Superstars Who Transcended Sports
Every once in a while, there are a few athletes who come along that aren't just your average cup of tea. They become bigger than their sport.
Whether they came in with all the hype that LeBron James did from his high school days, or just out of nowhere like Tom Brady, they're true icons in the biggest form of the word.
Like every year, we continue to see big-name stars call it quits, leaving us looking for those who can step up and take some of these stars' places.
But since there are only a few that become bona fide A-listers that even non-sports fans have heard of, we're giving you the ones that most transcended their sports.
28. Brian Urlacher
Maybe we're just drinking the recent retired Kool-Aid on this one, but after seeing the way that Brian Urlacher played throughout his career, it's safe to say he helped redefine the linebacker position.
As only the fourth player since sacks started being recorded to have at least 40 sacks and 20 INTs in a career, the former safety combined speed, power and agility to become the protocol for all linebackers.
27. Fab Five
The baggy shorts.
Say whatever you want to about the Fab Five when they were playing—or argue that they should have never been in the first place—but thanks to the original five guys for the Michigan Wolverines in 1991, college athletics is what it is today.
26. Ichiro Suzuki
The second Ichiro Suzuki stepped off the plane from his native Japan in Seattle back in 2001, we're guessing there were few people who really believed he'd have such an impact on the sport.
With the weight off his country on his shoulders after being an icon in Japanese baseball for nine years prior to joining the M's, Ichiro took over the game of baseball with his speed, fielding and amazing batting records.
His rookie year concluded with him winning both the Rookie of the Year and AL MVP honors, while helping the Mariners total an MLB-record 116 wins.
25. Danica Patrick
After making her debut back in 2005, Danica Patrick has helped take both IndyCar and NASCAR into the mainstream, while continuing to be the sexiest driver on the track.
Thanks to her confidence and worldwide appeal—along with some of her historical finishes—Danica keeps progressing to places few may have ever imagined she would.
24. Michael Vick
So what if he's annually one of the most hated athletes; like him or not, Michael Vick has helped take the quarterback position to a place no one has ever seen before.
Sure, there were guys like Randall Cunningham and Warren Moon before him, but they didn't nearly flash the same skills that Vick has throughout his career.
Though he's still waiting to play in a Super Bowl, Michael Vick helped changed the perception of scrambling quarterbacks in the NFL.
23. Serena Williams
Serena Williams might not be the best women's player to ever play the game, but the way that she's helped build her brand thanks to her success on the court is unmatched by any other female in tennis.
Earning 15 singles Grand Slam titles doesn't hurt her cred, but even after falling off the map for a couple seasons due to injuries, Serena's still one of the most feared players on tour.
22. Tom Brady
Maybe Tom Brady's just reminding us that he has five total Super Bowl appearances, and that he should be higher on this list?
The Patriots quarterback is already one of the all-time great passers in NFL history—yet, we guarantee that no one could have pinned him for it when he was drafted in 2000.
With him seeking a record sixth Super Bowl appearance next season, Brady still has the chance to add even more accolades to his enormous legacy.
21. Ray Lewis
We already mentioned Brian Urlacher as one of the best linebackers to ever play the game, so you knew we had to add Ray Lewis, too.
With two Super Bowl titles, a spot with Urlacher on the list of four players with at least 40 sacks and 20 INTs in a career and for absolutely being one of the most influential athletes to ever play a sport, Lewis used both intimidation and skill to reach his success.
20. Lionel Messi
Everything we thought we knew about soccer has been changed after each season that Lionel Messi plays.
Challenging goal records that some may have thought would never even be close to being touched, the Argentine and Barcelona striker has reminded everyone that it's not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog, as the 5' 7" Messi continues to do as he pleases with the ball at his feet.
19. Tim Tebow
Let us first remind you that Tim Tebow is both a) currently unemployed and b) when actually on a team, was nothing more than a clipboard holder.
Now consider everything you know about him and ask yourself if he hasn't transcended his sport.
18. Shaun White
To put it bluntly: Shaun White is action sports.
Helping take the typically underground culture of skateboarding and snowboarding into the mainstream, White used his charisma, talent and marketing savvy for brands like Burton snowboards, Red Bull energy drink and Stride gum.
Oh yeah, and then there's that whole little video game that's named after him, too.
17. Bo Jackson
To this day, no one can say the name/word "Bo," and not think of the "Bo Knows" campaign that Nike customized for former athlete Bo Jackson.
Thanks to his pioneering of two sports, becoming the only athlete to ever play in both a NFL and MLB All-Star game—Jackson showed that one pro sport just wasn't big enough for him—he needed to play two.
He was voted as the best athlete in an ESPN poll as well, so even though his career was cut short by injuries, he still remains highly respected.
16. Manny Pacquiao
He may be holding up one of the biggest fights any sports fan would want to see, but Manny Pacquiao is still one talented dude.
Besides holding numerous boxing records that would take up the entire screen to list, Pacquiao is also a well-known politician in his native Philippines, giving him a social impact like few of his sporting peers can claim.
15. Derek Jeter
He may not have the flashy personality, but Derek Jeter epitomizes what a winner should be.
Built for the bright lights of New York City, Jeter has helped take the Yanks to five World Series titles, while collecting individual accolades that include 13 All-Star appearances, 3,000 hits and the title of "Mr. November" thanks to his postseason prowess.
14. Mia Hamm
Without Mia Hamm, who knows how popular the sport of soccer would be for women around the world?
