There are 53 active players on every NFL team. To make a roster in the NFL is one of the most difficult tasks in all of sports. A team has to look at you and decide if you'll make their team better. But what if the team's decision is the wrong one? There have been many attempts for the people who don't make that cut to have a chance to show their stuff while providing entertainment and revenue for people.
For some of the groups that got that chance in a league that wasn't the NFL they received another chance at stardom and many of them took that chance and ran with it. There are three Hall Of Famers on this list, thirteen Pro Bowlers, and multiple Come Back Players Of The Year.
These alternate routes to the league have turned out plenty of successful athletes.
All of these organizations listed here were considered at least relatively successful, even so here are the 15 players you won't believe played in these leagues.
15 James Harrison, OLB (Rhein Fire, NFL Europe)
A fan favorite for the Steelers, James Harrison almost retired from the NFL at 26 years old. Harrison bounced from practice squad to practice squad. He signed with the Steelers practice squad, was cut twice, signed by Baltimore, then sent to NFL Europe with the fire, cut again, then signed by the Steelers after their starting OLB suffered an injury. During this time Harrison strongly considered retirement to become a veterinarian(A goal he still he has for his life after football), but continued to improve during his time on the Fire and his time spent unemployed. Four years later Harrison became the NFLs defensive player of the year, while sealing his teams victory in Super Bowl XLIII with a 100 yard pick six, one of the greatest plays in NFL history.
14 Lincoln Kennedy, LT (Tampa Bay Storm, AFL)
Lincoln Kennedy is more than just a man named after two separate presidents, he was the anchor of an excellent Oakland Raiders offensive line. Kennedy was a three-time Pro-Bowler and two-time All-Pro at Left Tackle for the Raiders. In 2002 he was the leader of a Raiders offensive line that helped Rich Gannon win NFL MVP and advance to Super Bowl XXXVII, where they lost to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. After becoming a host on NFL Total Access during the 2004 season, Kennedy decided his place was still on the field. Though he was cut by the Cowboys in 2005, he signed with the Tampa Bay Storm of the Arena League on 2 separate occasions, helping them return to the AFL Playoffs in 2007.
13 Dante Hall, WR/KR/PR (Scottish Claymores, NFL Europe)
"The Human Joystick" was the nickname for Dante Hall, who was at one point the most electric player in the NFL. Hall is considered one of the greatest Kick/Punt returners in NFL history. Hall, a two-time Pro-Bowler and member of the NFL All-2000s team, had 12 return touchdowns in his 9 year career. Before dominating the NFL with the Kansas City Chiefs the dynamite return man spent the 2001 season with the Scottish Claymores of NFL Europe, where he led the league in kick off return yards(635), was second in punt returns with 15 for 177 yards(an amazing 11.8 average)and was second in combined net yards (1,263). The next year he would become a member of the Chiefs main squad and score six touchdowns(2PR, 1KR, 3 R).
12 Adam Vinatieri, K (Amsterdam Admiarls, NFL Europe)
Adam Vinatieri is arguably the most clutch kicker of all time, and maybe one of the most clutch athletes in America. Vinatieri has kicked countless game winners, including two last second Field Goals to win Super Bowls (XXXVI, XXXVIII) and his field goal was the margin of victory in another (XXXIX). Before that however Vinatieri was being clutch on a different continent for Amsterdam Admirals of NFL Europe. Though Vinatieri was undrafted, his story is a bit different than others with the NFLE on here. Vinatieri tried out for the NFLE before the NFL, and successfully convinced the Admirals to sign him. The decision was a huge success as the rookie Vinatieri shined, going 9/10 on Field Goals with a long of 43 and going a perfect 4/4 on PATs. The next year Vinatieri signed as an "undrafted free agent" with the New England patriots, appearing in Super Bowl XXXI. From 1996-2006 Vinatieri would play in six football championships( World Bowl III, Super Bowls XXXI, XXXVI, XXXVIII, XXXIX, and XLI) winning four (XXXVI, XXXVIII, XXXIX and XLI). At 44 years old he is currently the oldest player in the NFL.
