Youngest Professional Athletes in American History
It's not hard to spot a sports phenom in today's culture. Thanks to the internet and social media, we can see a rising star from a mile away.
But the ability to spot talent hasn't always been so easy. For a long time, scouts and fans could only rely on word of mouth and what they read in their local newspapers or saw on TV. Now prodigies can become household names in grade school and start cashing checks before they get a driver's license.
These are the youngest professional athletes in United States history.
Note: Only American athletes or athletes playing in North American pro sports leagues were eligible, and no more than five athletes could be from any sport.
30. Danielle Hunter — 20 Years, 10 months, 15 days
Born: Oct. 29, 1994 (St. Catherine, Jamaica)
Pro highlights: Two-time NFL All-Pro (2018, 2019), two-time NFL Pro Bowl (2018, 2019), PFWA All-Rookie Team (2015)
Bottom line: Danielle Hunter signed with LSU and played his freshman season on mostly special teams when he was just 17 years old. He filled out at 6-foot-5 and 262 pounds and was a star defensive end for the Tigers in his final two years before leaving school early for the NFL draft.
Hunter didn't even come to the United States until he was 8 years old. His family moved from Jamaica to the Houston suburbs, where a local football coach noticed his size and speed at a young age and encouraged him to go out for football.
29. Elmer Angsman — 20 Years, 8 Months, 29 Days
Born: Dec. 11, 1925 (Chicago, Illinois)
Died: April 11, 2002 (age 76, West Palm Beach, Florida)
Pro highlights: Two-time NFL Pro Bowl (1950, 1951), NFL Champion (1974)
Bottom line: Elmer Angsman won a national championship at Notre Dame in 1943 and became the youngest player in history drafted in the NFL in 1946 at just a shade over 20 years old.
Angsman had his best game in the 1947 NFL championship game against the Philadelphia Eagles when the running back went for 159 rushing yards and two touchdowns on just 10 carries. His 15.9 yards per rush average is still an NFL postseason single-game record.
Angsman had a long career as a radio and TV announcer after his career was over and died in 2002, at 76 years old, when he suffered a heart attack during a round of golf.
28. Tremaine Edmunds — 20 Years, 4 Months, 7 Days
Born: May 2, 1998 (Danville, Virginia)
Pro highlights: Two-time NFL Pro Bowl (2019, 2020)
Bottom line: Tremaine Edmunds has been ahead of schedule since he was dominating high school opponents in Virginia, then starring at Virginia Tech, where he left school with one year of eligibility remaining.
Edmunds, a do-it-all linebacker, was the No. 16 overall pick in the 2018 NFL draft by the Buffalo Bills, when he was just 19 years old, and has been a huge part of the team's resurgence in the last few years. In three seasons, he's already made two Pro Bowls.
27. Amobi Okoye — 20 Years, 2 Months, 29 Days
Born: June 10, 1987 (Anambra, Nigeria)
Career: (2007-14, 2016)
Pro highlights: First-round pick (No. 10 overall) in 2007 NFL draft, 16 career sacks in NFL
Bottom line: Amobi Okoye's path to becoming the youngest player in NFL history began when his family immigrated to the United States from Nigeria when he was 12 years old.
Okoye didn't begin playing football until he was a sophomore at Lee High in Hunstville, Alabama, but was an all-state defensive lineman by the time he was a senior. Okoye picked Louisville over Harvard and was so far ahead academically that he began playing college football at just 16 years old — the youngest player in NCAA history.
Okoye also became the youngest player drafted in NFL history when the Houston Texans picked him No. 10 overall in 2007 and is one of only two teenagers picked in NFL history alongside Tremaine Edmunds in 2018.
