Making it to the Hall of Fame, whatever the sport, is seen as the pinnacle of an athlete’s career.
Sure, individual accomplishments and championships are great, but nothing puts the icing on a career cake full of blood, sweat and tears like enshrinement in a Hall of Fame.
Some players, when they are inducted, seem like natural fits. They were drafted fairly high, made it to the big league early and made their mark a lasting one.
However, for every Terry Bradshaw (NFL first overall pick, 1970) or Guy Lafleur (no. 1 overall NHL selection, 1970), there are several picked later who made a name for themselves. In some cases, much, much later.
For that reason, the focus here will be on picks throughout the Big 4 who, through shortsightedness or just plain late-blooming skill, were passed over, yet went on to have Hall of Fame careers despite being taken extremely late.
Here are 20 — five from each league — in no particular order with league and year inducted into their respective hall of fame.
20. Roosevelt Brown – NFL, 1974
We’ll start this list with the NFL player who made it into Canton despite being lowest drafted ever. In 1953, Roosevelt “Rosey” Brown, an offensive tackle at little Morgan State, was picked in the 27th round, 321st overall by the New York Giants. Pretty much an afterthought, in the grand scheme of things. However, all Brown did was play in 162 games for the Giants, make the Pro Bowl nine times, be named to six First Team All-Pro teams and win a pre-Super Bowl NFL championship in 1956. Brown wasn’t just a run-of-the-mill offensive linemen during his heyday, as he sported a moustache and fancy clothing, in contrast to convention, a la a few athletes today. He also had to put up with segregration in an NFL that was predominently white.
19. Dennis Rodman – NBA, 2011
In basketball terms, being a second round pick is considered “late” — because the hoops draft only has two rounds. The Worm wasn’t chosen until the second round (27th overall) by the Detroit Pistons in 1986. Rodman wasn’t even playing NCAA Division I basketball either, as he played for relatively unknown Southeastern Oklahoma State University, a NAIA school. Ever controversial, Rodman was no less a great player, racking up five championships, two NBA Defensive Player of the Year awards and seven All-Defensive First team nominations in his 14-year career. Rodman’s forte, other than getting under the skin of many a friend and foe alike, was rebounding. He led the loop in total rebounds seven years straight, from 1991-92 to 1997-98. Rodman was elected into the Naismith Hall of Fame in 2011.
18. Pavel Bure – NHL, 2012
When the wall was up, it wasn’t common for NHL teams to waste valuable early round draft picks on eastern European or Russian players. There was no guarantee the player would, or could, ever leave the Communist Eastern Bloc even though they may have been junior superstars. One such player was diminutive speedster Pavel Bure, who was toiling for legendary CSKA Moscow in 1989 when the Vancouver Canucks took a flyer and selected him in the sixth round, 113th overall. Bure would play two more seasons with CSKA, where he scored 35 goals in 44 games in his final season (1990-91). After the wall fell and some considerable political and contractual wrangling, Bure made his debut with the Canucks in 1991 and immediately set the NHL on fire. He would score 34 goals his rookie season, followed by back-to-back 60 goal campaigns in 1992-93 and 1993-94. Injuries would hamper his play until retirement in 2003, however, he would score an amazing 437 goals and 779 points in 702 games. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2012.
17. Nolan Ryan – MLB, 1999
As a youngster pitching in high school, Nolan Ryan was a true “diamond in the rough.” One intrepid New York Mets’ scout found him playing in a rural high school game and said in his report that the young Ryan had “the best arm I’ve seen in my life.” Even still, the Mets wouldn’t draft him until the 12th round of the 1965 draft, meaning a whole lot of other teams hadn’t seen much of him either. The Ryan Express roared into the big leagues for good in 1968 and by 1972, with the California Angels, Ryan was leading the league in strikeouts (329 in 284 innings pitched) and walks (157). For seven of eight seasons between 1972 and 1979, Ryan led the American League in strikeouts, topping out at an eye-popping 383 in 1973. Heck, at the age of 42 in 1989, Ryan was still throwing a 100 MPH heater, striking out 301 batters. An eight time all-star, Ryan finished his 27-year career with an all-time best 5,714 Ks. Despite his exploits, he never won a Cy Young award, but he did get into the Hall of Fame in 1999 with 98.8 percent of the votes on the first ballot.
16. Richard Dent – NFL, 2011
With all the star power the Chicago Bears had in 1985, including “Sweetness” Walter Payton and swashbuckling QB Jim McMahon, it was rugged defensive end Richard Dent who would take Super Bowl XX MVP honors. Not bad for a guy who went to Tennessee State University and wasn’t picked until spot 203 (8th round) in the 1983 draft. Dent would play 203 games in the NFL, 170 with the Bears. During that 1985 championship season, Dent topped the league in sacks with 17 and finished his career with 137.5, as well as 671 tackles, 37 forced fumbles and eight interceptions (one for a pick six in 1985). Dent, who was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2011, also knew how to have fun, being a principle in the Bears dance video “the Super Bowl Shuffle.”
