The Smallest Athletes Who Defy Our Expectations of Size
It doesn’t always take a gigantic body to grow into a larger-than-life athlete.
There is a select group of individuals competing in sports on all ends of the spectrum and coming from all corners of the globe who set the bar high when it comes to overcoming adversity.
These men and women pay no mind to the belief that it takes a physically superior stature – be it height, weight or strength – to excel in sports.
The fearless approach this group of Davids take to compete in their respective league of Goliaths prove is all the proof we need to believe in the power of mind over matter.
1. Danny Woodhead, Football
Standing at 5’7” (and 3/4 to be exact), NFL running back Danny Woodhead is the last person to conjure images of a bruiser. Woodhead has spent his entire life proving that we should not judge a book by its cover.
The Nebraska native played Division II football in his home state at Chadron State where he became the all-time rushing leader in D-II history along with earning the Harlon Hill Trophy (MVP) twice. Woodhead played nine seasons in the NFL, including a key role in helping the New England Patriots reach Super Bowl XLVI.
Best of all, he can pass as regular dude Danny off the field. Who says small doesn’t have its perks?
2. Nate Robinson, Basketball
NBA journeyman Nate Robinson arguably had his best season in his fourth year in the league, average a career high 17.2 ppg while averaging 29.9 minutes with the New York Knicks.
Impressive as that season was for the 5’9” point guard, it was his high-flying theatrics that we’ll remember him most for.
What Robinson lacks for in height, he more than made up for with a whopping 43.5 in vertical! His insane hops gave us one of the greatest blocks in NBA history on the 7’6” Yao Ming.
His hangtime also allowed for some of the craftiest dunks we’ve ever seen, which also earned him a record three NBA Dunk Contest championships.
3. Jose Altuve, Baseball
Time and time again Houston Astros superstar Jose Altuve was told he was too small to play baseball. In fact, the 5’6” second baseman tried attending the Astros’ training camp twice but was turned away both times due to his size (and a lack of belief that he was even old enough to try out).
Fast forward to 2017, and the man whom the ‘Stros believed too short to play was standing front and center as the AL MVP, hoisting the World Series trophy.
From bringing the ‘Stros their first World Series pennant to individual honors like his Golden Glove (2015), five All-Star selections and four Silver Slugger Awards, Altuve has had a storybook season unlike any other.
4. Lionel Messi, Soccer
It may be hard for short soccer players to win a 50-50 ball in the air, but don’t try telling Lionel Messi that height is any more of a hindrance than that.
Messi is officially recorded at 5’7”, but he’s as giant as the (association) football gods themselves talent-wise.
Messi is widely considered the greatest player in the world and has a legitimate case – just look at his five Ballon d’Or awards and five European Golden Shoe awards – for the GOAT title.
The pride and join of Argentina and Barcelona is a special talent that fans from around the world have no trouble rooting on.
5. Isaiah Thomas, Basketball
The story of NBA point guard Isaiah Thomas’s journey from relative obscurity to stardom is incredible. Despite a fantastic collegiate career at Washington, the 5’9” lefty out of Washington was largely looked over by teams and was not picked until the last pick of the 2011 NBA Draft.
After showing flashes of brilliance with the Sacramento Kings and Phoenix Suns, he reached new heights with the Boston Celtics. There, Thomas earned two All-Star selections, making him the lowest draft pick and shortest player to earn the honor.
6. Steve Smith, Football
There always seem to be a small sample of 5’9”-5’11” wide receivers in the NFL who rep the little guy (humans not chiseled in Zeus’s image, at least). Watching speedy, crafty receivers like Wes Welker and DeSean Jackson is great, but they pale in comparison to what Steve Smith Sr. brought to the game.
For 16 years, the 5’9” Smith was almost certainly the smallest man on the field at all times. He also played with the biggest heart.
In his fourth year in the league (2004), Smith suffered a broken fibula only to earn Comeback Player of the Year, leading the league in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns.
In 2015, a 36-year-old Smith tore his ACL. Unwilling to retire on such a sour note, Smith came back for one final season, totaling 799 receiving yards on an otherwise decimated team.
Few have talked more trash and backed every word of it up like this beast.
7. Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson, MMA
It’s widely agreed that, as much talent as top name MMA organizations around the world have, the UFC has the deepest and most talented pool of fighters.
That makes UFC Flyweight Champion Demetrious “Might Mouse” Johnson’s designation as the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world even more spectacular.
