Legendary Athletes Who Starred in Two Sports
Becoming a professional athlete in one sport is hard enough, but doing it in two (sometimes three) sports is nearly impossible. Think about it: The odds of a high school basketball player making the NBA, for instance, are 1 in 11,771. Not good, and that’s with 100 percent focus and dedication to basketball. Now imagine leaving the NBA and going to MLB. Those odds are infinitesimally low.
However, for these 30 athletes, defying the odds was just another obstacle they had to — and did — overcome.
A University of Richmond product, Brian Jordan was drafted in the first round of the 1988 MLB Draft by the St. Louis Cardinals and was a seventh-round pick by the Buffalo Bills in the 1989 NFL Draft. After being cut by the Bills, Jordan, while still playing minor league baseball for the Cardinals, signed with the Falcons, playing there from 1989 to 1991.
In 1991, Jordan was named to the Pro Bowl as an alternate. One year later, he signed a new contract with the Cardinals that made him give up football, a move that proved to be wildly successful. In 1999, Jordan, now with the Braves, had the best year of his career and was named to the All-Star team. Jordan is one of the only players to appear in both a Pro Bowl and an All-Star game.
After backing up Tom Brady at Michigan, Drew Henson got his moment to shine when Brady graduated. Henson proved to be a talented collegiate quarterback while also being one of baseball’s top prospects. Henson, however, opted to forgo his senior year at Michigan and sign a six-year, $17 million deal with the Yankees. Despite New York’s high hopes for Henson, he never found his stride. Henson appeared in only eight games in the majors, recording one hit in nine at-bats.
After the 2003 season, Henson retired from baseball and turned his attention to football. In the 2003 NFL Draft, the Texans selected the former Michigan quarterback and held onto his rights until 2004, when Henson declared he would attempt to play in the NFL. The Texans traded Henson to the Cowboys for draft picks. In the NFL, Henson managed to complete 11 passes in nine games.
D.J. Dozier was a football man through and through. At Penn State, Dozier was one of the most talented running backs in the nation. In 1987, the Minnesota Vikings selected Dozier with the 14th pick, hoping he would provide the offense with years of stability. Unfortunately, like many other Penn State backs in the NFL, Dozier didn’t exactly shine. After four seasons in Minnesota, Dozier was traded to the Lions where he played for one year. In total, Dozier tallied an underwhelming nine touchdowns.
But he was an athlete who had played baseball and he was still relatively young and very athletic. So, in 1990, the Mets signed him as a free agent where he played in their minor league system for two years. In 1992, at the age of 26, Dozier made his MLB debut. He finished his MLB career with two RBIs and a .191 batting average.
According to Sports Illustrated, Danny Ainge is the only “person to be named a first-team All-American in football, basketball, and baseball.” After his stellar high school career, Ainge opted to attend Brigham Young University where he shined on the Cougars basketball team, winning the John R. Wooden Award during his senior year. All the while, Ainge was working on his craft as a baseball player, having been drafted by the Blue Jays in 1977.
In 1979, while still in college, Ainge made his MLB debut. He finished his career with a .220 average and two home runs. He was also the youngest player in Blue Jays history to hit a home run until Vladmir Guerrero Jr. surpassed him in 2019. After three years with the Jays, Ainge opted to quit baseball an focus on basketball. In the 1981 NBA Draft, the Celtics selected Ainge in the second round. He would go onto have a solid NBA career, becoming a one-time All-Star and two-time NBA champion.
One of only 13 athletes to play in both the NBA and MLB, Mark Hendrickson was a two-sport star at Washington State. Initially, it appeared that basketball was Hendrickson’s calling, and in 1996, the 76ers selected Hendrickson in the second round. Hendrickson would end up playing for numerous NBA teams including the Sixers, Kings, Nets, and Cavs.
However, after 114 NBA games played, Hendrickson realized he needed to find a different profession, and that would be baseball. Hendrickson, a pitcher, started off with the Blue Jays, who picked him in the 1997 draft. After Toronto, he moved to the Rays, Dodgers, Marlins, and Orioles. He finished his MLB career with an oddly-satisfying 666 strikeouts and a 58-74 record.
