Unlikeliest Sports Heroes
Moments define careers. That is never more true than for journeymen, little-used players, huge underdogs and unexpected stars who step up and deliver at key moments.
Sports inspire so many to do great things, because the moment finds the player and not the other way around.
When big moments found the following players, they seized them and cemented their places in sports history. Their inspiring performances show that determination and heart can, in a moment, supercede talent and create indelible memories.
These are the unlikeliest sports heroes. Ever.
Steve Pearce — 2018 Boston Red Sox
A 35-year-old platooning first baseman, Steve Pearce was scooped up by the Red Sox in late June, hoping he could help out against left-handed pitching. Pearce was asked to do much more than that in the postseason, when everyday first baseman Mitch Moreland came down with a hamstring injury that limited him to pinch-hitting duty.
Pearce destroyed all expectations. He collected big hits as the Red Sox drubbed the New York Yankees in four games and knocked a key homer in a Game 2 victory over the Houston Astros in the ALCS.
But he showed true clutch ability in the World Series. Pearce collected three homers, eight RBIs and did not strike out in any of the five games on his way to becoming one of the least likely World Series MVPs in history.
Bucky Dent — 1978 New York Yankees
Bucky Dent is frequently known for hitting a decisive home run at Fenway Park, finishing off a second-half comeback by the Yankees to pull the rug out from the Red Sox and win the division. While that home run is notable, it is also indicative of the run Dent was on at the end of that season.
Despite not being one of the famed feared bombers in the Yankees lineup, Dent rose to the occasion for the team in 1978. Dent batted .417, racking up seven RBIs and 10 hits in the Yankees’ World Series win over the Los Angeles Dodgers in six games and was named the series MVP.
Mike Miller — 2011-12 Miami Heat
Mike Miller’s place on the Heat roster needed no explanation.
Before the team picked up one of the best shooters of all time in Ray Allen, Miller was out there to knock down long range shots off LeBron James drives. It didn’t appear this was needed after the first four games of the 2012 NBA Finals against Oklahoma City, and the Heat entered a home Game 5 looking for James to get his first title.
Miller had yet to hit a three-pointer in that series, until he erupted. Any hopes of a comeback by the Thunder were dashed, and Miller drained 7-of-8 three-pointers, racking up 23 points and getting the King his first ring.
David Tyree — 2007 New York Giants
A career made by one play, but what a play it was. Facing defeat to an undefeated New England Patriots team in the 2008 Super Bowl, David Tyree hauled in one of the most shocking, monumental and unlikely catches in NFL history.
Eli Manning somehow escaped a sack in the backfield, circled back to throw and tossed a lob to the middle of the field that was hauled in by Tyree when the receiver pinned the ball to his helmet. The Giants rode that momentum into a game-winning touchdown, thus ending the Patriots’ hopes of the GOAT title for NFL teams.
Tyree was injured the following season and later played 10 games with the Ravens, but the "Helmet Catch" would be the last reception of Tyree’s career.
Dexter Jackson — 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
By all accounts, the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers boasted one of the best defensive units of all time. With a squad packed with All-Pros such as Warren Sapp, John Lynch, Ronde Barber and Derrick Brooks, it’s not a surprise that the MVP of the big game came on the defensive side of the ball.
What was surprising is which player.
Little-known Dexter Jackson snagged the Super Bowl MVP as the Bucs trounced the Oakland Raiders. Jackson, a fourth-round draft pick in 1999, picked off Rich Gannon twice during the game and won a fan voting poll over Simeon Rice to take home the hardware.
Jackson bounced around the NFL after that and was out of the NFL by 2009.
Rocco Mediate — 2008 U.S. Open
A story for the ages at the 2008 U.S. Open pitted the phenom Tiger Woods, who played most of the week on more or less one leg, against Rocco Mediate, who came out of nowhere to tie Woods for the lead in the final round at Torrey Pines.
Mediate’s story captivated sports fans and represented a similar yet entirely different resolve as Woods, whose mental makeup forced him to continue and potentially damage his long-term health.
