20 'Little' Guys Who Overcame the Odds
Overcoming insurmountable odds is what life is all about. In sports, that narrative often gets blown up due to the magnitude of the game.
"Little" guys captivate all of us. These are players who don't fit the "traditional athletic" mold due to their limited height and build, but regardless, they go on to relish in ultralight beams of success.
The history of professional sports is littered with these types of players. No sport is safe. Every league and association out there has someone who fits this description.
Twenty names have emerged over time. Each one setting the bar high for little guys everywhere. Whether they became Hall of Famers, impact players or just broke barriers, these athletes were able to overcome the odds.
Besides the 20 names listed on this slideshow, it was important to name a handful of honorable mentions who could have made the cut. These are athletes who also changed sports despite being considered "little."
- Darren Sproles, RB, NFL, 5'6", 190 lbs
- Dustin Pedroia, 2B, MLB, 5'9", 175 lbs
- Nate Robinson, PG, NBA, 5'9", 180 lbs
- Roy Worters, G, NHL, 5'3", 135 lbs
- Bob Sanders, S, NFL, 5'8", 206 lbs
- Maurice Jones-Drew, RB, NFL, 5'7", 210 lbs
- Steve Smith, WR, NFL, 5'9", 195 lbs
- Kyle Lowry, PG, NBA, 6'0", 205 lbs
Wes Welker redefined what it meant to be a small, slot receiver.
Before his struck gold with the Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, Welker spent time shuffling between the Miami Dolphins and San Diego Chargers. But it was New England where the 5'9", 185-pound pass-catcher became an NFL superstar.
Between his stops in New England and Denver, Welker caught more than 110 passes on five separate occasions. His career totals show 903 receptions for 9,924 yards and 50 touchdowns.
He was a wide receiver who used precise route running and an underappreciated amount of quickness to take over games. His work in the slot remains the gold standard for modern-day pass-catchers.
Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez's career behind the plate remains a measuring stick of greatness that all catchers have to live up to. The only difference is, he achieved all of that greatness at just 5'9", 205 pounds.
Rodriguez was a defining player through the '90s and 2000s. He possessed an extraordinary arm that made him a defensive stalwart. When he retired in 2012, Jorge L. Ortiz of USA Today noted that Pudge's WAR—wins above replacement—(67.3) tied him with Carlton Fisk as the second-best of all time.
At the dish, Rodriguez was excellent as well. Being a .296 career hitter and belting out 311 home runs was the summation of a consistency rarely seen at the catcher position—he even captured the American League's MVP award in 1999.
The question now is will the undersized Pudge get into Cooperstown? Chris Cwik of Yahoo Sports mentioned that Rodriguez would be eligible for he first time in 2017. Only time will tell us the answer to that burning question.
The Boston Celtics' relationship with Isaiah Thomas has turned out to be a match made in heaven. Thomas has taken over as the flagship member of head coach Brad Stevens' team.
As an undersized point guard—Thomas stands at 5'9", 185 pounds—life in the NBA isn't easy. So when you see what Thomas has done in the face of adversity, it comes off as even more impressive.
Today, the four-year guard is sitting at 22.3 points per game and 6.3 assists. Even is PER of 21.85 is good enough for sixth-best in the NBA among point guards, according to ESPN.com's calculations.
This is a player who overcame his lack of size and soared to great heights. The Celtics should be thrilled with his development.
Daniel Bryan's WWE run was improbable, and that's what made his character work so well.
It was 2010 when Bryan first arrived on the scene. He was part of the Nexus faction in WWE. But the "Yes" man wouldn't gain national notoriety until 2013.
Pitted against John Cena at that year's edition of SummerSlam, the 5'10", 210-pound Bryan was written as an against-the-odds wrestler, searching for the title. After he won the match, Triple H turned on Bryan, allowing Randy Orton to win the strap instead.
All of this led to Bryan's eventual win at WrestleMania XXX. It was a spectacular time in WWE, and Bryan was the driving force behind it. He proved that being perceived as "little" was just that. A perception.
Now retired, Bryan's run with the WWE is the stuff legends are made of.
To this day, the shortest player to ever lace up a pair of kicks in the NBA remains Muggsy Bogues.
At 5'3", 141 pounds, Bogues shattered all of the odds by even making it to the best basketball association on the planet. Since the moment his career launched in 1987, Bogues was perceived as an efficient passer. He averaged 8.2 assists per game throughout his first five seasons.
It wasn't until the 1992-93 season with the Charlotte Hornets that Bogues averaged double-digit points—10 per game to be exact—to go along with 8.8 assists.
Bogues will be remembered for enjoying a long NBA career that spanned 15 seasons. His prosperity was based off a keen defensive prowess and a sensational amount of vision on the court.
He achieved all of that despite his height—or lack thereof.
Danny Woodhead has never rushed for more than 547 yards in a single season. He's never even been considered a feature tailback.