26. Kobe Bryant — 18 Years, 2 Months, 12 Days
Born: Aug. 23, 1978 (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)
Died: Jan. 26, 2020 (age 41, Calabasas, California)
Pro highlights: Five-time NBA champion (2000-02, 2009, 2010), two-time NBA Finals MVP (2009, 2010), NBA MVP (2008), 18-time NBA All-Star (1998, 2000-16), four-time NBA All-Star MVP (2002, 2007, 2009, 2011), 15-time All-NBA Team (1999-2013), 12-time All-NBA Defensive Team (2000-04, 2006-12)
Bottom line: Few teenage athletes have stirred up the sheer amount of hype and anticipation as the late, great Kobe Bryant did when the Los Angeles Lakers pulled off a draft-day trade to land the Lower Merion High School phenom in 1996.
Bryant's struggles in his first few years are well documented — look no further than his playoff airballs against the Utah Jazz as a rookie — but five years into his career, he'd already delivered two of the five NBA championships he would win in his 20-year career.
25. Jim Browne — 18 Years, 1 Month, 18 Days
Born: Oct. 3, 1930 (Midlothian, Illinois)
Died: April 23, 2003 (age 72, Titusville, Florida)
Pro highlights: None
Bottom line: There wasn't much to Jim Browne's NBA career. He only played two seasons and averaged 1.4 points.
What was remarkable about it was that he played in the NBA at all after bypassing college. He went pro after starring at Chicago's Tilden Tech, first playing for the BAA's Chicago Stags, then playing in the first year of the NBA for the Denver Nuggets in 1949-50.
Browne had a long career as a contractor after his basketball career was over and retired to Florida, where he died in 2003 at 72 years old.
24. Jermaine O'Neal — 18 Years, 1 Month, 3 Days
Born: Oct. 13, 1978 (Columbia, South Carolina)
Career: 18 seasons (1996-2014)
Pro highlights: Six-time NBA All-Star (2002-07), three-time All-NBA Team (2002-04), NBA Most Improved Player (2002)
Bottom line: Jermaine O'Neal came directly from high school to the NBA, joining the Portland Trail Blazers in 1996. It was here that he would get a master class in getting technical fouls from his mentor, Rasheed Wallace.
That O'Neal played the same position as Wallace only helped deepen his understanding of what it took to give the other team two free throws and the ball, although we should also point out that O'Neal eventually became an All-Star in his own right.
In the end, the apprentice could never quite match the master. O'Neal's tech total (146) isn't half of what Wallace (317) incurred in his career.
23. Andrew Bynum — 18 Years, 6 Days
Born: Oct. 27, 1987 (Plainsboro Township, New Jersey)
Pro highlights: Two-time NBA champion (2009, 2010), NBA All-Star (2012), All-NBA Team (2012)
Bottom line: The youngest player to ever take the court in an NBA game is center Andrew Bynum, who subsequently also became one of the most frustrating players to watch in recent NBA memory.
Bynum was still over three months shy of his 18th birthday when the Los Angeles Lakers selected him No. 10 overall in the 2005 NBA draft out of St. Joseph High School in New Jersey. He remained the NBA's youngest player his first two seasons after the league did away with drafting players straight out of high school.
But Bynum didn't fulfill all that superstar promise. He averaged 11.5 points and 7.7 rebounds in 418 NBA games over eight seasons before he was out of the league.
22. Ross Johnstone — 17 Years, 6 Months, 27 Days
Born: April 7, 1926 (Montreal, Quebec, Canada)
Died: Dec. 31, 2009 (age 83, York, Ontario, Canada)
Pro highlights: Stanley Cup champion (1945)
Bottom line: Ross Johnstone had a brief stint in the NHL, but it was a memorable one, including 24 games with the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1944-45 season that ended with his name etched on the Stanley Cup.
Johnstone only played briefly in the NHL (42 total games), but he spent over a decade playing in the minor leagues, extending his pro career 14 years in the process.
