Do you know who the NFL's leading rusher is right now?
No, it's not Adrian Peterson, Chris Johnson, LeSean McCoy, Ray Rice or last year's champion Arian Foster.
It's Coe College and Sioux City Bandits' alum Fred Jackson.
Now there's a long way to go, but if he does finish the season strong and win the rushing title, you'd have to say he'd be one of the most unlikely superstars in NFL history. Where Jackson played his college ball, when he was drafted (actually, he wasn't) and his role prior to taking over the starter's job are all reasons why that is the case.
And for the most part, he shares at least one or all of those traits in common with the rest of this list.
Suffice it to say, that you can't truly be an UNLIKELY superstar if you were a top 10 overall pick in the draft, or were a college stud at an NFL factory, or a $10 million a year free agent.
A quick disclaimer before you start reading: The rankings on this list don't necessarily indicate a player's greatness. And by that I mean, just because Player X is 10th on this list and Player Y is 11th doesn't mean he was a "better" player or had a "greater" career. The higher a player is on this list, the more unlikely his rise to stardom was.
College: Coe College
Greatest Single Achievement: NFL leading rusher through Week 10, 2011
As stated in the intro, Jackson's basically hit the trifecta in terms of unlikeliness: He went to a Division III school, he wasn't drafted, and he played in both NFL Europe and the Arena League.
Now in terms of being a true "superstar," he's got a ways to go...but winning the rushing title would certainly help. (And it's comparing apples to oranges to look at Arian Foster as an unlikely superstar...he went undrafted out of great running back school, Tennessee, for reasons other than his skills.)
But even if Jackson doesn't wind up claiming the rushing title, the fact that he's relegated Clemson stud and Top 10 pick C.J. Spiller to a backup player only enhances his profile as an unlikely star.
College: Washington State
Drafted: 6th round, 146th overall
Greatest Single Achievement: Super Bowl XXVI MVP
Aside from his lack of mobility and draft slot, the speed in which Rypien's career bottomed is the chief reason for this entry.
That Redskins team was certainly about more than it's quarterback play—and Joe Gibbs winning three Super Bowls with three different quarterbacks was proof of that—but on the biggest day of the 1991 NFL season, Super Bowl XXVI, was the biggest star.
Washington fans clamoring for the days of Joe Theismann or Doug Williams certainly would have dubbed Rypien and "unlikely superstar" in late January 1992.
College: Notre Dame
Drafted: 16th round, 417th overall
Greatest Single Achievement: 7-yard touchdown catch in Super Bowl XIII
With all their stars and Hall of Famers, it's amazing that Bleier remains one of the more beloved and memorable players from that the Steelers dynasty of the 1970s.
Not only was he—for the most part—a blocking back and not really blessed with tremendous athleticism, he played his entire career with shrapnel in his leg, a remnant from his service in the Vietnam War.
And besides, guys named Rocky have a history of being underdogs that became superstars.
College: Ohio State
Greatest Single Achievement: 1964 NFL Championship Game
Much like Rocky Bleier, Groza has what might best be described as a "cult following." Of all the great players in Cleveland Browns history—Jim Brown, Paul Warfield, Leroy Kelly, Bernie Kosar—Groza is the one the organization chose to name the street on which their headquarters were built.
Maybe that doesn't make him a "superstar" in the conventional sense, but because he was also elected to nine pro bowls and enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 1974, he certainly was.
College: Eastern Illinois
Greatest Single Achievement: Franchise record for single-season touchdowns
A dozen or so years ago, you probably would have been crazy to think of the starting quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys as an unlikely superstar. Given names like Meredith, Staubach and Aikman, it seemed like whoever they stuck under center had a pretty big profile. Even Danny White was something of a household name.
Then came the revolving door of Quincy Carter, Chad Hutchinson, Ryan Leaf, Drew Henson, Anthony Wright, Vinny Testaverde and Drew Bledsoe. So for Romo to restore relevance to the position in Dallas was a noteworthy achievement. Especially since he was undrafted out of a smaller program.
But even if people thought he might have an NFL career, maybe even as a starter, for him to become such a hot topic, lightning rod figure in the league was certainly a stunner. Although, Jessica Simpson probably deserves some of the credit for that.
