Greatest Walk-Ons in Sports History
Some high school athletes only get a handful of recruiting letters and scholarship offers. Others get no offers at all. To go to college, they are forced to do what most people do and pay their way through school. You may be surprised at some of the all-time great athletes across many different sports who went this route only to end up on the exact same playing field, court or ice as LeBron James, A-Rod, Peyton Manning and Sidney Crosby.
These athletes walked on to their college teams and made the absolute best of their situations. They proved you don’t need a scholarship to become a star and are the greatest walk-ons of all time.
30. Colt Brennan
Schools: University of Colorado, University of Hawaii
Walk-on year: 2003, 2005
Bottom Line: Colt Brennan
Colt Brennan was a walk-on at two different schools with the second being due to his own fault. He walked onto Colorado’s football team as a freshman and redshirted before being kicked off the team due to an offseason arrest.
After spending a year at a juco, he was offered a chance to walk on at Hawaii where he went on to rewrite the NCAA passing record books. He broke the NCAA record for career passing touchdowns, despite playing just three seasons, and finished third in Heisman voting in 2007.
While he was a sixth-round draft pick in the NFL, Brennan never saw the field in a regular-season game. He later had stints with the UFL, CFL and AFL but never participated in a regular-season game so he has no professional football games under his belt.
Brennan died of a drug overdose in 2021. He was 37 years old.
29. Brandon Burlsworth
Position: Offensive lineman
School: University of Arkansas
Walk-on year: 1994-95
Bottom Line: Brandon Burlsworth
You can’t have a list of the greatest walk-ons without including the prototypical walk-on. Brandon Burlsworth spent two years as a walk-on at Arkansas where he dropped 40 pounds from his pudgy frame and then added back 40 pounds of muscle to handle being a lineman in the SEC.
He was a three-year starter and impressed enough to become a third-round pick by the Indianapolis Colts in 1999. However, shortly after being drafted Burlsworth was killed in a car crash and never played in the NFL.
But for his contributions to the college game after starting out as a walk-on, the Burlsworth Trophy was created in his honor in 2010, and it’s given to the most outstanding player who began his career as a walk-on.
28. Matt Gilroy
School: Boston University
Walk-on year: 2005-07, 2008-09
Bottom Line: Matt Gilroy
Matt Gilroy is an interesting case because he was a two-time walk-on at one school. He walked onto the BU hockey program where he was without a scholarship for his first two years.
But his impressive play earned him a scholarship as a junior, and he was so good that his coach assumed he would go pro after the season. However, Gilroy wanted to graduate, so he surprisingly came back as a senior, only to find out that his scholarship had gone to another player.
Thus Gilroy, who was named the best player in NCAA hockey as a senior, won the award as a walk-on. He was able to pay back any student loans and debts soon afterward, when he signed a $3.5 million contract just days after winning the award.
27. Hunter Renfrow
Position: Wide receiver
School: Clemson University
Walk-on year: 2014
Bottom Line: Hunter Renfrow
As an undersized two-star recruit, Hunter Renfrow received scholarship offers, but only at the FCS level. He dreamed of playing at the highest of levels, so he took his chances and walked on to Clemson’s team where he redshirted as a freshman.
After being exposed to an ACC strength and conditioning program, Renfrow gained 20 pounds of muscle and was awarded a scholarship in his second year. That year, he also caught two touchdowns in the CFP national championship game and then caught the game-winning score a year later in the same game.
In 2018, Renfrow was given the Burlsworth Trophy, which goes to the best college player who began his career as a walk-on, and he was drafted by the Raiders a year later. He's been in the upper level of NFL wide receivers since joining the league in 2019.
26. Seth Lugo
School: Centenary College
Walk-on year: 2009-11
Bottom Line: Seth Lugo
While many people think having a kid specialize in a sport too early leads to injuries, Seth Lugo not specializing may have led to a late start in his baseball career. He played baseball in high school … in addition to football, soccer and track and field.
Because of all of his attention not being devoted to baseball, Lugo didn’t have lots of time for practice and had poor mechanics. He finally realized his peak as a senior, but no one came calling with a scholarship offer.
He walked onto a tiny college in Louisiana and struggled while the team was transitioning to Division III. However, all it took was one good day to get noticed as Lugo excelled when Mets scouts were in attendance during his last year and was taken in the 20th round by the team in the 2011 MLB draft.
