These stars were simply too good for just one game.
Matthew Jussim 1 / 15
Professional athletes need to be fully dedicated to their sport to be successful. After all, it takes hard work, determination, strong fitness, and passion to reach the pinnacle of professional sports. Right?
Well, not always. Sometimes, talent is just talent. Some athletes out there are just so gifted, and posess such awesome natural ability, that their talent overflows out of one sport and into another.
Here's a look at some of the top multi-sport athletes of all time.
“Prime Time” had a Hall of Fame career as an NFL cornerback, but he also spent nine years in the MLB after making his pro debut with the New York Yankees in 1989. The former Florida State star played football, baseball, and ran track in college, showing off the lights-out talent that allowed him to go pro in two sports. He not only became a superstar with the Dallas Cowboys—he intercepted 53 passes while scoring 22 touchdowns, and his high-stepping down the sidelines always seemed to make the highlights—but also excelled on the diamond, leading the National League in triples with Atlanta Braves.
He also has the distinction of being the only pro athlete to play in both a Super Bowl (of which he won two) and a World Series. Sanders basically didn’t have an offseason during his playing career—he bounced back and forth between football and baseball until making his final MLB appearance for the Cincinnati Reds in 2001.
Jackson was considered one of the best pure athletes in sports history at his peak—at 6'1", 220 pounds, he had the size to barrel over opponents, but also possessed superhuman speed for someone that big. If he wanted to, Jackson had the talent to play basically any sport, but he opted to concentrate on football and baseball. Jackson won the Heisman Trophy while playing football at Auburn, and went pro for both the Kansas City Royals in the MLB and the Los Angeles Raiders in the NFL.
Jackson wowed fans with his dynamic ability. There's far too many to list, but some include: hitting home runs in four consecutive at-bats, throwing Harold Reynolds out at home plate from very deep in the outfield, trying to call time during a game and hitting a home run anyway, and rushing for 221 yards—including a legendary 91-yard run—in just his fifth NFL game. The Alabama native became hugely popular due to his two-sport ability, and Nike built an entire ad campaign titled “Bo Knows” around the fact that Jackson was a multi-sport star.
One of the rare athletes to achieve All-Star status in two sports, Jackson was hampered by injuries, including a serious hip injury that effectively ended his football career. And while he only played four more years in baseball after hanging up his football cleats, there’s no knowing what he could have done if his career hadn't been cut short by injury.
Brown is arguably best running back in NFL history, but he might've been even better as a lacrosse player. Brown actually went to Syracuse University on a lacrosse scholarship before playing football, running track and starring as the leading scorer for the basketball team. An All-American lacrosse player, he ranked second in the nation as a senior with 43 goals in just 10 games.
The Georgia native was taken sixth overall by the Cleveland Browns in the NFL Draft, and over nine short years he dominated the NFL. With his trademark running style that defined "smash mouth" football, Brown scored 126 touchdowns and averaged over five yards per carry. When he retired, he was the NFL's all-time leading rusher and accomplished the rare feat of being a Hall of Fame inductee in three different sports: Pro Football Hall of Fame, College Football Hall of Fame, and Lacrosse Hall of Fame.
Wilson developed into one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL after being drafted by the Seattle Seahawks, but if he'd wanted to, he probably could have made a career as a professional baseball player. Wilson was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles after graduating from high school, but he opted to attend North Carolina State, where he played both football and baseball. The Colorado Rockies liked his talent enough to take him in the fourth round of the 2010 MLB Draft, and Wilson played in the minor leagues for stretches of two seasons before leaving to fully pursue an NFL career.
Despite his interest in football, the Texas Rangers acquired Wilson’s rights in 2013 and invited him to attend spring training sessions in each of the next two seasons. Wilson previously said that baseball was his “first love,” but added that he isn’t planning on ditching football anytime soon. That's worked out fairly well so far—he led the Seahawks to a victory in Super Bowl XLVIII and signed a $90 million contract extension with the franchise in 2015.
