Famous Athletes Who Achieved Greatness Outside Sports
Fame is fleeting, as many great athletes have learned over the years. But for some, the end of a great sports career has served as a prelude to success and fortune in other endeavors.
While it’s not unusual to see sports legends leverage their fame to remain in the public spotlight through broadcasting or commercial endeavors, only a relatively few have gone on to true greatness in fields distinct from their athletic careers.
Whether in the fields of medicine, business, politics, acting or the law, these athletic champions built legacies of achievement that matched or exceeded what they accomplished in the arena of sports.
Sport: Figure skating
One of America’s first great figure skating stars, Tenley Albright achieved feats in medicine every bit as impressive.
After winning silver at the 1952 Olympics in Oslo, Norway, Albright came back four years later to capture the gold despite a serious ankle injury caused when she tripped on the ice and cut open a huge gash with her skate. Her father, a surgeon, treated the injury, and Albright fought through pain to win gold.
After the Olympics, she turned down offers to skate professionally and decided to follow in her father’s footsteps, entering Harvard Medical School as one of only five women in a class of 135. She went on to a renowned medical career, practicing general surgery, teaching at Harvard Medical School and joining MIT as a visiting scientist.
The great British runner was well into his studies to become a doctor when he became the first man in history to run the mile under 4 minutes, breaking one of the most iconic milestones in sports.
Roger Bannister competed at the 1952 Olympics, though he failed to medal. Two years later, he accomplished what some had thought impossible, running the mile in a time of 3:59.4, even though he wasn’t able to train full-time because of his medical studies.
But Bannister, who was knighted for his feat, always considered his work in neurology as his life’s greatest achievement. His distinguished career as a neurologist included important breakthroughs in understanding and treating problems related to the autonomic nervous system.
He also served as master of Pembroke College, Oxford, and developed tests to detect the use of anabolic steroids in athletes.
The New York Knicks basketball legend and Hall of Famer won an Olympic gold medal in 1964 and was the NCAA Player of the Year in 1965 before becoming a longtime U.S. senator from New Jersey.
Even during the height of his basketball career, Bradley was known as much for his brains as his brawn, graduating from Princeton and going on to become a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University.
After leading the Knicks to two NBA titles during his 10-year career, Bradley quickly transitioned into politics, serving 18 years in the U.S. Senate and running unsuccessfully for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2000.
He has also authored seven books on politics, culture and the economy.
Considered by some the greatest player in NFL history, Jim Brown retired at age 30 to pursue a career in acting, which led to appearances in such films as the "The Dirty Dozen," "100 Rifles," "Ice Station Zebra" and "Kenner."
Before his prolific film career, Brown was the most prolific running back in NFL history, leading the league in rushing in eight of his nine seasons and winning Most Valuable Player honors three times. He remains the only running back in NFL history to finish his career with a rushing average of more than 100 yards per game.
According to IMDb.com, Brown has more than 50 movie credits over five decades. Unlike many professional sports stars who were typically typecast or relegated to bit movie roles, Brown emerged as a true leading man.
His most memorable role may have been in 1969’s "100 Rifles," when he received top billing in a cast that also featured Burt Reynolds and Raquel Welch. He and Welch were featured in one of the first interracial Hollywood love scenes.
He also established himself in the business arena, helping to create the Negro Industrial Economic Union to advance business pathways for African-Americans.
The only member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame to serve in Congress, Jim Bunning was a legend on the pitcher’s mound before serving 12 years each in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, representing his native Kentucky.
Bunning, who pitched primarily for the Detroit Tigers, finished his sensational 17-year career with 224 victories and eight All-Star Game selections. When he retired in 1971, he ranked second all-time in strikeouts with 2,855, second only to Walter Johnson.
He pitched a no-hitter for the Tigers in 1958, and six years later threw the ninth perfect game in major league history.
In politics, Bunning became a staunch Republican conservative, fighting to keep government spending and taxes low. After serving six terms in the House, he was elected to the Senate in 1998 and re-elected in 2004, before retiring from public service six years later.
He died in 2017.
Oscar De La Hoya
The Golden Boy also has proved golden out of the ring, parlaying his legendary boxing career into a new role as a successful businessman and philanthropist. After winning an Olympic gold medal in 1992, Oscar De La Hoya went on to capture 10 world titles in six weight classes before retiring in 2009.
Long before he exited the ring, however, De La Hoya was looking to capitalize on his business acumen. In 2002, he founded Golden Boy Promotions, which has continued to prosper in the years since as one of boxing’s top promoters while also branching out into mixed martial arts.
