Despite all of the emphasis that colleges put on finding talent and recruiting the top players, there are plenty of players with enormous potential who somehow fit through the cracks. We’re talking about the players who end up playing at the FCS level in college but end up becoming stars in the NFL, especially quarterbacks. Over the years, there have been a surprising number of quarterbacks who didn’t play major college football but end up making it big in the NFL. Let’s take a look at the top quarterbacks who have made that unusual journey to the top.
Jimmy Garoppolo, Eastern Illinois
It’s a mystery why Big Ten teams weren’t all over Garoppolo coming out of high school. He grew up just outside Chicago, a stone’s throw away from schools like Northwestern and Wisconsin. However, he ended up at Eastern Illinois and became the starter a little more than a month into his freshman season. Four years later, he won the Walter Payton Award for the best FCS player after tossing 53 touchdown passes to just nine interceptions as a senior.
Despite playing at the lower level in college, Garoppolo did enough to be drafted at the end of the Second Round and earn the title of Tom Brady’s backup. Brady’s Deflategate suspension at the start of the 2016 season gave Garoppolo his chance, ultimately leading to a trade to the 49ers midway through the 2017 season. A torn ACL early in the 2018 season meant he had to wait until 2019 for his first full season as a starter. Of course, we all know how that worked out for him and the 49ers.
Ryan Fitzpatrick, Harvard
If you have a chance to go to Harvard, it’s tough to pass it up no matter how good of a quarterback you might be. That’s the path Fitzpatrick took, ultimately winning Ivy League Player of the Year honors and leading Harvard to a 10-0 record and Ivy League championship as a senior.
After scoring a near-perfect score on the famous Wonderlic Test, the Rams took a chance on Fitzpatrick in the 7th Round of the draft. Naturally, he didn’t play much his first few seasons in the league, but he hung around long enough to start 12 games with the Bengals in 2008. He soon became Buffalo’s regular starter for the better part of four seasons. Fitzpatrick was never a star, but he was a viable quarterback at times and a great veteran to have in a backup role. Not a bad career for someone who also has a Harvard degree in his back pocket.
Ken O’Brien, UC Davis
O’Brien had one of the most unlikely careers of any NFL quarterback. He couldn’t get on the field at FCS program Sacramento State, forcing a transfer to UC Davis, which was actually a Division 2 program when he was there. He was an all-conference quarterback three times and led UC Davis to the Division 2 championship game as a senior.
It was enough to catch the eye of the Jets, who drafted him 24th overall in 1983. Naturally, Jets fans were upset on account of never hearing of O’Brien or UC Davis. But they changed their tune a few years later when they had a Pro Bowl quarterback on their hands. He was never a superstar, but for a guy who never played high-level college football, O’Brien exceeded all expectations.
Joe Flacco, Delaware
Flacco wasn’t exactly overlooked coming out of high school. He was a three-sport star and a top-50 quarterback in his class. However, he had trouble getting on the field at Pittsburgh, prompting him to transfer to Delaware. It was there that he became an FCS legend, turning the program around and eventually getting Delaware to the FCS championship game.
With prototypical size and arm strength, it wasn’t a stretch for the Ravens to take him 18th overall, making him one of the highest-drafted FCS quarterbacks ever. A little good fortune made Flacco the starting quarterback in Week 1 of his rookie season. He took the job and ran with it, keeping it for over a decade until Lamar Jackson took it away in 2018. While he never reached elite status compared to his quarterback contemporaries, Flacco did deliver a Super Bowl to Baltimore, earning MVP honors in Super Bowl XLVII.
Tony Romo, Eastern Illinois
From a young age, Romo was a star athlete in a host of sports. However, a losing high school football team in a small Wisconsin town didn’t lead to a lot of attention from major programs. Romo ended up playing at Eastern Illinois but quickly became one of the best quarterbacks at the FCS level. Things really took off his senior season when Romo threw 34 touchdown passes and won the Walter Payton Award for the best FCS player.
