Although rule changes are about to take it away, the NFL has had its share of players dunking a football over the goalpost. The sight of Tony Gonzalez or Jimmy Graham slamming one home following a touchdown, often makes you wonder just how many players have honed these skills on the basketball court.
There have been many NFL players who have played basketball in youth leagues or their high school days, but once college rolls around it becomes harder to continue to play more than one sport, especially a sport like basketball where finesse is more valued over strength. Despite the bulk and strength required for playing football, there are still quite a few linebackers, tight ends, wide receivers and defensive ends who have played both sports in their college years. In the past, the great running back Jim Brown was a star of many sports including lacrosse at Syracuse. Charlie Ward was a Heisman Trophy winner at Florida State who never played in the NFL but ended up having a 11-year career in the NBA playing mostly for the New York Knicks.
Today, players are often forced to specialize in one sport by coaches who demand more of their time and undivided attention. There are still some players who tried to do both in college despite these difficulties. All of these players seem to share one thing in common that allows them to play both sports. They are all outstanding athletes.
Here is a short list of current NFL players who are no strangers to playing on the hardwood.
10. Martellus Bennett, Chicago Bears TE / Texas A&M F – 1.7 PPG, 1.4 RPG
Martellus Bennett is currently a starting tight end for the Chicago Bears who has had 50 or more receptions two seasons in a row. Last year he had the best season of his career with 65 receptions for 759 yards and 5 touchdowns. The Dallas Cowboys selected Bennett with their second round pick (61st selection) in the 2008 draft. He is playing on his third team, but seems to have found a new home with the Bears.
At Texas A&M, Bennett played two seasons of basketball and only playing 4 games in his second season. He was a bench player who used his 6 foot 7 inch, 250 pound frame to primarily rebound and play defense. He couldn’t shoot (26.0% career field goal percentage), but did average 6.2 minutes per game and 1.5 rebounds per game his first year with the Aggies in 2005-2006.
9. Connor Barwin, Philadelphia Eagles LB / Cincinnati F – 1.3 PPG, 1.8 RPG
Connor Barwin is a starting linebacker who already has established himself as a solid NFL linebacker with 24 career sacks in five seasons. He had a career year in 2011, when he had 11.5 sacks and 47 tackles playing for the Houston Texans. He was selected by the Texans with the 46th pick in the second round of the 2009 NFL draft.
When the Cincinnati Bearcats were looking for help to fill out their roster, Barwin added his 6 foot 4 inch, 240 pound frame into the mix. He was a bench player who was athletic enough to average about 10 minutes of playing time throughout his two year basketball career. He managed to block 10 shots in 2006-2007, during his second and last season as a Bearcat basketball player.
8. Demetress Bell, Dallas Cowboys T / Northwestern State F/C – 3.9 PPG, 3.2 RPG
Demetress Bell is a big, 311 pound tackle who has started in 35 of the 40 games he has played in the NFL. He has been a member of three different teams since being drafted by the Buffalo Bills with the 219th pick in the 2008 draft. Bell was showing enough promise to earn a 5-year, $34.5 million contract from the Philadelphia Eagles, but was released in 2012. He signed with the Dallas Cowboys last year.
At Northwestern State, Bell was a solid 6 foot 6 inch, 265 pound reserve space eater who played forward and center. His best season of basketball was his freshman year in 2003-2004, when he averaged 4.9 points and 4.3 rebounds per game while shooting 50% from the field. According to his mom, he is the son of former NBA great, Karl Malone.
7. Demar Dotson, Tampa Bay Buccaneers T / Southern Miss F – 3.9 PPG, 3.6 RPG
Demar Dotson is a hulking 6 foot 9 inch, 315 pound offensive tackle who has started in 33 of 54 games for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He was undrafted coming out of college in 2009, but managed to work into a starting role which he assumed for all of last season. Dotson certainly had the size for playing basketball and is currently one of the tallest players in the NFL.
Dotson played two seasons of basketball for Southern Miss. and was a solid contributor. He had three career double doubles and had a 24 point, 12 rebound game in his junior year. He followed that up with a 14 point, 10 rebound game for consecutive double double games. He led the team in field goal percentage his junior year, shooting 59.7% from the field.
6. Jimmy Graham, New Orleans Saints TE / Miami Hurricanes F – 4.2 PPG, 4.2 RPG
Jimmy Graham is a huge wide receiver who happens to be considered a tight end. At 6 foot 7 inches tall, Graham is an imposing target for Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints. He had his second 1,000 yard plus season last year with 1,215 yards receiving to go along with 16 touchdowns on 86 receptions. He has already been selected to two Pro Bowls in his four year career. Graham was a third round draft choice of the Saints in the 2010 draft and is now a major star in the NFL.
At the Universtiy of Miami, Graham played basketball for four seasons. The athletic forward proved he had basketball hops by posting a 38.5 inch vertical leap at the 2010 NFL Combine. He played in 120 games at Miami averaging 4.2 points and 4.2 rebounds per game, while making 50.8% of his field goal attempts. He had a solid senior season, averaging 18.8 minutes and 5.9 rebounds per game.
