The Greatest Undrafted Players in Modern Sports History

Scott Janovitz@@BrainTrain9Featured ColumnistMay 1, 2015

The Greatest Undrafted Players in Modern Sports History

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    In just one year, Kurt Warner went from undrafted AFL quarterback to undrafted NFL Pro Bowler.
    In just one year, Kurt Warner went from undrafted AFL quarterback to undrafted NFL Pro Bowler.PAUL SANCYA/Associated Press

    Though most of the world's biggest sports stars were drafted either early or late, there is a select group of elite athletes who weren't drafted at all. 

    In football, guys such as Kurt Warner and John Randle were largely overlooked upon finishing their college careers, yet they became instant stars once the NFL finally gave them a shot.

    The same can be said of basketball greats such as John Starks and Ben Wallace, who were undrafted and underappreciated before blossoming into NBA All-Stars. 

    The NHL has also been home to similar odds-defying athletes, such as Dino Ciccarelli and Martin St. Louis, two premier goal scorers who became hockey legends in the face of external doubt and adversity. 

    With each of these exceptional athletes in mind, we've put together a comprehensive list highlighting the 20 greatest undrafted players in modern sports history.

    We should note that we only considered players who starred in the 1990s and beyond, which eliminated talents such as Peter Stastny from consideration. Also, in the name of logic and order, we only included stars from the NBA, NHL and NFL, sticking with leagues that employ relatively similar draft structures to make comparisons meaningful.

    That said, we've done our very best to honor the 20 most deserving undrafted sports stars—the elite athletes who were forgotten on draft day but will be remembered forever.

Close but No Cigar

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    Jeremy Lin was a virtual unknown before taking the basketball world by storm in 2011.
    Jeremy Lin was a virtual unknown before taking the basketball world by storm in 2011.Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Though we've selected the 20 greatest undrafted modern sports stars, there are plenty of others worthy of a mention. Consider this, then, our list of undrafted honorable mentions:

    • Antti Niemi
    • Joe Mullen
    • David Wesley
    • Raja Bell
    • Darrell Armstrong
    • Jeremy Lin
    • Jeff Saturday
    • Udonis Haslem
    • Bruce Bowen
    • Jose Calderon
    • Brian Waters

Ed Belfour

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    Ed Belfour enjoyed a long and prolific career, which included a Stanley Cup championsip with Dallas in 1999.
    Ed Belfour enjoyed a long and prolific career, which included a Stanley Cup championsip with Dallas in 1999.DAVID ZALUBOWSKI/Associated Press

    Even after leading the University of North Dakota to an NCAA championship in 1987, goalie Ed Belfour was overlooked in the subsequent NHL draft.

    As a result, the promising talent was forced to sign on with the Chicago Blackhawks as an undrafted free agent.

    Of course, Belfour didn't allow the early lack of respect to deter him from hockey greatness. Instead, he enjoyed a lengthy and prolific career between 1989 and 2008, suiting up for Chicago, San Jose, Dallas, Toronto and Florida and finishing his career with 484 wins, which ranks third all time among all NHL goaltenders.

    To this day, the Hall of Famer remains one of just two players—Neal Broten is the other—to have won an NCAA championship, an Olympic gold medal and a Stanley Cup.

Priest Holmes

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    Priest Holmes made the NFL pay for not drafting him.
    Priest Holmes made the NFL pay for not drafting him.DICK WHIPPLE/Associated Press

    After no one had enough foresight to draft him 1997, Priest Holmes came out of nowhere and exploded onto the scene in 2001.

    In his fourth year in the league, the Kansas City Chief led the NFL in rushing, scampering to an impressive 1,555 yards during the season. Even more impressively, the former Texas Longhorn bulldozed his way to another 3,035 yards and a whopping 48 touchdowns over the next two seasons. 

    Not surprisingly, the impressive three-year output led to three consecutive first-team All-Pro selections for the once undervalued ball-carrier.

Adam Oates

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    Though he was never drafted, Adam Oates enjoyed a 19-year Hall of Fame career.
    Though he was never drafted, Adam Oates enjoyed a 19-year Hall of Fame career.Dave Sandford/Getty Images

    Despite a hugely successful college career—he set school records in both assists and points for the RPI Engineers and led his team to the 1985 national championship—Adam Oates was completely ignored come draft day.

