In this day and age of sports there are several athletes that have had long and lengthy careers but started off on the wrong foot. This may be due to being the new rookie in town and not being given a fair shot, being a low round draft pick and not being given an opportunity or just simply not being good enough.
These circumstances occur in all of the four major sports leagues in North America quite often but I limited this list to those athletes that have won championships or are either in their respective hall of fames or have a good shot to make it once their careers are done. The best of the best and how even they did not live up to the hype of being drafted initially but overcame their poor rookie reasons to have great careers is what this article focuses on.
This list will be scattered with those athletes that have led their respective leagues in all the major statistical categories and played more than ten years in their respective leagues. There are also current athletes and those that have recently ended their careers. From leaders in home runs, scoring and active leaders in points researching this article really opened my eyes to how poorly these stars started their professional sporting careers
The research I did for this article was quite intense but I now feel like I have learned something about the athletes I put on this list and feel like I am more knowledgeable sports fan because of it and I hope that those that read this article feel the same way.
25 Terry Bradshaw
Terry Bradshaw was drafted first overall in 1970 and he was expected to lead the Steelers to glory. Bradshaw would in fact win a lot of games and four championships for the Steelers, but it was built around their defense and their running game. Bradshaw had an atrocious rookie campaign, throwing just six touchdowns to 24 interceptions and a completion percentage of 38. Oh, and this was in just eight starts! Bradshaw would go on to be a hall of famer, but he sure started off his career on the wrong foot.
24 Patrick Marleau
Marleau is one of those quiet superstars in the NHL that just continues to produce and he has throughout his entire career. Since being drafted second overall by the San Jose Sharks in 1997 Marleau has accumulated 988 points which is sixth amongst active players. However, he only managed 32 points in his rookie campaign. He has also won gold medals with several international teams which are highlighted by the two Olympic gold medals he won with Team Canada in 2010 and 2014. The only reason why Marleau is not a lot higher on this list is because the San Jose Sharks have struggled in the playoffs and he has yet to come even close to winning a Stanley Cup.
23 Henrik Sedin
Sedin is arguably the best Vancouver Canuck player ever and he is their all time leader in points, assists and most points in a season. His best season was in 2010 when he led the NHL in scoring with 112 points and won the Hart Memorial Trophy as its most valuable player. He has also won gold medals with Sweden in the World Championships in 2013 and the Olympics in 2006. Despite all these successes Sedin only managed 29 points in his rookie year after being drafted third overall in 1999.
22 Vincent Lecavalier
In the current NHL it is difficult to recall a first overall pick such as Lecavalier was by Tampa Bay Lightning in 1998 to be a Stanley Cup champion. Only Eric Staal and Sidney Crosby come to the top of my head. Lecavalier won a cup with Tampa in 2004 and served as the team’s captain for much of his tenure there until he was bought out and signed with the Flyers in 2013. Lecavalier’s best season was during the 2006-07 season where he amassed 52 goals and 56 assists. A far cry from the 28 points he tallied during his rookie season.
21 Jose Bautista
Bautista’s early major league baseball life is one of perseverance as he bounced back and forth from franchise to franchise until finally landing on his feet when he was acquired by the Toronto Blue Jays from the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2008. Bautista is on this list not only because of his numbers, but because the first few years of his baseball career were almost non existent and he survived all of that to become one of the most feared power hitters in the game today.
20 Joe Thornton
Since being drafted first overall by the Boston Bruins in the in 1997 the only thing missing from Thornton’s NHL resume is a Stanley Cup. He is second among active NHL players in points but only managed 48 points in his first two seasons. Thornton has also consistently been one of the best playmakers in the game and even after eighteen seasons he continues to get the job done. Thornton’s best season was during the 2006-07 season which he won the Hart and Art Ross trophies. He has also played in six All Star games and won an Olympic gold medal with Canada in 2010.
19 James Harden
Not meeting his full potential and wanting to get paid, the Oklahoma City Thunder traded Harden to the Houston Rockets during the 2012-13 season and right away he provided that explosive scorer the Rockets needed by averaging 25.9 points in his inaugural season there. In his three years with the Thunder his points went up from 9.9 in his rookie year to 16.8 points per game in year three so this revelation was somewhat expected. Since the 2012-13 season Harden has become a very good all round player and is consistently amongst the league leaders in steals, assists and triple doubles.
18 Tracy McGrady
McGrady is on this list for somewhat personal reasons because he started off his career as a Toronto Raptors but when he became a free agent in 2000 he opted to sign with the Orlando Magic. Like Harden this is when his career took off and was highlighted when he led the league in scoring in 2003 with a mind blowing 32.1 points per game. McGrady also performed well during the playoffs but has never won an NBA championship. If it was not for injury problems later on his career McGrady’s legacy on the game would have been a lot better but regardless the 7 points he averaged in his rookie season are a distant memory.
17 Antonio Brown
It is hard to believe that Brown only caught 16 passes for 167 yards in his first year for the Steelers in 2010 but not much was expected from the sixth round draft pick. Currently, he is perhaps the best all around wide receiver in the NFL when it comes to route running, speed and hands and his past three seasons in the NFL are perhaps the three best ever seasons in a row ever accumulated by anyone at the wide receiver position. He also returns punts for the Steelers which displays his overall talent. If there was one receiver I would build my NFL franchise around, Antonio Brown is that guy.
