Some athletes work a lifetime to achieve their dreams of one day playing in the big leagues. But there are those who were gifted with the special ability to play not just one but two sports and play both at a high level. These are the two-sport athletes and while it’s really unfair, there are plenty of them around.
2019 NFL Draft #1 overall pick Kyler Murray is the latest two-sport athlete to go mainstream. Murray played both college football and baseball. In 2018, he was drafted 8th overall in the MLB Draft by the Oakland Athletics. The following year, after winning the 2018 Heisman Trophy, he was the #1 overall pick of the 2019 NFL Draft by the Arizona Cardinals.
Likewise, current San Francisco Giants pitcher Jeff Samardzija was an All-American wide receiver at Notre Dame and could have easily been drafted in the NFL had he chosen to go that route. Well, he did at first, but when he was drafted in the MLB, Samardzija opted to cancel his NFL Draft application. That turned out to be the right move as he became an All-Star in 2014. In 2017, he led the majors in bases on balls per 9 innings.
There are many more two-sports athletes today and there have been too many before them as well. Here are the 15 though who stands out as the greatest two-sport athletes of all-time:
Our article is supposed to be about two-sport athletes. Jim Thorpe is a three-sport athlete and that alone makes him an all-time great already. But that’s not it. While most of us know Thorpe as the NFL Hall of Famer, Thorpe was also an elite track and field athlete who won the pentathlon and decathlon gold medals in the 1912 Olympics. After the Olympics, he played baseball for the MLB and after six seasons there, Thorpe helped kickstart a football league that would become the NFL. He was both head coach and tailback for the Canton Bulldogs and was a member of the inaugural NFL Hall of Fame class.
Bo Jackson may be the most popular two-sport athlete of all-time. Jackson is the only two-sport athlete to make the All-Star team in two pro sports and he did so after winning the Heisman Trophy in college. Jackson was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers #1 overall pick in 1986 but because he didn’t want to play for them, he chose to play for the MLB’s Kansas City Royals. In 1987, Jackson was drafted by the Oakland Raiders. He would split time between the Royals and Rangers until a hip injury cut his NFL career short in 1991. With a bionic hip, Jackson played baseball until 1994.
Gene Conley was a pitcher in baseball and a forward in basketball. He is the only athlete to win a championship in both the NBA and MLB. In 1952, Conley played for the Boston Braves in the MLB and the Boston Celtics in the NBA. After his rookie season, he would leave the NBA for five seasons to focus on his baseball career. On the diamond, he was a three-time all-star pitcher who helped the Braves win the 1957 World Series. A year later, he returned to play for the Celtics and although he wasn’t a star on the team, he helped them win three NBA titles.
We know Jackie Robinson as the baseball great, the first African-American to play in Major League Baseball in the modern era. He broke the color lines when he started at first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947. He would end up playing six World Series, winning one in 1955. Robinson was the first MLB Rookie of the Year winner. But before he played in the MLB, Robinson was a record-setting kick returner for the UCLA Bruins. He was also a member of the Bruins’ basketball team and won the NCAA Broad Jump title in college.
Prime Time came after Bo Jackson and while he may not be as popular, Sanders possessed more flare. From 1989 to 2001, Neon Deion juggled time between the MLB and NFL and did so quite well. On the field, he was a solid hitter and a terrific outfielder but Deion really made his mark in the NFL where he is considered one of the best (if not the best) cornerback to ever play the game. Sanders was named to 8 Pro-Bowls and 6 All-Pro teams while winning two Super Bowl titles with the Dallas Cowboys. He was also the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 1994.
In 1993, Charlie Ward led the Florida State Seminoles to the National title while winning the Heisman Trophy. Little did we know that the NCAA Football title game was the last time Ward would play competitive football. The following year, Ward was drafted by the New York Knicks in the 1994 NBA draft and with a more lucrative career ahead in pro basketball, Ward chose to play for the Knicks. He spent 11 seasons as the point guard and a vital cog for the Knicks, helping the team reach the 1999 NBA Finals where they lost to the San Antonio Spurs. And don’t forget that despite not playing baseball since high school, he was also drafted by the New York Yankees in the 18th round in 1994.