Woods’ dramatic birdie on the 18th hole forced a Monday, 18-hole showdown between the two. Mediate held his own but ultimately was no match for Woods. Still, the two gave a the crowds a generational sports moment that those who were invested will remember forever.
Mike Eruzione — 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team
The ultimate underdog team deserved the ultimate underdog captain. Mike Eruzione was the heart and soul for one of the unlikeliest, Hollywood-ending outcomes in sports history, when the U.S. took down the Soviets in a semifinal game much more famous than its gold medal counterpart.
Eruzione scored the game-winning goal against the Soviets in 1980, and the closing seconds with Al Michaels’ commentary has been regarded as one of the greatest highlights of all time.
Eruzione has since been immortalized in pop culture and sports.
Kirk Gibson — 1988 Los Angeles Dodgers
Kirk Gibson’s talent and achievements stand out among most of the athletes on this list since he was a great hitter and led the 1988 Dodgers to the World Series.
However, Gibson suffered injuries to both legs, leaving him out of the Los Angeles lineup in the final showdown with the Oakland A's.
Used as a pinch-hitter against A’s lockdown closer Dennis Eckersley, a visibly hobbled Gibson launched a home run that won Game 1 for the Dodgers and propelled them to an emotional series victory in five games.
Aaron Boone — 2003 New York Yankees
Another bear of a game between the Yankees and Red Sox came in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS. The Red Sox appeared to have the game won until the Yanks rallied off a tiring Pedro Martinez.
Knuckleballer Tim Wakefield took the ball for the Red Sox in extra innings, and Aaron Boone launch a mammoth home run to left field, ending another bid by Boston to end its 80-plus year long drought of World Series titles.
A trade deadline pickup and All-Star third baseman, Boone was a relative disappointment for the Bombers, hitting .254 in his limited time in New York, and an offseason non-baseball injury kept him out the following year.
Postseason included, Boone played just 71 games in pinstripes, but Yankee fans will remember him as a hero in a long line of Red Sox killers.
David Eckstein — 2002 Anaheim Angels
Undersized players are typically overlooked. That was the case with David Eckstein, who emerged as the leadoff hitter for an Angels team that shocked the baseball world in2002. Eckstein, a scrappy middle infielder, hardly ever struck out and was the ideal table-setter for a dangerous middle-of-the-order roundup headed by Troy Glaus.
When the Angels met Barry Bonds and the San Francisco Giants in 2002, it was seen as a foregone coronation for one of the best players in baseball history. The Angels scrapped that narrative with a dramatic comeback in Game 6, giving way to a series win in Game 7.
Eckstein continually got on base, scoring six crucial runs in the series victory.
Mike Lowell — 2007 Boston Red Sox
Mike Lowell ended up in Boston as more or less a throw-in in the team’s acquisition of ace pitcher Josh Beckett. A former three-time All-Star, Lowell had lost his way at the plate, hitting .236 with just eight home runs in 2005 and, despite winning a Gold Glove that season, was seen as over the hill.
His first season with the Red Sox put that notion to rest, as he returned to his early-career form. In 2007, he backed it up with his best season as a pro, racking up 120 RBIs and finishing fifth in MVP voting.
He capped off Boston’s run to the World Series with an MVP performance in a sweep of the Colorado Rockies.
Gene Tenace — 1972 Oakland A’s
Gene Tenace’s career was successful even without his heroics. However those 15 years would fly under the radar if it wasn’t for a magical series of games in 1972 when it all came together.
After platooning at catcher the first couple years of his career, Tenace emerged as the team’s most stable option in their run to the championship against the Cincinnati Reds.
A lifetime .241 hitter with 201 homers over 15 years, Tenace saved his best for this seven-game stretch. He batted .348 with four home runs and nine RBIs against the Reds, leading the A’s to a seven-game series win and being named MVP.