Gonzalez finished his athletic career as the best tight end in NFL history, but he also had quite the run as a basketball player at Cal. Gonzalez helped the Golden Bears make it to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament, but when it was time to go pro, Gonzalez stuck to football and he went on to rewrite the record books for tight ends. Gonzalez made the Pro Bowl 14 times, was selected to the 2000s All-Decade Team, and set records for his position in career receiving yards, receptions, touchdowns, and 1,000-yard seasons. The longtime Kansas City Chiefs star kept himself in prime athletic shape for the entirety of his NFL career, missing just three games over 17 seasons.
Gonzalez also helped kick-start the trend of players making the leap from college basketball to the NFL, blazing a trail for the likes of Jimmy Graham, Julius Peppers, Antonio Gates, Martellus Bennett, and Julius Thomas. Through his career, Gonzalez incorporated his basketball background with his touchdown celebration of dunking the football over the goal post—a move that became so popular with other players that the NFL banned it in 2014.
Robinson became global icon for breaking Major League Baseball's color barrier, but it's worth remembering that Robinson was also an exceptional athlete. While attending UCLA, the future Brooklyn Dodgers star earned varsity letters in baseball, football, track, and basketball—the first time in UCLA history an athlete accomplished the feat. During his time with the Bruins, Robinson won the NCAA men’s long jump title, and played in the college All-Star games for football and basketball.
In the major leagues, of course, Robinson had a Hall of Fame-worthy career, batting .311 over 10 seasons. The speedster stole nearly 200 bases—including home plate in the World Series—helped the Dodgers win the 1955 championship. He was an All-Star for six straight years, and won the National League Most Valuable Player Award in 1949.
You don’t earn a nickname like “Bullet Bob” unless you have some speed.
Hayes was a two-sport athlete in football and track at Florida A&M University before becoming a star at the 1964 Summer Olympics, winning gold medals in the 100-meter and 4x100-meter events in Tokyo. At the time, Hayes set world records in both events and was considered to be one of the fastest athletes in the world. That speed caught the eye of the Dallas Cowboys, who drafted Hayes in the seventh round.
The Jacksonville, Florida native helped change how teams played defense in the NFL. The zone scheme was created so players could actually keep up with Hayes due to his near-superhuman speed. Hayes was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame and remains the only athlete in history to have won an Olympic gold medal and a Super Bowl.
Ainge won the national college basketball player of the year award at BYU, but translated his supreme athleticism to the baseball diamond as well, logging 211 games of professional baseball for the Toronto Blue Jays. Eventually, though, he left baseball behind to focus on basketball full-time—and helped the Celtics win two championships and played in the NBA for 14 seasons.
“The Shark” split time playing baseball and football while attending the University of Notre Dame before becoming a professional pitcher in the MLB. Samardzija set records as a wide receiver for the Fighting Irish football team, making the All-American squad in 2006 after putting up 78 catches for 1,017 yards and 12 touchdowns. When deciding what to do after college, Samardzija had the option of staying in the NFL draft after being selected by the Chicago Cubs in the MLB draft, but he opted to focus solely on baseball. The right-hander was rewarded with a five-year, $90 million contract from the San Francisco Giants after hitting free agency following the 2015 season.
Ward was a standout college athlete at Florida State, playing both football and basketball for the Seminoles. But while Ward helped the basketball team make it to the Sweet 16 tournament, his biggest impact came on the gridiron. Ward had an astonishing run at quarterback for FSU, winning the Heisman Trophy, the Davey O'Brien Award, and the Maxwell Award—while leading the Seminoles to a national championship over Nebraska.
Ward had a spectacular season in 1993, throwing for 3,032 yards, 27 touchdowns, and just four interceptions while completing a staggering 69.5 percent of his passes. And yet even though his Heisman came with the second-largest margin of victory in the award's history (behind only O.J. Simpson), his stature—6'2", 190 pounds—inspired a few (wrongheaded) doubts among professional football scouts.
So Ward headed to the NBA, where he was selected by the New York Knicks with the 26th overall pick in the draft. Ward went on to be a solid role player, helping the Knicks make the finals against the San Antonio Spurs in 1999. He also gained some infamy during a playoff brawl between the Knicks and Miami Heat, when P.J. Brown body-slammed him on the court.
