The Winter Olympics have come and gone, but the involvement of the well known track athletes in the women’s bobsled events has evoked memories of the great Herschel Walker, and even the speedster Willie Gault. Gault and Walker were outstanding track athletes who both helped power sleds in unsuccessful Winter Olympic bobsled runs.
There have been more successful Olympians who have managed to play at least one down in the NFL, but there are fewer NFL stars who have been able to participate in the Olympics. The exclusion of professional sports players from the Olympics has throughout history been a contributing factor to the brevity of this list. This was a factor in the case of the track and field athlete and NFL receiver, Willie Gualt.
This short list of six NFL Olympians, contains four sprinters, one shot putter and a 400 meter specialist. All six players have managed to experience the worldwide competition and exposure of the Olympics, while experiencing some notable elements of success in the NFL. This short list, contains a defensive tackle, two running backs and three wide receivers who have collectively played a big role in several super bowl title runs while earning several trips to the NFL Pro Bowl.
6. James Jett – Wide Receiver, Olympian (1992)
The speed demon out of West Virginia went undrafted in the 1993 NFL draft. Known primarily for his returns in college, where he had 125 returns for 1,620 yards, James Jett managed to break into the NFL signing a free agent contract with the Los Angeles Raiders immediately following the draft.
Jett finished his NFL career by averaging 17.3 yards per reception as a deep threat. He had 256 receptions to go along with 4,417 yards and 30 touchdowns. His best season was in 1997, when he had 46 receptions for 804 yards and 12 TD.
Jett, a seven-time All-American in track, earned a spot on the 1992 US Olympic 4 x 100 relay team by finishing in 5th place during the 100 meter trials. He came in second place in the 100 and 200 meter finals at the NCAA championships in 1992. Jett went on to win the gold medal in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics as a member of the wining USA 4 x 100 meter relay team. His personal bests were 10.10 seconds for the 100 meters and 19.91 for the 200 meters.
5. Willie Gault – Wide Receiver, Olympian (1988)
Another receiver who was very fleet of foot, Willie Gault had a breakout season as a senior at Tennessee, leading the team with 50 receptions for 668 yards. He finished his Tennesee career with a record 1,854 yards in kickoff returns and 2,513 total return yards. He entered the NFL as a first round draft pick (18th overall selection) of the Chicago Bears.
Gault finished his NFL career with 333 receptions for 6,635 yards, with 19.9 yard average per reception, and 44 TD. He was a member of the Chicago Bears Superbowl XX team that beat the New England Patriots 46-10. His best season was logged in 1990, when he had 50 catches for 985 yards and 3 TD. He averaged a gaudy 24.6 yards per reception in 1989.
Gault was a member of a world record track and field 4 x 100 meter USA relay team. He qualified for 1980 Moscow Olympics that the US ended up boycotting, so he was unable to attend. He qualified for the Olympic team again in 1984, but the USOC eliminated him from the team because of his professional status as a paid NFL football player. He finally attended the Olympics in the 1988 Calgary games as a bobsledder. He won NCAA titles for the 60-yard dash and 60-yard high hurdles and had a personal best of 9.80 seconds in the 100 meter dash.
4. Ollie Matson – Running Back, Olympian (1952)
Ollie Matson was a collegiate star at the University of San Francisco, finishing ninth in Heisman Trophy voting after leading the Don’s to an undefeated 9-0 season in 1951. The school was denied the opportunity to attend any of the major bowl games in the American South due to the presence of Matson and another black player on their roster. USF refused to play without their two African-American teammates.
Matson was drafted in the first round by the Chicago Cardinals with the 3rd pick in the 1952 NFL draft. He finished his NFL career with 5,173 yards rushing on 1,170 carries, with a 4.4 average per carry, and 40 TD. Matson also caught 222 passes out of the backfield for 3,285 yards and 23 TD. The six-time pro bowl selection is a member of the NFL’s 1950’s All-Decade team and was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1972. His best season was in 1956, when he rushed for 924 yards on 192 carries while playing for the Chicago Cardinals.