Joe Namath — 1968 New York Jets
Nowadays, JoeNamath’s name is given equal billing with the early great quarterbacks such as Johnny Unitas and Bart Starr. However, a dive into Namath’s stats tell the story of a middling thrower who took far too many risks in an era when the running game was everything.
This actually makes his guaranteed victory over the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III all the more special. Namath and the Jets were an 18-point underdog, but they stepped up and confirmed that guarantee emphatically, with Namath throwing for 206 yards and, more crucially, no interceptions.
Namath rose to the occasion while the combo of Unitas and Earl Morrall had four picks total.
Derek Fisher — 2003-04 Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers were an undeniable dynasty, winning three straight titles in the early aughts. After a disappointing loss to the Spurs in 2003 to end their run, the Lakers loaded up with ring-chasing Karl Malone and Gary Payton.
Despite that star power, they trailed the Spurs 0-2 in the 2004 Western Conference semifinals. The Lakers rallied to win the next two game, forcing a pivotal Game 5 in San Antonio.
The Lakers blew a 16-point lead heading into the fourth quarter, and Tim Duncan drained a jumper from the top of the key with less than a second left to seemingly give the Spurs the win. Off the Lakers inbounds pass, Fisher caught and launched a miraculous game-winner, stunning the entire arena.
With all that starpower, it was Fisher who stepped up when the Lakers needed it, much like Robert Horry had in years prior.
Jeremy Lin — 2011-12 New York Knicks
Most NBA scouts wrote off Jeremy Lin as a prospect just because he was an Asian kid who went to Harvard.
Lin broke into the league with the Golden State Warriors and saw limited action that first season. In his second year, he joined the Knicks in late December and got into the rotation when injuries hit Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire.
What came next is the stuff of legend, as Lin launched an all-time-great-out-of-nowhere run. Over 13 games, he averaged 22.3 points per game with nine assists, leading New York to a 10-3 record in that stretch.
Unfortunately for Lin, the big names returned to the lineup, and Lin’s impact was pushed to the side. But for a fleeting instance, Lin dominated in the mecca of basketball.
Matthew Dellavedova — 2014-15 Cleveland Cavaliers
LeBron James led the Cavaliers back to the NBA Finals in the first season of his return to Cleveland. However, he didn’t get there without help, flanked by All-Star players Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.
Love went down due to a shoulder injury in the early rounds, and Irving suffered a devastating knee injury in a Game 1 overtime loss to the Warriors, leaving James to face Golden State on his own.
For a brief moment, James found some assistance from Matthew Dellavedova, who had earned a reputation as a gritty (bordering on dirty) defensive stopper. He appeared to be handling Stephen Curry quite well and scored 20 points in Game 3 to give the Cavs a 2-1 series lead.
The Warriors put that narrative to rest over the next three games. But just for a moment, Dellavedova shined for the Cavs and parlayed that into a big contract with Milwaukee the following year.
Ron Artest — 2009-10 Los Angeles Lakers
Ron Artest, now known as Metta World Peace, had run hot and cold with the Lakers, per his reputation. In 2009, he was brought in to be a stopper on defense, and while he had flashed great offensive skills in the past, his skills had somewhat eroded at this point, with his three-point percentage taking a big hit.
In the closing seconds of a brutal slog of a Game 7 in the 2010 NBA Finals, Rajon Rondo had knocked down a shot to pull the Boston Celtics within three. The Lakers were more or less trying to run out the clock.
Then, the ball found Artest in the corner. As he fired the shot off with plenty of time on the shot clock, Staples Center emitted a collective groan, before the ball found the bottom of the net, making Artest part of Lakers lore forever.
Bill Mazeroski — 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates
Bill Mazeroski was a phenomenal player, but he makes this list because his sport history moment had nothing to do with all the things he did well.
A great defensive second baseman, Maz was an eight-time Gold Glove winner, but that didn’t matter when he stepped to the plate in the bottom of the ninth in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series against the Yankees.
