10. Jim Brown
Football fans know him as arguably the greatest running back in NFL history, but Brown carved out quite a legacy at Syracuse University. Brown was an all-American in lacrosse, and was good enough to average 15 points per game for the basketball team as a sophomore. He also ran track.
9. Danny Ainge
Ainge boasts one distinction no one else on this list can claim — he is the only person ever named first team high school all-America in baseball, football and basketball. In the NBA, he was a vital role player on the great Boston Celtics teams of the 1980s, and he went on to play 14 years in the league. He did not fare as well in baseball, batting .220 in a part-time role in three seasons with the Toronto Blue Jays. Ironically, for someone who played pro sports for many years, he’s best remembered by many fans for his full-court charge to the basket (see the video beginning at 40-second mark) to help Brigham Young beat Notre Dame in the 1981 NCAA basketball tournament.
8. Dave Winfield
Sports fans remember Winfield today as a multi-talented outfielder, primarily with the San Diego Padres and New York Yankees. His 22-year career yielded more than 3,000 hits, 465 home runs and 1,833 RBI, earning him induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2001. But in his earlier years, Winfield had his pick of professional sports leagues. While attending the University of Minnesota in the early 1970s, he was a two-sport star in baseball and basketball. After college, four different teams in three different sports drafted him. The San Diego Padres picked him fourth overall in the 1973 draft, and promoted him directly to the big leagues. The team stuck him in right field — a change from his role as a pitcher in college (he had won the 1973 College World Series MVP award in that role). Winfield was also drafted by the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks and American Basketball Association’s Utah Stars, as well as the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings (despite the fact he had not played college football).
7. Charlie Ward
After leading Florida State to the NCAA Football championship and winning the Heisman Trophy in 1993, quarterback Charlie Ward appeared to have a bright future in the NFL. But Ward made things difficult for himself by declaring he would not sign with an NFL team unless he was drafted in the first round. Given that ultimatum, NFL teams ignored Ward in the draft. Luckily, Ward had a backup plan — playing in the NBA. Although not as highly touted in that sport as in football, he had still been talented enough as a guard at FSU to attract the attention of several NBA teams. The New York Knicks picked him in the first round of the 1994 draft. Though never more than a role player in the NBA, he played 11 seasons in the league. That, combined with his Heisman Trophy-winning heroics in college football, earns him a spot here.
6. Bob Hayes
It would be easy to fill this list with track stars who went on to play pro football. But in many cases, those track stars’ speed is what landed them a job in the NFL. So we reserved only one spot on this list for the greatest example of a track star who made it big in the NFL: Bob Hayes. Before reading another word, watch the first 30 seconds of the embedded YouTube video spotlighting Hayes at the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Hayes set a world record in winning a gold medal in the 100-meter dash, but his anchor leg in the United States’ 4x100-meter relay is otherworldly. Watch that and you immediately understand why his nickname “Bullet Bob” is a perfect fit.
Enticed by this phenomenal speed, the Dallas Cowboys selected Hayes in the seventh round of the 1964 NFL draft — one spot before the Detroit Lions picked a Wichita State tackle named Bill Parcells. Hayes’ tremendous speed forced a revolutionary change in the sport. Aware that Hayes and other African-American receivers brought a new dimension in speed to the game, coaches devised the zone defense to help combat the threat. The zone may have hampered Hayes a bit, but he still finished his career with more than 7,400 receiving yards and 71 touchdowns. He was selected to the NFL Hall of Fame in 2009, albeit several years after his death.
5. Jackie Robinson
Jackie Robinson’s historic role as the first African-American to play Major League Baseball made him a cultural icon. But that epic breakthrough has unfortunately overshadowed his achievements as an exceptional athlete. Before Robinson smashed baseball’s color barrier by joining the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, Robinson had been a multi-sport sensation at UCLA. He was an all-America selection at running back, and as a point guard in basketball twice led the Pac 10 in scoring. In track, he won the 1940 NCAA long jump. In the big leagues, he posted a .311 career batting average, won an MVP award and was a six-time all-star with the Dodgers.
