When one thinks of David Versus Goliath, the initial thought is of someone very small and meek taking on someone big and strong and prevailing. While technically true in terms of size, the real lesson behind that story is that sometimes the people who are initially overlooked find the best ways to succeed, be it through luck, determination, hard work or yes, a trusty sling. As Malcolm Gladwell points out, the true nature of the story is that good leaders prepare and look for any advantages they can get, especially if they aren't handed any up front.
Sports are filled with teams and athletes who seemed destined to succeed only to watch as they fail to live up to expectation. The NFL specifically is littered with tales when the overlooked, seemingly overmatched team or player came through and when we look back, it was exactly what they wanted. Flying under the radar as the underdog gives you the advantage of just going about one's business and letting the game itself do the talking.
When an athlete or team doesn't have to focus on the hype that inevitably comes with being the favorite or on top, all of their attention goes in to preparation and that can make all of the difference. Just because something looks like a mismatch on paper or in the media or because someone is unheralded coming in to the pros doesn't mean things will remain that way. Here are the 15 best examples of players and teams who overcame their perceived "shortcomings" to take down the obstacles and proverbial Goliaths standing in their way.
15 Doug Flutie
Oh how the Buffalo Bills long for the days when Doug Flutie lined up under center for them. Considered undersized in college, Flutie nonetheless led Boston College to some immortal victories, specifically on his Hail Mary pass to beat Miami in 1984. That season he would go on to win the Heisman yet could barely get a sniff at the NFL. Drafted in the 11th round as the 285th pick, his career went through the ups and downs of many journeymen, with stops in the now defunct USFL and the Canadian Football League which he utterly dominated for the better part of a decade. Finally given a shot in the NFL, he for a time found a home in Buffalo, leading the team to its lone playoff appearance in the last 16 years, only to be controversially benched prior to the start of the game. Though Flutie would never again reach that level of success as he bounced around the league a few years longer, his career is one marked by determination, surprising speed and a never say die attitude.
14 Seahawks Beat The Saints - 2011 Playoffs
In two simple words: BEAST QUAKE. The game that forever cemented Marshawn Lynch's name in both NFL and Seattle lore, the Seahawks squared off against the defending Super Bowl Champ Saints in a game that on paper seemed a mismatch. Seattle had squeaked in to the playoffs despite a 7-9 record which marked the first time a team with a losing record had made the postseason. Coupled with the fact that they also won the division with said record, they were granted a home game no less. Many in the media cried foul and expected the Saints to blow them off the field since they really shouldn't be there anyway. Instead, the Seahawks flipped the script, culminating in the scintillating run by Lynch where he seemed to plow through the entire Saints defense on his way to the end zone. The ensuing celebration led to such noise it was registered on the Richter scale and thus, the moniker of "Beast Quake" was born.
13 Wes Welker
Wes Welker started his professional career as mostly a special teams expert and a do-everything sort of player. In fact, he became only the second player ever to return a kickoff, a punt, make a tackle, kick an extra point and a field goal in a single game in 2004. His opponent that day? The New England Patriots. It's no wonder that several years later, they would snap him up and turn him into one of Tom Brady's ultimate weapons. In 6 years with the team, he eclipsed 100 catches in 5 of the years operating primarily from the slot, a position that led him to taking all sorts of hits to his smallish frame. Welker always seemed to be in the right place at the right time for Brady and his ability to do everything for the team was one of the grand unifying forces that helped establish the Patriots as the dominate force in the league for the last decade.
12 Dick "Night Train" Lane
In a story seeming to come from a Hollywood Script, Lane decided to show up one day at the LA Rams training camp in 1962 because he was tired of working a day job at an aircraft factory. Demonstrating an unexpected speed and ferocity, Lane not only made the team but went on to have what remains one of the most remarkable rookie season in NFL history. His record 14 picks that year still stand as a single season record, made even more outrageous when they happened during a 12 game schedule. Lane was more than just a great cover player, but became known as a vicious tackler over the course of his career. He often seemed to relish knocking players in the head and shoulders (obviously now illegal but at the time encouraged) when bringing them down. This was one Train you never wanted to see headed your way.
