For anyone who’s never swung a baseball bat, strapped on a football helmet or set skate to ice, it’s easy to take for granted how much dedication and commitment it takes to succeed in sports. Even for athletes with natural talent, years of training and countless hours of practice, excelling at the highest level is a rare and impressive feat.
Even rarer, and more impressive, is when an athlete excels at the highest level in more than one sport.
While it’s not uncommon for people to grow up playing several sports, there comes a time – often towards the end of their collegiate careers – when many of them streamline their efforts and specialize in one. A select few, however, continue spreading out their talent and go on to successful professional careers in multiple sports.
Here is a list of the top 10 multi-sport athletes of all-time.
Note: As with any list of this nature, there is bound to be some subjectivity. While there are countless athletes who could have gone on to successful careers in several sports after college (Charlie Ward, Dave Winfield and Tony Gonzalez, to name a few) and others who dominated in one sport and had marginal success in another (Michael Jordan), this list is reserved for those who not only played – but excelled – in two or more sports at the professional or international level.
10. Wilt Chamberlain: Basketball, Volleyball and Track & Field
Listed at 7’1″ and 275 pounds in his prime, it would be hard to imagine Wilt “the Stilt” Chamberlain pursuing a career in anything other than sports. After starring at the University of Kansas and spending some time with the Harlem Globetrotters, Chamberlain went on to a dominant career in the NBA in which he set numerous records and won a pair of league championships. But while he may be known primarily for his prowess on the hardwood (and in the bedroom), Chamberlain also had success as a track and field athlete (he ran the 100-yard dash in 10.9 seconds, shot-putted 56 feet, triple-jumped more than 50 feet, and won the high jump in the Big Eight track and field championships three years in a row). He was also a volleyball player in the International Volleyball Association. Chamberlain’s athleticism remained evident even into middle-age, as he ran several marathons and received NBA contract offers until the ripe age of 50. He died in 1998, at the age of 63, of congestive heart failure.
9. Lionel Conacher: Football, Hockey, Baseball, Wrestling, Boxing and Lacrosse
His name may not be as well-known as some of the other athletes on this list, but Lionel Conacher is a Canadian sporting icon. His playing career, which spanned the 1920s and 1930s, included football (then known as rugby football), baseball, ice hockey, wrestling, boxing and lacrosse. Nicknamed “The Big Train,” Conacher won the International League baseball championship, the Memorial Cup (Canadian junior hockey title), the Grey Cup and a pair of Stanley Cups; to this day, he remains one of only two players to win both the Grey Cup and the Stanley Cup (along with Carl Voss). In addition to being named Canada’s top male athlete for the first half of the 20th Century, Conacher is also a member of Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame, the Canadian Football Hall of Fame, the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame and the Hockey Hall of Fame.
8. Bob Hayes: Football and Track & Field
Long before the likes of Tyson Gay and Usain Bolt, the title of fastest man in the world belonged to “Bullet Bob” Hayes. After winning gold medals in the 100-meter dash and the 4X100-meter relay ay the 1964 Summer Olympics, Hayes used to his speed to become a star wide receiver in the NFL for more than a decade. In addition to hauling in more than 7,000 yards and scoring 71 career touchdowns, Hayes was a three-time Pro Bowl selection (1965, 1966 and 1967) and helped the Dallas Cowboys capture Super Bowl VI. While Hayes was posthumously inducted to Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009, his true claim to fame is that he’s the only man to ever win both a gold medal and the Super Bowl.
7. Jim Brown: Football, Basketball, Lacrosse and Track & Field
Most sports fans are familiar with Jim Brown’s dominant career as a running back with the NFL’s Cleveland Browns, but before he rushed for more than 12,000 yards and scored 126 touchdowns, the 6’2″, 230-pound Georgia native was an exceptional four-sport athlete at Syracuse University. In addition to setting records on the gridiron, he ran track, led his basketball team in scoring and was an All-American in lacrosse. While he probably could have made a career playing any sport he chose, Brown was drafted sixth overall in the 1957 NFL entry draft and decided to pursue professional football. Given his eight rushing titles, nine Pro Bowl selections and numerous records, it’s hard to argue with his decision. Now 78 years old, Brown is a member of the Lacrosse Hall of Fame, the College Football Hall of Fame and the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
6. Babe Didrikson Zaharias: Golf, Basketball and Track & Field
Born in Port Arthur, Texas, in 1911, Mildred Ella “Babe” Didrikson gave new meaning to the term “natural athlete.” Whether it was mainstream sports like basketball, golf, tennis and baseball, or more obscure ones like diving, rollerskating, billiards and bowling, Didrikson Zaharias excelled at everything she tried. In addition to winning Olympic gold medals in the 80-meter hurdles and javelin throw (along with a silver in the high jump), she achieved All-American status on the basketball court and accumulated 48 wins on the LPGA tour, including 10 major championships. Despite not taking up golf until the age of 25, Didrikson Zaharias was so good that she even competed in men’s tournaments and eventually earned a spot in the World Golf Hall of Fame. One can only wonder how much more “Babe” would have accomplished had she lived longer; she died of colon cancer in 1956, at the age of 45.
