Albert Pujols, Kurt Warner Among 10 Best Rags-to-Riches Players of Last 20 Years
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Amidst this era of full-time draft analysis, combines, relentless scouting and intense scrutiny that often begins by high school, it is rather shocking that individual players STILL slip through the cracks.
That was the case, to a large degree, with every player on this list.
In some cases, they were widely undesired coming out of high school, as was the case with Scottie Pippen. In others, they were overlooked by the pros, as John Randle and Antonio Gates were.
In all instances here, though, these players overcame any all of the slights, obstacles, doubters and haters to become elite players in their respective professions.
Only undrafted NFL players were eligible.
NBA players had to be undrafted or a product of a non division I institution.
And with MLB, since over 1,000 players are drafted each year, only those drafted outside of the first ten rounds of the amateur draft were eligible.
Rankings for each player chosen were weighed based on a myriad of considerations:
-longetivity of greatness
-the individual story and how remarkable it was (for example, Kurt Warner's amazing journey)
-historic place in each individual's sport
Let's look at the 10 greatest rags-to-riches stories of the past twenty years from the big 3three: the NFL, MLB, and NBA.
(Most stats taken from sport-reference.com).
10. Ben Wallace
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Ben Wallace began his NBA career with the then Washington Bullets in 1996 after going undrafted out of NCAA Division II Virginia Union.
Before landing with Washington, he played professionally in Italy.
Wallace has not only had a stellar NBA career, he's had a very unique one.
Although a below average offensive player, he's still managed to earn four trips to the All-Star game, thanks to his historic defensive efforts and prolific rebounding.
Though listed at 6'9'' it is widely believed that he's much closer to 6'7''.
Whatever his height, he has managed to lead the league in rebounding twice and in blocks once. For his career, he has averaged two blocks per game.
Wallace earned an NBA title with the Detroit Pistons in 2004 and returned to the NBA Finals in 2005.
From jockbio.com, Wallace once said "Watch the defensive end. That’s where the real players are.”
Some would passionately debate that statement's merits. Much is to be said for the offense that fellow power forwards Charles Barkley and Karl Malone brought to the table.
Many historically elite players were known primarily for their work on the offensive end such as Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Dominique Wilkins, Dirk Nowitzki and Allen Iverson.
Others all-timers, like Michael Jordan, Kevin Garnett, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson and Gary Payton excelled on both ends of the court.
Rarely has a player been honored with multiple all-star and all-NBA appearances almost exclusively for his efforts on the defensive end. However, Ben Wallace is a rare exception.
Make no mistake—Wallace is a "real player" himself because of his own efforts defensively.
His most impressive career accomplishment has been being named defensive player of the year four times, tying Dikembe Mutombo as the all time leader in the category. He has also earned six all-defensive team selections.
Furthermore, Wallace has been named to the all-NBA 2nd team three times and the 3rd team twice.
Wallace is a fringe NBA Hall of Fame prospect, and it will be interesting to see how he fares there, especially considering his limited scoring output.
Dennis Rodman, a similar player with a similar career, entered the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame this year. However, Rodman contributed to teams winning several NBA titles and was even more productive rebounder than Wallace.
9. Antonio Gates
Antionio Gates, San Diego Chargers
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Antonio Gates will likely end up at Canton, Ohio as a member of the prestigious and highly exclusive NFL Hall of Fame after a few more productive seasons.
This is quite an accomplishment for a player who did not play college football and went undrafted.
After playing basketball at Kent State University Gates signed as an undrafted free agent with the San Diego Chargers in 2003.
Gates hasn't slowed down since, earning seven pro bowl births and three all-pro selections in eight seasons.
Coaches and players alike have made some strong statements in regard to Gates (from jockbio.com).
Former head coach Marty Schottenheimer asserted that "Antonio Gates is the greatest tight end who has ever strapped on a helmet".
Former Pro Bowler John Lynch said that: “I don't know if anybody is big enough and fast enough to cover him.”
Although Gates will go down as one of the best tight ends ever, he may not eclipse the career reception numbers of Ozzie Newsome (662), Shannon Sharpe (815), or fellow hooper to tight end Tony Gonzalez (1,069 and counting).
At just 31, Gates has 529 catches under his belt. He should have a few more quality seasons left in him.
Newsome is certainly within reach, and surpassing Sharpe is not out of the question either. He won't catch Gonzalez, but passing Newsome and Sharpe would place him as the second most productive receiving tight end of all-time.
Not bad for an undrafted guy who didn't play college football.