    But even after failing to be drafted, Oates nonetheless put together a Hall of Fame hockey career. The five-time All-Star suited up for seven teams over an impressive 19-year career.

    Upon retiring in 2004, the playmaker ranked fifth overall in career assists (1,079), and he still holds the NHL record for points (1,420) among those who also played NCAA hockey. 

James Harrison

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    James Harrison morphed from cut-worthy linebacker into NFL elite defender.
    James Harrison morphed from cut-worthy linebacker into NFL elite defender.Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    James Harrison was completely passed over during the 2002 NFL draft. And after signing on with the Steelers as an undrafted free agent, he was cut almost immediately.

    In fact, Harrison was cut four times in his first three years in the league and was out of the NFL all together by 2004, living in Germany and playing for the Rhein Fire.

    But after thinking long and hard about giving up football for good, the violent tackler gave the NFL one last try, catching on with the Steelers again in 2005. 

    And as if all it took was the flip of a switch, Harrison was a Pro Bowler by 2007. Of course, he was far from a simple one-year wonder.

    Once he found his groove, the Ohio native morphed into an elite NFL player, making it to five straight Pro Bowls while also winning the AP's Defensive Player of the Year Award in 2008.

Brad Miller

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    After getting passed over in the draft, Brad Miller enjoyed a lengthy NBA career, which included five solid seasons in Sacramento.
    After getting passed over in the draft, Brad Miller enjoyed a lengthy NBA career, which included five solid seasons in Sacramento.Rocky Widner/Getty Images

    Though Brad Miller doesn't quite have the star power of some of the other names on our list, the Indiana native enjoyed a successful 14-year NBA career despite going undrafted back in 1998. 

    After beginning his professional career in Italy, Miller joined the Charlotte Hornets in '98 and spent time with five other franchises before retiring in 2012.

    During his lengthy and improbable run, Miller managed to make it to back-to-back All-Star games in 2003 and 2004 and represented team USA on multiple occasions, earning two bronze medals to show for it. 

    A consummate pro and true model of consistency, the Purdue product averaged an impressive 14.2 points, 8.7 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game from 2001 to 2006.

Rod Smith

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    Though Rod Smith was overlooked out of college, he quickly gained respect from the NFL.
    Though Rod Smith was overlooked out of college, he quickly gained respect from the NFL.Brian Bahr/Getty Images

    There's no doubt about it, Rod Smith was an absolute star at Missouri Southern State University. He set conference records in both career receiving yards (3,043) and touchdowns (34) and broke the school's record for receptions in a career with 153.

    The wideout's small-school pedigree was detrimental on draft day, however, as Smith went completely unnoticed in 1994. But with little to lose, the Denver Broncos took a flier on the Arkansas native and almost immediately saw a return on their undrafted investment.

    After failing to do much in either 1995 or 1996, Smith exploded onto the scene in his third NFL season, hauling in 70 balls for 1,180 yards and 12 touchdowns on the year.

    Over the next eight years, the explosive pass-catcher produced seven more 1,000-yard seasons, averaging 1,164 yards and six touchdowns per season during the prolific run.

    For his efforts, Smith made the Pro Bowl in 2000, 2001 and 2005 and was also a two-time All-Pro selection. More importantly, the overachiever played a key role in two Super Bowl successes.

Avery Johnson

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    It took Avery Johnson a while to catch on, but once he did, he became a franchise-changing talent.
    It took Avery Johnson a while to catch on, but once he did, he became a franchise-changing talent.Andy Hayt/Getty Images

    Nothing was ever easy for Avery Johnson. He was forced to go the junior college route to begin his college basketball career and struggled to find a home after that, spending time at both Cameron and Southern before graduating from the latter in 1988.

    Of course, that wasn't the end of Johnson's rocky road. The diminutive point guard was passed over in the 1988 NBA draft and forced to spend a season with the Palm Beach Stingrays of the USBL.

    He resurfaced at the end of 1988 and spent the next six years bouncing around the NBA; Johnson's career didn't take off in earnest until he joined the San Antonio Spurs in 1994.

    Over the next seven years, the wily floor general averaged 10.9 points and 7.3 assists per game for the Spurs. More than for his production, though, Johnson is remembered for his on-court savvy and the leadership he brought to San Antonio's 1999 championship squad.

    To show Johnson the respect he deserves, San Antonio retired the point guard's No. 6 jersey in December 2007.