5. Tony Gonzalez, Atlanta Falcons TE / California F – 6.4 PPG, 4.3 RPG
Tony Gonzalez announced his retirement from the NFL, but he makes this list because he played last season. Gonzalez has been arguably the best tight end in football during his 17 year career. He ended up making 1,325 receptions for 15,127 yards and 111 touchdowns during his illustrious career. Gonzalez played in a NFL record (for tight ends) 14 Pro Bowls and was the first tight end in NFL history to top 1,000 receptions. The first round pick in 1997 has been a model of consistency in the NFL from his tight end position.
At the University of California, Gonzalez was a solid 6 foot 5 inch forward who played three seasons for the Golden Bears. In his first season (1994-1995), Gonzalez averaged 7.1 points per game and made 64% of his field goal attempts. Throughout his three year collegiate career, Gonzalez averaged 6.4 points, 4.34 rebounds and .56 steals per game. In 1997, Gonzalez helped the Golden Bears get to a rare sweet sixteen NCAA Tournament appearance.
4. Julius Peppers, Green Bay Packers DE / N. Carolina F – 5.7 PPG, 3.7 RPG
Julius Peppers has been a sensational pass rusher and defender on the edge for 12 seasons in the NFL. He has amassed 118.5 quarterback sacks and 556 tackles during this time with the Carolina Panthers and Chicago Bears. Peppers has 39 forced fumbles during his career that has included eight trips to the Pro Bowl and the selection as the NFC Defensive Player of the Year in 2004. He has been a force ever since being selected by the Panthers with the second overall pick in the 2002 NFL draft.
At North Carolina, Peppers was a 6 foot 6 inch, 290 pound beast in the paint. He played two seasons and finished with a career field goal shooting percentage of 60.7%. He averaged 5.7 points, 3.7 rebounds and 0.5 assists per game for the powerhouse Tar Heels. Peppers was a walk-on reserve who went to the Final Four in 1999-2000, his first season with North Carolina. In 2000-2001, Peppers had an 18 point, 10 rebound game for Carolina in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
3. Julius Thomas, Denver Broncos TE / Portland State F – 6.8 PPG, 4.3 RPG
Julius Thomas came into his own last season by going from only 5 appearances in his rookie season to playing in 14 games last year, while pulling in 65 receptions for 788 yards. He had 12 touchdowns and even managed to get 41 first downs with his 65 receptions. Thomas has become a dynamic tight end playing for Peyton Manning, earning his first Pro Bowl appearance last season. He was selected by the Denver Broncos with the 129th pick in the fourth round of the 2011 NFL Draft.
Thomas was a solid contributor for Portland State University averaging 6.8 points, 4.3 rebounds and 1.2 assists per game. The 6 foot 5 inch forward even averaged 1.5 steals per game in his senior season with the Vikings. Thomas set three Portland State records when he completed his four year career. He set marks for games played (121), career wins (78), and career field goal percentage (66.3%). He helped them earn NCAA Tournament berths in 2008 and 2009.
2. Vincent Jackson, Tampa Bay Buccaneers WR / N. Colorado F – 12.3 PPG, 4.8 RPG
Vincent Jackson has been one of the best sideline receivers since coming into the league in 2005. Jackson has logged 422 receptions, 7,362 yards and 52 touchdowns in his 9 NFL seasons. He had one of his best seasons for Tampa Bay last year, hauling in 78 receptions for 1,224 yards. Jackson has averaged 17.4 yards per catch for his career and averaged a career high of 19.2 yards per reception in 2012. Jackson was selected in the second round with the 61st overall pick by the San Diego Chargers in the 2005 NFL Draft.
Jackson started in 21 of 24 games his last season at Northern Colorado, while averaging 13.6 points per game. In addition to being the team’s leading scorer, he was second on his team in rebounds and led the team in assists with just over 3 per game. Jackson was probably the best 3-point shooter on this list, hitting 18 of them for the season at a 34% clip.
1. Antonio Gates, San Diego Chargers TE / Kent State F – 16.5 PPG, 7.8 RPG
Antonio Gates has been having a terrific career as one of the elite tight ends in the NFL. He has caught 719 passes for 9,193 yards and 87 touchdowns in his 11 seasons in the league. Gates has been selected to play in eight Pro Bowls so far in his San Diego Charger career. He has had a productive career for an undrafted player from Kent State. The reason Gates was so unheralded coming out of college was probably because he was such a good basketball player.
Gates was originally enrolled in Michigan State, but the football coach at the time (Nick Saban) would not let Gates play basketball. Instead, Gates chose basketball over football and eventually landed at Kent State. He was a big star at Kent State, where he averaged 20.6 points per game in his senior season and 8.1 rebounds per game in his junior season. Gates guided the Golden Flashes to their first regular season Mid-American Conference Championship in his senior season. They went on to reach the Elite Eight as a tenth seed in the NCAA Tournament.