However, Woodhead has morphed into a proficient pass-catcher out of the backfield. He's a dual-threat option who scares opposing defenses.
The NFL's evolution toward using running backs as receivers carved out a lane for Woodhead to succeed. He's caught 75 passes or more twice in seven seasons, racking up 1,360 yards in that same timeframe. At 5'8", 200 pounds, Woodhead has also done it without the benefit of size.
No. 39 has achieved a lot, and even though odds are he won't wind up in the Hall of Fame, this undrafted free agent has definitely made his mark on the game of football.
Spud Webb's legacy revolves around his captivating performance at the 1986 Slam Dunk Contest.
Webb dazzled winning the trophy, and fans of the NBA remain grateful for his efforts. Seeing a guy listed at 5'6" throw down like that will forever be ingrained in our memories.
Besides what he did at the Slam Dunk Contest, Webb also was responsible for a handful of productive seasons. From 1990 up until '95, he averaged double-digit scoring totals, peaking at 16 points per game in 1991-92.
Webb made the leap from a slam dunk novelty act to serious playmaker in the NBA. Not many guys can do that. Especially ones who check in at 5'6".
The Minnesota Vikings have never had a quarterback quite like Fran Tarkenton. Of all the defining players to come and go for the Vikings, you could make a strong case for Tarkenton being the best, regardless of his modest 6’0”, 190-pound frame.
Tarkenton spent two separate tenures in a purple uniform, the first one taking place from 1961 until ‘66. During that time he established himself as a pioneer of the rushing quarterback.
After the Vikings traded him to the New York Giants and spending five seasons there, the Mad Scrambler returned to Minnesota. His leadership and dual-threat abilities forced the Vikings into three Super Bowl games. Though they didn’t win one, Tarkenton’s legacy was set in stone.
This 6-foot QB retired from the NFL with 3,674 rushing yards, 47,003 passing and 374 touchdowns on his resume. Tarkenton was formally inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1986.
Theoren Fleury entered the NHL as an eighth-round draft pick. He left as a 5'6", 182-pound scoring phenomenon.
Sixteen years was the span of Fleury's career. Over that time, he became an All-Star who netted a total of 455 goals and 633 assists.
You can throw a lot of words out there to describe Fleury's on-ice stature. But the one that fits him best is tenacious. He was a tenacious force who created scoring chances and sent pucks into the back of the net.
The NHL has always boasted a handful of "smaller" athletes. Fleury was one of the first to grab the attention of the mainstream media as well as hockey fans.
While debating him as a Hall of Fame inductee, ESPN.com's Katie Strang wrote this: "Fleury, for all the ups and downs of his career, was a fierce competitor who was one of the most compelling players to watch in his generation."
Truer words have never been spoken regarding the ferocious Fleury.
Because of his riveting highlight-reel moves, you'd think that Barry Sanders was a big, fast, creative guy. In reality, Sanders stood at 5'8" when he ran the rock for the Detroit Lions.
Back in 1994, then-New York Times columnist—and now Bleacher Report's own—Mike Freeman wrote about how he defied his height on the gridiron: "He has the power of a raging river but is as hard to hold as running water."
It's a description that stuck with him throughout his NFL career. Sanders was a well-built, short, rapid runner who retired No. 3 on the all-time rushing list.
All of the tremendous accomplishments Lionel Messi has enjoyed while playing for Barcelona have turned him into an unstoppable commodity.
His ESPN FC profile declared him "the heir apparent to the throne left vacant by Diego Armando Maradona." The 5'6", 148-pound superstar has lived up to that billing, winning five Ballon d'Or trophies—FIFA's version of player of the year—with Barcelona since 2009.
At 28 years old, Messi still has a lot of soccer left in him. He's defied the odds time and time again all while being dubbed undersized.
When you consider that three of his contemporaries—Neymar, Cristiano Ronaldo and Luis Suarez—are all 5'9" or taller, it becomes nearly impossible not to appreciate Messi's calculated greatness.
Joe Morgan entered the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1990 after spending 22 years in the big leagues.
The Hall of Fame second basemen was two-time National League MVP with the Cincinnati Reds in the 1970s and didn't use size as an excuse. Standing a modest 5'7", Morgan proved to be a consistent force at the plate and in the field.
He hit home runs—268 over his career—stole bases, drove in runs and walked a whole bunch of times. Morgan was a complete player. His years with the Reds and Houston Astros were special.
Despite enduring the perception of being "little," Morgan overcame and dominated the world of Major League Baseball for the better part of two decades.
Rey Mysterio spent a lifetime serving as the ultimate underdog. In terms of mainstream appeal, he was first labeled a cruiserweight during his WCW days—a title reserved for smaller wrestlers.
The 5'6", 175-pound Mysterio successfully made the leap from being a cruiserweight to a World Heavyweight Champion when he captured the WWE's top prize at WrestleMania XXII.
Few guys of that size ever get a push to the top. But Mysterio's uncanny appeal and skill set earned him that right time and time again with the WWE.