On top of his talent in basketball and football, Ward was such a good athlete that he was drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers and New York Yankees in separate years, even though he didn't play baseball in college. With the success of players like Russell Wilson and Drew Brees—who both bucked the trend of short players not being great QB’s in the NFL—one wonders if Ward would have been drafted in the first round if it happened today. He was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 2006.
Before handling first base for the Colorado Rockies for over a decade in the MLB, Helton attended the University of Tennessee where he starred on the baseball and football teams. Helton served as a backup quarterback for the Volunteers and didn't get the chance to play much. But fortunately for the Knoxville native, he was also a pretty good baseball player—Helton batted .370 with the Vols and won the National Collegiate Baseball Player of the Year award as a junior.
Helton opened his junior year as the backup quarterback to Jerry Colquitt, sitting second string ahead of some freshman guy named Peyton Manning. After Colquitt went down with an injury, Helton got the chance to start, but it was short-lived—Helton started three games before getting injured in the middle of a game, after which he was replaced by Manning, who kept the job and set multiple records at the school.
Even though Helton did not go pro on the gridiron, things worked out well for the slugger in baseball. Taken as the eighth overall pick in the draft by the Colorado Rockies, Helton went on to compile a career .316 batting average with 2,519 hits, and nearly 370 home runs, many of which were hit at homer-friendly Coors Field.
Elway has gone down as one the best quarterbacks in NFL history, but he could have ended up in the MLB if things turned out a bit differently. He was drafted out of high school by the Kansas City Royals, but opted to go to Stanford, splitting his time playing football and baseball while on The Farm.
Elway was one of the top quarterbacks in the nation, winning Pac-10 Player of the Year twice and finishing second in the Heisman voting as a senior. In the meantime, he hit over .360 with 50 RBI in just 49 games and soon after that he was drafted by the New York Yankees. Elway played two seasons of minor league baseball before being the first overall pick in the NFL draft.
Elway used his baseball skills as leverage after he was drafted by the Baltimore Colts, the worst team in the NFL at the time: Since Elway didn't want to play for the franchise, he threatened to jump into baseball full-time. Eventually, Elway was traded to the Denver Broncos, where he later led the team to back-to-back Super Bowl titles before retiring. Elway later became an executive with the Broncos and built the team that won Super Bowl 50 with Peyton Manning starting at quarterback.
In his time, Thorpe was the embodiment of the multi-sport athlete. Born in Oklahoma of European and Native American ancestry, Thorpe won Olympic gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon, and also played professional football, baseball, and basketball. Thorpe spent seven years playing Major League Baseball and was an All-Pro in the National Football League during his 13-year football career. Thorpe was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame and also served as president of the league that eventually would become the NFL. Thorpe's versatility was unmatched by any athlete in sports, as was his longevity—he played football until he was 41 years old.
Tim Tebow made his name as a football star, but after things in the NFL didn’t work out for the former Florida Gators quarterback, he’s taking his talents to baseball. Tebow signed a minor league contract with the New York Mets in September 2016 after putting on a showcase for MLB scouts earlier in the summer.
While Tebow will be a long shot to get to the majors, the Mets and Tebow have both said that Tebow’s move to baseball is not about publicity. Tebow will start his minor league career in the fall instructional league at the age of 29 after spending the early parts of his career trying to make it in the NFL. Tebow showed off above-average power and solid hitting skills in his MLB showcase, but he disappointed a bit in the fielding portions of the event.
At 6’3”, 245 pounds, there’s no doubt that Tebow has the athletic tools to be a baseball player, but he’ll be trying to get back into a sport he hasn’t played regularly since high school. Tebow’s college football resume is hard to beat: He led the Gators to two national championships and won the Heisman Trophy in 2007.
After dominating college football with the Florida Gators, it looked like Tim Tebow would get the chance to do the same at the NFL level, but things didn’t quite work out that way. The Denver Broncos made Tebow a first-round pick and gave him the chance to start—including in a fantastic playoff win against the Pittsburgh Steelers that saw Tebow hit Demaryius Thomas for the winning touchdown in overtime—but once Peyton Manning became available, it was bye-bye for Tebow.
After bouncing between the New York Jets, New England Patriots, and Philadelphia Eagles, Tebow now will try and get it done in a whole new sport.