A Game 7 for the ages saw the Pirates rally for five runs in the bottom of the eighth, only to see New York tie the game in the top of the ninth. Mazeroski stepped to the plate and belted a series-ending home run off Ralph Terry, giving the Pirates a a10-9 win and becoming the first player to hit a walk-off in a World Series Game 7.
Seabiscuit — 1936-40
This doesn’t stick out as one single moment, unless you want to count the match race against War Admiral or his return from injury in 1940, but Seabiscuit captured the energy of a nation in a way no other racehorse has.
Often referred to as undersized and knobby-kneed, Seabiscuit started out with a solid career, but he was sold for just $8,000 as a 3-year-old.
Under a new trainer and jockey Red Pollard, the horse dominated the sport over the next three years, winning nearly every big West Coast race imaginable.
The return from what looked like a career-ending injury for both Seabiscuit and Pollard in 1940 added even more lore to the story of this all-time great competitor.
Dave Roberts — 2004 Boston Red Sox
Twitter was filled with jokes about Dave Roberts’ managerial performance as Los Dodgers skipper against the Boston Red Sox in the 2018 World Series, many hinting that the former Red Sox hero still helped the team win.
The genesis of this idea is Roberts’ role in establishing the Red Sox as a dominant 21st-century franchise. In the 2004 American League Championship Series, with the Red Sox down a run against the New York Yankees, staring at a sweep, Roberts was brought in to pinch run in the ninth inning and swiped second base.
He later came around to score, tying the game, which kick-started the greatest comeback in sports history. Without Roberts’ steal of second, it’s difficult to envision the Red Sox coming back and winning the series. Even if he loses his job in Los Angeles, he’ll be drinking for free in Boston for the rest of his life.
John Paxson — 1992-93 Chicago Bulls
Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant receive a lion’s share of the credit for the Chicago Bulls’ first threepeat, and deservedly so.
However, the final blow of Jordan and Pippen’s third title came from the shooting stroke of role player John Paxson, who averaged 4.2 points per game that season and stepped up when the team needed it.
In the waning seconds in Game 6 of the 1993 NBA Finals against the Phoenix Suns, Jordan was forced to pass out of the backcourt to Pippen, who attempted to drive but was stonewalled. Pippen kicked out to an open Paxson, who drained the jumper to give the Bulls a 99-98 win and prevented a possible Game 7.
Pat Borders — 1992 Toronto Blue Jays
Pat Borders spent 17 seasons in the majors, played for nine different franchises and never made an All-Star team or won a Gold Glove. He played in more than 100 games in a season just four times. None of that mattered when Borders started at catcher in the World Series for the 1992 Blue Jays.
In a thrilling six-game series win over the Atlanta Braves, Borders broke out for one of the best stretches of his journeyman career. He batted .450 with a home run and three doubles, taking home the series MVP trophy.
Borders was on next year’s winning Jays team as well, but didn’t return to the postseason until 2004 as a 41-year-old for the Twins.
Isaiah Thomas — 2016-17 Boston Celtics
After bouncing around the league a little bit with varied success, Isaiah Thomas found his way into the rotation in Boston, playing as a spark plug off the bench for Brad Stevens as the young coach carved out his reputation in his first few years in Boston.
Thomas’ scoring off the bench was critical to the team, and once he was inserted into the starting lineup, he took the league by storm, making the All-Star team in 2015. The following season, he really took off, scoring an astounding 28.9 points per game, including a 53-point effort to top the Wizards in the postseason.
A hip injury has hampered him since, and he hasn’t returned to that form he flashed in Boston.
Chris Davis — 2013 Auburn Tigers
Mostly used in nickel formations and far from a known playmaker on defense, Chris Davis began returning kicks for the Auburn Tigers in his senior season in 2013. He didn’t return a punt or kickoff for a touchdown all season. All that experience led to a shining moment against Alabama, as the Tide lined up for a 57-yard field goal for the win.