8. Dennis Rodman
Dennis Rodman with the Bulls
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Dennis Rodman was, in many ways, the forerunner of Ben Wallace—a world-class defender and great rebounder who struggled to score offensively.
Unlike Wallace, Rodman was drafted, grabbed late with the 27th pick of round two in 1986 by the Detroit Pistons.
Rodman's basketball journey began late, just like his growth spurt. Rodman topped out at 5'11'' and failed to earn a spot on his high school team, but grew nine inches after high school.
After growing to 6'8'' in sneakers, Rodman played a year at Cooke County College near Dallas before earning a scholarship to Southeastern Oklahoma State University, an NAIA institution. His career there was stellar, and he earned All-American status 3 times.
Rodman's career took off in '88-'89 with the Pistons, and he earned all-defensive team honors.
As a tough, gritty performer Rodman's style of play and approach to the game was a near-perfect fit for the Pistons, known as the "Bad Boys."
Playing alongside Isaiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer, Joe Dumars, Vinnie Johnson, Rick Mahorn and John Salley the former janitor Rodman excelled in his role as a shutdown defender and glass cleaner.
Rodman eventually earned a staggering eight all-defensive team selections. He earned the league's defensive player of the year award twice. He was known to guard all five positions on the court with amazing effectiveness, guarding both the sub 6 footers and the 7 foot plus giants.
Rodman earned five Championship rings, (two with the Pistons and three with the Chicago Bulls). He also managed two all-star births and landed on the all-NBA third team twice.
In addition to his defensive prowess, awards, and championship rings, his rebounding resume is impressive.
Rodman possesses the five best rebounding seasons since 1979 and five of the 10 best rebounding seasons on record since 1973. He led the league in rebounding seven times in consecutive seasons.
At 36, he was the oldest player ever to lead the league in the category. He grabbed 25 or more rebounds in a game a staggering 33 separate times.
Rodman trumps Wallace ever so slightly in career point per game output, posting a 7.3 ppg average compared to Wallace's 6 ppg.
Rodman's greatest attribute, even more so than his lateral quickness, quickness of the floor, or his wiry-strength, may have been his plain old tenacity and hunger. Of that, Rodman said, (from searchquotes.com):
"I go out there and get my eyes gouged, my nose busted, my body slammed. I love the pain of the game."
At another time, he spoke further about his tenacity and hunger saying:
"I'm hungrier than those other guys out there. Every rebound is a personal challenge".
Rodman's greatest attribute, even more so than his lateral quickness, quickness of the floor, or his wiry-strength, may have been his plain old tenacity and hunger.
Rodman was hungry for rebounds and considered grabbing them to be a personal challenge. And though he may have enjoyed the "pain of the game," the real pain was felt by those he defended and competed against during his improbable 14 year career.
In the end, Rodman will certainly be remembered as one of the most unique players ever in many respects.
His personality, behavior, and shock appeal crossed over as he became a pop culture icon off the court.
But he will be revered and remembered as one of the best defenders and rebounders to ever lace 'em up on an NBA floor.
In 2011, Rodman was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Besides winning titles with both the Pistons (twice) and the Bulls (thrice), Rodman played with the San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Lakers, and Dallas Mavericks.
7. John Randle
John Randle with Vikings
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Brett Favre described John Randle this way:
"He's fast, he's strong, he's aggressive and his motor never quits running."
That, in a nutshell, summarizes who the Hall of Fame defensive tackle was on the gridiron.
John Randle was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Minnesota Vikings in 1990 out of Texas A & I University, (now Texas A & M University-Kingsville), an NCAA Division II institution.
Although he did the bulk of his damage with the Vikings, he finished up his career with the Seattle Seahawks.
At just 6'1 and 287, the undersized Randle dominated much bigger offensive lineman throughout his career.
He finished as the all-time sack leader from the defensive tackle spot with 136.5, 40 ahead of 2nd place finisher Warren Sapp, who amassed 96.5 himself. He ranks seventh among all defenders in sacks since 1984, when the NFL officially began recognizing sacks statistically.
He was a seven time pro-bowler and, more impressively, a six time first team all-pro selection.
From former teammate and pro-bowler Steve Hutchinson, an offensive lineman (profootballhof.com) said:
"I was lucky to see first-hand what a player of his caliber dedicated to his day-to-day routine. You couldn't help but work harder when he was going full-bore every day. He made all of us on the offensive line better by facing him at practice."