11 Victor Cruz
The Salsa King of New York, Cruz is yet another in a long line of undersized players who were initially overlooked on draft day. Cruz eventually made the cut for the New York Giants but had his first season cut short due to injury. 2011 is when he really burst onto the scene as he was given a prominent role in the offense as others players went down and more than held his own. Making crucial catches all throughout the season and all the way through to the Super Bowl, Cruz proved that he was a player not to be overlooked. In recent years, knocked down again by devastating injury, he had become something of an afterthought in the supernova rise of Odell Beckham Jr but has rebounded so far in the 2016 season to show he still has plenty of life and plenty more salsa dances left in him.
10 Tebow And The Broncos Beat The Steelers in 2012
Speaking of the power of the slingshot, we have Tim Tebow and his throwing arm. Coming out of college as a living legend and Heisman Trophy Winner, Tebow found the transition to the NFL to be a rough one. In college, he had been able to bully his way through the line and play essentially as a running QB who threw as a second option. The NFL however exposed his weak throwing arm and when forced to throw first, he came up woefully short. The biggest exception of course was this playoff victory he helped lead over the Pittsburgh Steelers, where he was able to complete a game winning pass in Overtime. His numbers in the game were far from impressive at face value: 10-21 for 316 yards but for that glorious game, the numbers didn't matter as much as what they added up to: a thrilling playoff win
9 Antonio Gates
In reality, no one would ever confuse Gates for a "David" against Goliaths as his size and strength has allowed him to utterly dominate on the gridiron. However, his career path initially had him lacing up sneakers instead of cleats on the hardwoods as a college basketball player. During his time at Kent State, he helped the squad reach the Elite 8 as a 10th seed. Yet, when time came to turn pro, he was told ironically he was too small to make it in the NBA. So, he turned his focus back to football, a sport he had initially played but given up to make basketball his focus. His jumping ability and physical nature thanks to time spent playing basketball translated surprisingly well to playing Tight End and the San Diego Chargers immediately signed him up as a free agent. Nearly 14 years and 100+ TDs later, that seems a wise move on their part.
8 Russell Wilson
Russell Wilson was drafted by the Seahawks to be a backup quarterback initially. Though he'd had a distinguished college career, his lack of size had, once again, made many teams view him as a middling prospect. Likewise, Seattle had recently shelled out a hefty new contract for free agent Matt Flynn expected him to be the starter. All of that changed in training camp as Wilson won over teammates and coaches alike and quickly became the franchise QB. It has certainly proven to be the right move as he has led the team to two Super Bowls, winning one and coming agonizingly close to repeating. Though initially viewed as more of a game manager, he has blossomed in to one of the more polished pocket passers in the league and if Seattle could ever figure out a way to properly protect him from oncoming defenders, could be well on his way to continuing the under-sized QB legacies that others have paved before him.
7 Browns Beat The Colts In 1964
A championship of firsts in many ways. The Browns were considered such underdogs in this matchup that Sports Illustrated had already made up a cover highlighting the Colts players and coaches in triumph. Likewise, it was the also the first title game to be shown on CBS, beginning the real era of football dominating the television landscape. Coming in, the Colts were expected to cruise to victory with their offensive attack but instead met a more than ready Browns defense who ended up pitching a shutout, 27-0. Needless to say, the Sports Illustrated editors had to scramble to change their cover, marking perhaps the first time that appearing on the cover of SI would prove to be fatal to a team's title chances. It would certainly not be the last.