25. Jason Dufner
School: Auburn University
Walk-on year: 1996-97
Bottom Line: Jason Dufner
Jason Dufner went to the same high school as Michael Irvin, the Bosa brothers and Chris Evert. But unlike those athletes, Dufner’s high school career wasn’t enough to earn him a scholarship, at least from a Division I school.
He received offers from Division II schools but wanted to compete against the best, so he showed up to Auburn’s walk-on qualifier and beat the average score of those players already on Auburn’s golf team.
He’s since beaten the score of many PGA pros, and the highlight of his career was winning the 2013 PGA Championship which was his first major championship and came 13 years after his pro debut.
24. Ziggy Ansah
Position: Defensive end
School: Brigham Young University
Walk-on year: 2010-12
Bottom Line: Ziggy Ansah
Born in Ghana, Ezekiel "Ziggy" Ansah came to the United States as a 19-year-old after receiving an academic scholarship from BYU. He then tried out for the basketball team but was cut twice, so he decided to walk onto the track team.
His track coach encouraged him to try out football despite being unfamiliar with the sport and never having played organized football. He made his football debut at 21 years old with BYU and impressed enough to become a first-round pick by the Lions three years later.
He is the third-ever Ghanaian-born NFL player and the first to make a Pro Bowl after notching 14.5 sacks in 2015.
23. Daniel Nava
Position: Outfield, first base
School: College of San Mateo
Walk-on year: 2003-04
Bottom Line: Daniel Nava
Daniel Nava stood at just 5-foot-5 as a high school senior and received no interest from college programs. He tried to walk onto Santa Clara’s baseball team but didn’t make it and settled as being the team’s equipment manager.
He then left school because he could no longer afford tuition before enrolling at the College of San Mateo, a local junior college. It was there where Nava gave another shot at playing baseball and made the team this time and developed into a Juco All-American.
When Santa Clara saw how much he had progressed, they welcomed him back — not as an equipment manager — but as a scholarship player on their baseball team.
22. Shane Bieber
School: UC Santa Barbara
Walk-on year: 2014
Bottom Line: Shane Bieber
The 6-foot-3 Shane Bieber was rail thin and lacked power while at Laguna Hills High School in Southern California, so he didn’t get many college offers.
But he also possessed great command and was noticed by UC Santa Barbara, which didn’t have any scholarship money remaining. Thus, Bieber became a recruited walk-on and spent his first year with the team adding weight to his frame and power to his pitches.
Bieber earned a scholarship as a sophomore and two years later became a fourth-round draft pick. He made his MLB debut in 2018 and was an All-Star just one year later while also finishing fourth in Cy Young voting. In 2020, he won the Cy Young after going 8-1 with a 1.83 ERA and 122 strikeouts in 12 starts of a shortened season.
21. Baker Mayfield
School: Texas Tech, University of Oklahoma
Walk-on year: 2013-15
Bottom Line: Baker Mayfield
Coming out of high school and standing just 5-foot-10, Baker Mayfield had only two FBS offers, and neither was from Texas Tech, which is where he started his college career. Due to an injury to the Red Raiders’ starter, Mayfield ended up getting the opening day start as a freshman and became the first walk-on true freshman quarterback to start a season opener at any school.
Even though Mayfield was impressive in five starts for Texas Tech, he wasn’t going to be offered a scholarship as a sophomore, so he transferred to Oklahoma. There, he also began his career as a walk-on, and after sitting out a year due to transfer rules, he matured into the best quarterback in the nation. Mayfield achieved another first by becoming the first walk-on to win the Heisman.
But he wasn’t done with "firsts." Just four months later, Mayfield became the first former walk-on to be drafted first overall when he was selected by the Cleveland Browns.
20. Nick Watney
School: Fresno State University
Walk-on year: 1999-2000
Bottom Line: Nick Watney
Nick Watney grew up in Northern California and likely thought he had a free ride to Fresno State’s golf team since his uncle is the head coach. However, Mike Watney didn’t offer his nephew a scholarship, so Nick had to walk on.
But he soon earned a scholarship and a place in the Fresno State record books after setting the school's single-season scoring record with a 70.53 average as a junior.
As a pro, Watney has won tournaments on four different Tours, and his best major championship finish was tied for seventh at the 2010 Masters.
19. Jeff Hornacek
Position: Point guard, shooting guard
School: Iowa State University
Walk-on year: 1982
Bottom Line: Jeff Hornacek
Jeff Hornacek spent his first fall after graduating from Lyons Township High School in La Grange, Illinois, out of school and working in a factory.