Arian Foster

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    Arian Foster was good in college but has proved to be a much better pro.
    Arian Foster was good in college but has proved to be a much better pro.Rob Foldy/Getty Images

    In four years at Tennessee, Arian Foster eclipsed the 1,000-yard rushing mark just once, rushing for 1,193 yards during his junior campaign in 2007

    With a relative lack of production and a mediocre 4.68 40-yard dash time, Foster lacked traction come draft day in 2009, and he was completely passed over when all was said and done.

    The Houston Texans eventually signed the underrated 'back, quickly released him, then signed him to their practice squad one day later.

    No one knew it at the time, but Houston's about-face was a stroke of genius; Foster did little as a rookie in 2009, but the former Volunteer led the NFL in both rushing yards (1,616) and touchdowns (16) in year No. 2.

    That wasn't a flash in the pan. Foster has remained an elite NFL runner since his breakout campaign, rumbling for 1,224 yards or more in three of the last four seasons (he rushed for just 542 yards during an injury-ravaged 2013).

    Not so surprisingly, the talented Texan is already a four-time Pro Bowler, making the prestigious game in 2010, '11, '12 and '14. 

Wes Welker

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    Wes Welker established himself as an NFL star in New England.
    Wes Welker established himself as an NFL star in New England.Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

    Despite a solid career at Texas Tech—which included 259 receptions, 3,019 receiving yards, 21 touchdowns and an NCAA-record eight scores via the punt return—wideout Wes Welker couldn't even garner an invite to the 2004 NFL Scouting Combine.

    As a result, no one was surprised when the 5'9", 185-pound prospect was passed over on draft day. The diminutive receiver was eventually signed and cut by the San Diego Chargers but quickly scooped up by the Miami Dolphins. 

    In Florida—in both 2005 and 2006Welker quickly established himself as both a reliable receiving option and a dynamic special teamer. When the Dolphins couldn't come to a contract agreement with the wideout during the 2007 offseason, they decided to trade him to New England.

    Of course, teaming up with Tom Brady and the rest of the Patriots was a blessing for Welker.

    Over the next six years, the once under-the-radar prospect blossomed into a true star, making it to five consecutive Pro Bowls while averaging 112 receptions, 1,243 yards and six touchdowns per season.

Martin St. Louis

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    Despite going undrafted in 1997, Martin St. Louis overcame a lack of size to become an NHL star.
    Despite going undrafted in 1997, Martin St. Louis overcame a lack of size to become an NHL star.Mike Stobe/Getty Images

    Though Martin St. Louis was a college star while suiting up for the University of Vermont Catamounts, his significant lack of size—he's listed at 5'8" and 180 pounds—crushed his draft stock to the point that he was completely overlooked in 1997 NHL Draft.

    Things didn't look much better for St. Louis after two forgettable seasons in Calgary, but he found a way to catch on in Tampa in 2000 and spent the next 13 years as a member of the Lightning. 

    Of course, he became much more than just a member of the Lightning; the speedy right winger was an NHL star by 2002, producing 70 or more points in eight of the next nine seasons.

    Throughout his surprisingly prolific 17-year career, which is still in progress, St. Louis has made it to six All-Star games in addition to winning two Art Ross trophies (2003-04, 2012-13), a Lester B. Pearson award (2003-04), a Hart Memorial trophy (2003-04) and a Stanley Cup.

Jeff Garcia

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    It took some time, but Jeff Garcia eventually became an elite NFL quarterback.
    It took some time, but Jeff Garcia eventually became an elite NFL quarterback.Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

    In addition to getting passed over in 1994 NFL Draft, Jeff Garcia was forced to spend the first five years of his professional football career in Canada playing for the Calgary Stampeders. 

    But once he made it the NFL, joining San Francisco in 1999, Garcia was quick to impress.

    Subbing in for an injured Steve Young, Garcia started 10 games in his first season with the Niners, completing 60 percent of his passes for 2,544 yards and 11 scores. In 2000, he became the team's full-time starter at quarterback and never missed a step. 

    Between 2000 and 2002, the veteran signal-caller threw for 11,160 yards and 84 touchdowns—that's a gaudy 3,720 yards and 28 scores per year—while making three consecutive Pro Bowl appearances. 

    When he finally called in quits in 2011, Garcia had thrown for 25,537 yards to go along with 161 career touchdowns.