4. Babe Didrikson Zaharias
Zaharias is not rated this highly as some sort of equal opportunity gimmick. No athlete on the list dominated so many disparate sports the way Zaharias did. After winning two gold medals (the javelin and 80-meter hurdles) and one silver (high jump) in track and field in the 1932 Olympics, Zaharias later went on to become one of the top golfers of all time, playing some events on the men’s PGA tour and serving as a founding member of the LPGA. Her career stats are gaudy: 10 major championships and 41 overall LPGA tournament wins. Oh yeah, somewhere along the way she found time to tour the country as a star basketball player, play pro baseball and dabble in softball, bowling, diving, tennis and billiards. Zaharias died of cancer at age 45. In perhaps the ultimate tribute to her talents, the Associated Press named her the 9th Greatest Athlete of the 20th Century.
3. Jim Thorpe
A list of great multisport athletes without Jim Thorpe would be like a list of great presidents without George Washington. But Thorpe’s heyday, almost 100 years ago, dulls his legacy somewhat, as some fans today question the legitimacy of his accomplishments: He was only good because he didn’t compete against African-American athletes. Or, there’s no way anyone could excel in so many different sports today given the specialization involved. That is overthinking the issue. Instead, let’s appreciate what Thorpe did accomplish in his era. In the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm, the 24-year-old Thorpe won gold medals in both the pentathlon and decathlon. The Native American went on to play professional football, baseball and basketball. His baseball statistics were modest (a .252 batting average in 289 games as an outfielder), but as a player in the new National Football League, he was named to the league’s first all-NFL team in 1923. If he’d performed all those feats in today’s world, Thorpe would be living the high life with endorsement deals and multimillion-dollar contracts. In that era, those skills didn’t pay the rent. Thorpe worked as a ditch digger and at other odd jobs to make ends meet in the years before his death in 1953.
2. Deion Sanders
Many longtime NFL observers agree Deion Sanders is the best man-to-man coverage cornerback in the history of the NFL. Stick him on the other team’s best receiver, and Sanders would shut him down. Beyond that, he was a threat every time he touched the ball, whether on punt returns, interceptions, or while playing on offense. Granted, he wasn’t much in run support, but that’s nitpicking. He was not a star in baseball — in 641 career games with the New York Yankees, Atlanta Braves Cincinnati Reds and San Francisco Giants, he batted a pedestrian .263, with only 39 homers and 168 RBI. He stole some bases — 186 in all, including a respectable 56 in 1997. So in essence, he was a reincarnation of Omar Moreno, the speedy-but-average starting centerfielder for the 1979 world champion Pittsburgh Pirates. But to even play in Major League Baseball is an accomplishment. To enjoy a nine-year career in the sport while also being one of the greatest cornerbacks in NFL history lands him solidly at No. 2 on this list.
1. Bo Jackson
Forget all those silly “Bo Knows …” Nike commercials from the late 1980s that made Jackson a household name. While they boosted his bank account and visibility at the time, there’s the perception among some in hindsight that Jackson was a marketing phenomenon whose legacy has been aided by several high-profile plays: Jackson barrels over linebacker Brian Bosworth at the goal line for a touchdown on Monday Night Football; Jackson sprints around the defense for a 91-yard TD in that same game; Jackson runs up the outfield wall after catching a fly ball. Those plays were not flukes. On the football field, the 1985 Heisman Trophy winner was a rare blend of size, world-class speed and power. In baseball, he had the power and speed that helps teams win pennants. Unfortunately, a freak hip injury in 1990 robbed him of the prime years of his career. We’re left with some highlight videos, and some stats to attest to his greatness. Jackson posted an eye-popping average of 5.4 yards per carry in 38 career NFL games. He ripped off runs of 88, 91 and 92 yards in his brief career. On the baseball diamond, his full-time job, he smacked 141 career home runs and was an all-star in 1989. Although Deon Sander’s NFL career overshadows Jackson’s, it’s not fair to hold Jackson’s career-altering hip injury against him. Based on the flash of brilliance Jackson displayed as a two-sport star during the 1980s, he belongs atop this list.
One More: Michael Jordan
Everyone knows what Jordan accomplished with a basketball. He remains a scratch golfer on the links. But his .202 batting average in 127 Double-A minor league baseball games is not enough to bump anyone off this list who excelled in two or more sports at the college and professional levels.