Drafted: 12th round, 320th overall
Greatest Single Achievement: Super Bowl XXX
You'll see a handful of Super Bowl MVPs on this list, but none better embody the title "unlikely" than Brown.
Besides barely being drafted, being undersized and being totally overshadowed by his fellow corner (Deion Sanders), Brown was often considered the one weak link on the Cowboys defense, and perhaps that entire dynasty.
And even though Neil O'Donnell gift-wrapped those two picks—or maybe it was rookie wide receiver Corey Holliday's fault....we'll never know—he still left Sun Devil Stadium with the Super Bowl MVP. So even if it was just for that one day—and it was—he was the biggest football superstar in the world.
Drafted: 1st round, 1st overall
Greatest Single Achievement: Super Bowl XV
In the introduction slide, I explicitly said that first-round picks who had huge expectations on them coming out of big-time college programs were not going to fall into the category of "unlikely" superstars. But an exception needs to be made in the case of Plunkett and here's why.
If Matt Leinart ends up guiding the Texans to a Super Bowl title this year, would you say—given all the pitfalls of his career and all the jokes made about him—that it was incredibly "unlikely?"
Well, that's pretty much how you'd characterize the career of Plunkett. Through no (or perhaps very little) fault of his own, he hit rock bottom during the mid-1970s and was pretty much declared a total bust. But with the Raiders he resurrected his career, winning a pair of Super Bowls in four seasons.
College: Texas Tech
Greatest Single Achievement: 16 catches, 217 yards, 2 TD vs. Buffalo, Week 3, 2011
Undrafted and barely 5'9", Welker may very well end up having the greatest single-season in NFL history in 2011, surpassing both the receptions and yardage records.
Who would have thought that when Welker was essentially cast out twice, first by the Chargers in 2004 then the Dolphins in 2007?
It's one thing for a ridiculously small player like Barry Sanders to become a superstar, but he was a Heisman trophy winner and an early first-round pick. No one seemed to want Welker.
Drafted: 4th round, 98th overall
Greatest Single Achievement: 2002 NFL MVP
The performance in Super Bowl XXXVII notwithstanding, Gannon's four-year stretch from 1999 to 2002 remains among the greatest in NFL history.
Given where he played in college, his funky delivery and the fact that he really didn't play very much football between 1993 and 1998, that's fairly remarkable.
Drafted: 2nd round, 31st overall
Greatest Single Achievement: 1988 All Pro selection
Maybe it was just the 1980s, but similar to Fernando-mania in Los Angeles, Ickey-mania swept parts of the country in 1988. His infamous touchdown celebration—the Ickey Shuffle—certainly helped, but he was also an extremely productive runner during the Bengals run towards Super Bowl XXIII.
Sure he was a second round pick and didn't exactly come from a tiny school, but with a name like Ickey—or Elbert, for that matter—you'd have to think his rise to success was not predicted by experts around the league.
Drafted: 3rd round, 53rd overall
Greatest Single Achievement: Super Bowl IX
This list can't be all offensive players. And if you look beyond the players who recorded sacks in bunches like L.T. and Reggie White or the "enforcers" like Dick Butkis and Ray Nitschke, you're left with defensive backs.
And most of the great modern secondary stars—Ronnie Lott, Darrell Green, Deion Sanders, Charles Woodson, Rod Woodson—were all high first-round picks who played in big-time programs were expected to be great. Blount came from a small school and was a late-third round pick.
But that didn't keep him from becoming such a disruptive force in the passing game that they eventually changed the rules in order to keep every opposing team from reverting to a "three yards and a cloud of dust" game plan.
College: San Diego State
Drafted: 13th round, 330th overall
Greatest Single Achievement: 1980 NFL MVP
Sipe had two absolutely outstanding seasons in 1979 and 1980, the second of which earned him a league MVP as he directed the Kardiac Kids to the doorstep of the Super Bowl.
For whatever reason, Sam Rutigliano seemed to be the only person on the planet who saw that level of greatness in the undersized (6'1", 190 pounds) physically limited passer.
Even if it lasted for just a few seasons, there was a Cinderella feel to his career. And isn't that the best way to describe a "surprising superstar?"