We all know about John Elway and his remarkable football career playing with the Denver Broncos. What most of us don’t know or tend to forget is just how close Elway came to being the New York Yankees’ next big outfielder. Elway was a hot two-sport prospect from Stanford, and the Yankees selected him in the second round of the 1981 MLB Draft — six spots ahead of future hall-of-famer Tony Gwynn. George Steinbrenner once remarked that Elway “will be a great outfielder for me, one in the great Yankee tradition of Mantle, Maris, DiMaggio and all the others.”
Elway, in the summers before graduation, reported to the Yankees’ Single-A club. However, after a stellar senior season on the football field, Elway became the consensus top pick in the upcoming NFL draft. Unsurprisingly, the Colts opted to take Elway with the first pick in the 1983 draft, despite Elway publicly stating he did not want to play for Indy. On draft night, Elway famously proclaimed, “As I stand here now, it’s going to be baseball.” With the Yankees prepared to offer him big money and the Colts not wanting to waste their pick, Indianapolis traded him to the Broncos. Elway put down his glove and bat and the rest became history.
Russell Wilson has yet to make it to the Major Leagues, but what he had managed to do is win a Super Bowl and become one of the highest-paid players in the NFL. In high school, Wilson was a two-sport athlete and, after his senior year, was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles.
However, Wilson opted to attend college where he slowly became one of the nation’s best quarterbacks. Despite being a solidified NFL star, Wilson is still in the MLB player’s pool, having initially been drafted by the Rockies in 2010. As of 2018, Wilson is a member of the New York Yankees, assigned to their Double-A affiliate, the Trenton Thunder.
Tim Tebow was one of the most successful quarterbacks in college football history. What he wasn’t able to do was parlay his collegiate greatness into a great NFL career. The Broncos gambled on Tebow, who had an awkward throwing motion, by drafting him in the first round of the 2010 draft. The Tebow experiment, by and large, was unsuccessful, and he was out of the league after three seasons.
Tebow, who was an all-state baseball player, wasn’t planning on giving up on a career in athletics just yet. Following a tryout in front of multiple MLB teams, Tebow signed a contract with the New York Mets. Although Tebow has yet to crack an MLB roster, he’s showed promise as his hitting and fielding continue to improve.
The pride of Notre Dame, Jeff Samardzija was a standout football player and pitcher for the Fighting Irish. After a stellar senior year on the football field, many analysts believed Samardzija would be a productive NFL receiver, but the future MLB All-Star had other plans.
Despite leading Notre Dame in receiving and being a two-time finalist for the Fred Biletnikoff Award, Samardzija opted to go pro in baseball after the Cubs selected him in the fifth round of the 2006 draft. As a pitcher, Samardzija has one All-Star selection (2014) and signed a five-year, $90 million contract with the Giants in 2015. That is money he almost certainly would not have earned in the NFL.
Is there a sport that Herschel Walker doesn’t play? Considered one of the greatest college football players ever, Walker made his NFL debut in 1986 after the USFL folded. In the NFL Walker, whose legs already had plenty of miles under them thanks to his three-year USFL stint, made it to two Pro Bowls and had two seasons eclipsing 1,000 yards rushing.
He was also an extraordinary return man and pass catcher out of the backfield. In 1992, while still in the prime of his football career, Walker tried out for the U.S. Olympic bobsleigh team. Originally selected for the four-man team, Walker transitioned to the two-man team, placing ninth at the 1992 Albertville Olympics.
Bob “Bullet” Hayes was an American hero at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo when the senior from Flordia A&M won two gold medals and set numerous world records. Hayes speed at those Olympics in Tokyo shocked the world and ushered in a new era of speed into track and field. Although Hayes was by no means a football player, the Dallas Cowboys, figuring they could capitalize on his otherworldly speed, took a chance on Hayes and drafted him in the seventh round of the 1964 draft.
It’s safe to say that that seventh-round gamble paid off in spades. Hayes went onto lead the NFL in touchdowns twice, made three Pro Bowls, won a Super Bowl (VI), and made it to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He’s also the only person to win an Olympic gold medal and Super Bowl ring.
