When the 1998 NFL Draft began, most expected Ryan Leaf to be the must-grab guy. He showed great promise and poise and seemed to have it together, the perfect combination needed for a QB. It was a surprise he was ranked number 2 but the San Diego Chargers felt amazingly lucky to nab him. The result was four terrible seasons for San Diego and Dallas, horrible numbers and a guy with a bad attitude that blamed everyone else for his shortcomings. Out of the NFL by 2002, Leaf has since been cited as possibly the greatest draft bust in history. As for the number one pick that most thought should have been behind Leaf? Peyton Manning.
The history of sports is packed with “can’t miss” prospects that missed quite a lot. Many a time, teams have traded for what they thought would be the perfect candidate but ended up suffering while giving away guys who became true stars. It’s a lot of pressure that few guys can truly live up to. Some stars actually come in with no hype, such as Tom Brady, drafted in the 6th round with no hint of the future Hall of Famer he’d become and others took a while to rise up. However, sometimes, a player truly does live up to all the potential and buzz about them. They’re able to live up to the promise of it all and create Hall of Fame careers that make them superstars and even legends. It’s not as often as it could be but here are 20 athletes who more than lived up to the advance hype and promise and became some of the biggest names in all of sports.
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20 Derek Jeter
A standout in high school, Jeter was quickly sought by pro scouts and decided to jump over college for the pros. After a few years in the minors, the Yankees moved him up with a lot of pressure that went with the Yankees organization and owner George Steinbrenner being infamous for not looking at younger players with favor. But Jeter would manage to take off as shortstop and be key to the Yankees’ revival from losers to multiple World Series champions. A 14 time All-Star and team captain, Jeter balanced five Golden Gloves with as many Silver Slugger awards and the heart of the team for a generation of fans.
His retirement was major news. He is assured a place in Cooperstown because unlike some of his compatriots (Roger Clemens, Alex Rodriguez), Jeter was as respected as he was athletic.
19 LeBron James
One of the biggest names of the high schoolers who went right to the pros, James had major expectations from the start. In his very first game, he scored 25 points and instantly, fans were touting him as a future Hall of Famer as he was named Rookie of the Year. Season after season, James produced some fantastic numbers and also winning endorsements yet seemed held back by a lack of a title. His jump to Miami was national news with a TV special on the decision that outraged Cleveland. It paid off as James joined Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade to win back-to-back championships and have “King James” crowned at last.
While his return to the Cavs hasn’t earned another title, James has still silenced many of his critics by proving he can win the big one and while he may not always be liked, he’s at least respected.
18 Shaquille O’Neal
A heavily muscled seven foot man is only naturally going to be seen as a basketball powerhouse. His time in Louisiana had him named college player of the year and making him a must-get for the draft. The Orlando Magic were the lucky ones as O’Neal helped put the team on the map with his sensational power playing and also becoming a media standout with endorsement deals and even movie acting. For a time, he seemed unable to come through in the clutch but after going to the Lakers, he would finally add a trio of championship rings to his fingers. Another title with the Heat followed and while he would end with some random teams, O’Neal proved in the end he had what it took to be seen as a star player, not just a media star.
17 Walter Payton
To watch “Sweetness” play was to see poetry in motion. Coming in off a great college career, Payton was snatched in the first round by the Bears, who needed all the help they could get. Over 13 seasons, Payton only missed a single game and was hailed for his professionalism as well as incredible athletic ability. He shrugged off hits that would bring down anyone else, could stop on a dime, leap over blockers and even toss the ball himself if need be. He would soon set the record for the most rushing yards and reached the high point of his career with the 1985 Bears team that steamrolled opponents en route to the Super Bowl.
Retiring still at the top of his abilities, Payton became a Chicago mainstay before his untimely death to cancer in 1999. Still the most beloved Bear of them all and one of the finest all-around players the NFL has ever seen.
16 Maria Sharapova
It was easy to compare her to Anna Kournikova: Russian, blonde, gorgeous and while she had training under Martina Navratilova and a Rising Star award, some believed she would fail to be that successful and would just rely on her looks. Instead, Sharapova would become the only Russian (male or female) to win a Grand Slam, notable for her great play as well as her beauty and adding multiple championships to her trophy case.
She’s been slowed by injury and the recent confession of breaking a substance rule but Sharapova has proven she’s more than just a hot lady in a bikini but one of the best players around as well.
15 Terry Bradshaw
Hailed by scouts as arguably the best college player of the time, Bradshaw was the source of a coin flip between the Steelers and the Bears as to who would get first pick of him. Pittsburgh won and Bradshaw’s first year wasn’t as great given all his promise. But once he found his groove, he was turning the Steelers into the dynasty of the ‘70s, winning eight AFC central titles and four Super Bowls. He remains one of the best postseason players ever and still a winning guy on Fox’s NFL broadcasts to show off the man who made the Steel Curtain dominate so well.
