Top 20 Elite Athletes Who Weren't Noticed in High School

It was big news when it was reported leading up to the game that neither the Seattle Seahawks nor the New England Patriots would be starting any five-star recruits at Super Bowl 49. While the perception had by casual football fans may be that the two best teams in the National Football League would naturally have rosters filled with athletes who were elite all the way back in their high school days, that is often not the case. It is, in fact, routinely reported that only percent of the players who feature in the highest division of college football were, out of high school, deemed to be five-star recruits.

Some of the greatest athletes of their times had “it” at an early age. We knew when he was dunking a basketball against over-matched high school opponents that LeBron James was, once he entered the National Basketball Association, going to be special, and he has lived up to every expectation had for him. Sidney Crosby was seen as hockey royalty and “The Next One” years before he first held up a jersey of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Pro scouts and coaches attend high school and even middle school sporting events in the hopes of finding the next James or the next Crosby.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are the athletes who were either not noticed or not highly recruited coming out of high school. This includes a man who was part of one of the greatest one-two punches in the history of the NBA and two of the best quarterbacks to ever play in the NFL. Either of those QBs could, at one point or another after high school, have given up on the game of football because they were not viewed to be elite players. Both men now serve as inspirational stories for younger athletes who find themselves struggling in high school or even in college.

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20 Jordy Nelson

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Jordy Nelson was a productive high school quarterback athletic enough to excel at other sports. He was not offered scholarships from any massive schools to play that position, though, and he attended Kansas State University without even a roster spot promised to him. Nelson made the team as a walk on and he was eventually moved to wide receiver. Good thing for Nelson that somebody saw what he could become, as Nelson has been a stud for a quarterback who will be mentioned later in this list. The second half of 2015 will be rough for Nelson, as he will miss the entire NFL season because of a torn ACL. Get better soon, Jordy.

19 Brett Gardner

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Thinking about giving up on a personal or professional dream? Remember Brett Gardner before you do that. Gardner had great speed right out of high school, but he was not recruited by schools. His playing days could have ended at the College of Charleston when he failed to make the college team, but Gardner instead campaigned for an opportunity to practice with the squad. It is a good thing his coaches obliged because Gardner became a star of the team. Gardner has played for the New York Yankees since 2008, and he is an All-Star outfielder and a World Series winner.

18 Clay Matthews III

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Memo to current and future college football coaches: This Matthews family has a history of churning out talented players. Do not ignore them. Clay Matthews III was not noticed as an elite athlete while in high school and he was not offered a scholarship by the University of Southern California, even though his father and uncle, both Pro Bowlers, went there. Matthews would not be denied and he made the USC football squad as a walk on. He is now one of the most-feared defensive players in the league and a man who makes the Pro Bowl squad pretty much every year that he plays. The 29-year old has been special for the Green Bay Packers.

17 Dan Girardi

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The famous quote that has been associated with the National Hockey Leaguer was made by Mark Forster, who coached Dan Girardi when Girardi played for the Welland Cougars: “The scouts just messed up when it came to Dan.” Girardi was a solid young player and he won the Memorial Cup as a member of the London Knights. He nevertheless went undrafted and Girardi had to play his way up through an affiliate of the New York Rangers before he received a shot in the National Hockey League. The Rangers were wise to snatch Girardi up when he was available.

16 Tony Romo

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Poor Tony Romo has not been able to land respect since even his high school days. Big college programs passed on the quarterback and Romo ended up playing for Eastern Illinois University. There were then whispers that the Dallas Cowboys did not see him as a future franchise quarterback when he was on the team's roster. Even though Romo has gone on to break multiple franchise records, he receives criticism because of the fact that he has never won a championship and also because he has made costly mistakes late in seasons. Does Romo really have to win a Super Bowl to be appreciated?

15 Michael Strahan

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The man who became a Super Bowl champion with the New York Giants was a hoss who played football in Texas. He should have had his pick of colleges from the likes of Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and many others, right? Nope. Michael Strahan played defensive end for Texas Southern University, in part because he did not have a long history of playing football while in high school. It turns out that reps and practice time are really worth so much when the individual involved has the natural gifts and abilities to be one of the best pass-rushers in NFL history.

14 Victor Cruz

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Victor Cruz has made it a habit to prove doubters and those who would write him off wrong. Cruz was an anonymous figure to the majority of college football fans after his high school days and he remained unknown through his career at the University of Massachusetts. He went ignored by every NFL team in the draft, and the New York Giants gave him an opportunity to shine during a preseason game against the New York Jets. The rest, as they say, is history, and Cruz will again be looking to silence some critics when he takes the field in 2015 after suffering a serious and brutal knee injury in October 2014.

13 J.J. Watt

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You know Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt as maybe the best defensive player in the NFL and a superstar who has cashed in on a massive contract and on numerous endorsement deals. The coaching staff at Central Michigan instead saw a tight end in Watt and he played that position until he chose to return to his home state and walk onto the University of Wisconsin football team. He earned a scholarship after making the Wisconsin roster and Watt is now a football star who will be noticed just about anywhere he goes. Houston even uses him as a tight end every now and again during games.

12 Jeff Bagwell

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Jeff Bagwell could have pursued a career as a Major League Soccer player had he only been born a few years later. Bagwell was an accomplished soccer player and his baseball skills got him a look from non-juggernaut, the University of Hartford. College scouts were not the only people to drop the ball on Bagwell, as the Boston Red Sox famously traded him to the Houston Astros for a relief pitcher named Larry Anderson. That deal is widely viewed as one of the worst trades in the history of Major League Baseball, as Jeff Bagwell went on to have a career that may land him in the Hall of Fame.