Antonio Gates

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    After transitioning from basketball to football, Antonio Gates almost immediately became one of the best tight ends in the NFL.
    After transitioning from basketball to football, Antonio Gates almost immediately became one of the best tight ends in the NFL.Harry How/Getty Images

    Antonio Gates went undrafted in 2003, but with good reason: Though he was an athletic star during his two years at Kent State, it was on the hardwood rather than the gridiron.

    He nevertheless decided to pursue a career in the NFL and immediately made a dent in San Diego with the Chargers. By the end of his first year in the league, Gates had moved from third string to starting tight end. And by the end of Year No. 2, the dynamic playmaker was already a Pro Bowl talent, making the prestigious squad thanks to 964 receiving yards and 13 scores in his sophomore season.

    Over the next seven years, Gates would make it to seven more Pro Bowls, cementing himself as arguably the league's top tight end.

    Of course, the five-time All-Pro selection is still kicking strong today, preparing for his 13th season in San Diego with the Chargers. In his first 12, Gates has recorded a mind-numbing 10,014 receiving yards to go along with 99 touchdowns.

Ben Wallace

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    Ben Wallace made the most of his limited skills, to say the least.
    Ben Wallace made the most of his limited skills, to say the least.Rocky Widner/Getty Images

    Undersized and hailing from Virginia Union—a small Division II school—Ben Wallace was on no one's radar when the 1996 NBA draft rolled around.

    And even after he found a way to earn a spot in the NBA, Wallace was slow to make his presence felt.

    He largely struggled in Washington for three seasons and produced a mediocre year while playing for the "Heart and Hustle" Orlando Magic.

    But when he landed in Detroit in 2000, everything changed for the defensive ace. Wallace quickly established himself as one of the league's top interior defenders and rebounders, averaging 13.2 boards and 2.3 blocks per game in his first season with the Pistons.

    In total, Wallace spent six memorable years in Detroit, averaging 12.9 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game along the way.

    The Alabama native hung up his sneakers for good in 2012, but not before winning an NBA title, appearing in four All-Star games and taking home four NBA Defensive Player of the Year trophies.

Tony Romo

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    Out of nowhere, Tony Romo established himself as one of the NFL's most dynamic quarterbacks.
    Out of nowhere, Tony Romo established himself as one of the NFL's most dynamic quarterbacks.Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    During his playing days at Eastern Illinois (2000-02), Tony Romo quickly became a football legend, exceptional enough to have his jersey retired in 2009. 

    But few NFL execs took notice of the Division I-AA talent at the time, and draft day in 2003 came and went without Romo hearing his name called.

    The gunslinger immediately signed with Dallas, but he spent his first two years with the Cowboys as nothing more than a holder.

    That all changed in 2006, when Romo was asked to replace Drew Bledsoe in a game against the Giants. 

    Romo gladly accepted the offer and went on to have a spectacular season, throwing for 2,903 yards and 19 touchdowns in 10 games, making the Pro Bowl in the process. 

    And if you fast forward to the present, the four-time Pro Bowler remains the leader of the Cowboys and is as prolific as ever, pacing the NFL in passer rating and completion percentage in 2014. 

John Randle

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    John Randle started out as undrafted and undersized but is now an NFL Hall of Famer.
    John Randle started out as undrafted and undersized but is now an NFL Hall of Famer.Brian Bahr/Getty Images

    Like everyone else on our list, John Randle was ignored and forgotten once his college career concluded.

    Of course, playing for Texas A&M University, Kingsville—by way of Trinity Valley Community College—hardly helped his cause. 

    But after going undrafted in 1990, Randle found a spot on Minnesota's practice squad, where he made the most of his opportunity.

    By 1993, the "undersized" defensive tackle was a Pro Bowl talent, a designation he earned seven times throughout his lengthy career and on six consecutive occasions.

    More importantly, by the time the six-time All-Pro selection was done proving doubters wrong, he'd accomplished enough to earn a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Dino Ciccarelli

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    Though he played for five different teams, Hall of Famer Dino Ciccarelli made his mark in Minnesota.
    Though he played for five different teams, Hall of Famer Dino Ciccarelli made his mark in Minnesota.Steve Babineau/Getty Images

    In the sport of hockey, no undrafted player has ever accomplished more than the great Dino Ciccarelli.

    After the Canadian right winger was completely passed over during the draft process, Ciccarelli worked his way into the NHL in 1980 as a member of the Minnesota North Stars.

