Bummed you’re not a starter?
Don’t blame the coach.
But most importantly, don’t give up.
Because with hard work and perseverance, you can earn that starting spot eventually.
And once you do, there’s no telling how far you’ll go.
There are athletes who didn’t start until their senior year of high school who went on to do extraordinary things. I’m talking NBA MVP, MLB All-Star, Pro Football Hall of Fame-type things.
The key is being prepared to take full advantage of your opportunity once it presents itself. That means working hard and getting better outside the spotlight.
Because as these 17 athletes can tell you, it’s not when you earn a starting spot that matters most, but what you do with it.
Darrell Green is one of the greatest cornerbacks in NFL history.
A Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee, Green was a seven-time Pro Bowl selection and a two-time Super Bowl champion=
His 19 consecutive seasons with at least one interception are also an NFL record.=
Not bad for a guy who was stuck on JV as a high school junior.
Growing up, Green was a small kid. He often played down an age group or two to make up for his lack of size. But when middle school and high school came around, that was obviously no longer an option.
“In the eighth grade, I came up with a plan. So I said I better go and run track and at least get on the athletic radar, and that’s what I did. I had a plan to go out there in the 11th grade. They said: ‘Well, we’ll put you on the junior varsity. We’ll go with that.’ So I said, ‘Thank you, at least I get to play,’ so I did,” Green recalled to ESPN. “Really early on, I was you know, I can’t say anything benefited me. I was struggling trying to just stand up out there and face the guys on a day-to-day basis. I was a little fella and I was scared.”
While Green never experienced any massive growth spurt (he was listed at 5-foot-8 in the NFL), he soon found tenacity, heart and athleticism could make up for his lack of size.
By the time Green graduated from Jesse H. Jones High School (Houston, Texas), he was an All-State selection in track and an All-City performer in football. He then attended Texas A&M-Kingsville, where he was again a two-sport star. His college PR in the 100-meter dash was 10.08.
The Washington Redskins would eventually select Green with the 28th overall pick in the 1983 NFL Draft.
Dee Gordon is one of the quickest players in baseball.
The Seattle Mariners star led the MLB in stolen bases in 2014, 2015 and 2017.
His trophy case also includes a Gold Glove award, Silver Slugger award and two All-Star selections.
Not bad for a kid who didn’t even play baseball until his senior year of high school.
Despite his father, Tom Gordon, being a long-time reliever in the MLB, Dee was obsessed with basketball during his younger days.
It wasn’t until his senior year of high school that he decided to finally give baseball a shot.
“He’s the one who got me into playing baseball because I didn’t like baseball. I played basketball in high school. Finally, he talked me into trying baseball my senior year in high school,” Dee told MLive.com. “After I did well with it, I liked it a lot.”
The Philadelphia Eagles All-Pro quarterback was a back-up for much of his high school career.
When Wentz entered Century High School (Bismarck, North Dakota) as a freshman, he was rather puny. He stood about 5-foot-8 and weighed 125 pounds.
But a growth spurt soon kicked in, and hard work helped him add lean muscle to his frame. He played on JV as a sophomore and looked destined to be a big contributor to the varsity team his junior year.
But those plans had to be put on hold when Wentz suffered a broken hand.
“His junior year is when we thought he was ready to make a big step. And he got hurt. It was kind of a lost season,” Ron Wingenbach, who coached Wentz in high school, told the Bucks Country Herald. “In his senior year, we knew he was ready. You talk about a classic example of if you’re good enough, colleges are going to find you. That is a great model for parents. When you get your chance, put your best foot forward and know that someone is going to find you.”
Finally the team’s starting quarterback as a senior, Wentz won 3A State Player of the Year honors and led Century to the state semifinals.
He would then attended nearby North Dakota State University before being drafted by the Eagles with the second overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft.
Clay Matthews III
Clay Matthews III comes from a long line of football excellence.
His grandfather, Clay Matthews Sr., played tackle in the NFL in the 1950s.
His dad, Clay Matthews Jr., was a Pro Bowl linebacker during the 1980s.
It may be hard to believe now that Matthews III sports some of the beefiest biceps in the NFL, but he was a relative pipsqueak during his early days at Agoura High School (Agoura Hills, California).