Bob Hayes was the fastest man in the world in 1996. Bullet Bob won the 100m dash and was a member of the gold medal-winning 4×100 relay team at the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo. A year later, Hayes was drafted in both the NFL and AFL drafts. He chose to play for the Dallas Cowboys where he would earn a reputation as a speedy receiver and kick returner. He was named to the Pro Bowl in his first three seasons in the NFL, won a Super Bowl ( Super Bowl VI ) and later named to the NFL Hall of Fame.
Shaun White is one of the greatest Extreme Sports athletes ever. White first appeared in the X Games in 2000 and since then, he’s picked up a total of 23 medals including 15 golds from skateboarding and snowboarding. He is also a three-time Olympic gold medalist, winning halfpipe snowboarding three times in 2006, 2010 and 2014. With skateboarding to be introduced as an Olympic Sport beginning next year ( 2020 ), it’s very possible that White could add more to his already impressive all-time great resume.
Dave Winfield is the only player to be drafted in four professional sports leagues. He was picked by the San Diego Padres of the MLB, Atlanta Hawks of the NBA, Utah Jazz of the ABA and the Minnesota Viking of the NFL, the last one being surprising considering Winfield never played collegiate football. Winfield decided to play baseball as a pro and had a great career in the majors. He has named to a dozen All-Star teams and was a first ballot Hall of Famer when he retired. In 1980, he signed what was then the largest contract in sports history at $23M.
Babe Didrikson Zaharias
Babe Didrikson Zaharias was an all-around track and field athlete. In fact, during the 1932 women’s track and field championships, she won gold in so many events that she won the team event gold medal by herself. That same year, she entered the Olympics and not only won gold but also set the world record in javelin, hurdles and the high jump events. She would later take up golf and go on to win 10 golf major tournaments.
Scott Burrell is the only athlete to be drafted in the first round of two major pro sports leagues in North America. Burrell was drafted 26th overall by the Seattle Mariners during his senior year in high school but he decided to go to UConn to play college basketball. He would become the first NCAA player to compile 1,000 points, 750 rebounds, 500 assists, and 300 steals. After a standout college career, he was drafted 20th overall by the Charlotte Hornets in 1993. He was a member of the Chicago Bulls’ 1998 championship team. After his retirement in the NBA, Burrell played basketball in China, Philippines, and Japan
Brian Jordan was cut by the Buffalo Bills during training camp in 1989. That would lead him to the Atlanta Falcons where he would play as the team’s starting safety. At the same time, Jordan was chasing his MLB dream and after three years with the NFL, he was offered $1.7M by the St. Louis Cardinals to focus on baseball. Jordan would bite the offer and would go on to play 15 seasons in the majors, earning one all-star game nomination along the way.
As a two-sport athlete from the University of Maryland, Tom Brown initially picked to play baseball where he played for the Washington Senators. But after struggling in the majors and being sent back to the minors, Brown decided to play pro football as he was the 28th pick of the 1963 NFL draft and the 20th pick of the AFL draft. He chose to play for the Green Bay Packers where he would go on to be part of the Packers team who won the first two Super Bowls.
Clarence “Ace” Parker wasn’t just a two-sport athlete he was a two-sport coach as well. Parker was an All-Pro tailback for the Brooklyn Dodgers football team while also playing professional baseball for the Philadelphia A’s. After two MLB seasons, he chose to focus on football and his NFL career would take off as he would win the 1940 NFL MVP award. After World War II, Parker would return to sports but as a coach. He became an assistant coach for Duke’s college football team while also being coach/manager of the nearby minor league Durham Bulls from 1949-52.
Before Danny Ainge became Trader Danny, the Boston Celtics’ General Manager responsible for many big trades during his tenure, he was a member of the Celtics’ title teams during the ’80s while playing with Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish. Prior to that, Ainge was drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays in the 1977 MLB draft. He is the second youngest player in Blue Jays’ history to hit a home run. But Ainge’s MLB career was short as he struggled to make an impact. He would then play for the Celtics where he would make his mark. He won two titles with Boston as a player and one as an executive.