Best Multi-Sport Athletes
Professional athletes come in all shapes, sizes and talent levels. We tend to remember those who make a dramatic impact, whether it's coming through in the clutch or overall greatness.
The rare athletes transcend their own sports and show skills beyond their chosen career path. They excel across multiple arenas and stick out as unicorns in a world that favors one-discipline focus.
Success is what makes them so interesting. Even with divided time, they flourish. These are the best multi-sport athletes in history.
"Neon Deion" burst onto the scene at Florida State for his flashy style and lockdown corner skills. His attitude and swagger forced fans to take notice and was the genesis of the brash cornerback, which has led all the way to the likes of Jalen Ramsey today.
Sanders' speed and hand-eye coordination, combined with a supreme self-confidence, made him look like the best athlete on the field, and more often than not, he was.
He also excelled at baseball. Along with being drafted in the first round by the Atlanta Falcons, the Yankees grabbed him in the 30th round of the MLB draft. After the Yankees released him following his commitment to training camp with the Falcons in 1991, the Braves swooped in and signed him to a deal.
Sanders found himself in the majors again just a year later, darting between games to play for the Braves in the postseason. He led the league in triples for the Braves in just 97 games and wound up playing in nine different seasons in the bigs.
Vaunted pass rusher Julius Peppers carved out a reputation as one of the biggest athletic freaks the position has ever seen. A rarely seen combination of size, speed and durability, Peppers chased down quarterbacks and running backs in the backfield, finishing his 17-year NFL career with 159.5 sacks.
What is somewhat lost to history is that Peppers played regular minutes on the basketball team at the University of North Carolina, one of the most accomplished programs ever.
Peppers played in 56 college hoops games, averaging 5.7 points and four rebounds, started three games as a senior and posted a double-double of 21 points and 10 rebounds in the NCAA tournament.
Antonio Gates broke the mold for tight end prospects in the NFL. Enough size to handle both college power forwards and enough speed to get past NFL linebackers, Gates' athleticism forced a reimagining of the tight end position, giving way to the likes of Jimmy Graham and Travis Kelce.
What made Gates unique was that he never played a down of college football. He started at power forward for the Kent State University basketball team, averaging more than 20 points per game for the Flashes in his senior season. He was told his size would make him a tweener at the NBA level and decided to give up on basketball and transition to tight end.
Needless to say, he took to the position well. Gates still is lining up at tight end for the Chargers, and is one of the best to ever play the position, racking up 116 touchdowns (sixth all-time) and 955 receptions (17th).
Allen Iverson didn’t display his quarterbacking skills at the college level, but he was highly recruited as both a quarterback and a point guard coming out of Bethel High School in Virginia.
He led the team to a state championship in football, and his YouTube highlight reel looks like early-era Michael Vick.
Iverson, of course, is one of the best all-time in basketball. His ballhandling and scoring showed kids that height is never a limitation on skill in basketball, making much larger defenders look silly on a weekly basis over his 17-year NBA career.
The inclusion of the man who broke baseball’s color barrier needs little explanation. Jackie Robinson's baseball career speaks for itself.
The stolen bases, including his stealing of home plate on a regular basis, and his hitting and defense are secondary to the long-lasting impact his career had on all sports. How he carried himself with class in the face of bitter racism is a shining example of human character.
What some may not know is Robinson shined in almost every sport. He was one of four black players on the UCLA football team, won the 1940 NCAA championship in the long jump and was the school’s first athlete to win varsity letters in four different sports: baseball, football, track and basketball.
The last championship for the Cleveland Browns came as a result of Jim Brown’s utter dominance.
In nine NFL seasons, Brown led the league in rushing eight times, compiling 12,312 yards, which still ranks him 11th all-time. He scored double-digit touchdowns five different times and led his team to a championship in 1964.
His college career was even more impressive, and it had almost nothing to do with football. Brown was the second-leading scorer on the Syracuse basketball team. He made multiple All-America teams as a lacrosse player, was named to the Lacrosse Hall of Fame and earned a varsity letter running track, finishing fifth in the decathlon at the NCAA championships.
Michael Jordan’s baseball career often is seen as a punchline, but this assessment is only fair when compared to his greatness on the basketball court. Given Jordan's limited preparation for professional baseball, and the progress he displayed over the course of his lone season, his hardball career should be considered a rousing success.
Jordan had not played competitive baseball since high school, when he entered the Chicago White Sox system with the biggest target on his back imaginable. Everybody wanted to strike out the best basketball player ever before asking for an autograph and picture after the game.
While Jordan wasn’t exactly Barry Bonds at the plate, he showed ability. In his first season with the Double-A Birmingham Barons, he stole 30 bases and hit better than .200 at the third-highest level of baseball in the world.
