To excel at one sport is one thing, but having the talent and commitment to excellence to stand out in two different professional sports is jaw dropping. Athletes spend a large portion of their time training and practicing, all to improve at their craft. Numerous young players fail to find success, whether it be due to lack of effort or purely lack of skill. But the players on this list had no problem balancing two or sometimes more sports at once. Where others invested their entire lives in one discipline and failed, these athletes went above and beyond what it means to be “elite.”
In order to be on this list, the athletes in question must have made an impact in two or more sports at either the collegiate or professional levels. Through both individual and group achievement, these people have solidified themselves in not one but a multitude of sports. Some paved the way for new generations and others left impacts so large that they are still talked about today, while others were just plain good.
These are the top 15 two-sport athletes of all time.
15. Charlie Ward – Basketball & Football
The former New York Nicks point guard was a stud on the gridiron years before he’d made his NBA debut. At FSU, Ward was a dominant college QB and won the Heisman award in 1993, the same year he took the Seminoles to the Orange Bowl. Despite his success in college, Ward decided to go pro as a basketball player. The reason was simple; he was taken 26th overall by the Knicks but was projected to be a mid-round pick in the NFL. In his 11-year NBA career, Ward averaged 6.3 PPG and 4 APG and was a staple of the franchise in the mid 1990s.
14. Danny Ainge – Basketball & Baseball
Despite being well-known in the sports community as a member of those great ’80s Boston Celtics teams, Danny Ainge had a decent, although short, run in the MLB. Before he debuted for the Celtics, Ainge was selected by the Toronto Blue Jays in the 1977 draft, while he was still in college. In three years with the Blue Jays, Ainge got himself two home runs and 146 hits in 211 games, making him the youngest Blue Jays player to hit a home run. He was chosen by the Celtics in the 1981 NBA Draft and became a key member of their 1984 & 1986 championship seasons.
13. Bob Hayes – Football & Track and Field
Bob Hayes stared on America’s team for nearly a decade, using his skills as a world class sprinter to create separation and make numerous highlight reel plays. In the 1964 Olympics he won gold in both the 100 meters ands 4×100 meter relay, then took his talents to the Cowboys the following year. Hayes quickly made an impact on the team and was voted to three consecutive Pro Bowls from 1965 to 1967. He led the NFL in touchdown receptions in his first two seasons, and his electric style of play is what ultimately led to the creation of the zone defense and bump-and-run coverages. Hayes also has the distinction of once being though of as the fastest man in the world along with being the first man to have won both an Olympic gold medal as well as a Super Bowl ring.
12. Herschel Walker – Football & MMA
Herschel Walker’s NFL career spanned eleven years with four different franchises. Before he got his start with the Dallas Cowboys, he was a member of the USFL’s New Jersey Generals for three years. The Cowboys took him in the fifth round of the 1985 NFL Draft and he quickly became one of the team’s best players. During his time with the Vikings, Walker was a part of the United States Bobsled and Skeleton Federation, and helped them earn a spot in the 1992 Winter Olympics. In 2010, fourteen years after he retired from the NFL, Walker had himself a small stint as an MMA fighter. He signed with promotion company Strikeforce as a heavyweight and was active from 2010-2011, winning both his matches by technical knockout.
11. Brian Jordan – Baseball & Football
Deion Sanders wasn’t the only athlete to take the NFL and MLB by storm. But while Sanders’ career was heavily focused on pro football, former Falcons teammate Brian Jordan went the complete opposite route. A year before he was drafted by the Bills in the seventh round of the 1989 NFL Draft, Jordan was a first round pick of the MLB’s St. Louis Cardinals. Jordan spent his three years as an Atlanta Falcon doubling in the Cardinals’ minor league system. While in the NFL he totaled five career interceptions, two safeties and earned a Pro Bowl selection in 1991. He would then go on to sign a contract with the Cardinals, restricting him from playing in the NFL. Jordan had a successful MLB career spanning fourteen seasons, though injuries limited the 1999 All-Star’s playing time throughout the later portion of his career.
10. Bronko Nagurski – Football & Pro Wrestling
Bronko Nagurski played fullback and lineman for the Chicago Bears in the 1930s and later returned to the team for a one-year stint in 1943. Nagurski was a physical runner who possessed a unique skill set, even by today’s standards. With his help and unique style of downhill running, the Bears won two championships in 1932 & 1933. During his football career Nagurski had been wrestling on the side, and in 1939 he won the National Wrestling Association world title. He lost it in 1940 only to reclaim it a year later, and then lose it again three months after. In 1943 he came back to help the Bears with their championship run, scoring a touchdown in their championship victory over the Washington Redskins, and retired from football for good afterwards.