He also is founder of the Oscar De La Hoya Foundation, which has funded such endeavors as the Oscar De La Hoya Ánimo Charter High School in his hometown of East Los Angeles, Cecilia Gonzalez De La Hoya Cancer Center and Oscar De La Hoya Children’s Medical Center.
In addition, De La Hoya branched into music, releasing the album "Oscar" in 2000. The single "Ven a Mi"was nominated for a Grammy Award.
To younger generations, George Foreman probably is better known for his television pitches for his eponymous grilling machine than his feats in the boxing ring, which included his destruction of Joe Frazier for the heavyweight crown in 1973, the "Rumble in the Jungle" against Muhammad Ali in 1974 and his remarkable comeback in the early 1990s.
Foreman’s knockout of Michael Moorer at age 45 in 1994 — more than 20 years after he had lost the title to Ali — made him the oldest heavyweight champion in history.
When he retired for good in 1997, Foreman was just getting started as one of America’s great salesmen. The George Foreman Lean Mean Fat Reducing Grilling Machine has sold more than 100 units worldwide since it launched in 1994 (in 1999, Salton, Inc. paid Foreman $137.5 million for rights to use his name and image on the product).
While best known in his business career for revolutionizing the grilling of meat, the champ’s commercial endeavors have grown far and wide in the years since to encompass everything from car repair centers, environmentally safe cleaning products, a line of personal care items, a prescription shoe for diabetics, a restaurant franchise and books.
A man of faith, Foreman also founded his own church in 1980, where he continues to preach.
Gerald Ford is the one person on this list whose life after sports (38th president of the United States) clearly topped any of his athletic feats. But in Ford’s case, it’s pretty easy to forget just how impressive those feats were on the gridiron at the University of Michigan.
A center, Ford helped anchor Michigan’s national championship teams in 1932 and '33 and was named the team’s Most Valuable Player in 1934, quite an achievement for an offensive lineman. In 1935, he was chosen to play in the annual East-West College All-Star game and on a college All-Star team that lost to the Chicago Bears 5-0.
In 2006, he was named by the NCAA one of the 100 most influential student-athletes of the last century.
Ford passed up what surely would have been a successful pro football career to pursue a law degree and launch his career in politics. After serving in World War II and establishing himself as a lawyer, Ford was elected to 13 terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, rising to minority leader, before being tapped by Richard Nixon to replace Spiro Agnew as vice president in 1973.
Nine months later, he replaced Nixon himself as president in the wake of the Watergate scandal.
Sport: Figure skating
One of the most decorated figure skaters in history, the Norwegian star won 10 consecutive world championships and three Olympic gold medals before launching a dazzling career in Hollywood.
After winning her final Olympic gold in 1936, Sonja Henie became an instant box office star and also started a touring ice show. Her Hollywood debut, "One in a Million," and other films showcased her skating skills. At the height of her acting career, she ranked alongside Shirley Temple and Clark Gable among the biggest, and highest-paid, draws in Hollywood.
But Henie’s legacy, which includes hand prints alongside the other Hollywood greats at Grauman's Chinese Theater, has been complicated somewhat by questions regarding her attitudes toward Adolf Hitler and the Nazis during her skating career (she gave a Nazi salute during a performance in Germany and shook Hitler’s hand after winning the gold at the 1936 Olympics, which were held in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany).
Earvin "Magic" Johnson
The NBA great, best known for leading the "Showtime" Los Angeles Lakers to five championships in the 1980s, has proved just as successful off the court. His sprawling Magic Johnson Enterprises has found profits in radio stations, movie theaters, magazines, real estate, cable television, sports teams and corporate partnerships.
He is the current president of basketball operations for the Los Angeles Lakers and also has ownership stakes in the Los Angeles Dodgers as well as the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks and Major League Soccer’s Los Angeles Football Club.
It was a success story few could have predicted when the three-time NBA Most Valuable Player abruptly retired in 1991 after being diagnosed with HIV. The premature end of Johnson’s playing career only seemed to expedite a new one in the business world. His investment conglomerate is valued at an estimated $1 billion, according to its website.
He also launched the Magic Johnson Foundation, which has expanded beyond its initial mission to fight HIV and AIDS to address a variety of problems in urban communities.
Jack Kemp didn’t quite reach Gerald Ford’s politics heights after his football career ended, but he gave it a pretty good shot. Like Ford, Kemp enjoyed a long and distinguished political career as a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives, serving nine terms representing the same region where he starred at quarterback for the Buffalo Bills.