To be able to step in to baseball in his 30s and hit at that clip, despite not playing baseball for 13 years, speaks to his overall athletic ability.
Before Russell Wilson showed the world what he could do as an undersized, overlooked Super Bowl-winning quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks, he tried to make it as a baseball player.
Wilson was far from a top prospect, but he did flash some skills in the minor leagues. In two seasons of Single-A ball in 2010 and 2011, Wilson hit .229 with five home runs and 19 stolen bases. He was more impressive as a second baseman, turning 60 double plays and committing just seven errors at the keystone position.
In 2018, he was a non-roster invite to the New York Yankees camp.
Widely regarded as the greatest tight end ever, Tony Gonzalez' level of consistency over his 17-year career was unprecedented, and the way he was utilized as a receiver forced coaches to rethink the position and lean toward offensive output as opposed to blocking for the run.
Gonzalez also flashed his basketball skills in the Pac-12, playing three seasons for the California Golden Bears in the front court. He averaged 6.4 points in 82 career college games, even scoring 23 points on Villanova in the Bears' 1997 NCAA tournament run to the Sweet 16.
Safe to say, Gonzalez chose the right sport. His 1,325 career receptions are second all-time to Jerry Rice, while his 111 touchdowns are eighth. Even more remarkable, Gonzalez never missed an NFL game.
John Elway faced a tough decision coming out of Stanford.
He was projected as a superstar quarterback on the football field and was seen as a surefire top draft pick in 1983. But Elway also had the option to play baseball and was a second-round pick of the Yankees in 1981, playing in 42 minor league games.
He dominated Single-A ball, hitting .318 with an on-base percentage of .432, smacked four home runs and stole 13 bases.
He created a lot of drama in that 1983 draft since he did not want to play for the Colts franchise and threatened to stick with baseball.
It’s hard to imagine his baseball career going as well as his football one did. Still, it's fun to imagine.
The ultimate multi-sport athlete, Bo Jackson looked as though he could have dominated as a running back in the NFL and slugging power hitter in MLB.
Over a four-year stretch for the Kansas City Royals, Jackson hit more than 100 home runs, drove in more than 300 runs and was an All-Star in 1989. As a running back for the Raiders, Jackson racked up 2,782 yards in 38 games, averaging 5.5 yards per carry with 16 touchdowns.
This mammoth human being had his career derailed by a bizarre hip injury on the football field. Otherwise, he might have been the greatest athlete ever. And for a brief period of time, he was.
Tim Tebow may be the most polarizing name in sports history.
His football accomplishments speak for themselves. He led Florida to a pair of national championships, won a Heisman Trophy and was one of the greatest college athletes of all time, especially considering the leadership he displayed in rallying his group to play as one.
So when Tebow found himself out of football at the age of 28 years old, he went back to one of his other loves: baseball. When he signed a contact with the New York Mets, it was understandable — even for his most ardent supporters — to view this decision as a publicity stunt. But his production put that narrative to bed. Tebow can play.
In three minor league seasons, Tebow has flashed a legitimate big league bat and likely would have been a September call-up for the Mets if he had not gotten hurt at the end of the 2018 season.
His Double-A batting line in 2018: .273 batting average, .336 on-base percentage, six home runs and 14 doubles in 271 at-bats.
Expect to see Tebow with the Mets at 2019 spring training.
To be fair, plenty of ex-professional football players have made, or rather attempted to make, the transition to professional wrestling. Despite what the detractors might think, it’s far from a walk in the park.
To shift the focus from being a destructive monster of a man (whose job it is to physically harm people) to being perceived as that person (but without actually hurting people) is a difficult transition to make.
Goldberg played three seasons with the Atlanta Falcons, battling injuries in each before he stepped into the wrestling ring. After quickly learning the ropes, Goldberg was pushed to the top of the industry and, for a brief moment, was its biggest star.
He was the Ultimate Warrior if the Warrior had pro-level athletic ability. The athleticism and intensity Goldberg displayed in the ring were unmatched before and since in the wrestling world, and his NFL credentials made him a legit athlete fans could cheer.
An early-era quarterback for the Cleveland Browns, Otto Graham led the team to seven championships in 10 seasons, a Bill Russell/Celtics-level of winning before Russell even got to the pros.
Graham led the NFL in touchdown passes three different times and rushed for more than 2,000 yards in his career.
Graham also excelled in baseball and basketball, earning first-team All-America honors in hoops as a senior at Northwestern University.
After returning from deployment in World War II, Graham played professionally in the NBL (National Basketball League, a predecessor to the NBA) for the Rochester Royals, averaging more than five points per game and helping the Royals to a league championship in 1946.