Mookie Betts’ 2018 season was one of the greatest single seasons in MLB history. Betts, a three-time All-Star, won the A.L. MVP, Silver Slugger, Gold Glove, batting title, and his first World Series. That’s a lot of hardware to collect in one year. Off the diamond, Mookie is an avid bowler. In high school, he was named the Tennessee boys Bowler of the Year in 2010. To date, he’s rolled three-sanctioned 300 games.
In 2015 and 2017, Betts competed in the Professional Bowlers Association World Series of Bowling. At the 2017 PBA World Series of Bowling, Betts rolled one of his three perfect games, and in 2019, he won the CP3 PBA Celebrity Invitational.
Charlie Ward had an impeccable 1993 season, winning the Heisman by a massive margin and leading Florida State to its first-ever national championship by defeating Nebraska 18-16 in the 1993 Orange Bowl. Ward, besides being the Noles’ star quarterback, was the basketball team’s starting point guard. Just 15 days after winning the Heisman, Ward joined up with the basketball team and their push to the NCAA Tournament. Ward finished his basketball career as FSU’s leader in steals and ranks highly in career assists.
After graduating, Ward stated that he would not play in the NFL unless he was a first-round pick. Sure enough, because of Ward’s small stature, no NFL team selected him in the first round. Luckily for Ward, the Knicks opted to take him with the 26th pick in the 1994 NBA Draft. Ward played in the NBA for 11 seasons and is the only Heisman winner to play in the NBA.
There was a lot of controversy surrounding Heisman-winning quarterback from Oklahoma Kyler Murray when he was drafted first overall in the 2019 NFL Draft. That reason is two-fold. First, the Cardinals, one year before, selected Josh Rosen with the 10th pick in the draft. Apparently, one year of futility was enough for the Cardinals. Rosen was jettisoned to the Dolphins days after the Cardinals selected Murray.
The second controversy surrounded Murray’s availability for the draft in the first place. Prior to his Heisman campaign, Murray, who was drafted ninth overall by the Oakland A’s in the 2018 MLB Draft and signed a $4.66 million signing bonus, declared that he would play baseball. However, once the hype surrounding his football prospects at the next level built up, Murray bailed on the A’s, leaving baseball without another potential superstar.
Brandon Weeden’s path to the NFL started on the baseball diamond. After high school, Weeden was drafted in the second round of the 2002 MLB Draft by the Yankees, their first pick of the draft that year. As a Yankee, Weeden didn’t meet expectations and was traded to the Dodgers and then the Royals where, in 2006, he played his last season of pro baseball.
In 2007, with Weeden’s baseball career fading in the distance, the former pitcher enrolled at Oklahoma State, redshirting his first year. Slowly but surely, Weeden became a solid quarterback, and during his senior year, Weeden led the Cowboys to an 11-1 regular season record and a Fiesta Bowl win over Stanford. The Browns opted to draft Weeden in the first round of the 2012 draft, making him the oldest player ever taken in the first round at 28 years old.
You can’t teach speed, according to the late, great Al Davis. But you can teach everything else. Marquise Goodwin was a raw prospect coming out of high school, an unpolished football player with great athleticism and deadly speed. Goodwin attended the University of Texas at Austin where he shined in track and field, becoming a two-time NCAA champion in the long jump and a four-time All-American in track and field. He also won the 2011 U.S. Outdoor Track and Field long jump title and the 2012 Outdoor Championship, boosting him to the U.S. Olympic Team.
In 2012, Goodwin participated in the London Olympics, finishing 10th overall. Meanwhile, Goodwin was shining on the gridiron, proving to be one of the most dangerous deep-threats in college football. The Buffalo Bills selected Goodwin in the third round of the 2013 draft after a stellar senior campaign at Texas. In 2018, he signed a three-year, $20.3 million contract extension with the 49ers.
Nate Ebner did not play high school football; instead, he focused on rugby, a sport he would excel at during his time at Ohio State University. However, during his junior year, Ebner decided to give football a try and successfully walked onto the Ohio State football team. There, Ebner was a special teams standout who garnered late-round consideration thanks to his strong work ethic and sound tackling ability. The Patriots ultimately selected Ebner in the sixth round of the 2012 NFL Draft.