14 John Elway
Entering number 1 in the famed 1983 NFL Draft, he was snatched up by the Broncos and soon turning in great play, regularly hailed for both passing and able to rush with the ball as well. However, he was chastised for two devastating Super Bowl losses that had many pegging him as the guy who couldn't win the big one. But in 1997, he finally achieved that feat, overcoming an arm injury to lead the Broncos to the title. He followed that with another one the following year to retire. To this day, Elway is still helping the Broncos, as his leadership as Team President just led the Broncos to a Super Bowl.
13 Stephen Curry
When you’re the scoring leader for the NCAA and the highest scorer in your college’s history, it’s only natural that you enter the NBA with some high expectations. The Golden State Warriors had some for Curry when they signed him on to a big contract in hopes he could give the team some new life but was hampered by a foot injury. When he returned, he suddenly exploded into one of the best scorers the NBA has ever seen, a key reason the Warriors won the NBA title in 2015 and then followed it up by breaking the record for most wins in a season.
While he’s been hampered a bit by injury, a healthy Curry is a force that the NBA hasn’t seen in quite a while and that he’s yet to even reach the apex of his career. Already an MVP and star, Curry looks ready to dominate for years to come and more than worth his early promise.
12 Mario Lemieux
Any NHL player coming in after Gretzky suffered from comparisons to him and Lemieux was no different. In the Juniors, he shattered records even Gretzky couldn’t touch. Mario rewarded the Penguins by winning the Calder Trophy in his first season and would then amaze with six Art Ross Trophies and three Hart Trophies in his career. In 1991, he gave Pittsburgh what they’d dreamed of with back-to-back Stanley Cup victories.
Injuries slowed him down and he retired in 1997, but stayed a Pittsburgh favorite, eventually purchasing the team. He would return to play in 2000 and played another few years. As owner, he oversaw another Cup win in 2009. Living up to his nickname of the Magnificent One, Lemieux is the reason Pittsburgh remains a strong hockey town and that alone makes his legacy notable.
11 Roger Clemens
When he began showing off in the minors, some were comparing Clemens to Nolan Ryan. As he rose into the majors, it became clear Clemens was even better. A seven time Cy Young winner and 11 time All-Star, Clemens won the MVP award for 1986 after striking out 20 players in a single game. While chastised for “choking” in the playoffs, he finally earned World Series championships with the Yankees and his fastball became the most feared in the major leagues.
Today, of course, Clemens is known for his sad fall with accusations of steroid use and lying to Congress, marring his legacy but in his prime, this was a man who was as powerful as his arm and should be remembered for living up to that before his collapse.
10 The Williams Sisters
At first, some thought Richard Williams was taking the “stage dad” thing a bit too far, coaching his daughters and boasting of how they were going to be an unbeatable force on the tennis court. As it turned out, he was actually underselling their powers. Venus started off first to pave the way only for Serena to actually top her. They've held more Grand Slam titles than anyone, victories in just about every tournament there is, including Olympic gold medals and whether in singles or doubles, they are truly unstoppable.
They’ve opened a new era in power for tennis as well as looking amazing in magazine appearances and inspirations for young girls wanting to get into the game. Whether on their own or together, Venus and Serena have shown that the Williams surpassed their father’s expectations as well as most of the tennis world.
9 Peyton Manning
As noted in the intro, Manning came in with some thinking he had potential but not as great as Leaf. At first, he seemed to prove his skeptics correct as he threw 28 interceptions in his rookie season. But by 2003, Manning was turning in some terrific numbers, winning MVP honors and making the Colts serious contenders. In 2007, Manning finally got the Super Bowl victory most thought to be inevitable over the Bears and a second Super Bowl appearance followed three years later.
Following an injury where most thought he was done, Manning jumped to the Broncos with major talk of how he could put Denver back on top. He proved just that with three fantastic seasons as the best QB around and ending with another Super Bowl victory. Whatever his path is now, Manning is already considered among the top 5 quarterbacks in NFL history and how you can’t always judge by just a rookie year.
8 Kobe Bryant
A lot of promising high school athletes were drafted into the NBA before the league instituted an age rule, many of whom proved they couldn’t handle the pressures of the pros and the promise of so much so soon. Bryant, however, was proof it could indeed work. Drafted by the Hornets, he was traded to the Lakers, who worked hard to make sure he could stay on his game as well as keep his personal life going. Obviously, they didn’t succeed on the latter but that shouldn’t take away from how Kobe lived up to expectations game-wise as he revitalized the Lakers to their glory days with five championships. The youngest player to reach 30,000 points, Kobe also won two Gold Medals at the Olympics to go with his MVP trophies.