6 Adam Vinatieri
Kickers rarely if ever are given much thought in the NFL. Usually they are seen as the easy scapegoat when things go wrong, as many Buffalo Bills fans can probably attest to. Vinatieri however has proven to be the exception to that rule as he's made a probable hall of fame career by being the reason some of his teams won games and championships. In some of the harshest conditions and under the biggest spotlights, his kicks have proven true and clutch. Though undrafted out of college, he was able to find his way to the Patriots after a stint in the short lived NFL Europe, where he began to write his own legend. When the NFL wants to show future kickers what it means to triumph despite conditions, look no further than his game-tying FG in a blinding snowstorm against the Oakland Raiders in 2001. Still active today, Vinatieri remains the gold standard that all kickers are judged by in the league.
5 Warren Moon
Warren Moon's NFL career stands as one of true determination and of overcoming obstacles that were unfair and out of his hands. Namely, that when he was coming out of college, there was a belief that African-American QBs couldn't handle playing the position in the NFL and would be better suited at switching positions. Moon refused and instead went on to dominate the Canadian Football League for several years before he was finally given a shot in the NFL. After a few years of adjusting, he shut every critic up by putting up truly elite numbers, setting records and making Pro Bowls, proving once again that talent is talent. The only thing that should matter in sports is what you can bring to the table as a player, something Moon knew and wouldn't let anyone else forget.
4 Giants Over Pats In Super Bowl XLII
Perhaps the biggest setback of Tom Brady's career, the Pats entered Super Bowl XLII as an absolute juggernaut. Undefeated through the regular season and bolstered with a record setting offense including Brady's 50 TD passes, the Pats seemed invincible. Especially when compared with a Giants team that struggled mightily to just reach the playoffs as a wild card and needed some timely turnovers and Eli Manning magic to get through to the championship. Yet in the Super Bowl, the Giants overwhelmed the Patriots, hitting Brady with wave after wave of defensive pressure. A few timely drives and stops later and one historically great catch by David Tyree and the Patriots dreams of an undefeated season had ended.
3 Kurt Warner
In many ways, the ultimate rags to riches story, Kurt Warner's NFL career plays like a fairy tale. After briefly trying out and being cut by the Green Bay Packers, Warner was stocking shelves at a grocery store in Iowa and playing in the fledgling Arena Football league. After several seasons of dominating there, he was given an opportunity to join the St. Louis Rams (RIP). Serving initially as a backup, he finally got his chance to be the starter when Trent Green went down with an injury in pre-season. From there, Warner had a season for the ages, setting offensive records, winning the league MVP and leading the Rams to a Super Bowl victory. Warner would win a second MVP and return to the Super Bowl two other times in his career, once with the Rams and later with the Arizona Cardinals though his time on top was relatively brief due to injuries. In the end though, what Warner was able to do when given his shot stands out as one of the greatest and most unexpected triumphs in sports history.
2 Tom Brady
It's almost impossible to believe now, but Tom Brady was once an unknown. Long before the Super Bowls, the fame, the supermodel wife and life, Brady was a 6th round draft pick who only got a shot to play when Patriots starter Drew Bledsoe went down with injury. Just like every other player on this list though, when opportunity presented itself, Brady was ready and took it. Initially, he was viewed as more of a game manager and even in his first Super Bowl triumph, it was seen as more of a team victory than anything great Brady himself had done. Yet, very quickly, he proved himself one of the best to ever play the position and now, years later, his place in the NFL annuls is forever secure. Not bad for a player who couldn't initially win the starter's job in college.
1 Jets Over The Colts - Super Bowl III
The first Super Bowl to actually be called "The Super Bowl" featured plenty of intrigue leading up to the game. None more famous of course than Jets QB Joe Namath guaranteeing victory over the heavily favored Colts. The Colts, favorites despite an injury to their star QB Johnny Unitas, like many others on this list, found a more than worthy opponent in the upstart Jets. By controlling the game more than actually dominating it, Namath was able to back up his boast and in turn also gave the AFL an equal standing against the NFL so that the two leagues were able to merge a few years later, creating the full national game fans know and love to this day. Namath for his part also became the first of what would become a trend: the celebrity QB. His brash words and victory only enhanced his reputation and helped begin to lead the NFL in its takeover as America's favorite sport.