21. Don Raleigh — 17 Years, 4 Months, 17 Days
Born: June 27, 1926 (Kenora, Ontario, Canada)
Died: Aug. 21, 2012 (age 86, Kingston, Ontario, Canada)
Pro highlights: Two-time NHL All-Star (1951, 1954), Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame
Bottom line: The original "Bones" wasn't Jim McCoy of "Star Trek." It was New York Rangers center Don Raleigh, who began playing in the NHL at just 17 years old.
Raleigh earned his nickname because he played the entirety of his 535-game career at around 5-foot-11 and 150 pounds — rail-thin, even by that era's standards — but he still was a two-time NHL All-Star.
In 2010, Raleigh suffered a fall that severely affected his health, and he died in 2012, at 86 years old.
20. Wayne Gretzky — 17 Years, 4 Months, 16 Days
Born: Jan. 26, 1961 (Brantford, Ontario, Canada)
Pro highlights: Four-time Stanley Cup champion (1984, 1985, 1987, 1988), nine-time Hart Trophy winner (1980-87, 1989), two-time Conn Smythe Trophy winner (1985, 1988), five-time Lady Byng Trophy winner (1980, 1991, 1992, 1994, 1999), three-time NHL All-Star Game MVP (1983, 1989, 1999), 18-time NHL All-Star (1980-86, 1988-99)
Bottom line: The NHL was scared of signing a 17-year-old. The upstart World Hockey Association was not, and that's how the Indianapolis Racers secured the rights to Wayne Gretzky when they signed him to a whopping seven-year, $1.75 million contract in 1978.
He only played eight games for the Racers, who were losing a reported $40,000 per game. But Gretzky managed just fine. The Racers sold his rights to the Edmonton Oilers, and he became the leading scorer in NHL history.
"The Great One" is a great example of the arbitrary rules of age in pro sports leagues, because it's tough to make an argument that Gretzky wouldn't have been able to play at 17 in NHL, just like he did at 18.
19. Kaz Grala — 17 Years, 3 Months, 1 Day
Born: Dec. 29, 1998 (Boston, Massachusetts)
Pro highlights: NASCAR Playoffs (2017)
Bottom line: Kaz Grala set the record as the youngest winner in the history of Daytona International Speedway when he won the 2017 series opener in the NASCAR Trucks Series race at just 18 years old.
Winning races at a young age is nothing new for Grala, a Boston native, who was the youngest winner in the history of the UARA-Stars series at 14 years old and was the youngest racer to ever compete in a race in the International Motor Sports Association at 15 years old.
18. Harry Lumley — 17 Years, 1 Month, 12 Days
Born: Nov. 11, 1926 (Owen Sound, Ontario, Canada)
Died: Sept. 13, 1998 (age 71, Owen Sound, Ontario, Canada)
Pro highlights: Stanley Cup champion (1950), three-time NHL All-Star (1951, 1954, 1955), Vezina Trophy winner (1954), Hockey Hall of Fame
Bottom line: Harry Lumley's path to being one of the greatest goaltenders in NHL history started right after his 17th birthday.
Lumley's almost 20-year long career was filled with highlights. He won a Stanley Cup championship with the Detroit Red Wings in 1950, won a Vezina Trophy as the NHL's top goaltender in 1954 and was a three-time All-Star.
Lumley, who died in 1998 at 71 years old, was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1980. He was the first goaltender in NHL history to win 300 games and also the first to lose 300 games.
17. Joey Logano — 16 Years, 11 Months, 4 Days
Born: May 24, 1990 (Middletown, Connecticut)
Pro highlights: Daytona 500 champion (2015), Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion (2018)
Bottom line: For his generation, Connecticut native Joey Logano has essentially been NASCAR's version of LeBron James — a young phenomenon that always seemed ahead of the curve.
Logano took advantage of a NASCAR rule allowing drivers 16 years and older to race in 2007 to make his pro debut just shy of his 17th birthday in the Grand National Division.
The hype around Logano has been real. He's won 27 times on NASCAR's top circuit since making his debut in 2008 and was the NASCAR Cup Series champion in 2018.
