The Biggest Flash-In-The-Pan Athletes And What They're Up To Now

Joel Embiid's rookie season sparked a heated debate in the sports world about whether or not an athlete could be worthy of receiving a seasonal award without having played anywhere close to a full schedule of games in that season. The 76ers forward was undeniably the best first-year player in the NBA, but should the NBA Rookie of the Year trophy really go to someone who only played 31 of his team's 82 games?

The hype of this situation begs the question: Who are the biggest flash-in-the-pan athletes of all-time? Who made the biggest splashes in the smallest sample sizes? And who had the most sizzle with the least steak?

For clarification, a flash-in-the-pan player needs to have shown superstar potential at the highest levels of their sport before, of course, sinking into mediocrity, irrelevance, or worse. A draft bust and prospects who never excelled are different things altogether.

Photo: Metaweb / CC-BY

  • Tim Tebow
    Photo: CNN

    It seemed like a reach when Josh McDaniels traded up for Florida's Heisman-winning quarterback, Tim Tebow, with the 25th pick in the 2010 NFL draft. But for one shining season in 2011, Tebow became a superstar.

    With his unorthodox throwing style and rugged runs, he led the Broncos into an overtime upset with the Pittsburgh Steelers during the AFC Divisional Round.

    However, by the next season he had been replaced by Peyton Manning, and now he's a terrible baseball player in the Mets minor league system (and a somewhat decent commentator for SEC football).

  • Mark Fidrych
    Photo: user uploaded image

    People had zero expectations when Mark Fidrych joined at the Detroit Tigers in 1976, but the charismatic goofball surprisingly wreaked havoc on opposing batters. He was nicknamed "The Bird" for his resemblance to Big Bird from Sesame Street, he swore on live national television, and he could be seen and heard talking to the ball before he threw it.

    Tigers attendance nearly tripled on the days that he pitched. He won 19 games and became American League Rookie of the Year, but during spring training before the 1977 season began, he hurt his knee while "goofing around in the outfield."

    More injuries followed and his previously charming antics grew thin. However, he continued pitching with an undiagnosed tear in his right rotator cuff for the rest of his career and was out of the league before 1981. The rotator cuff injury was finally diagnosed in 1985.

  • Aaron Hernandez
    Photo: flickr / CC0

    Aaron Hernandez was an innocuous 4th round pick by the New England Patriots in the 2010 NFL Draft, but he quickly teamed with Rob Gronkowski to form the most fearsome pair of pass-catching tight ends that the NFL has ever seen.

    Over the course of three NFL seasons, Hernandez racked up 1,956 receiving yards and 18 touchdowns, and even had a 42-yard rush in Super Bowl XLVI. 

    However, after the Patriots lost the 2010 AFC Championship Game to the Baltimore Ravens, things quickly unraveled. The following summer, police raided his home in search of evidence relating to the murder of Odin Lloyd, and Hernandez was arrested and charged with a 2012 double homicide in Boston. He was also convicted of the Lloyd murder and hung himself in prison shortly after being cleared for the double homicide.

  • Buster Douglas
    Photo: Metaweb / CC-BY

    In 1990, Buster Douglas shocked the boxing world by defeating the seemingly invincible Mike Tyson and becoming the new undisputed heavyweight champion of the world - he had caught an already-wobbly Tyson with an uppercut in the 10th round resulting in the surprising knockout.

    Douglas was so unheralded that the only Las Vegas casino willing to take bets on the fight offered 42-1 odds.

    Douglas quickly lost the belt to Evander Holyfield in his very next bout and never returned to championship contention. He closed his career with a string of bizarre publicity-stunt fights without ever actually getting back into shape.

  • Jeremy Lin had already acquired a cult-like following by the time he made his first NBA appearance with the Golden State Warriors in 2009. It marked the first time that an American player of Japanese or Taiwanese descent had played at the game's highest level.

    He then proceeded to bounce back and forth from the D-League to the Houston Rockets and back to the D-League a few more times before landing a backup role for the New York Knicks.

    Injuries and a recommendation from Carmelo Anthony then propelled Lin into the starting lineup and the national spotlight.

    In a 12-game stretch leading up to the 2012 All-Star game, Lin averaged 22.5 points and 8.7 assists; out-dueled John Wall, Deron Williams, and Kobe Bryant; became the focal point of the Knicks offense (and opposing defenses); and made a game-winning shot that compelled his teammate, Metta World Peace, to coin the phrase "Linsanity."

    Despite his popularity in New York, he left for Houston the following off-season and slowly blended back into the league as a pretty-good-but-not-great point guard. The NBA may never again experience such concentrated fervor as it did for Lin's breakout run.

  • Josh Gordon
    Photo: Sports Illustrated

    Despite playing on one of the worst teams in the NFL, Josh "Flash" Gordon turned in one of the greatest receiving lines in NFL history in 2013. He racked up 1,646 yards to lead the league and was named a 1st Team All-Pro. But much like his college career at Baylor that saw him awkwardly shuffled to Utah and eventually to the 2012 Supplemental Draft, his professional career was quickly derailed by failed drug tests. 

    Between two suspensions, he only played 5 games in 2014 before being suspended for the entire 2015 season. He was eventually reinstated for the 2016 season, but elected to focus on his rehabilitation program. With his 2017 reinstatement application denied, Gordon might not ever play in the NFL again.