It'd be great to be a star recruit—getting wooed by legendary coaches, visiting beautiful campuses, fielding offers from dream schools–but that isn't how it works for most athletes. Many players, including some who turned out to be all-time greats, have been forced to walk on to a team and earn the respect of coaches and teammates. To walk on and make a team is tough. To do so and become a contributor takes incredible work ethic, perseverance and talent. Here eight of the most successful walk-ons in sports history.
It's hard to believe now that he's among the most dominant defenders in the NFL, but the monster known as J.J. Watt was a walk-on. A two-star recruit coming out of high school, Watt signed with Central Michigan and played tight end there his freshman year. But Watt, who grew up in Pewaukee, Wisconsin, had always dreamed of playing at the University of Wisconsin. So, after taking some classes at a community college and working as a pizza delivery guy, Watt eventually walked on and played his heart out on the scout team.
Watt's ferocious play helped him earn a scholarship, and he went on to have a fantastic college career. We all know what happened next. J.J. Watt: From pizza man to walk-on to NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Watt's story personifies the motto of his foundation: "Dream Big, Work Hard."
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Ben Wallace, a dominant defender in his day, never played Division I basketball. Wallace was heavily recruited as a football player out of high school and even received an offer from Auburn. But Wallace loved basketball too much, so he decided to ditch football and chase his hoop dreams.
Wallace started his collegiate basketball career by walking on at tiny Cuyahoga Community College near Cleveland, Ohio. His sophomore season, Big Ben averaged 24 points a game to go along with 17 rebounds and seven blocks. He transferred to Virginia Union University, a Division II school, before his junior year and went on to become an All-American. Wallace wasn't drafted, but signed with the Washington Bullets as a free agent. He ended up winning four NBA Defensive Player of the Year awards and an NBA Championship, among a slew of other accomplishments.
The home run-hitting Ryan Howard had a great high school baseball career, but received almost no interest from the major college programs. Howard decided to walk on at Southwest Missouri State University and try to continue his playing career.
Howard must've been quite a pleasant surprise for the SMSU coaches, as he finished his collegiate career with 50 home runs, 183 RBIs and a .335 career batting average. He was drafted in 2001 by the Philadelphia Phillies, and the rest is history. Howard now has an NL Rookie of the Year award, a Silver Slugger award, five All-Star appearances and an NL MVP to his name.
T.J. Ward played at the legendary De La Salle High School, but didn't become a starter until his senior year. In the third game of the season, he broke his leg. As a result, he was barely recruited and decided to walk on at Oregon. Ward worked hard on the scout team and eventually earned a scholarship. He continued to battle injuries throughout his career at Oregon but was eventually named All-Pac 10 Honorable Mention. Ward is now an NFL Pro Bowler, despite starting only two full games in high school.
Aaron Rodgers' favorite target was a walk-on. Jordy Nelson grew up in Kansas and played quarterback in high school. He was good, but only received offers from smaller schools. Nelson decided to chase his dream and joined Kansas State as a walk-on.
Nelson initially played safety. He made the switch to receiver at the behest of Kansas State coach Bill Sndyer. Good move. Nelson blossomed into an All-American wideout and eventually was drafted by the Green Bay Packers, for whom he can still be seen snagging touchdowns today.
Michael Jordan was a high school sensation who received offers from the likes of North Carolina, Duke, N.C. State and Maryland. But Jordan's famous Chicago Bulls sidekick, Scottie Pippen, didn't have a similar recruiting experience. While Pippen had a good high school career, he was only 6-foot-1 (and skinny as a rail) his senior season. Pippen received no college scholarship offers and elected to walk on at Central Arkansas University.
After averaging only 4.3 points his freshman season, Pippen turned into a superstar. Aided by a growth spurt that shot him up to 6-foot-8, Pippen averaged 23.6 points and 10 rebounds per game his senior season. He was the fifth overall pick in the 1987 NBA Draft and went on to win six NBA Championships and do stuff like this.
Brett Gardner is a speedy player who's spent his entire MLB career with the New York Yankees. He has led the league in steals and triples, and is one of the game's best defensive players. Those are amazing feats for a player who didn't initially make the team in college.
Gardner had no offers coming out of high school, so he tried to walk on at the College of Charleston. In tryouts, the coaches loved his wheels—but not much else. Gardner didn't make the team, but showed up at the next practice in uniform. Gardner, armed with a letter from his pro-ball playing father, begged the coach to just let him practice with the real squad. The coaches reluctantly agreed, and Gardner went on to become a star. He was an All-American his senior season and got drafted in the third round by the Yankees.
Clay Matthews III
Clay Matthews III only received interest from FCS and community colleges coming out of high school, but he wanted to follow in his father's footsteps by attending the University of Southern California. USC didn't recruit Matthews, so he had no choice but to walk on.
Matthews spent two years on the scout team before finally earning a scholarship prior to the 2006 season. He went on to become a great special teams performer and had a strong senior season. Drafted by the Packers in the first round of the 2009 NFL Draft, Matthews now has four Pro Bowl appearances to his name.
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