Since being drafted, Ebner, who primarily plays on special teams, has won three Super Bowls. In 2016, the Patriots granted Ebner permission to try out for the U.S. national rugby sevens team. Ebner, a rugby star by trade, made the team and participated at the 2016 Olympics, becoming the first active NFL player to do so. The team placed ninth overall.
The greatest to ever do it, Michael Jordan won three consecutive NBA Finals with the Bulls before shocking the world and retiring from the sport. Jordan, wanting to escape the constant limelight, opted to try his hand at baseball. He signed with the Chicago White Sox in 1994, whose owner also owned the Bulls, and was assigned to their minor league team, the Birmingham Barons.
Jordan’s numbers were far from incredible, and following the 1995 baseball strike, Jordan released the most famous two-word press release: “I’m back.” Jordan returned to the NBA that season and the rest is history; he went onto win another three NBA Finals and Finals MVP Awards, all in succession.
The man nicknamed “Prime Time” was the ultimate dual-sport athlete. Deion Sanders starred at Florida State before the Falcons selected him fifth overall in 1989. With a passion for big plays and an unprecedented amount of swagger, Sanders quickly became one of the league’s best corners.
Meanwhile, Sanders was just getting started with his MLB career, first with the New York Yankees and then the Atlanta Braves, which allowed him to play for both teams in the same city. Out of the two sports, Sanders clearly excelled more at football, making eight Pro-Bowls and winning two Super Bowls. On the diamond, Sanders appeared in one World Series — becoming the only player to appear in a Super Bowl and World Series — and, in 1992, led the National League in triples.
Arguably the greatest two-sport athlete of all time, Bo Jackson is the only athlete in history to be named an All-Star in both football and baseball. Jackson was a standout baseball and football player at Auburn University where he won the 1985 Heisman Trophy. Following that standout campaign, the Tampa Bay Bucs selected Jackson with the first pick of the 1986 NFL Draft, despite Jackson’s public omission that he would not play for the team.
By temporarily delaying his NFL career, Jackson was able to embark on his MLB career. When the baseball season ended, Jackson returned to the gridiron where he suited up for the Raiders, who selected him in the seventh round of the 1987 NFL Draft. The contract stipulated that Jackson was allowed to play the entire baseball season before reporting to the Raiders. Jackson made the 1990 Pro Bowl team and was a 1989 MLB All-Star.
One of the most sure-handed pass catchers in NFL history, Tony Gonzalez was known for his legendary jump ball ability, a move he definitely learned on the hardwood. At Cal, Gonzalez starred for the Golden Bears on the gridiron and the hardwood.
In football, he was a consensus All-American, and in basketball, he averaged 6.8 points and 5.4 rebounds during his junior year as the Bears made it to the Sweet Sixteen. Alas, Gonzalez had to pick a sport and went with football, where he became the Chiefs’ first-round draft pick in 1997. Gonzalez retired a 14-time Pro-Bowler and holds the NFL record for receiving yards by a tight end. Had he stuck with basketball, he, according to Pat Riley, would have made for a fine NBA player. Regardless, his NFL career turned out better than he could have imagined.
Like Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates learned how to shield defenders, box out defensive backs, and win one-on-one battles thanks to his time spent playing basketball. Gates started off his college career at Michigan State before multiple transfers landed him at Kent State University. There, he shined for the basketball team, guiding the Flashes to the NCAA Tournament while averaging 16 points and 8 rebounds per game.
During his senior year, Gates continued to dominate, but, due to his size, he drew little consideration for the NBA. With the NBA out of reach, Gates held a football tryout and impressed the Chargers with his athleticism and potential. Since signing with the team, Gates has made eight Pro Bowl teams and is a five-time All-Pro selection. Many consider Gates to be one of the greatest undrafted free agent signings in NFL history.
Considered one of the greatest football players ever, Jim Brown is the only player in NFL history to average over 100 rushing yards per game for his career. Brown played for the Cleveland Browns from 1957 to 1965, making the Pro Bowl each and every season he was in the league. Brown was also named AP NFL MVP three times and led Cleveland to a championship in 1964.