Though his father was the team’s defensive coordinator, he did not start his son until his senior year due to Clay being so undersized.
Between his junior season and senior season, Clay dropped 0.4 seconds off his 40-Yard Dash and packed on almost 50 pounds.
Though he played more as a senior, he was still a relative nobody in the recruiting world.
Matthews decided to walk on at USC, and he went on to be a first-round pick in the 2009 NFL Draft. Now a linebacker with the Green Bay Packers, Matthews boasts six Pro Bowl selections.
“I don’t think I’d be in the position I’m at today if it weren’t for all the setbacks and whatnot, people telling me I couldn’t do it,” Matthews once told Boston.com. “It’s kind of what drives me to be great.”
David Robinson, a.k.a. “The Admiral,” is one of the most dominant centers in NBA history.
His illustrious career saw him earn 10 NBA All-Star selections, an NBA Defensive Player of the Year award, an NBA MVP award and two NBA Championships.
Robinson first gave basketball a shot in middle school.
At the time, Robinson, who would eventually sprout to 7-foot-1, was just 5-foot-9.
He quit the sport and didn’t return to it until his senior year of high school at Osbourn Park High (Manassas, Virginia).
Robinson was not a star during that lone season of high school ball, but he did get the chance to play basketball at the United States Naval Academy.
He pursued that opportunity and continued to grow, both in stature and in skill, during college.
”(David) is like you want your son to be. He plays basketball for all the reasons you hope everyone does—activity, competition and the desire to win,” Paul Evans, who coached Robinson at Navy, told the Chicago Tribune in 1986.
Robinson went on to become the No. 1 overall pick in the 1987 NBA Draft.
Marcus Mariota is a perfect example of how patience can pay off.
At Saint Louis High School (Honolulu, Hawaii), Mariota was an excellent athlete.
However, he did not receive the chance to start at quarterback until his senior year.
While rumors of his athleticism and his selfless attitude intrigued college coaches, they were hesitant to offer without first seeing him in game action.
Despite riding the pine, Mariota continued to work hard, often running hill sprints to help him build his blazing speed.
When Mariota finally did receive his opportunity, he took full advantage. His senior year, he led the team to a state title while throwing for 2,597 yards and rushing for another 455 yards.
Mariota would soon commit to the University of Oregon, where he would go on to win a Heisman Trophy.
The Tennessee Titans selected him with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft.
“My family, and where I come from, are my roots. I learned who I am through them. If I’m struggling on a rep, or don’t feel up to a workout, they’re my motivation to push myself,” Mariota told STACK in 2015.
Kenny Rogers was one of the most dominant pitchers of the late 1990s and mid 2000s.
Rogers is a four-time All-Star, a five-time Gold Glove award winner and a 1996 World Series champion.
He also pitched a perfect game on July 28, 1994.
But in high school, Rodgers did not play baseball until his senior year.
He hit .375 as a right fielder during that lone season and was eventually drafted in the 39th round by the Texas Rangers.
The Rangers immediately decided to convert him to a pitcher due to the strength of his throwing arm and the fact that Rogers was left handed.
So a guy who didn’t even pitch in high school went on to pitch a perfect game in the MLB. Go figure.
Barry Sanders did receive significant amounts of playing time as a defensive back prior to his senior year at Wichita North High School (Witchita, Kansas), but the fact he didn’t start at running back until his senior season is shocking enough to earn him a spot on this list.
After all, we’re talking about a guy who would end up as one of the greatest running backs in the history of the sport.
For the first few games of his senior year, the future Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee started at cornerback while also filling the role of second-string wingback.
His coach eventually decided to give him a shot at running back, and Sanders ended up rushing for 1,417 yards in the final seven games of the season. That was enough to earn a scholarship to Oklahoma State, and the rest is history.
It was actually an experience on the junior varsity team at Wichita North that shaped Sanders’ unique, fearless style.
He was the team’s punt returner during a close game, and he chose not to run up and catch several punts for fear of muffing the ball and blowing the game. The team went on to lose the game, and on the car ride home, Sanders’ father asked him why he didn’t catch the punts. Barry told him he didn’t want to cause his team to lose the game.