Randle, who refused to shower on game days, brought endless energy to every game. He was known for his never-ending fire and intensity and an outgoing and entertaining personality. He was regarded as a great team leader. In addition, Randle was known for his game-day eye black.
His combination of power and a lethal first step, in conjunction with his fierce competitiveness, equalled misery for offensive lineman attempting to block him during his stellar 14 year career.
Randle was remarkably consistent, posting 10 sacks or more in eight straight years, and nine overall. Although not great against the run, he held his own and was not a liability there.
He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2010.
Randle, along with future Hall of Famer Warren Sapp, are the standard that all defensive tackles are judged by.
6. Mike Piazza
Mike Piazza with Mets
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Mike Piazza was the guy nobody really wanted. Finally, as a favor, Tony Lasorda had him drafted.
Drafted in the 62nd round of the 1988 Major League Baseball draft. No, not the 62nd pick—the 62nd round. Over a thousand players were selected before Piazza.
16 seasons later, Piazza left the game as the best hitting catcher ever, with a career .308 batting average, 427 homers (with 396 coming at catcher), a career OPS of .922, and 1,335 runs batted in.
Piazza appeared in 12 all-star games.
Although widely regarded as the greatest hitting catcher ever, it would be remiss not to mention his defense, or lack thereof. I won't detail his defensive stats, but, simply put, he was known to be well below average behind the plate, both in terms of blocking balls and throwing out runners.
Some league observers insisted without hesitation that he was one of the worst everyday defensive catchers ever.
In 15 seasons behind the plate, he threw out only 23% of would-be base stealers. Good rates start at 35% and some throw out over 40% of base-runners.
For example, the St. Louis Cardinals Yadier Molina, known for his defensive prowess and strong arm, has thrown out 45% of wannabe robbers during his career.
Piazza has a real shot at being a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 2013 after retiring in 2008, despite his defensive difficulties, due to his historic offensive production as a catcher. That hitting earned him top ten finishes in MVP voting seven times in his first eight seasons.
Piazza would like to enter the Hall of Fame as a New York Met. Piazza said (nytimes.com):
“The bulk of my career was with the Mets, and after going through the trade, then the drama of 9/11. I’ll never forget my Dodger days. But my time with the Mets is what I’ll remember most about my career.”
5. John Smoltz
John Smoltz with Braves
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John Smoltz is arguably the most versatile elite level pitcher in history. He likely checks in at one or two on any rankings of starter/closers along with fellow starter-turned-closer Dennis Eckersly.
He was selected in the 22nd round of the 1985 amateur draft out of high school.
Smoltz pitched at a Hall of Fame level both as a starter and as a closer, making him yet another very unique player on this list.
In 21 seasons, Smoltz won 213 games, mostly as a starter. Pitching primarily in a hitter-dominated era, Smoltz career ERA of 3.33 is all the more impressive.
Smoltz made the transformation to closer in 2001 for the Atlanta Braves, and finished off 154 games between 2001 and 2004. That included an amazing 55 save season in 2002.
He appeared in 27 postseason games and 14 separate postseasons, 13 with the Braves and one with the St. Louis Cardinals. He was even better in October, going 15-4 with a 2.67 ERA. Smoltz also collected four postseason saves.
He walked away from the game with one World Series ring with the Braves and four other trips there each ending in defeat.
Smoltz was an eight time all-star and the 1996 Cy Young Award winner. He finished in the top ten in National League ERA ten times.
After winning 213 games and saving another 154 while pitching in one of the greatest hitting eras of all-time, it would appear that John Smoltz has a strong foundation in place to land in Cooperstown.
Smoltz will always be remembered for his work with the Braves, but he also had brief stints with both the Cardinals and Boston Red Sox during 2009, his last season in the big leagues.
4. Warren Moon
Warren Moon with Houston Oilers
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Warren Moon, a 2006 Hall of Fame selection, entered pro football during a time when the color of his skin was more important to some than the quality of his play.
Moon was recruited by several colleges, but many wanted him to convert to another position, as was not uncommon for black quarterbacks at the time. He chose West Los Angeles College, where he excelled as a quarterback. Moon then transferred to the University of Washington where he played well at the quarterback position.
Despite his collegiate success, Moon went undrafted by the NFL.
Moon turned to the Canadian Football League (CFL) and led the Edmonton Eskimos to an unparalleled five consecutive wins in the Grey Cup, the CFL's version of the Super Bowl.
In six seasons, Moon threw for over 21,000 yards connecting on 144 touchdown passes. He was selected to the CFL Hall of Fame in 2001.
