Each year brings a new group of driven athletes ready to make their mark on the world, giving us all a little bit of hope for a new generation of emerging talent.
While 2020 was a year of slow starts and wishful thinking, 2021 unleashed a drive like no other for athletes around the world to make an impact on the court, on the field and on the ice. Many diamonds in the rough did just that, making sure their names were to be remembered.
Some claimed new titles and awards, while others came bursting onto the scene during their breakout campaigns. So, before the new year starts, let’s look back on 15 athletes who were driven, overcame adversity and took advantage of the sports world flourishing back to life in 2021.
Mac Jones, New England Patriots
Jones was the fifth quarterback selected in the 2021 NFL Draft, and Bill Belichick knew what he was doing. The rookie QB has surpassed New England’s expectations when it comes to filling the shoes of Patriots legend Tom Brady. What’s most impressive, though, has been Jones’ seamless transition to the Patriots’ offense. Not an easy thing to do. Jones definitely is a contender to lead the Patriots through playoff adversity while being a top contender for Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Micah Parsons, Dallas Cowboys
The linebacker from Penn State has been a key component in the transformation of the Cowboys’ defense. Parsons is on track to claim the Defensive Rookie of the Year Award and already is in the same league as some of the NFL’s best pass rushers, like Aaron Donald and T.J. Watt. In fact, Parsons is a viable candidate for Defensive Player of the Year.
Jonathan Taylor, Indianapolis Colts
After being drafted by the Colts in 2020, Taylor had an average rookie season. Now, he’s the key component in Indianapolis’ dangerous rushing attack. Taylor’s versatility and speed make it nearly impossible to tackle the 22-year-old. He’s put together an MVP-esque résumé in 2021.
Ja’Marr Chase, Cincinnati Bengals
Chase joined the Bengals as a first-round draft pick and reunited with his former LSU quarterback, Joe Burrow. The talented receiver has caught the attention of fans around the league with his playmaking ability and speed. Chase’s future with the Bengals is bright. And with his versatility and room for growth, there’s no telling what he’ll do next.
Wander Franco, Tampa Bay Rays
Franco was the top prospect in baseball when the 2021 season began. He later debuted in the majors and began his ascent. The 20-year-old batted .288 with seven home runs, 39 RBIs and an .810 OPS in 70 regular-season games with Tampa Bay. The young star finished third in American League Rookie of the Year voting, which was no surprise since he was able to accomplish so much en route to reaching the AL Division Series with the Rays.
Tyler Matzek, Atlanta Braves
The Braves reliever was a key part of the team’s 2021 World Series championship. Matzek, in his second season with Atlanta, was an emerging talent out of the bullpen. He recorded a career-high 24 holds and totaled 77 strikeouts.
Jonathan India, Cincinnati Reds
The second baseman had a huge campaign, earning National League Rookie of the Year honors. The 24-year-old totaled 34 doubles and 21 homers with a .269 batting average, while also leaving is mark on the defensive side for Cincinnati.
LaMelo Ball, Charlotte Hornets
There’s no telling what the young talent will do next, but he seems to have eyes in the back of his head given the insane assists he’s been able to amass. Ball is one of the NBA’s best up-and-comers and has shown his strengths in facilitating the basketball. He even became the youngest player in the NBA to record a triple-double during his team’s 115-105 win over the Atlanta Hawks on Jan. 9, totaling 22 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists. Ball claimed the 2020-21 Rookie of the Year Award in addition to being named to the All-Rookie first team.
Anthony Edwards, Minnesota Timberwolves
Edwards started his NBA career strong after being the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2020. He was unanimously selected to the 2020-21 NBA All-Rookie First Team alongside Ball. The 20-year-old is trending upward with a strong sophomore season in Minnesota.
Adam Fox, New York Rangers
Fox has been one of the NHL’s most versatile players over the past three seasons with the Rangers. He won the Norris Trophy in 2020-21 as the defensive player who demonstrated the greatest all-around ability in his position. The 23-year-old skated in 55 games last season and totaled five goals with 42 assists. Fox became the second defenseman in league history to win the Norris Trophy in one of his first two seasons and led all NHL defensemen in assists.
Kirill Kaprizov, Minnesota Wild
The newcomer made a lasting impression during his 2020 NHL debut, as the forward became the first in NHL history to log three points, including an overtime goal, in his first game. The 24-year-old had an immediate impact for the Wild and has been a huge offensive component. He topped things off during his rookie season by being awarded the Calder Memorial Trophy.
Sabrina Ionescu, New York Liberty
After an injury-shortened 2020 season, Ionescu had some proving to do. She did just that and more. Ionescu started in 26 of her 30 games played for the Liberty and was the fastest player to ever record a triple-double (26 points, 12 assists, 10 rebounds) in WNBA history. The guard put up double figures scoring in 11 straight games to finish the season and overall averaged 11.7 points, 6.1 assists and 5.7 rebounds, making the 24-year-old a force to be reckoned with.
The underdog defied all odds going up against the defending bantamweight champion, Amanda Nunes, who was considered the best fighter in women’s MMA history. Peña walked into T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas believing in herself and came out victorious. The 32-year-old fought hard and tired out ESPN’s No. 1 fighter in the women’s pound-for-pound rankings, forcing her to tap out. Peña broke Nunes’ 12-fight win streak. Talk about an amazing upset.
Cori “Coco” Gauff
Gauff’s career kick-started when she was just 15 years old, receiving a wild-card entry into Wimbledon in 2019 and defeating five-time champion Venus Williams in the first round. Since, Gauff has added a second singles title to her resume and played in the quarterfinals of the French Open. She is the youngest player to be ranked in the top 100 by the Women’s Tennis Association. She also was added to the U.S. Olympic team in June 2021 but sadly was not able to compete due to COVID-19 implications.