According to Barry’s Hall of Fame induction speech, William Sanders then told him, “Son, you can play the game the way it’s supposed to be played. Don’t be scared to make mistakes. In life, you’re going to make some mistakes…Go out and play the way you’re capable of, the coach has you in there for a reason, he has confidence in you.”
From that point on, Sanders played without fear of failure. That allowed him to defy convention and make some of the most spectacular plays in football history.
Sanders is one of just eight players to win both a Heisman Trophy and an NFL MVP award.
Doug McDermott is a small forward for the Indiana Pacers. He’s also one of the greatest college basketball players ever.
At Creighton University, McDermott was a three-time consensus first-team All-American.
In 2014, he was the consensus National College Player of the Year.
However, McDermott didn’t crack the starting five at Ames High School (Ames, Iowa) until his senior year. With a lineup that featured future NBA star Harrison Barnes, McDermott had to bide his time and come off the bench.
“In high school, all the attention was going toward Harrison, so I was the guy that was always under the radar,” McDermott told CollegeInsider.com. “I still haven’t changed much. I’m not a guy who goes online or searches for myself. I just try to enjoy my time with my teammates.”
McDermott averaged 20.1 points and 7.8 rebounds per game his senior year en route to first-team All-State honors.
He went on to sign with Creighton, where his father, Greg McDermott, was head coach of the men’s basketball team.
Lorenzo Cain is one of the most improbable stars in MLB history.
After getting cut from the basketball team his freshman year at Madison County High School (Madison County, Florida), Cain eventually went out for the baseball team.
Cain knew absolutely nothing about the sport and didn’t own any equipment, but due to low participation numbers, he made the junior varsity team as a sophomore.
While learning the sport from scratch so late was a big challenge, Cain had excellent athleticism and a relentless work ethic.
He rode the pine on varsity as a junior before finally cracking the starting line-up his senior year.
One year as a starter was enough for the Milwaukee Brewers to decide that Cain’s tools made up for his rawness, and the team selected him in the 17th round of the 2004 amateur draft.
After a stint with the Kansas City Royals that saw Cain blossom into an excellent player and capture a World Series ring, the outfielder is back with Milwaukee.
Cain was named an All-Star for the 2018 season.
While Kevin White’s NFL career has been marred by injury up to this point, the dude has talent.
You don’t become the seventh overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft by accident.
But back in his younger days at Emmaus High School (Emmaus, Pennsylvania), White looked nothing like a future NFL player.
“He had a little height to him and he was thin, but he wasn’t very good,” Joe Bottiglieri, who coached White at Emmaus, told the Chicago Tribune. “He struggled. We didn’t say, ‘Man, look at this phenom. He’s going to be a can’t-miss.’ It wasn’t that way at all. But he was like a sponge. He was so eager. He loved to practice. He loved to be in the weight room. He loved everything about football.”
Slowly but surely, White improved.
He became a starter his senior year and made the most of the opportunity, earning All-Conference honors.
Academic issues forced White to attend a JUCO, but he eventually found his way to West Virginia.
There, he blossomed into a first-team All-Big 12 and second-team AP All-American selection.
Devonta Freeman is a two-time Pro Bowl running back for the Atlanta Falcons.
But at Miami Central High School, Freeman didn’t earn a starting spot until his senior year.
His junior year, he was stuck behind a player named Brandon Gainer, who would go on to play at the University of Kentucky.
While Freeman still notched over 500 yards in limited action, his junior year provided just a glimpse of what he was truly capable of.
Finally unleashed as a starter his senior year, Freeman exploded for 2,208 yards and 26 touchdowns.
He went on to play at Florida State, where he helped the Seminoles win the 2013 BCS National Championship.
“I’ve been competing all my life,” Freeman told the Gwinnett Daily Post in 2015. “Even in high school and Pop Warner I’ve been playing around some of the best guys always, competing.”
Khalil Mack didn’t start until his senior year of high school because he didn’t play until his senior year of high school.
At Fort Piece Westwood High School, Mack fancied himself a basketball player. But a torn patella during his sophomore year dashed that dream.
As Mack rehabbed, he also bought himself a gym membership and began working out with his father, Sandy Mack Sr.
By the time Khalil’s senior year rolled around, he was stronger than ever before.