9. Dave DeBusschere – Basketball & Baseball
Though Dave DeBusschere was a beast on the hardwood, his short-lived baseball career was full of promise. As a member of the Chicago White Sox he was a stellar pitcher and even threw a shutout against the Cleveland Indians. But his achievements as a basketball player greatly overshadowed anything he did as a member of the White Sox. He was voted to eight All-Star teams, six NBA All-Defensive teams and won two championships as a member of the New York Knicks, ending up in the Hall of Fame.
8. Lionel Conacher – Football & Hockey
Lionel Conacher was known as the “Canadian Jim Thorpe,” and for good reason. Conacher spent a majority of his professional career playing football in the CFL. In 1921 he scored fifteen points in what would be the first ever east-west Grey Cup. Conacher’s Toronto Argonauts defeated the Edmonton Eskimos 23-0, making it a blowout. Conacher would be part of the Pittsburgh Pirates hockey team when they joined the NHL in 1925. He won a number of awards and honours as an NHL player including two Stanley Cups and a Memorial Cup. However, Conacher would make a brief return to his favourite sport, football. He spent two years playing professional football before retiring from the game at the age of 34, after the strain on his body became too much.
7. Gene Conley – Baseball & Basketball
Gene Conley has the distinction of being one of only two athletes to ever win championships in two of the four major American sports. He won one with the Milwaukee Braves in 1957 and another three with the Boston Celtics from 1959 to 1961. Conley was a four-time All-Star with the Braves and Phillies, and in eleven seasons as a pitcher posted 888 strikeouts. He spent most of his career with the Celtics where he had the majority of his NBA success, and totaled over 2,000 rebounds in his career.
6. Harvey Pulford – Football & Hockey
A jack of all trades, Harvey Pulford excelled at hockey, lacrosse, football, paddling and rowing, winning national championships in each sport. But he made his greatest impact in hockey and football as a member of the both the Ottawa Hockey Club & Football Club respectively. He won multiple championships with the Football club and was their captain throughout his tenure with the team. He also played in the first ever Stanley Cup hockey playoff games, but stopped playing before Ottawa went pro.
5. Babe Didrikson Zaharias – Golf & Track and Field
After she dominated at the 1932 Olympics, winning gold at the 80-meter hurdles and the javelin, Babe Didrikson Zaharias turned to pro golf fifteen years later in 1947. She managed 48 wins as a golfer and won ten majors, making her case as the greatest female golfer of all time. Additionally, Zaharias was an All-American in basketball and played organized baseball and softball when she wasn’t bowling, roller-skating and diving. She was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1951 and played her last game in 1956, the year of her death.
4. Jim Brown – Football & Lacrosse
Jim Brown is acknowledged as being perhaps the best running back to ever play in the NFL. His unique mixture of power, speed and elusiveness made him impossible to catch, let alone bring down. But while Brown is mostly remembered as being a dangerous football player, he was also an all around great lacrosse player as well. He played lacrosse for Syracuse, and in his sophomore year was the team’s second leading scorer. However, it’s nothing compared to a football career that included three MVP awards and nine Pro Bowls in nine career seasons.
3. Bo Jackson – Football & Baseball
Bo Jackson was truly a freak of nature. With the skill set to be both a great football and baseball player, Bo spent the majority of his professional career as the latter. The 1985 Heisman winner was selected fourth overall by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the 1986 draft but opted to sign with the Kansas City Royals who had taken him in the fourth round of the amateur draft. Bo’s football career would only last a few seasons until an injury forced him to stop, but he put up monster numbers as an Oakland Raider while playing on a limited basis throughout his career. His baseball career wouldn’t last much longer, as injuries would be his ultimate undoing. In seven years in the MLB, Jackson played for three teams and was an All-Star in 1989, his best statistical year, where he ranked fourth in the league in home runs and RBIs.
2. Jim Thorpe – Football & Track
Jim Thorpe might have been the greatest athlete none of us had the privilege of watching. In 1912 he won the Olympic gold medals for decathlon and pentathlon. Thorpe was a part of the APFA which would later become the NFL. While he did serve as the AFPA’s president, the job was later handed to Joseph Carr since Thorpe spent the majority of his time playing. He retired from football at the age of 41, after playing 52 NFL games for six teams from 1920 to 1928.
1. Deion Sanders – Football & Baseball
Primetime was a big play waiting to happen. Sanders was a threat not only as a corner but as a kick returner and a wide receiver as well. The two-time Super Bowl champ amassed 53 interceptions, eight Pro Bowls and two NFC Defensive Player of the Year awards while playing in the NFL. His MLB career was no laughing matter either. Though it was part-time, Sanders played nine years for four teams in 641 games. He hit 39 home runs and had a batting average of .263. Not bad for a guy moonlighting his way through the league. By the end of his career Sanders had become the only player to play in both a Super Bowl and a World Series.