An absolute winner, Hamm won an astounding four national titles while at North Carolina in college, and then went on to star in the first four Women's World Cups—winning two of them—and collected gold medals in both the 1996 and 2004 Summer Olympics.
There's a reason she was named as the greatest women's athlete of the past 40-plus years.
13. Michael Phelps
We're guessing that every other swimmer on the planet was happy to see Michael Phelps walk away from the sport following his record-setting 2012 Olympics—because now some other people might win some golds?
Though there have been athletes who parlayed their athletic careers into marketing opportunities, few carry the weight that Phelps does, which is saying something considering no one really sees him other than every four years.
12. Jerry Rice
If ever there was a greatest ever, Jerry Rice is it.
You want a receiving record? Chances are he holds it.
Known as one of the fittest and most driven athletes in history, Rice didn't use flash and ego to get attention, he earned respect with his hard work at his craft, finishing his career with the most TDs in NFL history.
11. Tony Hawk
While we mentioned Shaun White as being the face of action sports, if there was to be a Godfather named for them, Tony Hawk would undoubtedly earn the title.
More than just a skateboarding legend, he was able to turn a recreational sport into the mainstream, building himself a foundation that has raised over $4 million, a video game that graces his name and has been outspoken about activism, creating "Athletes for Hope," which encourages pros to be active in their communities.
10. LeBron James
We're honestly not sure there isn't a thing LeBron James can't do?
After having everything but the bus thrown at him from his freshman year in high school to now, James has overcome all the hurdles with grace—minus that one mishap—and has earned the title as the greatest player on the planet.
Who knows how the rest of his career will go, but let's take the time to appreciate what we're seeing here, because he truly is once in a generation thanks to his skills and marketing appeal.
9. David Beckham
Soccer may seem as simple as just kicking around a ball, but David Beckham proved that it doesn't always just have to stay between the lines.
Beckham became a true giant in his sport, achieving things that were absolutely unheard of for any athlete, let alone a soccer player.
Marrying one of the Spice Girls only increased his status globally, but don't be fooled, there's a reason we all wanted to bend it like Beckham.
8. Jesse Owens
Before there was the unbelievable Usain Bolt, there was Jesse Owens, who defined what a great athlete really was.
While in college at The Ohio State University, Owens broke three world records (long jump, 220-yard dash and 220-yard low hurdles) and tied a fourth (100-yard dash), all in a 45-minute span during the 1935 Conference Championships.
Even more astonishing, he participated in the 1936 Olympics and became the first American in track and field history to win four gold medals in a single Games, winning four golds—100-meter (tying a world record), long jump (Olympic record), 200-meter dash (Olympic record) and 400-meter relay (first leg) in 39.8 seconds (Olympic and world record).
He received numerous awards for his civilian work as well, making him an athlete few could ever surpass in terms of total impact.
7. Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods is back on top, and let us tell you, it kind of feels right.
Already one of the best golfers to ever play the game, Woods took the game from an old man's sport to something that even a too-cool-for-school middle schooler wanted to play.
From his signature line with Nike to multiple other endorsements, Tiger Woods is almost unmatched with the impact he's had on his sport.
6. Babe Ruth
Babe Ruth single-handedly created power in the game of baseball.
Before the slugger came around, the long ball was as rare as the steak you'd get at a fancy restaurant.
That all changed when Ruth became the first player to hit 60 homers in a season in 1927, setting the single-season record before Roger Maris broke it with 61 in 1961.
When the "Great Bambino" walked away from the game, he was the all-time home run leader in the history of the sport, before getting passed by Hank Aaron and later Barry Bonds.
5. Jackie Robinson
Come on now, without Jackie Robinson, who knows what would have been?
As an influencer and motivator, Robinson integrated the game of baseball in 1947, taking all the criticism and hate to earn himself a trip to the Hall of Fame.
Thanks to his character and courage, he helped change the way our country thought about another person, playing an integral role in the civil rights movement on his way to become a legend.
4. Jim Brown
Much like Jackie Robinson did, Jim Brown became an activist and symbol for African-American players by dominating his sport.
As an unbelievable athlete who starred in lacrosse, basketball and track in addition to his football career while at Syracuse, the decision to pursue an NFL career paid off for the running back.
Brown may have set an unseen trend of walking away from his athletic career at just age 29, but in his nine seasons, he led the league in rushing in eight of them.
He's regarded as the greatest runner in NFL history, as well as one of the most influential.
3. Wayne Gretzky
One doesn't earn the nickname like "The Great One" because he is just ordinary at what he does.
So the fact that Wayne Gretzky owns the moniker probably says he left quite the impact on the game of hockey.
Holding nearly every major hockey record known to man, Gretzky had his No. 99 jersey retired by the NHL, joining the previously mentioned Jackie Robinson as the only other athlete to have a playing number retired league-wide.
2. Michael Jordan
Even today, without playing an NBA minute in over 10 years, we still want to "Be like Mike."
With the desire to be nothing but the best, Jordan was more than just the game of basketball, as he combined a charismatic personality to go along with his ability to become the first true athlete marketing mogul.
Regardless of his competitiveness and the mistakes he's made in his life, Jordan's persona is a worldwide symbol of excellence.
1. Muhammad Ali
One of the biggest personalities the sports world has ever seen, Muhammad Ali used supreme talent and unforgettable confidence to become the greatest boxer to ever step in the ring.
More than just a fighter though, Ali's true effect came in his outspoken activism, and he's the most transcendent athlete because his greatness was something that most people back in the '60s had never seen before on such a global scale.