When Terrell Owens takes the field, everyone knows it. He earns the spotlight with his outrageous talent. Other times, the spotlight follows him, from a set of pom-poms snatched from the nearest cheerleader to the tip of a sock-stuffed Sharpie, all the way to the 50-yard-line for a spike on the other team's logo.
Then there are the anti-Owenses. In every sport, we see players who make huge contributions, but fail to gain the recognition given to flashier rivals. Playing in a small media market can do that. So can playing in the shadow of better-known teammates, or ending a great career as a shadow of their former selves, or just going about their business and keeping their mouths shut. It's not that we don't know about these players' ability -- it's that we don't celebrate it enough.
With that in mind, here are my 10 most underappreciated active pro athletes, with an assist from the rest of the Page 2 crew:
Ben Wallace establishes himself as one of the best rebounders and dominant defensive players in the NBA, and for that he gets a list of endorsements a mile long (and a monster contract). Camby does the same, and throws in the scoring and passing ability that Wallace lacks, yet he stays underpaid and perpetually under the radar. Part of Camby's anonymity stems from him struggling with injuries early in his career. But his lack of star power probably has more to do with his lack of a troll-doll haircut, and the lack of championship rings on his fingers. We're all for the '70s-style 'dos making a bigger comeback, but the fact that Camby's teammates can't defend a box of Cocoa Puffs is hardly his fault.
9. Se Ri Pak
By her 30th birthday, she'd won 30 tournaments (24 on the LPGA Tour) and five majors. Better yet, she'd been inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame. As Pak enters the prime of her career, Annika Sorenstam and Karrie Webb are the only two non-Americans with more tournament win. Sorenstam and teenage prodigy Michelle Wie remain the center of attention in women's golf, with Pak often getting lost in the shuffle. Go outside the golf world and you'll hear even less about her. But Pak's success has inspired a wave of talented Korean players who are starting to take over the golf landscape. You could make a case for Pak altering golf more than Tiger Woods has.
How quickly people forget. Thomas was right there with Ken Griffey Jr. and Barry Bonds as the three best players of the 1990s. During a seven-year stretch starting in 1991, his first full season, Thomas' worst effort was .323/.439/.536. He has a bunch of seasons that would fit nicely in Ted Williams' resume. Sure, there have been a number of slugging first basemen in the game over the past 20 years. But Thomas has been better than just about all of them. Yet somehow, because of his age, his injuries or just people's short memory, critics have questioned Thomas' bona fides, wondering if he should be a Hall of Famer when his playing days end.
It's one thing when Terrell Owens and Randy Moss get a lot more ink -- they have the game to back up their squawking. But when Chad Johnson's face gets twice as much airtime, you know Harrison's not getting his due respect. Content to let his game do the talking, Harrison has established himself as one of the best players ever at the wide receiver position. An astonishingly precise route runner, he's a big reason Peyton Manning can chant "Cut that meat!" on TV and get paid for it. Slowed by injuries and probably near the end of his career, Harrison should be remembered as a throwback player in a league rife with divas.
First, Williams was underrated in college, playing with the speedier Dee Brown and his 3-point-bombing wingman Luther Head. When he advanced to the next level, his skeptics doubted whether his big frame would allow him to keep up with quicker opponents. All he's done since then is become a newer version of Isiah Thomas, capable of feeding his teammates at will or breaking his man down with what might be the best crossover since Tim Hardaway. In another era, Williams would be recognized as a superstar. But with Steve Nash, Jason Kidd and Chris Paul all at the height of their powers, Williams has been forced to settle for fourth banana status.
You wouldn't think a New York Yankee with Hall of Fame credentials could ever be underestimated. But such is life when you've played with the likes of A-Rod, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Roger Clemens. Posada ranks up there with Johnny Bench, Yogi Berra, Mickey Cochrane, Bill Dickey, Gary Carter and Carlton Fisk among the best offensive catchers of all-time, non-Piazza division. Yet his quiet demeanor and the fame of his teammates mean Posada's greatness gets overlooked.
Two seasons ago, Shaun Alexander broke the all-time single-season touchdown record with Hutchinson blocking for him. The following season, Hutchinson bolted for Minnesota and Alexander was a shadow of his former self. This year, Adrian Peterson has put up one of the best rookie seasons in NFL history -- with Hutchinson blocking for him. More than just a vote for one road-grading guard, call this a vote for every offensive lineman who ever did years of anonymous grunt work, only to watch all the credit go to his team's "skill position" players. Whatever that means.
He's the best tennis player to ever walk the face of the Earth. But Federer has never sniffed the level of fame and glory smothered on Michael Jordan and other members of sports royalty. The reasons run a mile long: He's squeaky-clean, he's from Switzerland, and he's playing a sport that's near an all-time low in popularity, in which the biggest stars wear skirts. Controversy and turmoil sell better than excellence and consistency, leaving Federer to continue his dominance over the tennis world in relative anonymity.
It's not that Duncan's ability is underrated, it's that people take his greatness for granted. He's not going to dunk on someone's head like KG or Dwight Howard, he can't break a backboard like vintage Shaq could, and he's not the guy everyone talks about when you and your buddies hit the park to play pickup and rant over last night's game. When your signature move is a 15-foot bank shot, you're never going to have much sex appeal. The man Jemele Hill calls "too cerebral to be considered cool" is well known for enjoying renaissance fairs and Dungeons & Dragons. Let's just leave it at that.
Second to Patrick Roy in all-time wins and to Terry Sawchuk in all-time shutouts, Brodeur belongs on the Mount Rushmore of NHL goaltenders. Yet his understated style and the team-first approach of his New Jersey Devils often make him a forgotten man. It's not just hockey's low ratings at play here either: When hockey fans aren't overlooking Brodeur in favor of Roy, they're drooling over Sidney Crosby or the next goal scorer du jour. Ask him about his lack of attention, and Brodeur will tell you he's happy where he is: "People that are flamboyant will get the attention a lot more. I don't like to have the added pressure if I don't have to."