15. George Gervin – NBA, 1996
George Gervin wasn’t nicknamed the “Iceman” for nothing. Generally regarded as one of the best shooting guards to ever hit NBA hardwood, Gervin was also known for playing at a high tempo, without breaking a sweat, literally. The man who made the “finger roll” his signature move was also no stranger to controversy. He punched a competitor while playing a game for Eastern Michigan in the early 1970s and was suspended and eventually removed from the team. Despite being a top college shooter, Gervin didn’t get noticed until an ABA scout from the Virginia Squires spotted him playing in the Eastern Basketball Association. He played two seasons in the ABA with the Squires and San Antonio Spurs and was eligible for the 1974 NBA draft, where he had to wait until the third round to hear his name called at no. 40 by Phoenix. Gervin played 10 seasons in the NBA and was the top scorer four times between 1977-78 and 1981-82. He was elected into the Naismith Hall of Fame in 1996.
14. Dominik Hasek – NHL, 2014
The story goes that a young Dominik Hasek, who didn’t even have real skates, began playing hockey in his native Czech Republic at age five, as a goalie on a team of nine-year-olds. By 1980, he became the youngest ever to play professionally at age 16 with his hometown team HC Pardubice. As was the case in the 1980s, NHL teams shied away from drafting players behind the Iron Curtain, with the Chicago Blackhawks waiting until the 10th round of the 1983 draft to select him 199th overall. Eight years would pass before he debuted in the NHL for the Hawks in 1991. He never caught on there, but a trade to Buffalo was the tonic. In 1993-94, Hasek and his highly unorthodox style led the league in goals against average (1.95) and save percentage (.930). He was awarded the first of five career Vezina Trophies that year, and a First All-Star team nomination (he would be nominated five more times). Among his many accomplishments, Hasek would win back-to-back MVP awards in 1997 and 1998, as well as an improbable Olympic gold in 1998 and later two Stanley Cups with Detroit (2002, 2008). He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2014.
13. John Smoltz – MLB, 2015
There haven’t been that many starting staffs in baseball as fearsome as the one the Atlanta Braves rolled out in the 1990s. The Braves made the playoffs eight times between 1991 and 1999, mostly on the arms of celebrated trio Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz. The latter, Smoltz, wasn’t picked until the 22nd round (574th overall) of the 1985 draft by Detroit and would never play a game for his hometown Tigers. Instead, he debuted with Atlanta in 1988 and would play 20 seasons there and one more split between Boston and St. Louis in 2009. Smoltz won the NL Cy Young award in 1996 (the year after the Braves won the World Series) with a 24-8 record and was an all-star four times as a starter. Tommy John surgery forced him to miss the 2000 season and in 2001 he became a closer. In 2002, he topped the senior circuit with 55 saves, in the process becoming just the second pitcher ever to win 20 games in a season and record over 50 saves. He was elected on the first ballot into Cooperstown in 2015.
12. Bart Starr – NFL, 1977
Bryan Bartlett Starr’s football career was nearly over, before it really ever began. In 1954, Starr was going into his junior year as a QB for the Alabama Crimson Tide when he was injured in a hazing incident. His back was so severely injured that he rarely played that year (and would bother him into the pros) and in his senior year he played sparingly for the Tide under J.B. Whitworth as a senior. No surprise, then, that the Green Bay Packers, who believed he had the talent to make it, waited until the 17th round of the 1956 draft to pick Starr 200th overall. He was a back-up with the Packers until 1959, when new coach Vince Lombardi handed him the reins to the offence. Starr never looked back, leading Green Bay to three NFL championships and the first two Super Bowl titles. He was MVP in both those Super Bowls and was the 1966 NFL MVP. He was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1977.
11. Nate Archibald – NBA, 1991
Before he ever set foot on a NBA court, Nathaniel “Tiny” Archibald was a legend on rough-and-tumble South Bronx playgrounds. And had it not been for the intervention of a couple of mentors, a mercurial young Archibald would never have gone to college or played in the NBA. Archibald starred at the University of Texas El Paso in the late 1960s and wasn’t drafted until the second round of the 1970 draft (19th overall) by the Cincinnati Royals. In his third season, 1972-73, with the Kansas City Kings, Archibald became the only player to win the scoring championship (34.0 PPG) as well as be the assists leader (11.4 per game). Throughout his 13-year career, Archibald was an adept passer and decent shooter who was an all-star six times, a member of the All NBA First Team three times and a champion with the Boston Celtics in 1981. He was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame in 1991.