11 Brent Grimes, CB (Hamburg Sea Devils, NFL Europe)
Brent Grimes was involved in the final game in NFL Europe history (for now), a 37-28 victory for Grimes Sea Devils over the Frankfurt galaxy on June 23, 2007. Grimes had gone undrafted out of DII Shippensburg in 2006, and had signed with the Falcons shortly after. Though the Falcons waived him due to a groin injury later that year, they signed him to play for NFL Europe in 2007. Grimes became a star quickly, standing out on a championship caliber defense. Grimes nabbed two interceptions, returning one for a touchdown, and also notched a sack for the Devils. Grimes would go onto join the Falcons again later in 2007, and become a shutdown corner in 2010. Since 2010 Grimes has gone to four Pro Bowls, and was voted a second team All-Pro in 2014, in spite of the fact he suffered an achilles tear during this period.
10 10. Tommy Maddox, QB (Los Angeles Xtreme, XFL)
The story of Tommy Maddox is almost too movie like to be real. Maddox was a first round draft pick out of UCLA in 1992 by the Denver Broncos. He was drafted as the heir apparent to John Elway, who was 33 at that point. In 1994, with the Broncos strapped for cap space and Elway showing no signs of slowing down, Maddox was traded to the Los Angeles Rams. Maddox would underperform in his brief time with the Rams, before signing as a free agent with the Giants the next season. Maddox struggled with the Giants in 1995, and was released in the preseason of 1996. Then in 1997 he signed with the Atlanta Falcons, and was cut in the preseason. He then stepped away from football to be an insurance salesman. In a nearly three year interim Maddox continued to be around football, albeit at a high school level, and continued to hone his skills. In 2000 he signed with the New Jersey Red Dogs of the Arena League. Maddox immediately showed how the practice period had paid off. Maddox threw 64 touchdowns in 2000, while also selling his insurance company. Maddox then signed with the newly formed Los Angeles Xtreme of the XFL. Maddox led the league in touchdowns, passing pards, and led the Xtreme to the championship game, which they won 38-6. Maddox went on to sign with the Pittsburgh Steelers later that year. After an injury to starter Kordell Stewart in 2001 and subpar play from Stewart in 2002, Maddox was named the starter. Maddox went on a tear and the Steelers finished 7-3-1 with him at the wheel. Yes, a guy who hadn't started an NFL game in 10 years went 7-3-1 as a starter. Maddox nabbed the Comeback Player of the Year award and later got a ring from Super Bowl XL as Ben Roethlisberger's backup.
9 Brad Johnson, QB (London Monarchs, NFL Europe)
Brad Johnson doesn't get the credit he deserves. Its not often people mention the 2x Pro Bowler who is also a Super Bowl winning QB. That's the curse of playing on a team with one of the best defenses of all time, nobody looks at the offense. Before Johnson was leading the Bucs to a 27 point victory over the Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII, he was the starting QB for the London Monarchs of the NFLE. In 1995 Johnson became the Monarchs starting QB, and despite the fact he would become a Pro Bowl QB four years later, Johnson struggled with the Monarchs. Johnson went 194/328(59.1%) for 2,227 yards, 13 TDs and 14 picks, to finish with a QB rating of 75.1
Johnson made the modern day equivalent of $18,200 for his time with London.
8 Brendon Ayanbadejo, LB/ST (XFL, CFL, NFL Europe)
Brendon Ayanbadejo isn't as good as some of the other players on this list. That isn't anything to slouch at. The list includes three Hall of Famers (Possibly a fourth depending on how voters view Harrison or if Delhomme decides to lace up his spikes again) and multiple Pro Bowlers. Ayanbadejo wasn't a franchise player. But what he was is simple: A lights out special teamer who could change the game in a multitude of ways. What makes his run impressive was that he was a Pro Bowler/All-Pro(PFWA) at one position in the NFL and a CFL All-Star at a different one. Ayanbadejo was a three-time Pro-Bowler as a special teamer in the NFL and a CFL All-Star at Linebacker. In 2002 Ayanbadejo posted 77 tackles, 3 Sacks, and 3 Interceptions for the BC Lions as they finished with a record of 10-8. Ayanbadejo had less successful stunts with the Los Angeles Xtreme(The short lived XFLs only champion) and the Amsterdam Admirals of NFL Europe.