Following the 1983 CFL season, Moon turned his eyes back to the NFL. As a free agent, he ultimately landed with the Houston Oilers. At the age of 28, he finally became an NFL rookie quarterback.
Moon more than proved himself at the NFL level earning nine trips to the Pro Bowl in 17 seasons and an all-pro selection in 1990.
Among his many accomplishments, Moon was named 1990 Associated Press Offensive Player of the Year. He ranks in the top 10 in several all-time passing categories including completed passes, passing yardage, touchdown passes, and passing yards per game.
Moon had nine seasons of over 3,000 passing yards, ranking third in history. He also threw for over 4,000 yards four times. For his NFL career, he amassed nearly 50,000 passing yards.
In addition to playing for the Oilers, Moon also played for the Minnesota Vikings, Seattle Seahawks, and Kansas City Chiefs during his 17 year NFL career.
In total, Moon played nearly a quarter-century of professional football, 23 years, all as a quarterback, regardless of who lived it or believed in him.
According to Moon (from quotesandpoem.com), he believed that:
"I think all the guys that have played in the game before me as African- Americans have to share in this a little bit. We've made tremendous strides over the years and I really don't want to make this a racial thing because it shouldn't be. But it is significant because it is the first and I think whenever there is a first it is significant. When Doug Williams was the first African-American quarterback to win a Super Bowl, I think that helped a lot of things as far as young black quarterbacks getting more opportunities. I think this will be significant also. It shows we have arrived at the pinnacle of our sport."
Looking back on Moon's career, he certainly reached the pinnacle of his sport after overcoming so much more than most.
3. Kurt Warner
Kurt Warner after winning the 2000 Super Bowl with St. Louis Rams
Brian Bahr/Getty Images
Most of us know the historic story of Kurt Warner, so I won't go too deep into it. However, of all the rags-to-riches stories in this article, his may be the most impressive in regard to the Cinderella nature of it.
Warner went from being an overnight grocery store employee to standing before the world telling millions upon millions he was heading for DisneyWorld after leading the St. Louis Rams to the 2000 World Championship and winning that year's Super Bowl MVP.
Warner played college ball at Division I-AA Northern Iowa and didn't get his shot until his senior season. After going undrafted, Warner eventually landed with the Iowa Barnstormers of the Arena League.
Warner has always credited the small fields and tight passing windows formed on the smaller Arena League fields for helping him become such an accurate NFL quarterback.
After a stint in NFL Europe with the Amsterdam Admirals, Warner finally landed in the NFL as the Rams third-string quarterback in 1998.
He was slated to be the Rams back-up in 1999 behind free agent signee and St. Louisan Trent Green. After Green's season-ending preseason injury, Warner was promoted to starting quarterback. It was at this time that Rams head coach Dick Vermeil famously told the world, with tears in his eyes and a tremble in his voice (from nytimes.com) that:
"We will rally around Kurt Warner, and we will play good football.”
They certainly rallied and played good football, as Vermeil had hoped.
Warner put together two Super Bowl appearances and the best three year stretch of offense the NFL has ever seen. The Rams did rallied around him in an unprecedented way, and they certainly played good football.
During his 12 year career, Warner won two NFL MVP awards, one Super Bowl MVP, four pro-bowl berths, and two all-pro selections.
As for all-time rankings, his statistics are impressive.
Warner is second all time in both passing yards per game and completion percentage, and seventh in passer rating.
Warner led the St. Louis Rams to two Super Bowls in 2000 and 2002 and the Arizona Cardinals, formerly of St. Louis, to one.
Depending on who you listen to, Warner is either a sure-fire Hall of Famer or a borderline prospect for Canton.
For those lauding his merits as Hall worthy, emphasis is placed on his Super Bowl MVP, three Super Bowl appearances, being one of the most accurate and efficient QBs ever, his two MVP's, and his four Pro Bowl selections.
For those saying no, his relatively brief time playing at an elite level and the unproductive years in the middle of his career are too much to ignore.
Kurt Warner belongs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It will be interesting to see how the voters feel upon his eligibility five years from his retirement in 2009.
If enshrined, as a vocal Christian, Warner is sure to say something in an effort to thank and honor God, just as he did after the Rams won the Super Bowl in 2000, as the Cinderella story was just beginning.
Whether ultimately landing in Canton or not, Warner will undoubtedly be remembered as one of the greatest rags-to-riches stories ever.