When thinking of what an imposing athlete looks like, Mighty Mouse doesn’t quite fit the bill at 5’3” and 125 lb… Good luck telling him that.
Mighty Mouse only suffered two losses while competing in the bantamweight division, including a championship bout before cutting weight to compete in the flyweight division. Since the switch, Mighty Mouse hasn’t lost a match.
8. David Eckstein, Baseball
Score one for the little guy. Wait, make that two!
The average height of an MLB shortstop is over 6’0”. That didn’t stop 5’6” David Eckstein from collecting two World Series pennants during a 10-year playing career.
Eckstein won his first World Series with the Anaheim Angels (2002) before joining the St. Louis Cardinals where he won his second (2006). Not only was that second championship his second straight All-Star selection, he played so well on the big stage that he was named the World Series MVP.
9. Brian Gionta, Hockey
It seems that, if for nothing else, NHL players love to prove how much tougher they are than the rest of the human race by enduring ridiculously long careers while throwing big hits and playing through gritty injuries.
Leading by example is 5’7”, 178 lb journeyman Brian Gionta.
Gionta began his professional career in 2001 with the New Jersey Devils where he played seven seasons before spending five years with the Montreal Canadiens and three with the Buffalo Sabres.
Like a true sports hero, Gionta turned down numerous offers during the 2017-18 season so that he could adhere to the new NHL rule barring its players from participation.
After captaining Team USA’s hockey team, he returned to play the remainder of the season with the Boston Bruins.
Leaving big money like that Gionta did to represent his country is a Patriotic as it gets.
10. Simone Biles, Gymnastics
Gymnasts are often known to be on the smaller side compared to the average woman, but to call 4’8” Simone Biles “compact” would be the understatement of the century.
Biles was the shortest gymnast for Team USA at the 2016 Olympics.
After years of collecting golds at the World Championships, Biles translated those efforts into an outstanding five Olympics medals at the 2016 Games.
This dominant performance put Biles in exclusive company, joining Gabby Douglas as the only Americans to claim gold in the individual and team all-around in the same year.
11. Danny Padilla, Bodybuilding
Danny “The Giant Killer” Padilla has the name and build of a man born for a role in Game of Thrones.
At 5’2”, Padilla is the last person one would expect to take the stage at a bodybuilding competition, especially ones as prestigious as Mr. Universe and Mr. Olympia.
It’s his unassuming stature, at least when on stage with the likes of such greats as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Robby Robinson, is what earned him his “Giant Killer” nickname and made him such a legend.
For anyone using size as an excuse for a lack of success in athletics, check Padilla’s resume first.
12. Darren Sproles, Football
There is a plethora of scat backs – speedy, often undersized running backs – who serve various complementary roles at the NFL level. Veteran Darren Sproles is the quintessential speedster teams hope they have the good fortune of landing.
Sproles, all 5’6” and 190 lb of him, flashes his lightning speed any time he touches the rock.
The light-footed back holds individual records with all three teams he’s played on (Chargers, Saints, Eagles), holds the NFL record for all-purpose yards in a season (2,696) and was a member of the Eagles’ Super Bowl LII championship team.
13. Earl Boykins, Basketball
Simply reaching the NBA would be a dream come true for basketball players around the world. It would seem that’s probably as good as it could get for someone like the 5’5”, 135 lb Early Boykins when he played his first game in 1998…
Fast forward to 2002 when Boykins finally called it a career after 13 productive seasons (he missed a year playing pro overseas) in the NBA. Turns out for a little guy with a heart that big, nothing short of excellence will do.
14. Camille Leblanc-Bazinet, CrossFit
People love to poke fun at anyone who mentions CrossFit because, let’s be honest, the only thing a CrossFitter loves more than talking about CrossFit is talking about themselves doing CrossFit.
Good luck cracking a joke in the company of the 2014 CrossFit Games champion, Canada’s Camille Leblanc-Bazinet.
In a competition centered entirely around being freakishly athletic and chucking around weight like it’s a playground, Leblanc-Bazinet crushes the competition despite here unimposing 5’2” stature.
Of course, the “unimposing” part only lasts until lasts until getting close enough to realize that every inch of her is covered in muscle.
15. Landon Donovan, Soccer
Landon Donovan did something for the sport of soccer that many around the world would have believed impossible prior to his joining the MLS in 2001 – he helped popularize soccer in the States.