16. Roger McKee — 16 years, 11 Months, 2 Days
Born: Sept. 16, 1926 (Shelby, North Carolina)
Died: Sept. 1, 2014 (age 87, Shelby, North Carolina)
Pro highlights: None
Bottom line: Roger McKee was part of a large group of teenagers who made it to the majors during World War II. He began his career at 16 years old in 1943, and it was over in 1944, just a few weeks after his 18th birthday.
McKee played both of his seasons for the Philadelphia Phillies, and in his first year, the left-hander became the youngest player to ever throw a complete-game victory at 17 years old. The record still stands to this day.
McKee moved to the outfield and played his final nine seasons of pro baseball in the minor leagues, where he had a .287 batting average and hit 115 home runs.
15. Armand 'Bep' Guidolin — 16 Years, 11 Months
Born: Dec. 9, 1925 (Thorold, Ontario, Canada)
Died: Nov. 24, 2008 (age 82, Barrie, Ontario, Canada)
Pro highlights: None
Bottom line: Just like in Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League looked to younger players to fill the void in its ranks from World War II. Enter Armand "Bep" Guidolin, who is still the youngest player in NHL history by taking the ice with the Boston Bruins one month before his 17th birthday in 1942.
Guidolin was drummed out of the league after a decade because he was one of the more outspoken voices behind the formation of a players union. But he still played another nine years in the minor leagues.
He eventually became an NHL head coach and led the Bruins to the Stanley Cup Final in 1974, where they lost to the Philadelphia Flyers in six games.
14. Putsy Caballero — 16 Years, 10 Months, 9 Days
Born: Nov. 5, 1927 (New Orleans, Louisiana)
Died: Dec. 8, 2016 (age 89, New Orleans, Louisiana)
Career: 1944-45, 1947-52
Pro highlights: National League Pennant (1950)
Bottom line: Putsy Caballero was part of the Philadelphia Phillies' legendary "Whiz Kids" in 1950 — a young lineup that won the National League pennant before losing to the New York Yankees in the World Series.
Caballero was set to play baseball and basketball for LSU, but the Phillies offered him an $8,000 signing bonus in 1944, and he was put on the MLB roster.
Caballero still holds the record for being the youngest third baseman to start a game in MLB history.
13. Jim Derrington — 16 Years, 10 Months, 1 Day
Born: Nov. 28, 1939 (Compton, California)
Died: March 12, 2020 (age 80, Pomona, California)
Pro highlights: None
Bottom line: Jim Derrington skipped two grades growing up so he was a 16-year-old senior in 1956 when the Chicago White Sox signed the left-handed pitcher with a $78,000 bonus, one of the largest MLB signing bonuses of his time.
Because of a "bonus rule" (any amateur player from 1947 to 1965 who got a signing bonus in excess of $4,000 went straight to the Show), the White Sox were forced to keep Derrington on the big league roster for a certain period of time. He became the youngest pitcher in American League history to start a game and the youngest player in AL history to record a hit.
An elbow injury ended Derrington's career when he was just 21 years old.
12. Carl Scheib — 16 Years, 8 Months, 5 Days
Born: Jan. 1, 1927 (Gratz, Pennsylvania)
Died: March 24, 2018 (age 91, San Antonio, Texas)
Career: 1943, 1947-54
Pro highlights: MLB record batting average for pitcher, single season at least 50 at-bats (.396 BA, 1951)
Bottom line: Pennsylvania native Carl Scheib made his debut for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1943 and was the youngest player in MLB history until Joe Nuxhall broke his record the next year.
Scheib was sent back down to the minor leagues in 1944 but clawed his way back to the majors in 1947 and pitched until 1954.
One of the ways Scheib stretched out his career was his ability to hit. He set an MLB record for batting average for a pitcher with at least 50 at-bats in a season in 1951.