7 Fred Jackson, RB (Sioux City Bandits, United Indoor Football)
In 2012 running back Fred Jackson signed an $8.7Mil contract with the Buffalo Bills after rushing for 930 yards in 10 games. But before that Jackson was earning $200 a game for the Sioux City Bandits of the United Indoor Football league. With a bonus of $50 a win, Jackson showed the NFL what they were missing by rushing for 1,770 yards in 18 games while scoring 53 touchdowns(40 Rush, 11 Receiving, 2 Return) during his 2005 campaign, being named co-MVP of the league. Before Jackson could make his jump to the NFL however he also had to appear in NFL Europe for the Rhein Fire, where he carried the ball 157 times for a team leading 751 yards and two touchdowns. Jackson also caught 300 yards worth of passes, breaking 1K yards from scrimmage on the year. After signing with the Bills following the 2006 NFLE season, he became the starting running back in 2009, where he posted 1,300+ yards from scrimmage.
6 Jake Delhomme, QB (Frankfurt Galaxy, NFL Europe)
As crazy as it sounds, 100% of the 1998 Amsterdam Admirals QB depth chart were NFL Pro-Bowlers. Jake Delhomme was undrafted in 1997, and signed with the Saints the same year. He was a practice squad player for a few years, before being moved to NFL Europe. He spent his first year (1998) as the backup to Kurt Warner for the Amsterdam Admirals. The next year was when he really took off. In 1999 Delhomme signed with the Frankfurt Galaxy. The Galaxy utitilized a unique two-Quarterback system, and Delhomme split time with fellow QB Pat Barnes. The strategy, however unorthodox, was extremely successful. Dehomme went 136/202 (67/3%) for 1,410 yards (7.0 YPA), throwing 12 TD's to 5 INTs. The duo as a whole went 230/366 (62.8%) for 2,878 yards(7.9 YPA) 24 TDs to 13 INTs as the Galaxy went 6-4 and won the 1999 World Bowl(NFL Europe's Super Bowl equivalent). Delhomme would later sign with the Panthers, leading them to a Super Bowl appearance and making a Pro Bowl(2005).
5 Jay Gruden, QB/HC (Tampa Bay Storm, AFL)
OK, so this one might cheating, but you'd be missing out if you didn't know about the career of Jay Gruden in the AFL. Before his brother Jon brought an offense to Tampa Bay for the Bucs, Jay brought his own to the Storm. After signing with the NFLE's Barcelona Dragons, Gruden went back to the States to play for the Tampa Bay Storm of the AFL. Gruden was immediately dominant, winning the league MVP award in just his second year. Gruden would go onto be a two-time All-Arena selection and win four Arena Bowls during his tenure. After an outstanding career in which he was considered one of the greatest arena bowl players ever, Gruden went on to become a coach for the AFL's Orlando Predators, winning 2 more Arena Bowls.