In the spring of 1982, Hornacek enrolled at Iowa State without ever visiting the campus. He was a small-town star basketball player in high school but didn’t get any major offers, and his only goal was to play Division I.
Iowa State satisfied that requirement, and Hornacek walked onto the basketball team where he showed that he was one of the best players on the team. He left school as the Big 8’s all-time leader in assists and enjoyed a 14-year NBA career that included an All-Star appearance.
18. Adam Archuleta
Position: Linebacker (college), safety (NFL)
School: Arizona State
Walk-on year: 1996
Bottom Line: Adam Archuleta
Adam Archuleta was a three-year starter at linebacker for Arizona State after walking onto the team in 1996. He got better with each passing year in that starting role — totaling 75 tackles, five sacks and 18 tackles for losses in 1998; 111 tackles, five sacks and 21 tackles for loss in 1999; and 127 tackles, four sacks and 15 tackles for loss in 2000.
His play earned first-team All-Pac-10 honors twice, and in 2000 as a senior, he was named Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year and nominated as a Butkus Award finalist.
Archuleta tallied 330 tackles, 14 sacks, six fumble recoveries and five forced fumbles over his four-year career at ASU and was a first-round pick (20th overall) in the 2001 NFL draft.
17. Santana Moss
Position: Wide receiver
School: University of Miami
Walk-on year: 1997
Bottom Line: Santana Moss
It’s hard to believe that a guy who left as Miami’s all-time leader in receiving yards couldn’t get a scholarship, but that was the case for Santana Moss in 1997.
He originally attended Miami on a track scholarship and walked on to the football team, but he was so impressive early on that he landed a football scholarship as well.
Moss didn’t abandon the track and field team, either, and won the Big East Championship in the triple jump as a senior before embarking on a 14-year NFL career.
16. Jordy Nelson
Position: Wide receiver
School: Kansas State University
Walk-on year: 2003-04
Bottom Line: Jordy Nelson
Jordy Nelson was a phenomenal three-sport athlete at Riley High School in Kansas. He was Player of the Year in football, named All-State in basketball and won a state title in track. But he attended school in a farm town that had a population of fewer than 1,000 people.
Thus, Nelson received no Division I scholarship offers and walked onto nearby Kansas State. After a slow start in college in which he redshirted his first year and then switched from defensive back to receiver his second year, Nelson soon blossomed and became an All-American as a senior.
He then became an All-Pro in the NFL and retired second in Packers history with 69 receiving touchdowns.
15. Eric Karros
Position: First base
Walk-on year: 1985
Bottom Line: Eric Karros
It certainly helps to have connections when you don’t attract any interest as a high school athlete, and Eric Karros’ connection was his father. George Karros knew UCLA head coach Gary Adams and arranged for his son to work out for the Bruins as a walk-on out of Patrick Henry High School in San Diego.
The coach told Eric that most walk-ons are usually cut within the first few weeks of fall camp, but Eric stuck around for three years and became a captain. That led to a 14-year MLB career, 11 of which were with the nearby Dodgers, and that included the 1992 NL Rookie of the Year award.
While he never made an All-Star team, Karros' 284 career home runs are the second-most in MLB history for a player who never appeared in the Midsummer Classic. Tim Salmon is first with 299.
14. Steve Francis
Position: Point guard, shooting guard
School: San Jacinto College, Allegany College of Maryland
Walk-on year: 1996-98
Bottom Line: Steve Francis
Steve Francis had a troubled high school experience in Maryland, and he dealt drugs while his father served time in prison for bank robbery. Francis attended six different high schools, played a total of two basketball games, so colleges didn’t come calling with scholarship offers.
But he was noticed on the AAU circuit, which led to interest from a community college in Houston. Francis, who dropped out of school, obtained his GED before enrolling, and he later transferred to another community college near his home in Maryland. It was at the second school where the University of Maryland took notice and offered him a scholarship.
Playing just five miles from home, Francis became an All-American, then the No. 2 pick in the NBA draft before making three All-Star teams in the NBA.
13. Brett Gardner
School: College of Charleston
Walk-on year: 2001
Bottom Line: Brett Gardner
Brett Gardner wasn’t a lightly regarded prospect coming out of Holly Hill Academy in South Carolina. He wasn’t a prospect.