11. Lamelo Ball — 16 Years, 3 Months, 19 Days
Born: Aug. 22, 2001 (Anaheim, California)
Pro highlights: NBA Rookie of the Year (2021), NBA All-Rookie Team (2021), NBL Rookie of the Year (2020), JBA champion (2018), JBA All-Star (2018)
Bottom line: Lamelo Ball began playing pro basketball in Lithuania when he was just 16 years old and is believed to be the youngest American basketball player to ever sign a professional contract. He was the No. 3 overall pick in the 2020 NBA draft by the Charlotte Hornets and became the 2021 NBA Rookie of the Year.
If you want to know more about Lamelo just read this great piece by GQ's Tyler R. Tynes, and you'll understand why his confidence level is so high.
He's not the only one in his family to play in the NBA. Older brother Lonzo was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2017 NBA draft, and his other older brother, LiAngelo, just got done turning heads with the Hornets in the NBA Summer League.
10. Kanak Jha — 16 Years, 1 Month, 27 Days
Born: June 19, 2000 (Milpitas, California)
Sport: Table tennis
Pro highlights: Two-time U.S. Olympian (2016, 2020)
Bottom line: Table tennis phenom Kanak Jha won four consecutive national titles from 2016 to 2019. And the California native has been the best player in the United States by a large margin since he was 16 years old.
Janak also has the distinction of being the first U.S. Olympian born in the 2000s. He made his first Olympic team in 2016 and was on the team again in 2021. He won three medals at the 2019 Pan Am Games — gold in team and two bronzes in singles and mixed doubles.
9. Michelle Wie — 15 Years, 11 Months, 21 Days
Born: Oct. 11, 1989 (Honolulu, Hawaii)
Pro highlights: U.S. Women's Open Champion (2014)
Bottom line: Michelle Wie was only 15 years old when she turned pro in 2005, garnering the hype, media attention and endorsement deals usually reserved for basketball phenoms.
Since the LPGA Tour only allows full-time membership at 18 years old, Wie spent the next four years playing in a limited number of LPGA events. But that didn't impact her bottom line. Wie still made a reported $19 million in 2007.
And in 2014, Wie won her only major (so far) at the U.S. Women's Open.
8. Michael Chang — 15 Years, 11 Months
Born: Feb. 22, 1972 (Hoboken, New Jersey)
Pro highlights: French Open champion (1989), Australian Open runner-up (1996), U.S. Open runner-up (1996), Davis Cup champion (1990)
Bottom line: Michael Chang is still the youngest winner of a Grand Slam singles title in history, bringing home the 1989 French Open championship when he was just 17 years old.
Chang's career wasn't just a flash in the pan despite that being his only Grand slam title. He made it to Grand Slam singles finals three more times, once more at the French Open, and once each at the Australian Open and the U.S. Open.
He also had one of the more baller shoe deals of any tennis player in history, inking a multimillion-dollar endorsement contract with Reebok to wear their Reebok Victory Pumps.
7. Joe Nuxhall — 15 years, 10 Months, 19 Days
Born: July 30, 1928 (Hamilton, Ohio)
Died: Nov. 15, 2007 (age 79, Fairfield, Ohio)
Career: 1944, 1952-66
Pro highlights: Two-time MLB All-Star (1955, 1956), Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame
Bottom line: By the time Joe Nuxhall was a freshman in high school, he was already 6-foot-2 and close to 200 pounds. As a left-handed pitcher with velocity but not control, he was getting on the radar of baseball scouts.
Nuxhall got his opportunity sooner than later with his home state Cincinnati Reds because of World War II and made his Major League Baseball debut a few months shy of his 16th birthday.
Nuxhall was sent to the minor leagues when MLB players returned from World War II but worked his way back up to the big leagues in 1952, at 23 years old, and played 14 seasons. He's still the youngest player in MLB history — a record that will almost certainly never be broken.
