The Greatest Pure Athletes of All Time
Number crunching and salary scrutinizing have headlined sports for some time now, as scouts, fans and analysts continue to find new-and-improved ways to judge athletic success.
But once in awhile, when the sports world is infused with a flawless, perfectly molded competitor, we just have to sit back in our comfy leather seats and enjoy the show. The resulting glossiness in our eyes is no accident, it's something we call awe.
As we trace the greatest pure athletes in history, we'll take into account their overall success, their multi-sport capabilities and their natural ability to compete.
Here are the greatest pure athletes ever to grace the surface of the Earth.
For these specimens, just showing up made crowds go wild.
25. Allen Iverson, NBA
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With the nastiest crossover we've seen since Christopher Columbus first reached America, Allen Iverson built a legacy that featured broken ankles and speechless commentators.
But his athleticism was on display long before he entered the NBA. During his prep career, Iverson won the High School Player of the Year award in both football and basketball, and won the Division AAA Virginia State Championship in both sports.
We'd dare to say he's the most explosive guard to ever approach the hardwood, height the only lacking element.
24. Ken Griffey Jr., MLB
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Watching Griffey patrol a Major League center field was like witnessing a magical sunset. No matter how many nights in a row you sat by your window in angst, the sight was always memorable.
He was a natural—a purely gifted legend who could climb walls with ease, slug glamorous home runs and make striking out look pretty. With the greatest swing the baseball world has ever seen, Ken Griffey Jr., better dubbed "The Kid," totaled 630 home runs and 2,781 hits.
And if it wasn't for an injury-plagued nature, we could be talking about the greatest ever.
23. John Elway, NFL
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Broncos great John Elway wrote an athletic script that few could keep up with. A dual-threat signal caller with a rare zeal only found on Colombian-based coffee plantations, Elways tarnished opposing defenses on and the ground and through the air.
Sure we remember the 51,475 yards and 300 touchdowns passing, but let's remember, Elway was also drafted in the 18th round of the '79 MLB Draft by the Royals as an outfielder out of Granada Hills High School in California. A promising youngster.
22. Carl Lewis, Track and Field
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A sprinter and long jumper who trampled opponents from 1981 into the early '90s, Carl Lewis remains renowned for his unspeakable 65 consecutive victories in the long jump over a 10-year period.
Nine Olympic gold medals, endless records broken and plenty of fans jumping on the Lewis bandwagon.
21. Julius Peppers, NFL
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When he was taken with the second pick of the '02 Draft by the Panthers, scouts drooled over UNC star Julius Peppers' potential. He oozed ability, and at 6'7" with 4.68 40-yard speed, looked ready to transform the defensive end position.
This was the same kid who, at Southern Nash Senior High School, ran for 3,501 yards and 46 touchdowns as a running back, won the state championship as a triple jumper and was voted all-conference as a power forward for four consecutive years.
He would eventually walk on to the North Carolina men's basketball team under Bill Guthridge.
Since his prolific prep days, Peppers has, like expected, transformed his position. 473 tackles, 100 sacks, eight interceptions, 32 intimidated right tackles. Placing name into consideration, Julius Peppers is the perfect football player.
20. Eric Heiden, Speed Skating
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He's remembered as the long track speed skater who won an unprecedented five individual gold medals (setting four Olympic records and one world record along the way) at the 1980 Winter Olympic Games in Lake Placid. But after dominating the skating world, the athletic Eric Heiden decided to fulfill another dream.
Heiden won the first U.S. Professional Cycling Championship in 1985, took part in the 1986 Tour de France and eventually earned a spot in the United States Bicycling Hall of Fame.
Legs of steel.
19. Herschel Walker, NFL
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As a Georgia Bulldog, Herschel Walker was a three-time All-American who won the 1982 Heisman Trophy. As a pro, a bruising nightmare who dabbled in greatness. His 18,168 total combined net yards ranked him second among the NFL's all-time leaders in total yardage at the time of his retirement.
And now, as an aging former gridiron star, Walker is attempting to do the unthinkable. Destroy what he's got left mastering mixed martial arts. UFC, here he comes.
18. Pele, Soccer
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The quintessential footballer, Pele was essentially perfect in his delivery on the pitch.
After being signed by local club Santos at the tender age of 16, the man born Edson Arantes do Nascimento quickly established his greatness, becoming the top scorer in the Brazilian league in his first season. He would eventually record 589 goals in 605 appearances with the squad.