Despite presidential ambitions, Kemp never made it to the White House as Ford did, falling short in his 1988 presidential campaign for the Republican nomination and as Bob Dole’s running mate in 1996.
Before he became known as one of the leading proponents of supply-side economics, Kemp enjoyed an unlikely career as a pro football star, leading the Bills to the 1964 and '65 AFL Championships, and winning MVP honors in '65.
It was quite a turnaround for a 17th round draft who was cut by the Detroit Lions before the season even began.
Kemp also honed his political and leadership skills during his playing days, co-founding the AFL Players Association in 1964 and serving as union president for five terms.
One of the greatest defensive linemen in NFL history, this Hall of Famer followed up his stellar football career with one in the law, rising to become an associate justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court.
Alan Page was a mainstay of the Vikings' great Purple People Eater defenses of the 1960s and ’70s, winning Rookie of the Year honors in 1967 and leading the team to four Super Bowls. He played in 238 consecutive games, was named to nine consecutive Pro Bowls and finished his career with 173 sacks.
After earning his law degree in 1978 while he was still playing for the Vikings, Page went into private practice and eventually joined the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office. That led to his appointment to the state Supreme Court in 1993.
Known for his advocacy of children’s education, Page also co-wrote two children’s books along with his daughter.
Career: Acting, politics
Before Arnold Schwarzenegger rose to fame as one of the top actors in Hollywood, the Austrian native was known as the world’s top bodybuilder, racking up five Mr. Universe and seven Mr. Olympia titles.
After immigrating to the United States in 1968, Schwarzenegger continued his dominance of bodybuilding and began to turn his sights to Hollywood. He would become one of the biggest box office stars of the 1980s and '90s before turning his sights to politics.
With movie hits such as "The Terminator" series, "Total Recall" and "True Lies" making him a household name, Schwarzenegger in 2003 won over California voters, who elected him governor after the recall of Gray Davis. Schwarzenegger would serve in that office until 2011.
Known as "Captain Comeback" on the football field, Roger Staubach became "Captain Real Estate" off it, building a business empire that was valued over $600 million when it was sold in 2008.
The Heisman Trophy winner and two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback started selling real estate during the offseason of his playing days with the Dallas Cowboys.
After those playing days ended, he turned his offseason job into a lucrative second career, building the Staubach Company into a national firm with 50 offices in North America and over 1,000 employees that focused on helping clients find office, retail and industrial space.
A five-time Olympic gold medalist, Johnny Weissmuller ultimately became better known as a man of the jungle than the pool when he caught the eye of Hollywood.
Before becoming famous as Tarzan in the movie series that spanned the 1930s and '40s, Weissmuller was the world’s greatest swimmer, racking up 67 world and 52 national titles. At his peak, he was the holder of every freestyle record from 100 yards to a half mile, and he also starred in water polo, winning an Olympic bronze medal in that sport.
His rugged good looks made him a natural for the scantily clad role of Tarzan, and he was billed as "the only man in Hollywood who’s natural in the flesh and can act without clothes." He went on to star in 12 Tarzan movies.
If he had not given up football to pursue a law career, Byron White might well have become one of the NFL’s all-time greats. Instead, he spent 31 years as an justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.
After a stellar college football career at the University of Colorado in which he was the 1937 runner-up for the Heisman Trophy, White was signed to the NFL’s highest-ever salary, $15,800, and led the league in rushing for the then-Pittsburgh Pirates.
Two years later, he took a year off from Yale Law School and again won the league rushing title, this time for the Detroit Lions.
Known as "Whizzer" (a nickname he hated), White left his football career behind to serve in the U.S. Navy during World War II before clerking for Supreme Court Chief Justice Fred Vinson. He later rose to prominence as deputy attorney general in the John F. Kennedy administration before Kennedy named White to the Supreme Court in 1962.
As was the case with figure skater Sonja Henie, Hollywood found a way to translate Esther Williams’ athletic talents into acting gold.
After winning three gold medals at the national swimming championships in 1939, Williams was poised to make her own splash at the Olympics, but those dreams were dashed when the 1940 Summer Games were canceled because of World War II.
After starring with Johnny Weissmuller as a professional swimmer in the San Francisco Aquacade, Williams drew the attention of a Hollywood talent scout, and the rest is cinematic history.
Promoted as "Hollywood’s Mermaid," Williams starred in a series of swimming-themed Technicolor musical hits that made her one of the biggest box-office stars of the 1940s and '50s and served as a precursor to the sport of synchronized swimming.