4 Jeff Garcia, QB (Calgary Stampeders, CFL)
Any fan who follows the Eagles or 49ers knows Jeff Garcia was a outstanding QB in the NFL. In addition to being a four-time Pro-Bowler (2000-2002,2007) Garcia led the second largest comeback in NFL playoff history in 2003. Down 24 points against the New York Giants with a little over three minutes to play in the 3rd quarter Garcia ripped off a fantastic comeback, scoring 25 unanswered points, and the 49ers ended up winning 39-38 after the Giants botched a Field Goal as time expired. What many fans may not know is that Garcia was also an extremely successful QB for the Calgary Stampeders of the CFL. Undrafted in 1994 Garcia signed with the Stampeders shortly after. After starting Calgary QB Doug Flutie (Yes, that Doug Flutie) suffered an injury midway through the 1995 season, Garcia stepped in. Garcia immediately made his presence known, setting multiple records for the Stampeders such as yards (546) and touchdowns(6). Garcia would become permanent starter in 1996 and would post Win-loss records of 13-4, 10-8, 12-6 the next three years. The highlight of those three was 1997, where Garcia was a CFL All-Star at QB and his team won the Grey Cup after Garcia led 80-yard game winning drive that culminated in a last second field goal. Garcia would leave Calgary for the San Francisco 49ers in 1999, becoming a Pro Bowl QB for them just one year later.
3 Ken Stabler, QB (Spokane Shockers, CFL)
Most people reading that header are probably wondering why the Canadian Football League would have a team in the state of Washington. Well, that’s because the CFL Stabler played in wasn't the Canadian Football League, it was the Continental Football League. The "CFL" lasted just 4 seasons(1967-1970) and had a "farm team" arrangement with the Oakland Raiders. Strangely enough, the oddest part of the whole experience is that Stabler wasn't nearly as good as he was in the NFL. Despite being a Hall Of Fame QB in the NFL(and a 2x First Team All-Pro during an era with Roger Staubach, Terry Bradshaw, Bob Griese, Frank Tarkenton, Joe Namath, Ken Anderson, and later Dan Marino) Stabler struggled in his limited playing time with the Shockers. In 1968 Stabler went just 17/41 (41.5%), 125 yards (3.0YPA), 0TD-3INT and a QB rating of 18.9. Despite all that, just five years after struggling with the CFL, Stabler would win an NFL MVP. Stabler was likely the best player to ever put on a Shockers jersey, yet he gave probably the worst performance of anyone on the roster. Stabler was inducted into the NFL Hall Of Fame in 2016.
2 Warren Moon, QB (Edmonton Eskimos, CFL)
Quarterback Warren Moon is a Hall Of Famer in both major North American Football Leagues. A well known QB in the NFL, where Moon was a 9x Pro Bowler, he was also one of the most dominant Canadian Football League QBs ever. When Moon went undrafted (and unsigned) following the 1978 NFL Draft, he quickly signed with the Edmonton Eskimos. In his six seasons with the team, they won an astounding 5 Grey Cups. Moon was a huge part of that, winning the Most Outstanding Player award (The CFL equivalent to MVP) in 1983. In 1982 Moon became the first person in CFL (and professional football) history to throw for at least 5,000 yards (he threw exactly 5,000). The next year he did it again. During his MOP year Moon threw for a record 5,648 yards. Moon played 10 Postseason games in his CFL career, finishing with nine wins and one loss. Moon was one of the few, if not the only, player to come from an outside professional league to kick off a bidding war when he decided to try the NFL. Moon followed his coach, Hugh Campbell, to the Houston Oilers, where he would post one of the best careers in NFL history.
1 Kurt Warner, QB (Amsterdam Admirals, NFL Europe)
Every football fan knows the story of Kurt Warner. From grocery bagger to NFL MVP to backup to Pro-Bowler at 37 years old. Everyone also knows Kurt Warner was also one of the best players In Arena Football League history (AFL Hall Of Famer, 2011). The league most people don't know about was NFL Europe, where he shared a team with two other players on the list. Warner played for the Amsterdam Admirals of NFL Europe, where he was a successful starter. Warner started most of 1998 for the Admirals, and seeing as he would be the NFL (and Super Bowl) MVP the next year, the fact he was good shouldn't be surprising. Warner went 165/326( 50.6%) for 2,101 yards (6.4 YPA), throwing 15 TDs to just 6 INTs while also running in a touchdown. Warner led the league in passing touchdowns and yards. In his only year with the team the Admirals finished 7-3, but missed the playoffs. Warner would sign as a backup to Trent Green with the Rams less than a year later, and the rest is history.