Of course, it wasn’t enough to get Romo drafted. He had to spend a few seasons serving as a backup and holder on placekicks before finally getting his first career in the middle of the 2006 season. That season ended with Romo mishandling a snap as the holder, but he had already done enough to lock down the starting job. Romo was the starter in Dallas for nearly a decade, going to four Pro Bowls before retiring to become an instant hit in the broadcast booth.
Carson Wentz, North Dakota State
As a late bloomer who grew up in North Dakota, it’s not a huge shock that Wentz ended up going to North Dakota State. At the time, the Bison had yet to establish themselves as the class of the FCS level. In fact, Wentz redshirted as a freshman and watched on the sidelines as the Bison captured the first of many national championships. He was the backup for two more titles before taking over as the starter in 2014. Wentz helped North Dakota State win two more championships while also graduating with a 4.0 GPA.
As one of the more accomplished quarterbacks in FCS history, the Eagles didn’t blink at taking Wentz second overall in the 2016 Draft. It is the highest an FCS quarterback has ever been drafted. It didn’t take long for Wentz to prove he was ready for the jump from FCS to the NFL. Before a knee injury in 2017, Wentz was on his way to winning the MVP for a team that would eventually win the Super Bowl, albeit without him on the field. While injuries have plagued him, Wentz is no doubt a top quarterback when healthy.
Steve McNair, Alcorn State
For years, McNair carried the torch for FCS quarterbacks and to some extent black quarterbacks in the NFL. Before that, he was a star at Alcorn State, choosing to go there for the chance to play quarterback rather than accept a scholarship from the Florida Gators, who wanted him to play running back. McNair would go on to set all kinds of FCS records over the next four years. As a senior, he threw for over 5,300 yards and 47 touchdown passes. Not only did he win the Walter Payton Award but he also finished third in the Heisman race.
The Houston Oilers drafted McNair third overall in 1995 soon before their move to Tennessee, where they became the Titans. At the time, he was the highest-drafted FCS quarterback and African American quarterback in NFL history. After a few years, McNair became the full-time starter in Tennessee for nearly a decade, going to three Pro Bowls, winning MVP honors, and nearly winning a Super Bowl for the Titans.
Doug Williams, Grambling
Williams is one of the most important trailblazers in NFL history. However, his journey began as a four-year starter at Grambling under legendary coach Eddie Robinson. As a senior, he led the country in passing yards, passing touchdowns, and yards from scrimmage while finishing fourth in the Heisman voting despite playing at the FCS level.
Yet, as a black quarterback in the 1970s, the Buccaneers were the only NFL team to take him seriously, eventually drafting him 17th overall on the advice of offensive coordinator Joe Gibbs. At the time, he was the only African American starting quarterback in the NFL and made less than nearly half the backups in the league. When Gibbs became the head coach in Washington years later, Williams joined him after a stint in the USFL. He was the starter when the Redskins won Super Bowl XXII, making him the first African American quarterback to lead his team to a win in the Super Bowl.
Kurt Warner, Northern Iowa
Warner owns one of the great underdog stories in NFL history. It’s only fitting that it began at an FCS school like Northern Iowa. Even in college, Warner was buried on the depth chart and didn’t actually become a starter until his senior season.
As we know, it was more of the same in the NFL, as Warner had to play in the Arena Football League and NFL Europe before getting a chance in the NFL. As we know, Warner eventually got his chance and turned the Rams into the “Greatest Show on Turf.” Warner won a Super Bowl in his first season as a starter and took home two MVP awards, ultimately playing in the NFL for over a decade and being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Phil Simms, Morehead State
It’s often forgotten that Simms played his college ball at Morehead State, which at the time was a Division 2 program. For his senior season, Morehead State had made the move to 1-AA (which we now call FCS), although the team went 2-6-1. Despite setting a school record for passing yards, Simms had more interceptions than touchdowns and a completion percentage under 50% during his college career.
Nevertheless, the Giants shocked the NFL by drafting him 7th overall. The rest, as they say, is history. Despite some rocky moments along the way, Simms helped guide the Giants to two Super Bowl wins despite an injury keeping him from playing in the second one. He spent his entire career with the Giants, owning many franchise records, and is still considered one of the most underrated quarterbacks in NFL history.