He received no Division I offers and only caught the attention of College of Charleston because it was a local school and his dad, who played in the minors, wrote a letter to the school’s recruiting coordinator.
Gardner's blazing speed impressed the coaches, and the rest is history. Nearly 20 years later, Gardner played 13 seasons with the New York Yankees and made over $84 million in salary.
12. Andre Drummond
School: University of Connecticut
Walk-on year: 2011-12
Bottom Line: Andre Drummond
Andre Drummond’s walk-on status is unique in that he didn’t have a shortage of suitors as the No. 1-ranked prospect in his class. But he originally planned on spending a post-graduate year at a boarding school in Massachusetts, only to change his mind at the last minute.
He committed to UConn, but it was so late in the process that they didn’t have any scholarships remaining. Thus, the best high school player in the country had to take out a loan and pay for tuition himself.
Drummond will likely never need another loan in his life. He’s made almost $110 million in career NBA earnings through his first nine seasons.
11. David Eckstein
Position: Shortstop, second base
School: University of Florida
Walk-on year: 1994
Bottom Line: David Eckstein
David Eckstein was two-time all-state at Seminole High School in Sanford, Florida, but his diminutive size didn’t lend itself to tons of recruiting letters.
As a Florida native, he elected to go to nearby University of Florida in Gainesville without a scholarship. Eckstein played far bigger than his size, became an All-American and also became the first two-time Academic All-American in the Gators' storied history.
He defied the odds again in the pros, highlighted by two World Series championships and the 2006 World Series MVP after hitting .364 in a series win over the Tigers.
10. John Starks
Position: Shooting guard
School: Rogers State College, Northern Oklahoma College, Oklahoma Junior College
Walk-on year: 1984-87
Bottom Line: John Starks
Before he became a Knicks fan favorite, John Starks was a nomad in college who attended three different schools before getting a scholarship from Oklahoma State University.
One of those schools was Rogers State, where Starks was part of the school’s taxi squad. That meant he was a fill-in player and would only suit up for injured or suspended players. But if everyone was active, Starks wouldn’t dress and would watch the game from the stands like everyone else.
Fast-forward three schools later, and Starks impressed in his one year at Oklahoma State. But that wasn’t enough to get him drafted, which is just like not being offered a scholarship all over again. However, Starks stayed on the grind and won over NBA teams, and he had a 13-year career with an All-Star appearance.
9. Antonio Brown
Football: Wide receiver
School: Central Michigan University
Walk-on year: 2007
Bottom Line: Antonio Brown
Antonio Brown was rejected from Florida State, his first school of choice, due to academic concerns. Other schools also denied him admission, so Brown had a post-graduate year at North Carolina Tech Prep before remembering the name of the coach who once recruited him in high school. That coach, Butch Jones, was the head coach of Central Michigan.
Brown reached out to CMU, which let him enroll as a walk-on. Even though he was a dual-threat quarterback in high school, Brown adjusted quickly to playing receiver in college and earned a scholarship after a few weeks of practice. On a CMU team that also had J.J. Watt, Brown was the team’s best player, and he was named MAC Freshman of the Year.
The Steelers drafted him in the sixth round (195th overall) of the 2010 NFL draft, and he became one of the best wide receivers in the game. Then, attitude and off-the-field issues pushed him out of Pittsburgh, and he's still looking to regain the form that made him seven-time Pro Bowler and four-time All-Pro.
8. J.J. Watt
Position: Defensive end
Walk-on year: 2008
Bottom Line: J.J. Watt
From 2012 to 2015 J.J. Watt was the best player in the NFL. But just a few years before that, he had to walk on to Wisconsin’s football team.
Watt was only a two-star prospect coming out of Pewaukee High School in Wisconsin and landed at Central Michigan on a scholarship. However, Watt, who played tight end at CMU, was asked to move to offensive tackle, and he said ,"Thanks, but no thanks." He gave up his scholarship to walk on at Wisconsin.
There, he was converted to the line, but the defensive line, and the rest is history. Now, the three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year has a bust waiting for him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
7. Ryan Howard
Position: First base
School: Missouri State University
Walk-on year: 1999
Bottom Line: Ryan Howard
Ryan Howard did not get any interest from major college baseball programs out of Lafayette High School in Wildwood, Missouri, so he went to Missouri State, where the coach told him there were no more scholarships available. Howard took that as a challenge and walked onto the team before becoming the MVC Freshman of the Year and earning a scholarship as a sophomore.
