizing on the opportunity, he netted a 91.7 save percentage and 2.77 goals against average over 38 solid games. As his role expanded, his play improved.

    Thomas won two Vezina Trophies, the second accompanied by a Conn Smythe Trophy in 2010-11. At 36, he matched 1967-68 winner Glenn Hall as the oldest person to garner the MVP honor.

    The year ended with Boston hoisting the Stanley Cup, cementing Thomas' legacy with a short, yet spectacular peak.

Kurt Warner

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    Kurt Warner led an all-time great St. Louis Rams offense after spending three seasons in the Arena Football League.
    Kurt Warner led an all-time great St. Louis Rams offense after spending three seasons in the Arena Football League.Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    On Saturday—the night before watching Tom Brady break his Super Bowl record for passing yards—Kurt Warner was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Before Brady's furious comeback over the Atlanta Falcons, Warner held the three highest tallies.

    The New England Patriots' victory, however, ensured that the current NFL Network analyst would remain the last NFL MVP to also earn Super Bowl MVP honors. It's crazy Warner waited this long for a ticket to Canton, but his plight to star quarterback is even crazier.

    Undrafted out of Northern Iowa, Warner was cut by the Green Bay Packers during training camp. He spent three seasons in the Arena Football League. After throwing 79 touchdown passes for the Iowa Barnstormers, he signed with the St. Louis Rams to back up Tony Banks and Steve Bono.

    Last weekend, he acknowledged ESPN's Darren Rovell recalling Warner bagging groceries for $5.50 an hour before receiving his NFL break.

    In 1999, he earned the starting job and recorded 41 passing touchdowns for the Super Bowl champions. The Greatest Show on Turf dominated for three years before he later found a second wind on the Arizona Cardinals.

Hassan Whiteside

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    Hassan Whitesides spent years in the D-League and overseas before earning a $98 million contract with the Miami Heat.
    Hassan Whitesides spent years in the D-League and overseas before earning a $98 million contract with the Miami Heat.Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    Hassan Whiteside's NBA journey started like many others. After two collegiate seasons at Marshall, the Sacramento Kings selected him with the No. 33 pick of 2010's draft. He played a grand total of two minutes as a rookie, instead spending most of his two seasons with their D-League affiliate.

    Still nothing far out of the ordinary, but the center then played in Lebanon and China. The Memphis Grizzlies signed him in 2014 but released him the following month. His NBA prospects seemed slim to none.

    Then the Miami Heat took a flier. Although he at first toiled on the bench, Whiteside utilized his first real opportunity by averaging 11.8 points, 10.0 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game.

    The following season, he finished more than a block per game above runner-up DeAndre Jordan (2.30) with 3.68 swats per contest. This helped persuade Miami to give him a $98 million contract, slightly more than the $980,000 he previously earned.