10. Doug Gilmour – NHL, 2011
Doug Gilmour was so small as a youth– he was 5’9″, 140 lbs. in junior hockey — that he was cut from many teams while growing up in his hometown Kingston. His big break came when he asked for his release from the Jr. B Kingston Voyageurs, who employed him as a defenceman and gave him just three minutes of ice time. Amazingly, he was given a spot on the Belleville Bulls as an undrafted player and was switched to the wing. The Cornwall Royals drafted him and he would go on to score the winning goal in the 1981 Memorial Cup. He went undrafted in 1981 and after re-entering the draft in 1982, wasn’t taken until the seventh round (134th overall) by the St. Louis Blues. The Blues waffled on how to employ him, but quickly Gilmour gained a reputation for scoring, two-way play and nastiness, earning the nickname “Killer.” The diminutive forward would play 1,474 regular season games in the NHL and record 1,414 points. He won a Stanley Cup with Calgary in 1989 and nearly led the Toronto Maple Leafs to the finals in 1993, scoring 35 points in 21 games. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2011.
9. Andre Dawson – MLB, 2010
The Hawk, as he was known to his legion of fans, was playing with Florida A&M in 1975 when the Montreal Expos selected him way down in the 11th round, 250th overall. He quickly made a name for himself in Quebec, winning the NL Rookie of the Year award in 1977 when he batted .282 with 19 homers and 65 RBI. Throughout his 21-year career, Dawson was known just as much for his offence as his defence, as he won eight Gold Glove awards and led the NL in outfield putouts three years running (1981-83). His 49 homer, 137 RBI explosion in his first season with the Chicago Cubs (1987) earned him a NL MVP award too. When he retired in 1996, Dawson’s 409 homers and 962 extra base hits ranked him 10th all-time in senior circuit history. He was finally enshrined at Cooperstown in his ninth year of eligibility (2010).
8. Roger Staubach – NFL, 1985
Few players from the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis ever win the Heisman Trophy, much less go on to an illustrious career in the NFL. But, that is exactly what Cincinnati native Roger Staubach did. He won the Heisman with the Midshipmen in 1963, leading the team to a 9-1 record and no. 2 ranking in the nation — the last military player to ever win the prestigious award. Due to his impending military service in the Vietnam war, Staubach wasn’t drafted until the 10th round of the 1964 draft, 129th overall by Dallas. He didn’t join the Cowboys until 1969 and wasn’t the full-time starter until 1971. But, he made up for lost time, winning 10 straight games that season and leading the ‘Boys to a victory in Super Bowl VI (earning MVP honors). Staubach would win another title in Super Bowl XII and would be a Pro Bowler six times in his 11-year career. He was inducted into Canton in 1985.
7. K.C. Jones – NBA, 1989
In 1956, there were only 10 official rounds of the NBA draft, wherein eight players were picked in the first round and one player each in rounds two through 10. Even though he was a co-star with Bill Russell (picked second overall) for the two-time national champion University of San Francisco Dons, K.C. Jones waited until the 13th selection to hear his name called by the Boston Celtics. Along with Russell, who was traded to Boston, the tenacious defender would win eight straight championships with the Celtics from 1959 to 1966. Jones also won an Olympic gold medal with Russell at the 1956 games in Melbourne, Australia, giving he and Russell the distinction (with only five others) of having won a NBA title, NCAA championship and Olympic gold. Jones was enshrined at the basketball hall in Springfield, Mass. in 1989.
6. Luc Robitaille – NHL, 2009
Robitaille was so poor on his blades in junior hockey that most experts predicted he would be drafted late. And, if it weren’t for a persistent Robitaille introducing himself to L.A. Kings legend and G.M. Rogie Vachon, he might not have been drafted at all. As it was, Lucky Luc was selected all the way down at no. 171 in the ninth round of the 1984 draft. Putting a finer point on it, he was picked 102 slots later than fellow Kings’ draftee Tom Glavine — and we all know what Hall of Fame he is in. As it turned out, Robitaille would reward the Kings with plenty of goal scoring in the 14 seasons he would spend there in three different stints. Robitaille won the Calder Trophy in 1987 after scoring 84 points and was an all-star eight times in a Kings uniform. He finished his career as the highest scoring left winger in NHL history, potting 668 goals and adding 726 assists in 1,431 games. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2009.