6. Aaron Cervantes — 15 Years, 5 Days
Born: March 20, 2002 (Chino HIlls, California)
Pro highlights: United States U17 National Team (2018, 2019)
Bottom line: Orange County SC of the USL Championship signed Aaron Cervantes just a few days after he turned 15 years old in 2018, and in doing so, head coach Braeden Cloutier may have found America's next elite goaltender.
Cervantes earned a spot with the U.S. U17 National Team in 2018-19 and made 17 appearances for Orange County SC from 2018 to 2020 before signing with Rangers F.C. of the Scottish Premiership in a deal that could be worth close to $1 million.
5. Freddy Adu — 14 Years, 4 Months, 29 Days
Born: June 2, 1989 (Tema, Ghana)
Pro highlights: FIFA Confederations Cup runner-up (2009), two-time CONCACAF Gold Cup runner-up (2009, 2011)
Bottom line: Freddy Adu became a worldwide soccer sensation in 2004 when he signed with D.C. United of the MLS at just 14 years old.
Adu, who was born in Ghana, emigrated to the United States with his mother when he was 8 years old and drew the attention of pro clubs when he dominated an international competition against the best youth clubs from Italy when he was 13.
Adu has had a lengthy career as a pro soccer player and even earned 17 caps for the U.S. men's national team.
4. Francis Jacobs — 14 Years, 4 Months, 28 Days
Born: Feb. 28, 2005 (Laguna Beach, California)
Pro highlights: None
Bottom line: Francis Jacobs became the youngest professional soccer player in U.S. history in 2019 when he beat Freddy Adu's record by just one day when he signed with Orange County SC of the USL Championship.
Jacobs only made two appearances for Orange County SC in 2020 after playing for youth club Irvine Strikers for four years.
Orange County SC coach Braeden Cloutier has a knack for spotting talent at a young age. He also signed elite goaltender Aaron Cervantes in 2018, when he was just 15 years old.
3. Venus Williams — 14 Years, 4 Months, 14 Days
Born: June 17, 1980 (Lynwood, California)
Pro highlights: Four-time Wimbledon champion (2000, 2001, 2005, 2007, 2008), U.S. Open champion (2000, 2001), Olympic singles champion (2000)
Bottom line: Both Venus Williams and her younger sister, Serena Williams, went pro when they were 14 years old. They have combined for 29 Grand Slam singles titles (so far) in their careers.
Five of those Grand Slam victories belong to Venus, with four of them coming at Wimbledon and two more at the U.S. Open.
2. Serena Williams — 14 years, 1 Month, 2 Days
Born: Sept. 26, 1981 (Saginaw, Michigan)
Pro highlights: Seven-time Australian Open champion (2003, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2015, 2017), three-time French Open champion (2002, 2013, 2015), seven-time Wimbledon champion (2002, 2003, 2009, 2010, 2012, 2015, 2016), six-time U.S. Open champion (1999, 2002, 2008, 2012-14), Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year (2015)
Bottom line: Serena Williams turned pro shortly after her 14th birthday and carved out a career as the greatest women's tennis player of all time — 23 Grand Slam singles titles and $94.5 million in career winnings.
Serena's older sister, Venus Williams, also turned pro when she was 14 years old under the guidance of their father and coach, Richard Williams, who is portrayed by Will Smith in the upcoming film "King Richard." And it's already generating Oscar buzz.
1. Jennifer Capriati: 13 Years, 11 Months
Born: March 29, 1976 (New York, New York)
Pro highlights: Two-time Australian Open champion (2001, 2002), French Open champion (2001), Olympic singles champion (1992)
Bottom line: Jennifer Capriati did not only become a professional tennis player when she was 13 years old. She also was on the cover of Sports Illustrated after she made the finals of the first two pro tournaments she entered.
While Capriati's career ended up being a cautionary tale about how not to handle a child sports prodigy, that overshadows the fact that her career had a ton of incredible landmarks.
She was the youngest player to ever make it into the top 10 of the world rankings and won three Grand Slam singles titles — back-to-back wins at the Australian Open in 2001 and 2002 and at the French Open in 2001.