The kick fell well short. Davis fielded it and took off for the races, darting up the field to avoid Alabama’s offensive linemen in one of the most dramatic game-winning plays in college football history. The fact that it came against Alabama made it that much sweeter.
Malcolm Butler — 2014 New England Patriots
Malcolm Butler was listed as fifth on the depth chart for the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLIX against the Seattle Seahawks, but he was on the field when the season was on the line after entering the game midway through for a struggling Kyle Arrington.
In one of the most debated plays in recent memory, Butler’s role is often overlooked, but that shouldn’t diminish its impact. With the ball on the Patriots’ 1-yard line and needing a touchdown, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson fired a bullet over the middle that Butler anticipated and picked off, clinching the game for New England.
Cardale Jones — 2014 Ohio State Buckeyes
The Ohio State Buckeyes already were targeted for the College Football Playoff in 2014, led by returning starting quarterback Braxton Miller.
But Miller suffered a shoulder injury and needed surgery, which led to J.T. Barrett stepping in to try and manage the team. Barrett was outstanding throughout the season, but he was injured in the annual clash with Michigan.
That left third-stringer Cardale Jones to quarterback the team in the Big Ten title game. He threw three touchdowns against Wisconsin, cementing the Buckeyes’ place in the playoff. The Buckeyes went on to beat Alabama, advancing to a title game against Oregon, which Ohio State dominated.
Jones chose to come back to school and had an up-and-down final year for Ohio State, but his heroics will go down as some of the unlikeliest in college football history.
Leon Powe — 2007-08 Boston Celtics
Much was made of Boston’s "Big Three" of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce, and it all came together in the form of a championship in their very first season. No championship is won without the help of some role players, and well-known veterans such as James Posey, P.J. Brown and Eddie House helped contribute.
But a strong effort by little-used Leon Powe put the C’s over the top in the 2008 NBA Finals against the Lakers. Powe, who averaged 6.2 points per game over the course of a six-year run in the NBA, scored 21 points in a Game 2 win over L.A., getting to the line 13 times. He chipped in another eight in the series winner four games later.
Gar Heard — 1975-76 Phoenix Suns
Gar Heard was in his first season with the Phoenix Suns, scoring a modest nine points per game for the Western Conference champs.
The Suns squared off against the Boston Celtics in the 1976 NBA Finals, and dropped the initial two games of the series to Boston. The Suns rallied to win the next two home games, tying up the series as they went back to the Boston Garden.
In the final seconds of the fourth quarter of Game 5, John Havlicek drained a jumper that appeared to win the game for the Celtics. Upon further review, the refs put one second back on the clock, giving the Suns a chance to match. The ball was inbounded to a tightly covered Heard, who launched a rainbow shot that found the bottom of the net, forcing overtime.
The Celtics wound up winning the game and the series, meaning Heard’s heroics were largely lost among the story of another Celtics championship.
Kenny Smith — 1994-95 Houston Rockets
The Rockets faced off against an exciting, upstart Orlando Magic team in the 1995 NBA Finals, and while much is made of Nick Anderson’s free-throw line meltdown as the moment that swung the series, Kenny Smith’s Game 1 breakout should not be ignored.
Smith, who averaged 10.4 points per game for the Rockets that season, led the Rockets back from a 20-point hole with seven three-pointers and 23 points. Along with Hakeem Olajuwon’s stellar play and the aforementioned misfortune that befell Orlando, Smith kick-started a four-game sweep to give the Rockets the title.
John Daly — 1991 PGA Championship
John Daly is mostly a caricature of himself these days on the PGA Tour Champions, known for his loud style and long drives. However, that doesn’t diminish his emergence to greatness at the 1991 PGA Championship at Crooked Stick Golf Club in Indiana.
Daly was the ninth and final alternate to get into the field, only receiving a tee time after Nick Price dropped out due to his wife giving birth. Daly showed phenomenal control of his drives over the four-day stretch, something that eluded him throughout his career.
His three-shot victory captured the hearts of the everyman across the country and cemented him as one of the biggest fan favorites in golf history.