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From Small School to the Big Leagues: Success Stories of NFL Players

From Small School to the Big Leagues: Success Stories of NFL Players
From Small School to the Big Leagues: Success Stories of NFL Players

There are plenty of success stories to feast your eyes on in the NFL of players who have made the leap from small schools to the big leagues in true Hollywood blockbuster-esque fashion. These top talents have defied the odds of the best online sportsbooks and have proven that hard work, determination and downright self-belief can never be overlooked. Throughout this article, we will explore some of the biggest success stories of small school players who went on to become great in the NFL.

Kurt Warner: University of Northern Iowa

One of the most notable underdog stories is Kurt Warner’s emergence into the NFL from the University of Northern Iowa, a small school in the FCS, the Football Championship Subdivision.

It wasn’t plain sailing for Warner after he went undrafted in the NFL, nevertheless, Warner eventually found success for the St. Louis Rams before going on to win two NFL MVP awards, leading the Rams to a Super Bowl victory before being inducted into the NFL hall of fame.

Warner’s son Kade now plays for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFL and enjoyed a full-circle moment playing his first game against the Steelers, the team Kurt Warner lost Super Bowl XLIII to.

Antonio Brown: Central Michigan University

Antonio Brown is another top talent who went unnoticed by some of the big college football team scouts and ended up playing his college career at Central Michigan University. 

Despite Brown being a sixth-round pick in the NFL draft he went on to become one of the league’s most dominant wide receivers in recent history and has been picked for multiple Pro Bowls after leading the league in receptions and receiving yards.

Off-the-field antics and a farewell to forget at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have slightly dampened Brown’s illustrious career, but no one can deny him having one of the greatest small school to the big leagues success stories.

Jerry Rice: Mississippi Valley State University

Despite making the all-star high school team in his home state of Mississippi, Rice like the underdogs mentioned in this article before him went unnoticed and frankly unwanted by top schools around America and what a mistake they made.

Rice, however, proved all the top schools in the nation wrong by catching a record 112 receptions and 1,845 yards including 27 touchdowns for Mississippi Valley State University, gaining national attention in his senior year and earning himself a ninth-placed finish in the Heisman voting. A solid accolade considering the school he went to.

His college antics were so great that there is now a Jerry Rice Award which is dished out annually in the United States to the most outstanding freshman player in the NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) of college football 

After college, Jerry was drafted by the San Francisco Giants as the 16th overall pick in the 1985 NFL draft. There he met up with future Hall-of-Fame quarterback Joe Montana, creating one of the NFL’s most famous quarterback and wide receiver combinations the league has ever seen.

Terrell Owens: University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

A five-time All-Pro, Terrell Owens ranks eighth in NFL history in all-time receptions (1,078) and third in both receiving yards (15,934) and receiving touchdowns (153). and his 16-year NFL career is a sight to behold when you consider he came from a small school like the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

An all-around athletic god, Owens played football, basketball and ran track for the Moccasins, a testament to his athletic abilities. However, it was on the college football field where he truly excelled, in his four seasons at UTC, Owens caught 144 passes for 2,320 yards and 19 touchdowns. He earned All–Southern Conference honors as a senior and was taken by the San Francisco 49ers in the third round of the 1996 NFL draft.

Owens enjoyed several fruitful years in San Francisco and stamped his mark on the NFL as one of the greatest to ever do it, leading the league in receiving touchdowns twice and the team in catches four times, Spells at the Baltimore Ravens and the Philadelphia Eagles followed; he managed to guide the Eagles to Super Bowl XXXIX where they lost to the New England Patriots. 

Conclusion: Hard Work and Determination Pay Dividends

All of the small school to the big league stories above serve as a reminder that talent can be found just about anywhere in America and that hard work and determination can lead to some of the sports world’s greatest-ever achievements. 

Overcoming obstacles and defying the NFL odds are things that all these players achieved and it just goes to show that playing at a small school in college doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t be able to excel at the highest level of professional football. Kurt Warner, Jerry Rice, Antonio Brown and Terrell Owens are all living proof of this.

Damond Talbot

NFL Draft Diamonds was created to assist the underdogs playing the sport. We call them diamonds in the rough. My name is Damond Talbot, I have worked extremely hard to help hundreds of small school players over the past several years, and will continue my mission. We have several contributors on this site, and if they contribute their name and contact will be in the piece above. You can email me at

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