College: South Dakota State
Greatest Single Achievement: Super Bowl XXVI
Although Jan Stenerud is the only pure kicker in the Hall of Fame and Gary Anderson and Morten Andersen are far ahead of him on the records list, if there is one true "superstar" kicker in NFL history, it has to be Vinatieri.
Between the two last-second game-winners in the Super Bowl, the two kicks in the snow against the Raiders in the 2001 playoffs, as well as the four Super Bowl titles, no kicker has a greater resume.
So to have that type of career as an undrafted kicker from a smaller college program who began his pro career in Amsterdam is about as unlikely as it gets.
Drafted: 20th round, 232nd
Greatest Single Achievement: Week 6, 1960 NFL Season (4 catches, 195 yards, 3 TD)
Berry had the ideal height, but not even passable speed, size or athleticism. And the fact that he wore glasses at times under his helmet only made him look less the part.
That had to be one of the reasons why he fell to the 20th round and had almost no impact on the NFL level in his first two seasons.
But he worked himself to death to become an incredibly sharp route-runner and smart football player on his way to becoming the most accomplished wide receiver his era.
Drafted: 12th round, 119th overall
Greatest Single Achievement: 1970 NFL MVP
Blanda had a fine career in the 1950s with the Bears and then in the AFL with the Oilers.
But the time where he really clinched superstar-status was in the late 1960s and early 1970s after he joined the Raiders. For the most part, he was just their kicker, but at key times in the championship contender's seasons, he filled in at quarterback and did a more-than admirable job—take his three-touchdown effort against the Steelers in 1970.
To achieve that in his early 40s—and ultimately retire from the league at the age of 48—is almost unfathomable.
Drafted: 6th round, 199th overall
Greatest Single Achievement: Super Bowl XXXVI
Sure, Brady went to a big time college program that produced a handful of NFL quarterbacks, but that didn't help him much on draft day.
And more to the point, you have got to consider the level of superstar on a list like this. Maybe people looked at Brady and thought he could become a serviceable starter or even a Pro Bowler someday. But becoming the league's premier player, a two-time MVP, two-time Super Bowl MVP and a contender for the title of greatest QB ever was never in the cards.
And before you say "if Brady's on this list, then Joe Montana has to be too," I respectfully disagree: Not only was Brady sitting behind a bona fide frachise quarterback in Drew Bledsoe (Steve DeBerg wasn't in San Francisco), but Montana's college resume included a handful of epic comebacks, a national championship and the unforgettable win in the Cotton Bowl. Montana wasn't an "unlikely" superstar; Brady was.
College: Southern Miss
Drafted: 2nd round, 33rd overall
Greatest Single Achievement: Super Bowl XXXI
The younger generation(s) tend to forget that Favre wasn't alway the superstar he became by the middle of the 1990s.
But do you think Jerry Glanville and the Falcons would have dealt him away in 1992 if they thought he had any chance of becoming the iconic player he did? Probably not.
Still, as great as his career was in Green Bay, the incredible season he put together in 2009—at the age of 40 and one year removed from that disastrous end to his stint with the Jets—was arguably more unlikely.
Drafted: 4th round, 43rd overall
Greatest Single Achievement: 1967 NFL season
Forget playing at Duke, or being a third-round pick, or sitting behind Norm Van Brocklin for three straight years: Jurgensen was an unlikely superstar on pure sight alone.
He didn't look like Joe Namath or Johnny Unitas or anyone's prototypical field general.
He was kind of overweight, not very athletic and looked like he belonged more in the stands than under center. Nevertheless, the forerunner to Andy Dalton (i.e. the original Red Riffle) was the centerpiece for two storied franchises and led the NFL in passing five times.
Drafted: 6th round, 196th overall
Greatest Single Achievement: Super Bowl XXXII MVP
Only time will tell if Davis does wind up in the Hall of Fame, but for a brief stretch in the late 1990s he was arguably the NFL's premier player. In addition to the regular season numbers—the 2,000-yard season, the league MVP, the 35 100-yard games—he was virtually unstoppable in the postseason.
In the back-to-back Super Bowl championships he averaged 150 yards per playoff game and was absolutely dominant against Green Bay.