The 5’8” forward brought a little bit of everything to the table that came to make him what many consider the greatest player in United States men’s national team history.
Donovan was a beast from the start of his MLS career with the San Jose Earthquakes to the remainder of his time in the States with LA Galaxy.
Whether it be his two MLS Cup championships with the Quakes or the other four he won with the Galaxy, the numerous accolades he’s earned makes it a fitting honor that the MLS’s MVP award to be named after him.
16. Barry Sanders, Football
The fact that there was even a fleeting thought that NFL legend Barry Sanders was undersized at 5’8” is comical in hindsight. The Detroit Lions running back was still jacked to the gills and had explosive speed and athleticism.
Sanders wrapped up his 10-year career in Detroit with a perfect 10 Pro Bowls, six first team All-Pro selections and an MVP amongst countless other awards and honors.
What did height mean to the NFL’s 4x rushing leader and Pro Football Hall of Famer? Absolutely nothing.
17. Nathan Gerbe, Hockey
Don’t let Nathan Gerbe’s 5’4” stature fool you, the shortest player in modern NHL has some serious skills.
Gerbe has played at the professional level since 2008 with stints in Buffalo, Carolina and Columbus.
Gerbe won the hearts of his fans (and the ire of opposing teams’ fans) from his tenacious play. After getting into some notable scuffles with much larger opponents, fans came to refer to him as the “Tasmanian Devil” or “The Gerbil.”
If nothing else, those are two killer nicknames in the most different of ways.
18. Henri Richard, Hockey
Montreal Canadiens center Henri Richard was the heart and soul of his team for a ridiculously long time.
The hardnosed Montreal native – only 5’7”, 160 lb – was a homegrown hero, who defied the test of time, as he went the distance, playing out a 20-year NHL career!
Richard did far more than just play at an elite level, he enjoyed one of the most storied careers in professional sports. Richard won an unfathomable 11 Stanley Cups. That’s an NHL record (for players) by a long shot; shocker, right?
19. Franck Ribery, Soccer
Bayern Munich’s star winger Franck Ribery has some of the nastiest, fastest footwork in the game. The Frenchman, standing at 5’7”, relies on explosive speed and fancy footwork to make up for his physicality.
Ribery twice represented in France in the World Cup (2006, 2010) and UEFA European Football Championship (2008, 2012).
Not only has Ribery been named the French Player of the Year three times, he was named German Footballer of the Year, making him the lone player to achieve such an accomplishment.
20. Joe Morgan, Baseball
Joe Morgan spent an entire lifetime playing in the MLB. Seriously, the 5’7” Morgan endured a career that spanned over two decades, beginning in 1963 at age 19 to 1984 at age 40.
“Little Joe” was a force at second base throughout his career, earning nine of his 10 All-Star selections with the Cincinnati Reds where the team has since retired his No. 8 jersey.
Peaking in the ‘70s, Morgan earned five straight Gold Glove Awards (1973-77) and was twice named NL MVP (1975, 1976) while winning the World Series the same years.
Morgan’s impact on the MLB was monumental, and his contribution to the sport was honored in 1990 when he was inducted into Coopertown’s Baseball Hall of Fame.
21. Maurice Jones-Drew, Football
The window of greatness wasn’t a wide one, but boy did it shine bright while it was open for former Jacksonville Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew.
What the 5’7” running back lacked for in height was more than made up for with a 205 lb frame that moved for no one.
Though MJD played in the NFL for nine years, it was the three-year stretch from 2009-11 that was unforgettable.
Those three Pro Bowl years peaked in 2011 when MJD – who was essentially the only functional member of the Jags’ offense – led the league in carries, rushing yards and rushing yards per game.
22. Shannon Bobbitt, Basketball
The level of success that WNBA star Shannon Bobbitt achieved in basketball is incredible, as the point was all of 5’2”. In high school, Bobbitt won two state championships in New York and posted a ridiculous 30-0 record on her way to a national high school championship another year.
Continuing her streak of dominance, Bobbitt led her junior college team to a 30-2 record while earning Junior College Player of the Year before winning two national championships with the Tennessee Volunteers.
Pretty solid list of accomplishments before even reaching the WNBA.
23. Mo Farah, Distance Running
When it comes to distance running, Great Britain’s Mo Farah is actually quite average at 5’8¾”. Nonetheless, the wiry runner’s dominance in all things distance has been nothing short of stunning.