Grace headlined his game, and goal-scoring topped his legacy. But it was Pele's natural ability to soar down the field by helpless defenders, that truly instigated his reputation as the best ever.
With or without the ball, Pele was unstoppable.
17. Darrell Green, NFL
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Dubbed the Ageless Wonder by fans and peers, 5'9" cornerback Darrell Green epitomized perfection. He could hit, run and catch. He even secured ten All-America certificates in track and field while at Texas A&M-Kingsville. On his first NFL touch, the fierce speedster ran back a punt 61 yards for a touchdown against the Falcons.
Perhaps nothing details Green's fire better than his 4.2 40-yard dash...which he ran as a 40-year-old.
16. Usain Bolt, Track and Field
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The first man to hold both the 100-meter and 200-meter world records, Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt truly shocked the world when he began tarnishing his own records.
He replaced a time of 19.30 seconds in the 200-meter with an unprecedented 19.19, and trounced his previous time of 9.68 in the 100-meter with a time of 9.58.
At this point, the fastest man ever is simply rewriting his own record books.
15. Gordie Howe, NHL
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From ambidextrous 18-year-old rookie to legendary 52-year-old icon, Gordie Howe's journey to greatness endured five decades (the only player to have competed in five different decades) of awe-inspiring production. Hitting, skating, shooting, fighting, Howe could do it all.
And apparently he could swing a bat too.
14. Michael Vick, NFL
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Vick was a new breed of quarterback—a breath of fresh speed at the quarterback position during a time when slow and stable took precedence over electric and erratic.
But this blossoming southpaw changed his position forever, having now passed for 17,912 yards and rushed for 5,219 yards (including 1,039 in '06). He may not perfectly define the term effective, but Michael Vick continues to excite skeptical crowds with his breathtaking ability to create.
13. LeBron James, NBA
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They may scrutinize his play, they may even tear apart what they believe to be his attitude, but the media will always be engrossed in the proclaimed "King of Basketball."
Perhaps the most phenomenal physical talent ever to approach the hardwood, just regarding size, strength and speed, LeBron James continues to change the game of basketball with his ferocious drives and awe-inspiring blocks.
It's safe to say this 6'8" beast could play any position on the floor with his immaculate court vision and unmatched physicality. And dominate any other field of play.
12. Bob Gibson, MLB
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When studying Gibby's legacy, 251 wins, 3,117 strikeouts and a 2.91 earned run average stick out, as well as three complete game victories in the 1967 World Series. But there's more behind the brutal competitor.
Before fully turning his attention to baseball, Bob Gibson was seen patenting backhanded dunks on the Harlem Globetrotters. Yet his fluid nature on the court differed greatly from his challenging aura on the diamond.
If a batter dug in or stared at Gibson the wrong way, you knew a heavy fastball was soon headed for the noggin. Perhaps it was Hank Aaron's advice to Dusty Baker that truly summed up Gibson's approach.
"He'd knock down his own grandmother if she dared to challenge him." Sold.
11. Wilt Chamberlain, NBA
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The hardwood legend of Wilt the Stilt has been epically detailed since his historic retirement in '73, but we're far more intrigued with his ability to dominate anything he attempted.
Sure he's the only player to score 100 points in a single NBA game and once led the league in assists, but the fluid center also won three straight Big Eight high jump championships and could thrust a shotput 56 phenomenal feet during his time at Kansas.
The Big Dipper could also fix cars, and even played with the Harlem Globetrotters. Did we mention he almost fought Muhammad Ali?
10. Lou Gehrig, MLB
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From standout fullback at Columbia University to legendary Yankee Iron Horse, Lou Gehrig could do it all. He was a pure specimen.
While most remember his 2,721 hits and historic 2,130 consecutive games streak, it was Gehrig's less-embraced talents that have us inspired. The closet speedster somehow secured 163 triples and 102 steals during his brilliant career, not too shabby for a slugging first baseman.
Oh, and he could pitch. On April 18, 1923, the day Yankee Stadium opened for the first time, a young Columbia pitcher by the name of Lou Gehrig struck out 17 Williams College batters to set a team record. A true diamond doozy.
9. Deion Sanders, NFL
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The multi-threat talent perfectly dubbed "Prime Time" could run, catch, hit and talk with the best of them.
Deion Sanders became the only man to play in both a Super Bowl and a World Series, and leaves a brilliant two-sport legacy intact with 53 NFL interceptions and 308 MLB runs scored. A magician on the field.