That’s when Waides Ashmon, then the head football coach at Fort Piece, noticed him. At 6-foot-1, 215 pounds, Mack’s physique seemed tailor-made for football.
Asmon inquired about getting him to join the football team, but Mack instructed the coach that he’d have to ask Sandy Mack Sr. Asmon pulled out his phone and called him on the spot.
“I said I’ve never made this call before in my life, but if you allow your son to play football for me, he’ll go to school free,” Asmon recalled the conversation to Sports Illustrated.
With education a priority in the Mack household, that was all Sandy needed to hear.
Mack recorded 140 tackles and 9 sacks in his lone season of high school football. That earned him an offer from Buffalo, where Mack would become a first-team All-American at linebacker.
He earned MAC Defensive Player of the Year honors his senior year.
Now an outside linebacker with the Chicago Bears, Mack is a two-time first-team All-Pro selection. He won the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year award in 2016.
His junior year of high school, Zach Collins didn’t start for his basketball team.
Two years later, he was the 10th player taken in the 2017 NBA Draft.
How’s that for an overnight success story?
At Bishop Gorman High School (Summerlin, Nevada), Collins spent his first three years coming off the bench.
That was partially because of the talent in front of him, as the school is a perennial powerhouse, and partially because he needed time to develop.
Collins, who now measures 7-feet tall, had an early growth spurt, and it took a long time for him to athletically adjust to his unique dimensions.
“Zach just kept getting a little bit better each year, and you could see that constant improvement,” Bishop Gorman coach Grant Rice told the Las Vegas Sun. “It wasn’t something that happened overnight. He and his dad would stay in the gym and work out for hours.”
His senior year, Collins averaged 17.3 points, 14 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 6.4 blocked shots per game en route to Nevada Gatorade Player of the Year honors.
He then earned second-team All-WCC honors his freshman year at Gonzaga before declaring for the NBA Draft.
Collins is now in his second year with the Portland Trailblazers.
T.J. Ward is a two-time Pro Bowl safety.
He was a crucial piece of the Denver Broncos’ defensive backfield that propelled the team to victory in Super Bowl 50.
Ward totaled seven tackles, an interception and a fumble recovery in the big game.
But at the legendary De La Salle High School (Concord, California), Ward did not become a starter until his senior year.
Then, in the third game of his senior season, he suffered a broken leg.
“No colleges were calling…I was kind of forgotten,” Ward once told the Denver Post. “I was a late bloomer.”
Ward eventually decided to walk on at Oregon. He worked hard on the scout team and eventually earned himself a scholarship.
He continued to battle injuries throughout his college career, but NFL scouts saw a lot of potential on film.
The Cleveland Browns drafted Ward in the second round of the 2010 NFL Draft.
In 2014, he signed a four-year, $23 million contract with the Broncos.
Not bad for a guy who only started three games in high school.
Marco Estrada is a pitcher for the Toronto Blue Jays.
He’s totaled over 1,000 career strikeouts to date and was an All-Star in 2016.
That fact surely surprised the coaches at Sylmar High School (Sylmar, California), as Estrada didn’t make varsity until his senior year.
One of the team’s pitchers had broken his collarbone, and the coaches decided to use Estrada, who’d been the JV shortstop, on the mound.
“It was like: ‘You’ve got a pretty good arm, I guess we’ll use you,'” Estrada told the Toronto Sun of his foray into pitching. “And I ended up having a really good year. I was the best pitcher that year.”
Estrada has now totaled nearly $50 million in career earnings to date.
Nick Fairley is an NFL defensive tackle, most recently with the New Orleans Saints.
Fairley was the 11th overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft and was a second-team All-Pro in 2012.
However, he didn’t start for his high school football team until his senior year.
Early on, Fairley seemed more likely to play college basketball than he did college football. As a senior, he averaged 15.8 points, 9.1 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game.
But once he figured out how to harness that athleticism on the football field, he was very difficult to stop. Fairley became a three-star prospect at defensive tackle, and went on to play at Auburn.
At Auburn, he won a national championship and was named the 2010 SEC Defensive Player of the Year.
Fairley’s athleticism was a big reason he was such a high draft pick, as he ran a 4.84 40-Yard Dash at 291 pounds at the 2011 NFL Draft.
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