Before his remarkable NFL career, Brown was a standout multi-sport athlete at Syracuse University. During his sophomore season, Brown was the basketball team’s second-leading scorer, averaging 15 points per game. In 1955, he finished fifth in the decathlon, and as a senior, he was first-team All-American in lacrosse and ranked second nationally in scoring. Simply put, Brown was one of the greatest athletes in U.S. history.
There may not be a greater all-around athlete than Jim Thorpe, an Oklahoma native. At the 1912 Olympics, Thorpe earned the title of the greatest athlete in the world by winning the gold medal in the pentathlon and decathlon. With the Olympics behind him, Thorpe turned his attention to baseball where he played six seasons of MLB ball for the New York Giants and Cincinnati Reds.
After baseball, Thorpe transitioned to football, paying for the New York Giants, Chicago Cardinals, and Canton Bulldogs, among other teams. In 1923, Thorpe was a first-team All-Pro selection. He finished his football career with 52 games played for six teams from 1920 to 1928.
At the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, Babe Zaharias won two gold medals and one silver, instantly propelling her to the upper echelon of sports heroes in America at the time. After the Olympics concluded, Zaharias turned her focus to golf. On the links, Zaharias won 10 LPGA major championships; more importantly, she was an instrumental figure in fighting for golf equality between men and women.
In 1945, she played in three PGA tournaments and qualified for the Los Angeles Open. By doing so, she became the first and only woman to make the cut in a regular PGA Tour event. ESPN named her the 10th Greatest North American Athlete of the 20th Century.
Unfortunately for Lolo Jones, her Olympic career has been filled with more heartbreak than triumph. An All-American hurdler at LSU, Jones was primed to take the gold at the 2008 Olympics. However, the hurdle gods had other plans. On the penultimate hurdle, she tripped, falling out of medal contention. At the 2012 Olympics, she sought redemption but just missed the podium, finishing in fourth place.
Seemingly out of chances to medal in the hurdles, Jones transitioned to training for the Winter Olympic bobsleigh team. In 2013, she was selected for the U.S. team slated to compete in the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Sadly, Jones and the bobsled team failed to medal, finishing their event in 11th place. Because of that disappointing finish, Jones’ Olympic career is all but over.
Concussions derailed a potentially promising NFL career. The Detroit Lions selected Jahvid Best with the 30th pick of the 2010 NFL Draft. The team hoped the speedy, shifty back could solve their offensive woes. Best, however, would never really get the chance to prove himself. A series of concussions cut his NFL career short after just two injury-plagued seasons.
After essentially retiring from football, Best turned to what he does best- running. In 2016, Best qualified for Saint Lucia’s Track and Field team, his father’s home country. At the 2016 Rio Olympics, Best, who ran the 100 meters, did not advance to the semifinals. Due to his concussions, Bests’ NFL career is in doubt.
Dave Winfield is an iconic baseball player who made his living solely off the sport. But the reason he is included on this list is because of the elite company Winfield finds himself in. Winfield was a scholarship athlete at the University of Minnesota where he pitched for the Golden Gophers. He also starred in basketball and helped his team win the 1972 Big Ten Conference basketball championship for the first time in over half a century.
After college, four professional sports teams in three different sports drafted Winfield. The Padres drafted him as a pitcher with the fourth pick in the MLB draft, the Atlanta Hawks and Utah Stars (ABA) drafted him for basketball, and the Vikings drafted him in the 17th round. Thankfully, Winfield opted for baseball and went onto have a hall-of-fame career — as a right fielder.
If it can be driven, ridden, or raced, you better believe that Travis Pastrana is up to the task. Travis Pastrana is most recognized for his daring stunts and X Games dominance. At the X Games, Pastrana has gold medals in a variety of events including Supercross, motocross, freestyle motocross, and rally racing.
Pastrana, avid daredevil, is also notable for performing Evel Knievel-like stunts, such as jumping the fountains at Caesar’s Palace. In 2012, Pastrana made his NASCAR Nationwide Series debut, making the switch to more traditional racing. However, one year later, Pastrana announced to his fans that he would be leaving NASCAR in order to focus more on rally racing.