5. Jackie Joyner-Kersee: Track & Field and Basketball
The “Babe” of her generation, Jackie Joyner-Kersee raised the bar for not only women, but for athletes around the globe. After a successful collegiate career at UCLA – in both basketball and track & field – Joyner-Kersee broke onto international scene at the 1984 Summer Olympics, where she won the silver medal in the heptathlon. She followed that up with two gold medals at the 1988 Summer Olympics (heptathlon and long jump), a gold (heptathlon) and a bronze at the 1992 Summer Olympics (long jump) and a bronze medal in the 1996 Summer Olympics (long jump). She also owns four World Championships gold medals and a Pan American Games gold medal. Thanks to her success and longevity, Joyner-Kersee was named the “Top Woman Collegiate Athlete of the Past 25 Years” (as voted by the 976 NCAA member schools) in 2001 and “The Greatest Female Athlete of All-time” (as voted by Sports Illustrated for Women) in 1990.
4. Jackie Robinson: Baseball, Football, Basketball and Track & Field
Yes, Jackie Robinson will always be remembered for breaking the baseball color line when he became the first African-American to play in a MLB game in the modern era, and as well he should be. But he should also be remembered for his athletic accomplishments. Before he even suited up for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, Robinson had become the first athlete in UCLA history to earn a varsity letter in baseball, football, basketball and track. After a stint in the Pacific Coast Football League, he played baseball in the Negro leagues and the minor leagues before breaking through to the majors. In 10 seasons in the big leagues, Robinson had 1,518 hits, 137 home runs, 734 RBI, 197 stolen bases and a career batting averaged of .311. By the time he retired in 1956, he had a Rookie of the Year award (1947), a National League batting title and MVP award (1949), a World Series ring (1955) and a spot in the Baseball Hall of Fame. His No. 42 has also been retired by every team in MLB.
3. Deion Sanders: Football and Baseball
Deion Sanders certainly wasn’t the first athlete to play both football and baseball, but he was far and away the best. For nearly a decade, “Prime Time” split his time between the NFL in fall and winter and MLB in spring and summer. And he did it full-tilt. As one of the best cornerbacks to ever play in the NFL, Sanders intercepted 53 passes and scored 22 touchdowns, made eight Pro Bowls, earned NFC Defensive Player of the Year honors twice, set several league records, won two Super Bowls and was elected to both the College Football Hall of Fame and the Pro Football Hall of Fame. On the baseball diamond he played a total of 641 career games, accumulating 558 hits, 39 home runs, 186 stolen bases and a career batting average of .263. While “Neon” Deion Sanders was undoubtedly one of the flashiest athletes of all time, he also remains one of the best.
2. Bo Jackson: Football, Baseball and Track
Another athlete who competed in two major sports at the highest level, Vincent Edward “Bo” Jackson is the epitome of competition. Coming out of college with the 1985 Heisman Trophy (not to mention his accolades as both a baseball player and track & field athlete), Jackson was the first overall pick in the NFL entry draft but decided to play Major League baseball as an outfielder with the Kansas City Royals instead. Before long, however, he gave into the temptation to get back on the gridiron and began splitting time between MLB and the NFL. As a 6’1,” 230-pound running back, Jackson used his size and speed to rack up 2,782 career rushing yards and 16 touchdowns in only four partial seasons with the Los Angeles Raiders. Unfortunately, a hip injury cut his football career short and forced him to focus solely on baseball. Still, he was able to bat .250 with 141 home runs and 415 RBIs over the course of his eight-year career before finally succumbing to his injuries and retiring at the age of 31. To this day, Jackson is the only athlete to be named an All-Star in two major American sports.
1. Jim Thorpe: Football, Baseball, Basketball and Track & Field
When it comes to discussing the greatest multi-sport athlete of all-time, the conversation begins and ends with Jim Thorpe. The roots of Thorpe’s legacy date back to the early 1900s, when, as a college student, he competed in everything from track & field and baseball to lacrosse and ballroom dancing. By 1911, he had gained national attention for his football prowess, a sport in which he played running back, placekicker, punter and defensive back. After earning All-American honors that year and the next, he began training for the 1912 Summer Olympics, in which he won gold medals in the decathlon (consisting of ten events) and the pentathlon (consisting of seven events). Later that year, he broke the record for most points in the Amateur Athletic Union’s All-Around Championship. By the 1920s, Thorpe was playing baseball, basketball and football – all at the professional level. By the time he retired from sports at the age of 41, he had accomplished more than any athlete – including himself – could ever dream of.