16 Patrik Elias
Fifth among active scorers with 1,017 points Elias is without a shadow of a doubt the best New Jersey Devils forward ever. He is their all time leader in in regular season and playoff goals, points and assists and is another one of those players on this list that has been extremely consistent throughout his career. The Devils franchise throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s were also perennial Stanley Cup contenders and won two during this time and Elias was a big part of those wins. Elias did have some success in his first full season with the Devils scoring 37 points and making the NHL First All Rookie Team, but this does not reflect his longevity with the Devils and role he has playing for the franchise.
15 Isaac Bruce
Bruce is on this list because I am a Los Angeles Rams fan and watched him closely in the 1990s and 2000s and when he left for San Francisco in 2008 it was a sad day indeed. Despite my personal preferences, Bruce belongs on this list because of his merits as well. He led the league in receiving yards in 1996 but his best statistical season was 1995 when he caught 119 passes for 1,781 yards and 13 touchdowns.
He won his only championship in 1999-00 as a member of the “greatest show on turf” and he is the most prolific receiver in Rams history in every category. He is also in the top 10 of all time in receiving yards and receptions and 13th in touchdowns with 84. All this after only catching 21 passes for 272 yards and 3 touchdowns in his rookie year.
14 Marian Hossa
Hossa’s numbers are very similar to Patrik Elias’s but he is higher on this list because he has won one more Stanley Cup than Elias has. Both had decent first full seasons with their respective teams and less than 50 points separates them over their long careers. Unlike Elias however, Hossa was not the number one offensive threat for his team with Kane and Toews starring for the Chicago Blackhawks. He along with Elias is also a potential inductee for the Hockey Hall of Fame.
13 Eli Manning
Eli Manning does not have the star power and statistics of some of the other NFL stars on this list but the bottom line is that when he has had the team behind him to make the playoffs he has led them to championships. He won the Super Bowl MVP in both 2007 and 2011 and in 2011 he also set an NFL record for touchdown passes in the fourth quarter with 15. His rookie season was uninspiring, as he passed for just 1,043 yards (albeit in seven starts) but he only managed six touchdown passes along with 9 interceptions and a QB rating of 55.4. Eli’s name also never comes up when it comes to the greatest quarterbacks of all time but one look at his numbers and winning pedigree proves that it should be.
12 Alex Rodriguez
Rodriguez’s numbers speak for themselves as a three-time American League MVP and five-time American League Home Run Champion. However, the first two years of his career started off with little fanfare other than he was the only the third 18-year-old shortstop in Major League Baseball since 1900. Everything changed in 2007 when it came out that he was taking performance enhancing drugs which he admitted to taking from 2001-2003. Ever since then Rodriguez has still performed at a very high level and continues to do so but he has been doing so under a microscope.
His true personality came out during this time and his immaturity especially was put to the forefront. I remember a couple of instances, one during the playoffs in which he was in the dugout and talking to a female in the stands. Another instance which is near and dear to me was when he yelled “boo” on a pop up to Blue Jays third base man Howie Clark while rounding the bases which led Clark to drop the ball. He denied doing anything wrong in post game interviews but it was clear to everyone what he had said. It is that kind of childish attitude that despite all of Rodriguez’s greatness he should never, ever be considered one of the best of all time and thus should not gain entry into the baseball hall of fame.
11 Dirk Nowitzki
Standing at over seven feet tall Nowitzki revolutionized the game as a big that could shoot the ball from three-point range and had the passing skills of a point guard. However, his career did not start off all that well as he had to adjust to North American culture and managed only 8.2 points per game while playing in 47 games during his rookie year of 1998-99. Nowitzki’s career is highlighted by the one championship and finals MVP he won in 2011 and the league MVP he won in 2007. Nowitzki is also a 13 time NBA All Star and made the All NBA team on 12 different occasions.
10 Gary Payton
“The Glove” in his prime was one of the best all round point guards in the NBA. In 1996 he was the first point guard ever and only guard in the 1990s to win the NBA Defensive Player of the Year and he also led the league in assists during the 1999-00 season with 732. Payton has also averaged 16.3 points in his career which is very good for a point guard especially during his era. Payton won an NBA Championship with the Miami Heat in 2006 and played his last game in 2007. Despite the aforementioned successes, Payton’s career started very modestly in 1990 averaging only 7.2 points and 6.4 assists per game.
9 Greg Maddux
Inducted into the hall of fame in 2014 and a World Series champion with the Atlanta Braves in 1995, Maddux is perhaps the most decorated and dominating athlete on this list. He is a four-time Cy Young Award winner and was known as a thinking pitcher that had uncanny control of the strike zone. Not overpowering he relied on this control to toy with batters and this led him to be able to win four ERA titles, led the National League in shutouts five times and he also holds the record for most seasons finishing the league in the top ten in wins with 18.
