Making it to the National Football League is a feat of its own for college athletes; just under 2% of NCAA football players are drafted by professional teams.
Still, for many NFL stars, getting onto their college team was a major long shot as well. Even without a scholarship, these athletes were able to succeed based on a mixture of talent, will power, and hustle. Here are five walk-ons who went on to Pro Bowl success in the NFL.
Before he became a three-time Defensive Player of the Year in Houston, J.J. Watt was a tight end seeing limited action over two seasons for Central Michigan. Instead of finishing out his college career on the offensive side of the ball, Watt gave up his starting job to pursue a lifelong dream of playing for the Wisconsin Badgers.
Despite walking on at Madison, Watt received a scholarship while on the scout team during the fall of 2008. After a stellar junior year that earned the defensive lineman a spot on the All-Big Ten first team, he entered the NFL Draft. Picked by the Texans in the first round, Watt went on to make five Pro Bowls during the next decade.
Unlike Watt, Antonio Brown finished his entire college career as a Central Michigan Chippewa. After a lone season at North Carolina Tech Prep as a quarterback, Brown was convinced by CMU head coach Butch Jones to transfer and switch positions to wide receiver as a walk-on.
Although he was making a significant switch, Brown's transition to receiver proved fairly easy, and he earned a scholarship just weeks after arriving on campus. After three seasons, Brown was a two-time first team All-American, and was selected in the sixth round of the NFL Draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers. As arguably the greatest wide receiver of his generation, Brown has made the Pro Bowl seven times during his time in the league.
A member of a football family, Clay Matthews III decided to head to USC. Unlike his father and uncle, Clay Jr. did so as a walk-on, hoping to earn his way to a spot on the Trojans. As a member of USC's scout team, Matthews continually turned down offers from head coach Pete Carroll to take garbage time snaps, hoping to preserve his redshirt status and play a more significant role for the team later on. It would take two seasons for the hard-working Matthews to gain a scholarship in 2006.
The Green Bay Packers made Matthews a first-round selection in the 2009 NFL Draft. Clay would continue to surpass expectations in the NFL, being named to six Pro Bowls and playing a key role on the 2010 Super Bowl winning Packers.
Like J.J. Watt, Mankins originally started out his football career catching passes, as he played tight end throughout high school. Recruited by then-Fresno State head coach Pat Hill, the California native went from walk-on to redshirt freshman starter at left tackle, protecting future number one draft selection David Carr's blind side.
After being selected in the first round by New England in 2005, Mankins would soon become a valued member of an exceptional Patriots offensive line. Blocking in front of Tom Brady for the majority of his eleven-year career, Mankins made a successful switch to left guard. He would go on to make seven Pro Bowls and a spot on the NFL's 2010's All-Decade team.
An alum of the University of Memphis, Stephen Gostkowski actually did have an athletic scholarship to play baseball. Deciding to walk on to the football team, Gostkowski managed to make the cut as a kicker just before his freshman year. After four terrific seasons kicking in college, he declared for the NFL Draft in 2005.
Taken by the Patriots in the fourth round, high placement for a kicker, the man nicknamed Ghost would play fourteen straight seasons in Foxborough, replacing another legend in Adam Vinatieri. While in New England, Gostkowsi won three Super Bowls, made four Pro Bowls, and was a member of the 2010's All-Decade team. After fourteen years as a Patriot, he now kicks for the AFC South-winning Tennessee Titans.