Most NCAA college football players are heavily recruited from the time they are in grade 10. There’s a reason why National Signing Day is a big thing in the United States. Sure, it’s a dumb big thing, but it’s still a thing. Only a small fraction of college players will ever make it as a regular pro in the NFL.
Even more unlikely is that some random kid will walk-on to his college team as an unknown and then rise to the ranks of the NFL. However, it does happen. It’s hard to believe that between the thousands of scouts from the NFL and big NCAA programs, that these players would slip through the cracks. Yet every single one of them made their college team by walking on during open tryouts. Then managed to impress enough to crack an NFL roster.
Here are 10 NFL players who walked on in college and made it all the way to “the show.”
10. Logan Mankins, G – Retired
Seven-time NFL Pro Bowl offensive guard Logan Mankins is something of an athletic freak of nature, if you listen to former Fresno State teammate Tyler Clutts:
“Yeah, (Mankins) is as country strong as any person that I’ve ever gone against. He grew up in the mountains outside of Central Valley. He’s soft-spoken and doesn’t say a whole lot, but leads by example. He plays hard and plays nasty, everything that you want out of an offensive lineman,” Clutts said about Mankins.
Mankins played football at a small California school before walking on with the Bulldogs in 2000. He became a four-year starter there and was chosen in the first round, 32nd overall, by New England in 2005. He played in New England until 2013 and was then traded to Tampa Bay. He retired in 2016.
9. Stephen Gostkowski, K – New England Patriots
Just like former Patriots’ teammate Logan Mankins, kicker Stephen Gostkowski got his start in big time football the hard way. A four-time Pro Bowler, two-time Super Bowl champion, and one of the most accurate kickers in the history of the game, Gostkowski walked on with the University of Memphis after a stellar high school career in Mississippi. He actually got a scholarship to play baseball at Memphis, but football would be his entry to professional sport.
He would score 369 points with the Tigers (13th overall in D1-A history) and was drafted by New England in the fourth round of the 2006 draft (118th overall). For his standout career with the Pats, Gostkowski has converted 340 of 388 field goals for a 87.6 percentage, as of the end of the 2017 season. He has also over 99 percent in point-after-touchdown attempts, having only missed six (out of 600) in his decade-plus in the NFL.
8. Rashad Johnson, FS – Retired
Rashad Johnson attended a big time NCAA DI school, but his path there wasn’t paved with gold. After getting zero offers out of high school, the Alabama native was recruited by DII North Alabama, as well as The Citadel. Instead of plugging away in a second-rate football program, the current Tennessee Titans starting free safety chose to walk on with Alabama, as a running back. He never did take any hand-offs in the Crimson Tide’s backfield, converting to safety after his redshirt season and earning a scholarship in 2006. He was a starter his final two seasons with ‘Bama and was drafted in the third round (95th overall) by the Cards in 2009. He played there until the end of 2015 before signing a one-year deal to play with the Titans in 2016. He only started seven games that year, couldn’t find a job in 2017, and retired short afterwards.
7. Ziggy Ansah, DE – Detroit Lions
Of all the players on this list, Ezekiel Nana “Ziggy” Ansah traveled the farthest to fulfill his dreams. Born and raised in Accra, Ghana, Ansah actually played soccer and basketball growing up in Africa and had never seen an American football game. He was urged by a Mormon missionary to pursue basketball at Brigham Young University on an academic scholarship in 2008. He was cut not once, but twice, by the BYU Cougars roundball squad and walked on with the track team, where he ran a 10.91 100-meter.
The Cougars football team took notice and after a crash course in rules and how to dress himself (and a couple of years as an understudy), he eventually became a starter in his senior year. The Detroit Lions selected him fifth overall in the 2013 draft and he has been a regular for them ever since, recording 44 sacks in five seasons (so far).
6. T.J. Ward, SS – Free Agent
We’re going to bet that former Tampa Bay strong safety T.J. Ward might be a bit grateful that he managed to find himself on an NFL roster in 2017. Ward was close to having no football career of any kind at one point in his life. While playing his senior year with prep school powerhouse De La Salle during their 151-game winning streak, Ward suffered a severe knee injury and never got a sniff from DI schools. So, he walked on at Oregon in 2005 and got a scholarship in 2006. In 2010 he was drafted by the Cleveland Browns in second round (38th overall) and started every game of the 2010 season. He has since been a Pro Bowler three times, joining the Broncos in 2014 and was part of their Super Bowl 50 championship team. He spent 2017 with Tampa Bay, but started only five games.