In 2001, the Phillies took Howard in the fifth round of the MLB draft. But just as he was a late bloomer in high school, Howard also was a late bloomer in the pros. It took five years before he became a regular in the majors.
However, his full-season debut was a memorable one. In 2006, Howard smacked a Phillies franchise record of 58 home runs en route to winning the AL MVP. He went on to finish his career with 382 home runs.
6. Ben Wallace
Position: Center, power forward
School: Cuyahoga Community College
Walk-on year: 1992-94
Bottom Line: Ben Wallace
It’s very rare for someone in SEC country to turn down a football scholarship, but that’s what Ben Wallace did in high school. He had offers from Alabama, Florida, Florida State and more to put the pads on, but he elected to go to Cuyahoga Community College in Ohio to fulfill his hoop dream.
It turned out to be the right decision. After a couple of years there, Wallace went to Virginia Union following a recommendation from Virginia Union alum Charles Oakley, and that got Wallace on the NBA’s radar.
Wallace was a rough and rugged player like Oakley and became the backbone of the 2004 Pistons championship-winning squad. Wallace's four Defensive Player of the Year awards also are tied for the most in NBA history.
5. Stephen Gostkowski
School: University of Memphis
Walk-on year: 2002
Bottom Line: Stephen Gostkowski
Kickers are important to the college game, but most big-time programs don’t use one of their scholarships on special teams players. They prefer to hoard four or five players at the position, let the cream of the crop emerge and then offer that player a scholarship in later years.
That is what happened with Stephen Gostkowkski, who actually got a baseball scholarship to Memphis and then walked onto the football team. He earned a full scholarship and also got a jump start on his pro career by kicking off a one-inch tee in college rather than the two-inch tees that the NCAA allows.
He did that to show NFL scouts his kicking potential at the next level.
4. Clay Matthews III
School: University of Southern California
Walk-on year: 2004-05
Bottom Line: Clay Matthews III
A late bloomer, Clay Matthews couldn’t even start on defense at Agoura High School even though his dad was the defensive coordinator. He began to develop physically as a senior but had no FBS offers, so he walked on to USC, where his dad Clay II and uncle Bruce also went.
There, Matthews went from scout team to special teams to a reserve before finally becoming a starter in his fifth year at the school. Being a late bloomer in both high school and college didn’t hurt him in the long run as he was a first-round NFL draft pick just as his dad and uncle were.
Matthews left the Packers as their all-time leader in sacks and then played one season with his hometown Rams before being cut. He still is open to playing again in the NFL.
3. Aeneas Williams
School: Southern University
Walk-on year: 1988
Bottom Line: Aeneas Williams
Williams didn’t begin playing football in college until his junior year in which he walked onto Southern’s team. He didn’t have a specific position and played cornerback, safety and linebacker. He settled in at corner and one year later tied the Division I-AA record for interceptions. That led to him being a third-round draft pick and he established himself as one of the league’s best defensive players during the 1990s. When Williams retired in 2004, he ranked third in NFL history with 13 non-offensive touchdowns and that’s one of the many reasons why he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2014.
2. Ozzie Smith
School: Cal Poly San Luis Obispo
Walk-on year: 1974
Bottom Line: Ozzie Smith
Ozzie Smith was a high school teammate of future Hall of Famer Eddie Murray, whose immense talent was recognizable right away and was taken in the third round of the MLB draft out of Locke High School in Los Angeles.
Smith’s talent wasn’t as apparent, and the only college scholarship he got was a partial academic one. He walked onto Cal Poly San Luis Obispo's team, and a broken leg to the team’s starting shortstop gave Smith his first real opportunity.
Smith never gave the job back and developed into one of the greatest defensive players in MLB history.
1. Scottie Pippen
Position: Small forward
School: Central Arkansas
Walk-on year: 1983-87
Bottom Line: Scottie Pippen
Even Hall of Famers can start out as walk-ons. That was the case for six-time NBA champion Scottie Pippen. He was just 6-foot-1 in high school and wasn’t offered any scholarships, so he walked onto Central Arkansas, which is an NAIA school.
A late growth spurt enabled Pippen to grow seven inches in college, and he became a two-time NAIA All-American before being the No. 5 draft pick in the NBA. Because he was undersized most of his life, Pippen had point guard skills, and he didn’t lose those when he grew to 6-foot-8.
When he retired in 2004, Pippen ranked first all-time in assists by a non-guard.