2. Scottie Pippen
Pippen with Jordan on Bulls
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Scottie Pippen, like former Bulls teammate Dennis Rodman, experienced a major growth spurt late in life. Pippen finished high school as a 6'1'' point guard. By September, he was 6'3'', and eventually topped out at 6'8''.
Not only did his body grow during that time, but his game did too.
After walking on at the University of Central Arkansas, an NAIA school at the time, Pippen's game began to develop. By his senior year, he averaged over 23 points a game and landed as a consensus all-American in the NAIA.
Pippen, unlike Wallace (who went undrafted) and Rodman (who was drafted very late), caught the full attention of NBA scouts. After being drafted fifth overall by the Seattle SuperSonics, he was traded to the Chicago Bulls.
Pippen went on to become Batman while Michael Jordan played the role of Superman for the Bulls. The duo worked perfectly together, winning six NBA titles together over an eight year span.
His personal awards and accomplishments are staggering.
During his lengthy 17 year career, Pippen appeared in seven all-star games. He won Gold Medals for Team USA twice, once in 1992 and again in 1996. He was named to the all defensive team eight times and to the second team twice.
He was first-team all NBA three times, 2nd team twice, and third team two other times. Finally, Pippen was named one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history in 1996.
Scottie was named to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2010.
He is one of the best all-around players in history, playing at an elite level on both ends. He is perhaps the best complimentary player, or second fiddle, the game has ever known, especially when considering his six Championship rings.
Pippen was the second or third option during the prime of his career, both with Jordan in Chicago and with Hakeem Olajuwon and Charles Barkley on the Rockets.
He did lead the Bulls in most of two seasons while Jordan left the Bulls for the Chicago White Sox but was unable to lead the Bulls to the same success that he accomplished when teamed with Jordan.
Although best known for his days in Chicago and, to a lesser extent, with Houston, he also played for the Portland Trail Blazers as his career slowly wound down.
1. Albert Pujols
Pujols, one of the greatest, playing beneath, the Gateway Arch, of the the nation's greatest monuments.
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Albert Pujols and his family traveled to the U.S. from the Dominican Repulbic during his teenage years.
They chose to start a new life in Kansas City. At the time, Pujols had no way of knowing he was so very close to reaching his major league aspirations, or how very close he was to what would be his personal and professional home, St. Louis.
After playing college ball at Maple Woods Community College in Kansas City, the Cardinals selected him in the 13th round of the 1999 amateur draft. By early 2001, Pujols was already playing for the St. Louis Cardinals at the age of 21.
Now in his eleventh season, his career numbers and accomplishments are astounding.
As one of a rare breed able to hit for both average and power, Pujols has a .328 lifetime batting average to go with 429 career blasts. He already has 1,287 runs batted in and nearly a thousand walks. Amazingly, he carries a career slugging percentage of .618 with an OPS of 1.040.
Pujols was the fifth-fastest ever to 300 homers and the first player ever to begin their career with seven consecutive 30 home run seasons, with that extending currently to 10 straight.
In 10 seasons Pujols has led the Cardinals to six postseason appearances and two World Series trips. In 2006, he and the Cardinals beat Detroit to secure the franchise’s tenth World Championship, second only to the New York Yankees.
He is a nine time all-star, three time NL MVP, two time NL home run king, and a one time NL batting champion. Defensively, he has excelled, too, winning two NL Gold Gloves and four Fielding Bible awards, all for his craftsmanship at first base.
Pujols was named the baseball player of the decade by Sports Illustrated, the Sporting News, and ESPN for 2000 through 2009. He has been named baseball’s best player by the ESPY Awards four times.
Pujols’ numbers already compare favorably with greats of any era. At just 31, even when considering what has been off year in 2011, Pujols should significantly add to his career numbers over the next several years.
With even just four or five more seasons at a pace even remotely close to his career averages, he will end up exceeding 550 homers with a career batting average topping .300.
According to Tony LaRussa, (from albertpujolsclub.com):
“He’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing, not once in a lifetime, but he compares to anybody who has ever played the game is a better way to say it.
In all likelihood, Pujols will be remembered as one of Cooperstown’s National Baseball Hall of Fame’s all-time best, hanging up the cleats as one of the top 10 players ever, mentioned among the names Mays, Mantle, Musial, Aaron, Robinson, Ruth, and Rose.
Not bad for a 13th round pick.
Shane Gray is a long-time St. Louis Rams fan and covers the Rams year round. To check out the rest of his work, click: http://bleacherreport.com/users/582932-shane-gray