8. Rickey Henderson, MLB
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Despite a dream to play for the Oakland Raiders, Rickey Henderson, who was an All-American running back with a couple 1,000-yard rushing seasons at Oakland Technical High School, chose to pursue the diamond, a field that he infused with remarkable speed, stealth and stats.
During the power boom of the late '70s, '80s and '90s, Henderson stole a record 1,406 bases (Lou Brock is second with 938 career steals) and 2,295 hits, while also somehow slugging 297 bombs.
Perhaps it was Sabermetrics ringleader Bill James who put it best. "If you split him in two, you'd have two Hall of Famers." True.
7. Michael Jordan, NBA
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We'll always associate Air Jordan with high-flying posterizations and seizure-provoking last-second drains, but let's not forget what the greatest basketball player of all time did away from the court.
As a 31-year-old rookie with the Double-A Birmingham Barons, the then-recently-retired Jordan hit .202 with 51 RBI and 30 stolen bases in 127 games, as well as .252 in the Arizona Fall League against top prospects, before sprinting back to basketball.
Overall, golf may be his greatest art. He sinks 55-foot chip shots with ease.
6. Rafer Johnson, Track and Field
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He won the silver medal with an injured knee in the 1956 Olympic decathlon and the gold medal in Rome four years later against good friend and training buddy C.K. Yang, but we're far more inspired by Rafer Johnson's worldly travels.
Not only did he play under legendary coach John Wooden at UCLA, but Johnson was drafted in the 28th round of the 1959 NFL Draft as a tailback by the Rams. In the end, it was clear Johnson always had his sights set on one goal—Olympic glory.
5. Jackie Robinson, MLB
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Before deciding on baseball as his true career and calling, Jackie Robinson became the first athlete to win varsity letters in four collegiate sports. While at UCLA, he was an All-American running back who averaged 12 yards per carry, a track star who won the 1940 NCAA Men's Outdoor Track and Field Championship in the Long Jump and a bona-fide baller who twice led his conference in scoring.
But baseball would eventually define his existence. Of course, you already knew that.
4. Dave Winfield, MLB
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As a Major League outfielder for 22 seasons (never playing in the minors), 6'6" phenom Dave Winfield earned seven Gold Gloves, six Silver Sluggers and recorded 223 stolen bases. We haven't even touched on his 465 home runs.
But he also won a Big Ten basketball championship as a star on Minnesota for the school's first title in 53 years. He was eventually drafted by the Hawks and Jazz, before getting chosen by the Vikings despite never playing a college down.
3. Bo Jackson, MLB
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The first athlete to be named an All-Star in two sports (NFL and MLB in this case), "Bo Knows" Jackson was a former Heisman-winning speed demon with a flair for the dramatic.
In eight Major League seasons, Bo hit .250 with 141 home runs and 82 steals, while also totaling a remarkable 2,782 yards (5.4 per rush) in four seasons as a second-string tailback behind Marcus Allen on the professional gridiron. Perhaps his 4.12 40-yard dash can properly detail his ferocious feet.
Injuries may have derailed parallel careers, but we'll never forget the promise and production that Bo Jackson displayed. The definition of a physical warrior.
2. Jim Brown, NFL
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As great as he was during his nine years on the gridiron (nine pro bowls, 12,312 yards and 106 touchdowns), Jim Brown was perhaps even more unstoppable in every other athletic endeavor he approached.
Arguably the greatest lacrosse player of all time, Brown lettered in four sports at Syracuse and was voted the school's Athlete of the Year in 1956-57. A pure beast is more like it.
We'll allow Brown the eloquent finish, "I'd rather play lacrosse six days a week and football on the seventh."
1. Jim Thorpe, NFL
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Here and there, there are some people who are supremely endowed...My memory goes back to Jim Thorpe. He never practiced in his life, and he could do anything better than any other football player I ever saw. - Former President Dwight Eisenhower
His Native American name was Wa-tho-huck, meaning Bright Path. And that's precisely what Jim Thorpe's athleticism paved.
Thorpe won gold in the decathlon and pentathlon at the 1912 Olympics, led his Carlisle Indian School team to an 11-1 record and the 1912 national college championship and even hit .252 as a major league outfielder. Dare we forget, he even won the 1912 inter-collegiate ballroom dancing championship.
The first and last of his kind.