It’s a sports story that is typically met with a mix of shock and disbelief—a professional athlete thinks he can make the jump from his current sport to a new one. It’s not hard to understand why people are so skeptical when they hear this sort of news. A transcendent skill set in one sports may translate to mediocrity in another. Look at Michael Jordan—the undisputed greatest basketball player of all time could barely hit his body weight on a low-level minor league baseball team. And don’t even get us started on Jose Canseco’s boxing career.
At the same time, you can’t completely dismiss the possibility of a successful switch. Some athletes have actually gone on to greater success in their new sport than in the previous, defying age and conventional wisdom in the process. Here are some athletes that have flourished in their new trade.
The 6’4” Gates was a star forward for the Kent State basketball team, averaging 20.6 points and 7.7 rebounds as a senior. For most players, this would guarantee a ticket to the NBA, but the “undersized” Gates was told he was too small to make be an impact forward at the next level. Rather than call it a career, Gates began training for a career in football—a sport he had not played since high school. The San Diego Chargers thought enough of the athletic freak to give him a tryout and roster spot, and the rest, as they say, is history. The seven-time Pro Bowler has run roughshod through the NFL record books and is a virtual lock to have his jersey displayed in Canton.
It seems like Brock doesn’t care what sport he’s playing, as long as he’s inflicting pain on his opponents. After a prolific All-American wrestling career at the University of Minnesota, Lesnar took his talents to World Wrestling Entertainment. He promptly won the Heavyweight Championship, becoming one of the brand’s most marketable stars in the process. When the allure of wrestling had worn off, the 280-pound monster decided a tryout with the Minnesota Vikings was in order, despite never playing college football. Though comparatively undersized at defensive tackle, Lesnar impressed coaches before getting cut near the end of training camp. With football out of his system, Lesnar set his sights on the world of mixed martial arts, capturing the UFC Heavyweight title from legend Randy Couture in just his fourth professional fight.
The perfect combination of swagger and skill, “Primetime” was a dominant NFL cornerback and returner for a decade. Deion had a penchant for making big plays in big spots, a trait that helped earn multiple Defensive Player of the Year awards and a Hall of Fame induction. His athletic supremacy was not limited to the gridiron—Sanders was also a dynamic lead-off hitter for several Major League teams, and was a key component of the 1992 National League Champion Atlanta Braves. He remains the only player in history to play in both a Super Bowl and World Series.
The ageless wonder has achieved nearly mythical status among sports fans, as much for his unorthodox dieting and training habits as for his on-field performance. Walker was a dominant running back at both the college and professional level, earning a Heisman Trophy and a few Pro Bowl nods along the way. At the peak of his football career, the Minnesota Vikings thought so much of Herschel that they gave up six draft picks to acquire his services (two of these picks would later turn out to be Hall of Famer Emmett Smith and Darren Woodson). While his football career may have ended, Walker’s athletic pursuits are just beginning. The 49-year old showcased his still rippling physique to two recent MMA victories. At last check, he was said to be interested in jumping to the WWE. Hey, if anyone can do it, it’s Herschel.
The quintessential example of a multi-sport star, Jackson starred in football, baseball, and track at Auburn University. In addition to winning the 1985 Heisman Trophy, Bo hit .401 for the baseball team and nearly became a member the USA Olympic track and field squad. Rather than settle for a career in one of these sports, Jackson chose to pursue football and baseball simultaneously. His early dominance at running back for the Oakland Raiders and in the outfield for the Kansas City Royals spawned the famous “Bo Knows” Nike ad campaign, rendering him a household name throughout his career. While a devastating hip injury would eventually derail his football career, Bo returned to baseball with a vengeance, homering in his first at-bat after the injury. One can only speculate on what his legacy would be had he remained healthy…