It’s easy to forget that the NFL’s all-time leading rusher was also on the small side when it came to height.
Emmitt Smith was listed at 5’9” despite playing a lot bigger. Granted, NFL running backs aren’t colossal beings. But Smith’s lack of size was a non-issue from start to finish.
He ran his way to 18,355 yards and 164 touchdowns in 18 seasons of play. He was someone who took height out of the conversation. The focus was always on his power, ability to find swaths of open field and all of the Super Bowl-winning teams he was a vital part of.
Before Messi represented Argentina, there was Maradona. He was a 5'6" footballer who led his home country to the World Cup win in 1986.
Maradona was a speedy, stimulating playmaker. For a guy his height, it took polish, skill and aggressiveness in order to thrive.
It wasn't just Argentina. Maradona changed the complexion of every team he played for, as Glenn Moore of the Independent explained: "Napoli were a shambles when they somehow found the cash to buy him in 1984. Fighting relegation had become a way of life with the club surviving by a point the previous season. Maradona turned them into title contenders and in 1986/87 they won the first Scudetto in the club's history."
All of these things have kept Maradona's name near the top of "best of" lists. He was that good, and at 5'6", 148 pounds, he never let any obstacle get in his way.
Drew Brees has to be considered a top-three quarterback of his generation. Along with Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, Brees has continuously rewritten the history books with his polished delivery and anticipatory ways.
Quarterbacks come in all shapes and sizes. Brees happens to be on the smaller end of that spectrum. At 6’0”, he never was bestowed with that prototypical NFL build.
Instead, he has learned to rely on timing, footwork, mechanics and accuracy to carry his New Orleans Saints to great heights.
Between his work with the San Diego Chargers and Saints, Brees has won a Super Bowl title, churned out 60,903 yards through the air, tossed 428 touchdowns and has achieved a staggering lifetime completion percentage of 66.4.
He’s not only a lock for the Hall of Fame, but Brees also happens to be a perfect iteration of today’s offensive-friendly, ever-evolving NFL QB.
For 23 years, Tim Raines made his presence felt in the world of professional baseball. The 5’8” left fielder logged a .294 career batting average, 980 RBI and stole 808 bases for good measure.
He wasn’t a man who swung with power. What Raines did best was get on base, cementing his legacy as one of the top leadoff hitters to ever play the game.
Building a case for Raines' greatness during his day is pointless. He was brilliant. All that’s left now is to see whether or not this longtime Montreal Expo and Chicago White Sox star will make it into the Hall of Fame.
When the most recent batch of 2016 ballots were counted, Raines once again fell just short of the margin, per Gabe Lacques of USA Today. Perhaps 2017 will be the year Raines finally gets his name called into Cooperstown.
Martin St. Louis
Sixteen seasons of NHL action has turned Martin St. Louis into a guy worthy of Hall of Fame consideration. And in a way, St. Louis also resembles another “little” guy on this list, Fleury—both men were avid scorers.
St. Louis differed from Fleury mainly because he went undrafted and struggled to find his footing until the Tampa Bay Lightning gave him a shot in 2000.
From there, he blossomed into a star.
The 5’8”, 180-pound winger could only be described as special. Greg Wyshynski of Yahoo Sports concurred when he wrote the following blurb: “He was a human pinball during his 13 years with the Lightning, bounding around the offensive zone off bigger bodies, finding his space and burying a lethal one-timer for 365 goals in 972 games.”
St. Louis' next battle will be whether or not he can skate his way into the Hall of Fame. With a Stanley Cup title in ‘04 and a ton of memorable moments behind him, there’s no reason why he can’t get there.
Sonny Jurgensen spent 18 years in the NFL, splitting time between Washington and the Philadelphia Eagles. He was a durable, smaller quarterback who played with heart and the focus of a laser.
The Hall of Fame came calling in 1983 because of Jurgensen’s accolades. Eighteen seasons produced 32,224 passing yards, 270 total touchdowns and a passer rating of 82.6. Jurgensen also won three NFL passing titles and made it to five Pro Bowls due to his superb play.
At 5’11” he achieved a lot more than a lot of the bigger guys who played during the same time period. Like Tarkenton, Jurgensen proved that the narrative of size mattering at the QB position is nothing but mythology.
No one defines an undersized athlete who changed the way we look at sports more than like Allen Iverson.
It was Iverson who stormed onto the scene from Georgetown in 1996 and sent Michael Jordan's ankles into flux. It was Iverson who carried the Philadelphia 76ers to the 2001 NBA Finals. It was Iverson who left the 76ers averaging a resounding 27.6 points per game, winning three scoring titles along the way.
When Iverson finally hung up his kicks in 2010, it marked the end of an era. Basketball lost a 6'0" bulldog on the hardwood who spent his entire career taking on and pulverizing bigger players.
All stats and information via Sports-Reference.com unless noted otherwise.