The NFL draft is around the corner — and if you’re a sports junkie, you’re trying to nose out the next big talent. There are two obvious types you might look for: top-rated talent (givens) and hidden gems. I’ll throw a wrinkle in that calculation. Don’t just look at hungry up-and-comers like Teddy Bridgewater and Jadaveon Clowney, or the unknowns — the future Tom Bradys and Russell Wilsons. Think about a third path to the top (in football and other major sports) — one that relies on bad genes. Well, not really bad genes. But just good genes instead of great ones.
You see, while there are more family ties in sports than ever before, the surest way not to become a star might be to be the son of a truly epic player. Indeed, you never hear about Michael Jordan’s, Wilt Chamberlain’s or Magic Johnson’s son playing in the NBA; Babe Ruth’s or Hank Aaron’s son breaking records in baseball; or Joe Montana’s or Terry Bradshaw’s son winning the Heisman Trophy or the Super Bowl. Put simply, there’s no baton being handed from one all-time great father to an all-time great son. Instead, an increasing number of the truly dominant (not just pretty good) players in sports are the sons of pretty good — or even mediocre — former pro athletes.
- Think Kobe Bryant — until recently, he was the best basketball player on the planet. Kobe’s dad was a former first-round draft pick named Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, who played pro ball into his 50s, but never became an all-time great — or even a Hall of Famer, for that matter.
- Same with quarterback Peyton Manning, five-time NFL Most Valuable Player — and for many people’s money, the best football player of the last 20 years. Peyton’s dad, Archie, was drafted in the first round out of college but never achieved professional greatness. Instead, he got stuck on a horrific set of pro teams that never did well.
- And in baseball, before his steroid scandal engulfed him, the best player in eons was Barry Bonds. “Mr. 30-30” before he was “Mr. Moody” or “Mr. Steroid,” the home-run king was also the son of a pro athlete who never quite became an all-time great. Indeed, Barry’s dad, Bobby Bonds, was a talented pro baseball player who smashed more than 300 home runs and made a few all-star teams, but never achieved all-time greatness like his teammate Willie Mays.
So what’s the secret? It goes like this: As the sons of talented pro athletes, the Kobes, Peytons and Barrys of the world — not to mention the Andrew Lucks and (he could have been an all-time great) Ken Griffeys of the world — are all blessed with the native athletic talent to compete. They also inherit a confidence that they can make it to the pros. But in their fathers’ relatively modest athletic success, sons often find fodder for their own epic ambition. Instead of thinking, “I could never be as good as my dad, so I won’t even try,” they think (I’m guessing), “Wouldn’t it be great to not just make it, but excel like the superstars my dad played with or against (e.g., Willie Mays, Dr. J, Joe Montana)?” These are the guys spurred on by their dad’s record, rather than cowed by it. As the LA Times wrote in 1990 of Barry Bonds: ”What he’s doing, some say, is fighting the battles that his father endured. Bobby Bonds, remember, was going to be the next Willie Mays.”
In the meantime, if you want to guess at who could be the next big name in football besides classic college football superstars and hidden gems, look out for the son of an average former player. And in the basketball draft this summer, keep your eyes focused on two more sons of just-OK former NBA players like Sonny Parker and Mitchell Wiggins. They’ve become the epic talents known as Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins.
Bonus: There has been only one exception in the four major American sports to this combo of a non-all-time great father and superstar son (i.e. a superstar father and a superstar son). We’ll let you guess in the comments below and offer an OZY shirt to the first three to get it right.
Why you should care
Because it turns out having a parent who was almost big-time might be the best recipe for you going big-time.