    And once he arrived, Ciccarelli was around for good, registering 55 goals, 51 assists and 106 points in just his second season in the league.

    When he called it quits in 1999—concluding a remarkable 19-year career—Ciccarelli was a four-time All-Star and, with 608 career goals, ranking as the all-time leading goal scorer among draft-eligible players who went undrafted.

    For his astounding career efforts, the dynamic forward was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2010.

Warren Moon

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    It took him some time to adjust, but Warren Moon became one of the NFL's most dynamic players during his time in Houston.
    It took him some time to adjust, but Warren Moon became one of the NFL's most dynamic players during his time in Houston.David Scarbrough/Associated Press

    Warren Moon made a dent in the college football world while playing for the Washington Huskies, and he capped his collegiate career off with a Rose Bowl MVP performance in 1978

    None of it was enough to earn him a roster spot in the NFL, however, and Moon spent the next six years in Canada playing for the Edmonton Eskimos.

    But after a few remarkable seasons in the CFL, the explosive athlete decided to give the NFL a try, sparking a bidding war that was eventually won by the Houston Oilers.

    Early on, it looked as though Moon had made a mistake; he struggled in his first four NFL seasons, which included a league-leading 26 interceptions in 1986.

    Out of almost nowhere, though, the persistent signal-caller came alive in 1988, beginning a run that included eight consecutive Pro Bowl appearances—nine in 10 years—and an NFL Offensive Player of the Year award in 1990.

    When Moon hung up his cleats in 2000, he held professional football records for most pass attempts, completions, passing yards and touchdowns, all of which were good enough to earn him a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

John Starks

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    John Starks had a tough time making the NBA but, once he arrived in New York, quickly became a fan favorite.
    John Starks had a tough time making the NBA but, once he arrived in New York, quickly became a fan favorite.Ron Frehm/Associated Press

    After playing for four different schools during his collegiate basketball career, John Starks was a nonfactor in the 1988 NBA draft. 

    Though he quickly agreed to a deal with the Golden State Warriors, he was cut just one year later and forced to spend the next two seasons in the CBA.

    But in 1990, Starks tried out for and—thanks in large part to a fluke knee injury—earned a spot on New York's roster.

    He was mostly a role player for the Knicks in Year No. 1averaging 7.6 points and 3.3 assists per game, but he blossomed in Year No. 2.

    In fact, over the next nine years, Starks averaged an impressive 14.7 points, 4.1 assists and 1.2 steals per game, making the 1993 All-Defensive Second Team and the 1994 Eastern Conference All-Star squad while also winning the Sixth Man of the Year award in 1997. 

    Starks retired in 2000 as New York's all-time leader in three-point field goals (982)—it's worth noting, he was also the first player in NBA history to make 200 three-pointers in a single season—though the fan favorite is remembered today not just for his production but for his overall tenacity and plays such as this.

Kurt Warner

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    Kurt Warner exploded onto the scene with the Rams and quickly became the NFL's most prolific passer.
    Kurt Warner exploded onto the scene with the Rams and quickly became the NFL's most prolific passer.Doug Mills/Associated Press

    More than perhaps any athlete on our list, Kurt Warner defied the football gods. 

    After a mostly forgettable college career at the University of Northern Iowa—he was third on the team's depth chart all the way up until his senior season—Warner was nothing but an afterthought during the 1994 NFL draft.

    Without an NFL contract in hand, the Iowa native turned his attention to his other football options and went on to star in the AFL and NFL Europe for the next four seasons.

    In 1999, at the age of 28, Warner received a shot with the St. Louis Rams and never looked back. In his first year as a full-time starter, the grizzled vet threw for an astonishing 4,353 yards and a league-best 41 touchdowns, earning a spot in the Pro Bowl and NFL MVP honors while leading the Rams to a 12-3 record.  

    And after another Pro Bowl-worthy season in 2000, Warner was his very best in 2001, leading the NFL in both yards (4,830) and touchdowns (36) in addition to winning MVP honors again and his very first Super Bowl championship.

    The 2001 Super Bowl MVP retired for good in 2009, but not before setting numerous NFL records, including most passes in a Super Bowl (414), most touchdown passes in a single postseason (11), most passing yards in a single postseason (1,063) and fastest player to reach 10,000 and 30,000 career passing yards to name a few.