To top it all off, he went out in style, scoring 60 points to help the Lakers to victory in his final game and lay claim to one of the best careers you could ask for.
7 Joe Montana
While a good player in high school, there were concerns over Montana handling that in college. He more than proved he could when he famously led Notre Dame to a stunning upset of Texas in the 1978 Cotton Bowl, earning the Irish the National Championship. He topped it the next year by winning despite a case of hypothermia. He was actually a backup when drafted by San Francisco but began putting up great numbers even in a bad first year for the team.
He then powered the 49ers through the 1981 season, winning the NFC championship with what’s become known as “The Catch” and then the Super Bowl. Montana would earn three more Super Bowl victories, three of them with him named MVP and regarded as the best QB of his time. While he finished with lowly Kansas City, Montana’s legacy was secured as one of the top QBs ever and a guy who never backed down from anyone.
6 Magic Johnson
Few NBA rookies came in with such attention as Johnson. He’d been a star at Michigan State, including the epic NCAA title victory over Indiana State. A coin toss allowed the Laker to grab him and were eager to build Johnson into a star. After a rough start, Johnson soon clicked well, helping the Lakers to a title and becoming the only rookie to win Finals MVP honors. Magic soon became the most popular player on the team, leading the league in steals and assists and helping the Lakers to eight more Finals, four of them championships.
Even after his retirement due to HIV, he won a gold medal as part of the “Dream Team” at the 1992 Summer Olympics and using his status to become an advocate for various charities.
5 Joe DiMaggio
Ironically, DiMaggio claimed it took about three years in the minors before he really started to feel for baseball. The son of immigrants, he was weakened by a foot injury that convinced the Chicago Cubs (in one of their worst moves ever) not to sign him up. The Yankees, however, saw something and decided to bring him in with scouts talking of how DiMaggio would be better than Babe Ruth. They were laughed at until DiMaggio started playing and soon became the heart of the Yankees team. He would set the record for most consecutive games with a hit, a three-time MVP and would help install the Yankees as a dynasty with nine World Series championships.
Easily voted to the Hall of Fame, he regularly tops lists of the best all-around baseball player of ever and despite all the great players that have come since, most Yankees fans believe “Joltin Joe” is still what New York loves to live up to.
4 Tiger Woods
Only 2 years old when he showed his stuff on national television, Woods had a good amateur career but there were serious doubts he could handle the pressure of the pro circuits against much more seasoned competition. Not only did Woods handle it, he blossomed, turning the game on its ear with his dominating play. Winning his first Masters at 21, Woods would go on to spend entire years ranked as the number one player in the world and make golf more mainstream and popular than before. That would work against him with his meltdowns following the exposure of his affairs and struggling to get back on track. But that doesn’t weaken just how much Tiger transformed his sport and proved doubters wrong in how one man can rock an entire profession.
3 Wayne Gretzky
For a guy who started playing with a rather gangly skill, Gretzky managed to overcome that quickly. When the WHA folded, the Oilers were brought into the NHL with buzz of Gretzky being a major reason to watch them. He certainly proved that as he would lead Edmonton to four Stanley Cups and shatter records left and right. His trade to Los Angeles transformed the entire NHL dramatically. Gretzky truly was “The Great One” in hockey, living up to all his potential and then some.
2 Jackie Robinson
Branch Rickey knew that if he was going to undo decades of tradition and break the color barrier with baseball’s first major league black ballplayer, it couldn’t be a gimmick. He needed someone with true skill and true ability, to succeed on his own merits, not just skin color. Robinson came in with arguably more pressure than any player before or since, carrying the weight of his race as well as putting up with open bigotry. He more than overcame it all, proving himself as a fantastic player no matter his skin color.
His first year with the Brooklyn Dodgers was so terrific that the MLB created the Rookie of the Year award to honor him. Robinson would spend his career with the Dodgers, helping them to several pennants and a World Series championship. More importantly, he blazed the trail for integration in sports and proved himself a true hero.
1 Michael Jordan
It was obvious from the start Jordan just had something special. He’d proven in with North Carolina, leading them to the National Championship and clearly had the makings of a major talent. In what remains one of the dumbest trade decisions ever, the Portland Trail Blazers passed on Jordan for Sam Bowie, a good but not great player. That let the Chicago Bulls nab Jordan and soon had the greatest player in the game on their side. Jordan stunned with his incredible playing style and also changed the game with his endorsement deals, becoming an even bigger star than just a player. Thanks to him, the Bulls became the dynasty of the ‘90s and Jordan a true legend.
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