Farah collected four Olympic golds, winning two 5,000 m and 10,000 m races at the 2012 and 2016 Games, and that’s just the start.
Farah has compiled British and European records on the track and off it, as he also excels in road races (not to mention the Mobot).
Farah has racked up his fair share of half marathon medals and announced after his final two track races in 2017 that he’d switch to marathons.
So much for sharing the wealth.
24. Doug Flutie, Football
In what’s likely the first time this honor has ever been bestowed upon him, former USFL and NFL quarterback Doug Flutie is the tallest player on this list at 5’10”.
For those unfamiliar with the NFL, the average quarterback height is 6’3”, and the fact that Drew Brees (6’0”) and Russell Wilson (5’11”) had any success let alone win a Super Bowl is stunning.
Flutie primarily served as a backup for the latter portion of his NFL career, but a 180 lb quarterback winning a Heisman Trophy then going on to endure 21 years of professional football is an athletic feat so tough that it’s practically a miracle.
But if anyone knows a thing about miracles, it’s the man who threw one.
25. Muggsy Bogues, Basketball
When it comes to one of the most recognizable undersized athletes in the world, even sports fans who don’t watch basketball think of Tyrone “Muggsy” Bogues.
Almost invisible on the court at 5’3”, Bogues’s place as the shortest NBA player of all time is likely safe for a long, long time.
Bogues didn’t just “last” 14 seasons, he thrived, starting for the majority of his career. Not only was he a starter, it was on the fan favorite Charlotte Hornets that have remained one of the more beloved teams in NBA history.
No ifs, ands or buts, rooting for the little guy running the point was a major reason we all had love for Buzz City.
26. Stan Jonathan, Hockey
No one gave 5’8” winger Stan “Bulldog” Jonathan the light of day in considering him capable to compete at the NHL level until a serendipitous discovery by Don Cherry and the Boston Bruins’ general manager, Harry Sinden saw him play in a junior hockey league game.
Eight seasons later, the entire league knew exactly who Bulldog was and why he earned that name.
Jonathan was one of the scrappiest players in the league and never shied away from a fight, even if that meant getting into to it with the biggest guy on the ice.
Jonathan was lacking heavily in the finesse department, but he more than made up for it with an undying energy that helped the B’s to two consecutive NHL Stanley Cup Finals.
27. Diego Maradona, Soccer
Messi may be considered the greatest footballer of all time today, but just as many would argue that it’s another Argentine, Diego Maradona.
Maradona – all of 5’5” of him – revolutionized soccer, earning him the iconic nickname, “The Golden Boy.”
Maradona lead Argentina to a FIFA World Cup gold in 1986 and silver in 1990. The number of unforgettable moments Maradona’s career has left us with is equivalent to that of a historic football club. No moment may be more memorable in all of the sport’s history than his (in)famous “Hand of God” goal in the 1986 World Cup quarterfinals.
28. Emmitt Smith, Football
Dallas Cowboys great Emmitt Smith has a slight edge on Barry Sanders in the size department at 5’9” and a stocky 215 lb. That doesn’t make Smith’s marathon journey of 15 years in the NFL any less incredible.
Smith completely changed the game from the moment he stepped on the field in 1990. His four times leading the NFL in rushing yards, rushing touchdowns and earning first team All-Pro was made even sweeter by claiming three Super Bowls with Them Boys.
It’s also pretty hard to imagine anyone pushing Smith off his throne as the all-time rushing leader with his 18,355 yards.
29. Roy Worters, Hockey
Trying to process how Roy “Shrimp” Worters ever played a day of professional hockey in his life seems incomprehensible that it could have been anything more than a gimmick.
The 5’3” goalie’s time in the NHL was far from a cheap ploy to pull a crowd.
A 2x All-Star and recipient of the Hart Memorial Trophy (MVP), Roy Worters recorded 66 shutouts over his 12-year career. The shortest player in NHL history did more than enough to earn his way into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
30. Spud Webb, Basketball
Nate Robinson may be repping the little guy with his record three Slam Dunk Contest wins, but it’s 5’7” Spud Webb who repped the little little guy, as his 1986 dunk contest victory still holds the record as the shortest player to win it.
Webb was no gimmick. He lasted 10 years in the NBA (with a gap year playing in Italy) and helped lead the Atlanta Hawks to five postseasons in six years.
What may have been most impressive of all was Webb’s relentless determination, as his lack of size forced him to repeatedly go above and beyond to prove he was capable despite his perceived limitations.