5. Ricky Wagner, OT – Detroit Lions
As a high schooler, Ricky Wagner chose to play more lucrative positions like tight end and defensive end, like any other kid with dreams of glory. But the big (6’6″) dude from Wisconsin couldn’t find traction at either of those positions after walking on with the University of Wisconsin Badgers and was moved to offensive line. A fish out of water at that position, Wagner was a backup offensive tackle in 2009 but was awarded a scholarship in 2010. He started his final three seasons with the Badgers and was drafted by Baltimore in the 2013 draft (fifth round, 168th overall). He provided pass protection for Joe Flacco on a full-time basis from 2014 to 2016, before signing a five-year deal with the Detroit Lions in 2017.
4. Jordy Nelson, WR – Oakland Raiders
In small town Kansas, Jordy Nelson was a “Big Man On Campus,” playing on both sides of the ball (quarterback and defensive back) on his tiny high school’s team. That being said, despite a standout high school career, Nelson had to walk on at Kansas State as safety in 2003 and redshirted. He didn’t end up playing at all for the Wildcats in 2004 and switched to wide receiver thereafter.
It wasn’t until his senior year at K-State that Nelson finally caught fire, catching 122 passes for 1,606 yards and 11 TDs. The Packers drafted him 36th overall in 2008 and the rest is history. He was a Pro Bowler in 2014 and won a Super Bowl (XLV), among his accomplishments. After a career year in 2014 (98 catches, 1,519 yards and 13 TD), Nelson tore his ACL in the 2015 pre-season and missed the entire year. His return in 2016 was promising, but he saw his usage drop considerably in 2017 (partly due to Aaron Rodgers missing much of the season with injuries). The Packers released him ahead of the 2018 season, and he signed a two-year deal with the Oakland Raiders.
3. Clay Matthews, LB – Green Bay Packers
Even though his dad Bruce, a Hall of Famer and 14-time Pro Bowl selection, was his high school football coach, Clay Matthews didn’t even start until he bloomed later. Considered undersized, Matthews got a late start and barely got a whiff from any schools. So, like his famous father, he decided to walk on at USC, redshirting in 2004 and playing mainly on special teams in 2005.
Eventually, he gained a scholarship in 2006 and won over coach Pete Carroll by putting in good work on special teams and spot starts. In 2008, he finally started and in 2009 the Packers drafted him in the first round, 26th overall. Since then, like teammate Jordy Nelson, tough-as-nails Matthews has won a Super Bowl and been a Pro Bowl selection six times himself. He has started almost every game of his career.
2. Antonio Brown, WR – Pittsburgh Steelers
It is a long, long way from South Florida to central Michigan. That is the circuitous route, however, that Antonio Brown took to realize his football dreams. The 2014 leading wide receiver in the NFL, Brown was a four position (RB, QB, WR, KR) standout on his Miami Norland high school team. But, after being denied access to Florida State on academic grounds, Brown headed up to Mount Pleasant, Michigan and Central Michigan University as a walk-on.
Mainly a quarterback, Brown switched to wide receiver without a hitch and within a couple of weeks earned a scholarship. He played three great seasons with the Mid-American Conference school and decided to forego his senior year to enter the NFL draft in 2010, where Pittsburgh picked him 195th overall. He turned out to be a diamond in the rough, garnering six Pro Bowl nods (so far) and being named Steelers’ team MVP three times. He recently led the league in receiving yards again, racking up 1,533 in 2017.
1. J.J. Watt, DE – Houston Texans
Four-time Pro Bowler and three-time Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt has a lot in common with list-mates Antonio Brown and Ricky Wagner. Not quite a true walk-on, Watt did receive a scholarship from CMU, where Antonio Brown ended up. But the Waukesha, WI native dreamed of playing for his home state Wisconsin Badgers, so he left CMU after a mundane season as tight end in 2007 to walk on with the Badgers.
He would precede Ricky Wagner at Wisconsin, and play two stellar seasons as a defensive end in 2009 and 2010 before opting out of his senior year to enter the 2011 draft. Houston scooped up their future superstar with the 11th pick in the first round. “J.J. Swatt” has been nothing but a monster since — when he’s healthy, that is. He’s combined for just eight games in the 2016 and 2017 seasons, battling back and leg injuries.