Matson was a great athlete who had speed and enough endurance to be a 400 meter sprinting champ. At the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, he earned a bronze medal in the 400 meters, and a silver as a member of the USA 4 x 400 meter relay team.
3. Michael Carter – Defensive Tackle, Olympian (1984)
The powerful nose tackle who once had a high school record 81’3.5″ shot put, was a member of two undefeated SMU football teams (1981 and 1982). After a successful college career, Michael Carter was drafted rather late, by the San Francisco 49ers in the fifth round of the 1984 draft with the 121st pick.
Carter flourished on the 49ers, earning a selection to the Pro Bowl three times in his illustrious career. He helped anchor the 49ers defensive front during three world championship runs. He spent his whole career as a member of the 49ers. Carter was the only player to win an Olympic medal and be an NFL champion in the same year (1984).
Carter was a great football player, known for his quickness as well as strength and good size. This quickness blended with great strength yielded incredible results in the shot put. The four-time NCAA indoor and three-time NCAA outdoor shot put champ. He had a put of just under 71’5″ to come in second at the 1984 NCAA Championships. He then earned a spot on the 1984 Olympic team where he received the silver medal in the LA games.
2. Bob Hayes – Wide Receiver, Olympian (1964)
Bob Hayes was a rather unheralded receiver out of Florida A&M, selected by the Cowboys in the seventh round of the 1964 draft. A man well known for his speed and ability to get open quickly down field, Hayes was credited with the creation of two new defenses to help negate his speed. The birth of the zone defense and bump and run coverage were both developed to make it harder for Bob Hayes, and speedy receivers that followed, to get any free passes down the field.
Hayes finished his productive NFL career with 371 receptions for 7,414 yards, a 20.0 yard per reception average, along with 71 TDs. He managed to have two 1,000 yard seasons in the run first era of the NFL, during his first two seasons with the Dallas Cowboys. He was selected to the pro bowl three times, and was a member of the Cowboys’ world championship team that defeated the Miami Dolphins 24-3 in Superbowl VI. Hayes spent ten seasons with the Cowboys in his eleven year career and was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 2009.
Hayes was also an extraordinary sprinter, who was the first man to break six seconds in the 60-yard dash (5.9 seconds), while also holding the 100-yard dash record of 9.2 seconds. In the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Hayes ran in lane 1 and blazed to the gold medal, tying the world record time of 10.06 seconds in the 100 meter dash. He went on to earn another gold medal as a member of the USA 4 x 100 meter relay team which won with a then world record time of 39.06 seconds.
1. Herschel Walker – Running Back, Olympian (1992)
Herschel Walker might not have been the most recognized Olympian, but certainly leads the pack with his success as a professional football player. The Heisman Trophy winner (1982) from Georgia, also recognized as the Maxwell Award winner, was without a doubt, the best college football player in the land. Walker was drafted by the New Jersey Generals in the emerging league of the USFL.
Walker achieved legendary status in his third season in the USFL, gaining 2,411 yards rushing to go along with 21 TD. He went on to finish his three year stint in the USFL by logging 5,562 yards rushing, while scoring 54 TD.
Walker’s NFL career was solid as well, with 8,225 yards rushing, a 4.2 yard per carry average and 61 touchdowns to go along with 5,859 yards receiving on 512 receptions with 21 TD. He was a two-time Pro Bowler who had his best season as a Cowboy in 1988 when he rushed for 1,514 yards and added 505 yards in receiving, scoring a combined seven TDs. Walker had an outstanding rookie season in the NFL, hauling in 76 passes for 837 yards. He left the game as the only NFL player to have over 4,000 yards rushing, receiving and returning kicks.
Walker was a great sprinter with a personal best of 10.10 seconds in the 100-meter dash. He finally made it to the Olympics as a member of the 1992 USA bobsled team that placed 7th. The versatile Walker also participated in the Fort Worth ballet and won his only two fights in MMA as a member of Strikeforce (2010-2011).
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