For some sportsmen, it is the conventional route to the top. Those sportsmen are not footballers, however, or certainly not those who ply their trade in the major European leagues.
Tim Ream is an exception, a man who plays the global game but who sprung to prominence in a peculiarly American way.
"In all the sports there is a draft," said the Bolton Wanderers defender. "It's a strange time. You go to what they call a combine and it's a three-day event where you play games with 64 other university players from around the country that you have probably never met, so it's a tough situation.
"A week later, you are waiting for your name to be called by the 18 or 19 teams. You sit there and hope your name gets called in three rounds. There are 18 picks in each round."
Besides being, in Ream's words, "very Americanised", it is a nerve-racking ordeal that could end in public rejection. Indeed, even being picked is no guarantee of a contract.
Ream got one, however, as the 18th pick in the first round he was chosen by the New York Red Bulls. And it was thus that he began his professional career on the same side as Thierry Henry.
Go back further in his background, however, and the United States international still stands out from the pack. He is a comparative rarity, a university-educated footballer.
"I was going to [St Louis] university in the fall and the spring and playing for a development team in Chicago in the summer," he said, explaining how he came to wider attention.
"The big argument always is that players who come out of university are behind but if I hadn't gone [down] that route, I wouldn't be where I am today.
"I have been able to experience things that guys here haven't and I think it has helped me as a person and a player. I am not as far behind as people may think."
At 24, he is not. He has progressed quickly in a three-year professional career he deemed "a whirlwind", accelerating past contemporaries.
What, for instance, of the 17 young Americans picked ahead of him in the draft? "Some guys are out of the league altogether," he said. "I showed well in pre-season [in New York] to warrant a starting spot and it took off from there."
From being an amateur, he was parachuted into a team alongside Arsenal and France's record goalscorer Henry.
"You can't get much better than learning from Thierry on a day-to-day basis," he said. "You get used to the way he moves and the quality he has and how sharp he is and just his touches and you get a feel for what it is like to play at the top level.
"Being able to line up alongside him and even do one-v-ones against him in training was a big help."
Another role model was a second Barcelona Champions League winner, Rafael Marquez. "Just picking up little things: positioning, the way he trains, the way he plays games, the mind he has for the game," Ream said. "You implement them in your own game."
His own developed rapidly. Signed by New York in 2010, he crossed the Atlantic two years later to join Bolton in January. The £2.5 million (Dh14.4m) signing came in as Gary Cahill left, going on to win the Champions League himself at Chelsea.
"I've always said from the very beginning and the manager has said the same thing, I wasn't brought in directly to replace him," Ream said, though conceding both are ball-playing centre-backs. "In terms of comparisons, we are similar players."
Yet his arrival was not notable for other reasons. His original plan, to go on honeymoon with his new bride, had to be abandoned. Instead of the Pacific summer, it was the English winter.
"As for coming to Bolton instead of going to Tahiti, neither one of us were thrilled about it," he said. "It was just a great opportunity but rough timing with the wedding and having the honeymoon cancelled. I like to think she is past it now and we have moved on."
Bolton have moved on, too. A 2-2 draw at Stoke City on the final day of last season condemned them to the Championship.
"It is a different animal," Ream said. "It's going to be a little bit of an adjustment for me but it has been an adjustment coming here. I have been about adjustments since turning pro in 2010."
The hope is for an immediate return to the Premier League. "We are all hungry to get back up there and if we don't it will be disappointing," Ream said. It would help his personal prospects.
Capped eight times by the US, he is not in coach Jurgen Klinsmann's current squad but is in regular contact with the German, who advised him to play in Europe.
"I don't think it is imperative to play in the Premier League. The way he looks at it, he just wants guys playing first-team football and as long as you are doing that, the Championship is still a quality league," Ream said.
He would prefer to be in a higher quality one, however. His verdict on his time in Bolton is: "Other than being relegated, it's been pretty good. Settling in and coming in after a few weeks and being able to start games pretty much right away is something I really wanted to do and everything else has fallen into place after that."
Yet he had traded very different leagues. "I think the biggest difference is the quality all over the field," Ream said.
"In MLS you have three or four guys on the field, where here every game you have an international quality player in every position. The speed of the game was very different."
And so, too, is his career to that of the average footballer.
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