His talents were not only on the mound but in the field as well and he won 18 Gold Glove Awards which is the most for any position in MLB history. Despite these impressive accomplishments Maddux compiled a 6-14 record with a 5.61 ERA in his first full season with the Chicago Cubs in 1987.
8 Drew Brees
If you looked at Brees’s accomplishments throughout his career you would not think that he was only six feet tall, that there were questions about his arm strength during his draft year and he was not even the first quarterback drafted in 2001. He overcame these doubts and holds several NFL records including most games with at least 1 touchdown pass, most seasons with 5000.yards passing and he is the fastest quarterback in NFL history to reach 40,000, 50,000 and 60,000 yards passing. He won his only Super Bowl in 2009 and also won the Super Bowl MVP for his performance. With all these astonishing accomplishments it is hard to believe that Brees only threw 27 passes for 221 yards in his first season in the NFL.
7 Troy Aikman
If you look at Aikman’s numbers and longevity in the NFL one can debate if he belongs in the NFL Hall of Fame. He may have only played 12 seasons in the NFL and passed for only 30,000 yards, but his three championships with the Dallas Cowboys are a major feat and being the quarterback of America’s team and leading them back to relevance is a very big deal. Especially coming off a rookie season in which he only threw for 1,749 yards and 9 touchdowns with 18 interceptions. It is amazing that he led the Cowboys to back Super Bowl titles in 1993 and 1994 and won another one in 1996 and won the Super Bowl MVP in 1993.
6 Steve Nash
Nash’s rookie season is the worst of any of the superstars on this list and that is part of the reason why he is ranked as high as he is. He averaged a putrid 2.1 assists and 3.3 points per game during the 1996-97 season in 65 games with the Phoenix Suns and during his first stint there he was never able to reach his potential. He spent the next six seasons with the Dallas Mavericks where he blossomed into one of the premiere point guards in the league. He would return to the Suns, where he would win back to back NBA MVP awards in 2005 and 2006. Some of his other NBA accolades include leading the league in assists per game five times, being an NBA All Star eight times and he is also known as one of the most accurate shooters in NBA history.
5 John Stockton
Stockton is the most accomplished athlete on this list without a championship trophy and he holds the NBA record for career assists by over 3,000 and career steals by over 100 over Jason Kidd. He is actually known throughout sports along with his long time Utah Jazz team mate Karl Malone as the greatest player in pro sports without a league title. Some of his other major accomplishments including leading the league in assists 9 times, leading the league in steals twice and winning the NBA All Star Game MVP in 1993. His superior play was honored with a NBA Hall of Fame induction in 2009. All of these accomplishments seemed doubtful after a rookie season which was almost as bad as Nash’s averaging only 5.6 points and 5.1 assists per game in 82 games.
4 Brett Favre
Brett Favre's tenure in Atlanta after being drafted in the second round in 1991 was doomed from the start. Coach Jerry Glanville never wanted Favre, saying it would take a plane crash to put Favre into a game. Sure enough, Favre's first pass thrown as a Falcon was a pick six. Favre only attempted four passes as a Falcon and was picked off twice. He was then traded to Green Bay and the rest is history. Favre became a three-time NFL MVP, winning the award in consecutive years from 1995-1997. Some of his other career highlights include winning the Super Bowl in 1997, making the Pro Bowl 11 times, leading the NFL in touchdowns four times and being the NFL all-time leader in starts and wins.
3 John Elway
John Elway's rookie season could have been a lot worse had he chosen to just play for the lowly Baltimore Colts. Elway started 10 games in 1983, throwing just seven touchdown passes to 14 interceptions. He completed just 47.5% of his passes and was eventually benched midway through the season after three straight losses. Steve DeBerg would right the ship at quarterback, helping the Broncos make the playoffs, but would lose in the first round to Seattle. Elway's career would pick up from there, as the Broncos finished 13-3 the next year and were in the Super Bowl just a few years later.
2 Kobe Bryant
The same thing that I hate about Kobe Bryant makes him one of the greatest NBA players of all time. His competitiveness and drive to be the best player that he can be made him lead the league in scoring on 2 different occasions and be an NBA Champion 5 times. He also made the NBA All Defensive First Team 9 times, made 18 NBA All Star Teams, made the All NBA First Team 11 times and is the Los Angeles Lakers all time leading scorer.
However, his rookie season of 1996-97 was nothing special as he averaged only 7.6 points and 1.3 assists per game. As it stands Bryant is one of the top 10 NBA players of all time in my eyes taking into consideration his statistics and championship pedigree and a lock to be a first ballot hall of famer.
1 Peyton Manning
Manning’s rookie season in 1998 after being selected first overall by the Indianapolis Colts was good from a passing yardage point of view but he also led the league in interceptions with an astounding 28. His team was also terrible and only managed three wins. However, that rookie season is long in Manning’s past and he is arguably the greatest quarterback in NFL history and his achievements and NFL records back it up. At the top of that list are being the NFL all-time leader in wins, passing yards and touchdowns, being a two-time Super Bowl champion, five-time NFL MVP, making the Pro Bowl 14 times and being the Colts leader in all major statistical categories for quarterbacks.