11 Paul George

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Paul George put up impressive numbers during his high school career and he won multiple awards for his performances on the court. College scouts and coaches were left wanting more for whatever reasons, though, and George was ignored by the top programs in the NCAA. He settled on Fresno State, where he began his ascent toward a professional playing career that should make him a wealthy man for the rest of his life. George, who is only 25-years old and not yet in his prime, is one of the best defensive players in the NBA today.

10 Darrell Green

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The old adage in sports is that you cannot teach speed. You apparently also cannot teach that a defensive back with blinding speed can be molded into one of the best to ever play the position. Darrell Green went to college at what was known, at the time, as Texas A&I University, which kinda/sorta sounds like an online school that would email you a degree when you were finished taking classes. The school was real and so was Green's talent, and he became one of the best defensive players to ever play for the Washington Redskins and also an ageless wonder who remained a superstar late into his career.

9 John Starks

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Fans of the New York Knicks still, to this day, talk about the great basketball John Starks gave to the team even though he never won a championship while with the Knicks. Starks was not recruited to play following high school and he was only on the “taxi squad” – a group of backups who replaced starters who are either injured or suspended – at Rogers State College. Starks was expelled from that school following a theft, but he found new life at Oklahoma State University. He did go unnoticed by NBA teams as well, as Starks was not drafted.

8 Jimmy Graham

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Jimmy Graham is a unique instance of an elite athlete not being noticed in high school because nobody could have guessed, at the time, that he would develop into the best tight end in the NFL. Graham was initially a basketball player and he played that sport while at the University of Miami. An incredible athlete who had the size and hands to play the tight end position for such a big school, Graham had to walk onto the Miami football team to have an opportunity to play. He is now one reason that college football coaches watch basketball tape to locate wide receivers and tight ends.

7 Dennis Rodman

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Well before he was the best rebounder in the NBA and a charismatic and controversial figure who should maybe give more thought to the heads of state he hangs out with during his free time, Dennis Rodman was undersized and even rejected by basketball and football teams. Rodman would experience a growth spurt and he found a college home at Southeastern Oklahoma State University. He would not go unnoticed for long while there and the Detroit Pistons selected Rodman in the second round of the 1986 NBA Draft. Just imagine that the ultimate “bad boy” of the NBA could have been just some short guy who wasn't able to make it. Life is funny, sometimes.

6 Terrell Owens

Terrell Owens was a freak athlete in high school, but he was not seen as an elite football player worthy of starting for one of the bigger programs in college football. T.O. ended up attending the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, where he played multiple sports. Every NFL team passed on Owens several times, as he fell to the third round before the San Francisco 49ers took a flier on him. Owens would make plenty of scouts and coaches look rather silly, as he went on to be one of the greatest wide receivers in the history of pro football; even if he was a pain in the neck for coaching staffs and teammates.

5 Ryan Howard

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Ryan Howard showed signs during his high school playing days that he had the goods to be a slugger in the Big Leagues. Unfortunately for Howard at the time, nobody seemed to care all that much about his talents. Howard became a walk on at Southwest Missouri State University, where he hit 50 home runs for a coaching staff that got a star seemingly out of nowhere. The Philadelphia Phillies did not let Howard get past the club in the 2001 draft and Howard repaid the team with multiple noteworthy years, including one that saw Howard win the National League Most Valuable Player award.

4 Scottie Pippen

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One of the best small forwards in the history of the NBA was barely an afterthought following his high school days. Scottie Pippen was undersized and downright scrawny when he walked onto the Central Arkansas University basketball team. Fate would be kind to Pippen during his college days, as he went through a growth spurt that gained him roughly seven inches in height. That, along with his talent and his tenacious play on the defensive side of the basketball, helped Pippen to evolve into a player who is often under-appreciated because he played alongside Michael Jordan.

3 Kurt Warner

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The Kurt Warner saga is one of the most-fascinating to occur in the past 30 years of the NFL and of pro sports. Warner was a talented high school quarterback, but he received no real looks from big college programs. He thus ended up at Northern Iowa, he became a NFL castoff, he worked stocking shelves as he attempted to keep his dreams alive in the Arena Football League, and he ultimately shocked the football world by leading both the St. Louis Rams and the Arizona Cardinals to Super Bowl appearances. Warner won the Most Valuable Player award for Super Bowl XXXIV.

2 Aaron Rodgers

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The Green Bay Packers quarterback has, in past interviews, discussed that he was not noticed as a high school player in part because he was slender and lacked the size coaches want from their quarterbacks. That is now, many years later, humorous in that Aaron Rodgers stands at 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds, and he is widely regarded as one of the best athletes to play the QB position. Rodgers will one day have his day at Canton and the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and he could, if he wanted to have a laugh, give a shout-out to all of the college coaches and scouts who passed on him when that night comes. Smart move, guys.

1 Tom Brady

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The story of how Tom Brady fell to the New England Patriots and the 199th pick of the 2000 NFL Draft has been told and retold on television shows and in articles. You may not know that Brady's difficulties go all the way back to his high school days. While he was recruited by the University of Michigan, Brady was hardly seen as being an elite quarterback worth starting right out of the gates. He was so low on the depth chart at Michigan at one point that he considered transferring. Brady instead stuck it out and eventually won the starting job, and just about every decision he has made since then has worked out rather well for him.

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