5. Ryne Sandberg – MLB, 2005
In high school, Ryne Sandberg was more of a stud on the gridiron than the baseball field and even signed a letter of intent to play quarterback at Washington State University. However, the Philadelphia Phillies took a chance on Ryne Sandberg the baseball player, picking him in the 20th round, 511th overall in the 1978 draft. That selection caused Sandberg to forego his football career to pursue baseball. Good choice. The Phillies had little use for him in an infield that included Mike Schmidt and Larry Bowa, so they dealt him to Chicago, where he would bloom at second base. He had all of 13 plate appearances in a Phillies uniform, but would put in 9,276 for Chicago over 15 seasons, retiring as a Cub in 1997. He was an all-star 10 times, a Gold Glover nine times, a Silver Slugger award winner seven times and was NL MVP in 1984, a year he hit a ridiculous 19 triples. His .989 career fielding percentage was a league record for second basemen upon his retirement. He was enshrined at Cooperstown in 2005.
4. Terrell Davis – NFL, 2017
Before he began a star-spangled career in the NFL, Terrell Davis had two big strikes against him. First, pro gridiron scouts were wary of his injury history at the University of Georgia and second, his coach refused to give scouts game film of his exploits. Thus, after a decent collegiate career, he ended up being taken 196th overall (sixth round) by the Denver Broncos in the 1995 draft. It turned out to be a rather prudent selection. T.D. would rush for 1,117 yards in his first season (1995), scoring seven touchdowns. He added another 367 yards on 49 catches and another score. In 1997, his second last full season in the league, Davis broke out in a big way, running for 1,750 yards and 15 TDs. He helped the Broncos win Super Bowl XXXII, rushing for 157 yards and three TDs and copping MVP honors. In 1998, his last great season, Davis tore up NFL defences for 2,008 yards on the ground and an incredible 21 TDs. He was named league MVP for his efforts and would win a second title at Super Bowl XXXIII. Davis will be inducted into the hall in August.
3. Karl Malone – NBA, 2010
Had Karl Malone played for a bigger school than Louisiana Tech, he may have been drafted a lot higher than 13th overall in 1985 (by the Utah Jazz). As it was, Malone helped lead the Bulldogs to a 29-3 record in 1984-85 and their first ever berth in the NCAA DI tournament, where they went to the Sweet 16. The Jazz found an absolute gem at Lucky 13 and premier power forward Malone would play nearly all his 1,476 games in a Jazz uniform (he finished his career with the Lakers in 2003-04, getting in 42 contests). The Mailman delivered regularly for Utah, twice being named league MVP (1997 and 1999) and being named an all-star 14 times in 19 seasons. Malone was also a 11-time All-NBA First Team selection and three-time NBA All-Defensive First Team nominee. He never did win a NBA championship, but was a member of two USA Dream Teams that won gold in Barcelona in 1992 and Atlanta in 1996. Malone went into the Naismith Hall of Fame in 2010.
2. Brett Hull – NHL
Great bloodline, check. Natural talent, check. Commitment to fitness and hockey, oops. Brett Hull, son of the great Bobby, was a prolific scorer in junior hockey, but didn’t hit the weight room much and loved to clown around and have fun more than play. But, in 1983-84, something clicked and he broke the British Columbia Junior Hockey League scoring record with 188 points. Yet, the Calgary Flames remained unconvinced of his eminent talent, waiting until the 117th pick of the sixth round in 1984 to nab Hull. After a brief collegiate career at Minnesota-Duluth, Hull played a couple of decent seasons in Calgary, but was traded to St. Louis at the deadline in 1988. He rewarded the Blues with the finest seasons of his career, scoring 72, 86 and 70 goals from 1989-90 to 1991-92. He won the Hart Trophy for that monster 86-goal campaign in 1990-91. Hull would have plenty of regular season success, but didn’t realize a Stanley Cup until he scored the disputed game and series-winner for Dallas against Buffalo in the 1999 finals (he won another with Detroit in 2002 before retiring in 2005.
1. Mike Piazza – MLB, 2016
As far as future Hall of Famers being picked late are concerned, Mike Piazza wins the award for being the lowest. As a favor from Tommy Lasorda to Piazza’s father, Mike was selected in the 62nd round, 1,360th overall in 1988. The odds, as they say, were not with him to make it to The Show. Originally a first baseman, Piazza made the move to catcher in the Dodgers’ minor league system and the rest is history. He made his full-time debut in 1993 and won NL Rookie of the Year honors for hitting .318 along with 35 home runs and 112 RBI. The slugging catcher would be named to 12 all-star teams in his 16-season career, as well as winning 10 Silver Slugger awards. At the time of his retirement in 2007, Piazza had hit 427 home runs, 396 as a catcher (which is a major league record). Piazza was inducted into Cooperstown in 2016.