One of the most consistent and durable players in baseball history, Dave Winfield amassed more than 3,000 hits and hit 465 home runs over 22 seasons, and was an All-Star outfielder for the San Diego Padres and New York Yankees.
One of the original "five tool" players, Winfield showed athleticism in every aspect of his game in the field, on the basepaths and especially at the plate.
In addition to his stellar career on the diamond, Winfield was a top pro prospect for basketball, and both the Atlanta Hawks (NBA) and Utah Stars (ABA) drafted him before he committed to baseball.
Also, despite never playing college football, the Minnesota Vikings took him in the 17th round, making him one of six athletes ever to be drafted to teams in each of the three major American sports.
Babe Didrikson Zaharias
Babe Didrikson Zaharias' legacy is greatness — all-around greatness.
It starts on the golf course, where she made the bulk of her achievements. Zaharias won 41 time on the LPGA (Ladies Professional Golf Association) tour, which ranks 10th all-time. She took home 10 major championships and was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1951. Adding to that legacy, she made the cut in three PGA Tour events.
Away from the course, Zaharias was a gold-medal Olympian, winning a pair of golds and a silver medal in track and field at the 1932 Summer Games in Los Angeles. She also led her AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) basketball team to a league championship prior to her Olympic exploits.
As a side note, Zaharias pitched in several spring training baseball games for different franchises in 1934 and still holds the world record for farthest baseball throw by a woman.
Jim Thorpe is the first great athlete of the 20th century.
As an amateur, he won a pair of gold medals at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, finishing first in both the decathlon (where he was top four in each of the 10 events) and the pentathlon. In addition to his two gold-medal events, Thorpe competed in the long jump and the high jump for the U.S. team and played in an exhibition baseball game.
Thorpe picked up a career in MLB following the Olympics, signing with the New York Giants, the reigning World Series winners. He wound up playing six seasons, hitting .252 for his career with seven home runs.
He also played pro football in conjunction with his baseball job. In 1915, he signed with the Canton Bulldogs — one of the original teams to form the league that would become today’s NFL — and won titles in 1916, 1917 and 1919. He played in the newly formed NFL until 1928, when he retired at 41 years old.
Charlie Ward is known for a solid NBA career, mostly with the New York Knicks. He played 10 seasons in New York, coming off the bench a majority of the time, and he proved to be a reliable ballhandler and good rebounder for his 6-foot-2 size.
All his skills were on display in a playoff series-clinching Game 5 against the Heat in 1998, when he dished out 14 assists to help New York past its rivals.
Before that, in a previous life, Ward was a football stud at Florida State. In his senior season as the quarterback for the Seminoles in 1993, the uber-athletic signal-caller led the team to a national championship, scooping up many individual accolades, most notably a Heisman Trophy.
Ward threw for more than 3,000 yards with 27 touchdowns and only four interceptions in college, so it’s no wonder he handled the ball for New York’s basketball team in one of the franchise's best runs in recent memory.
Stephen Curry has become the undisputed best shooter in NBA history. His emergence into superstardom has featured an awesome display of hand-eye coordination, footwork, agility and mental awareness. His ability to drain shots from distance with unequaled precision has transcended the NBA and trickled down to all levels of basketball.
These skills bleed over into other sports, even ones you might not expect. Curry also is a scratch golfer, not exactly a rarity among athletes, but the difference with Curry has proved it at one of the highest levels.
After receiving a polarizing sponsor’s exemption into the Web.com Tour’s 2017 Ellie Mae Classic, Curry posted back-to-back rounds of 74. He followed up with a 71 in his first round in 2018.
Those performances showed that Curry can compete with the golfing world's best in tournament-level conditions, something athletes like Tony Romo and Jerry Rice attempted with underwhelming results.
Known mostly for his blinding speed, "Bullet" Bob Hayes spent 11 season in the NFL, playing 10 years for the Dallas Cowboys and wrapping up his career with the 49ers in 1975.
He was a stud for the Cowboys, racking up more than 1,000 receiving yards in each of his first two NFL seasons and adding five more seasons with double-digit touchdown receptions. Hayes also returned punts for Big D, taking a total of three returns to the end zone, including a 90-yard sprint in 1968.
Speaking of sprinting, Hayes' crowning athletic achievement didn’t come on the football field, but instead at the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
He took gold in the 100-meter dash, setting a new world record at 10.06 seconds.
He then anchored a come-from-behind win for the 4x100 team in the relay, chasing down Poland’s Marian Dudziak in a relay leg that is still the fastest in history, hand-timed between 8.5-8.9 seconds.