For a player who barely played in college—he only carried the ball 324 times in three seasons at Georgia—was fortunate to be drafted, and repeatedly suffered from migraines, that was an incredibly fast and unexpected rise to superstardom.
College: Grambling State
Drafted: 4th round, 93rd overall
Greatest Single Achievement: 1980 AFC Championship Game (6 catches, 130 yards, 2 D)
There was a time—before Steve Largent snapped it and a slew of 1990s players breezed past it—when Joiner was the NFL's all-time leader in receiving yards.
Based on how slow his career started, that's a mind-blowing stat....of course, not once you realize he was the senior-most member of Air Coryell.
Nevertheless, the soft-spoken, undersized (5'11", 188 pounds) not necessarily "gifted" receiver who played at Grambling State long before they were on NBC every year seemingly came out of nowhere to become a Hall of Famer.
College: Texas A&I
Greatest Single Achievement: 1997 NFL sack leader
Obviously undrafted free agents are naturals for this list. And of all the great undrafted defensive players, Randle might be at the very top.
Aside from being passed on during draft day, he was relatively undersized for a defensive tackle and came from a tiny college program.
Now certainly the sacks, the Pro Bowls and the havoc he wreaked on opposing teams made him a superstar, but so did his infectious personality and the fun he seemed to be having on the field. So even if he was simply a defensive tackle and not a quarterback or running back, Randle was an enormous figure in his era. And that's not something anyone expected in the spring of 1990.
College: Mississippi Vocational College
Drafted: 14th round, 168th overall
Greatest Single Achievement: 1968 season (unofficially 28 sacks in 14 games)
Jones may have been the greatest pass rusher in NFL history: Reggie White, Bruce Smith, Lawrence Taylor, Derrick Thomas, they all chased after the example he set in addition to quarterbacks.
And even though his small-school background and low-draft status help put him high on this list, the fact that he was a defensive end—not a quarterback or ball carrier—in the 1960s who emerged as a legitimate superstar really speaks to how exciting his play was and how charismatic his personality.
Of course, being in Los Angeles (yes, they one had a football team...two in fact) certainly helped.
Greatest Single Achievement: 1962 NFL Championship
I only put one coach on this list and although Paul Brown, Don Shula, Bill Walsh and a handful of others would be considered "coaching superstars," I think Lombardi is the only one who transcends that qualification.
Although he certainly yelled like one, he didn't necessarily look like the idealized vision of a football coach: the glasses, the erudite way he spoke, that fuzzy wool hat he wore in the cold.
More than any figure in the history of the NFL—be it Terry Bradshaw, Otto Graham, Johnny Unitas, Jerry Rice, etc.—Vince Lombardi is synonymous with victory. That's why the Super Bowl trophy bears his name. To say that in reference to a coach and not a player makes for a supremely unlikely superstar.
Drafted: 9th round, 102nd overall
Greatest Single Achievement: 1958 NFL Title Game
Cut by the inept Pittsburgh Steelers franchise and playing semi-pro ball for the Bloomfiled Rams for $6 a game, Unitas simply making it back to the NFL was unlikely in the mid-1950s.
Not only did he achieve that goal, however, he became arguably the greatest quarterback of all-time, certainly the most revolutionary in history.
The only reason he can't earn the top spot? He only had one rags-to-riches, Cinderella career. The next man on this list had two.....
College: Northern Iowa
Greatest Single Achievement: Super Bowl XXXIV
You know the fairy tale. From grocery bagger to NFL and Super Bowl MVP in the span of a few years.
Calling him the modern day Johnny Unitas is probably an apt parallel: both were cut entirely from the NFL and struggled to just make it back to a roster, then became Hall of Famers who seemingly overnight won an NFL title.
But I have to put Warner ahead of Johnny U for one simple reason. Warner's career was pretty much DOA after he left the Rams in 2003. He was deemed expendable after one season with the Giants, then was expected to be either a mentor or clipboard-holder for Matt Leinart in Arizona.
Yet in another ridiculously unlikely turn of events, he propelled the Cardinals to their first Super Bowl ever and came within three minutes of delivering a second improbable title to a once-dormant franchise.