Honoring Rickey Henderson and Major Sports' Top 10 Natural Athletes
I've been an Oakland A's fan for as long as I can remember.
In 1992, my dad took me to my first A's game against the Baltimore Orioles at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. And the events that transpired will forever live in Turner family lore.
The A's got off to a horrendous start, falling behind 6-0 after Cal Ripken blasted a fourth inning grand slam. But the A's battled back to tie the score 6-6 heading into the ninth.
And with two out in the bottom of the ninth, Rickey Henderson began a slow stroll off of third base that morphed into full speed haul within two steps.
Before half the crowd knew what was going on, Rickey swiped home for the victory. From there I began a life-long appreciation for his one-of-a-kind talent, career and personality.
Rickey epitomizes a natural athlete, because he has the god-given ability to perform at a high-level on multiple sports stages. Plus, his skills combine pure power with the smoothest of ease.
During the mid-70s, Rickey owned the Bay Area high school sports scene. At Oakland Tech, he played both baseball and basketball, and was an All-American running back who received over two dozen football scholarship offers.
But he turned them down once the A's drafted him in the fourth round in 1976.
Now we all know Rickey as the best lead-off hitter, and one of the greatest players to ever step on the diamond. But he would have been great at any sport.
So in honor of my all-time favorite athlete,I would like to present my list of the top natural athletes from the past 30 years.
Why 30 years?
It's because Rickey began his professional career in 1979, plus there's just too many names to fit on such a short list.
So apologies to Jim Thorpe, Jackie Robinson, Babe Ruth, Muhammad Ali, Gordie Howe, Wilt Chamberlain, Pete Maravich and Jim Brown.
Also, just remember this list contains professional athletes from the three major sports (baseball, basketball and football).
10. John Elway
Before John Elway became a two-time Super Bowl champion for the Denver Broncos, he was a duel-threat quarterback and gifted baseball player at Stanford University.
Elway was the No.1 recruited high school player in the country, receiving over 60 scholarship offers to play quarterback. Plus, the Kansas City Royals drafted him out of high school in 1979.
But once on campus in Palo Alto, the All-American displayed impressive passing abilities on the gridiron, setting career records for passing attempts and completions.
Excelling on the diamond as well, Elway was selected in the second round by George Steinbrenner and the New York Yankees. And the following year, he played outfield for 42 games in Class-A with a .318 batting average, four home runs and a team-high 25 RBI.
Back then, he was still eligible to attend and play for Stanford. So Elway finished his senior year hitting .361 with nine home runs and 50 RBIs in 49 games. He also compiled a 5-4 record with a 4.51 ERA on the rubber.
Elway had, by then, played two summers of minor league ball, but in the 1983 NFL Draft, he was the first overall pick by the Baltimore Colts before being traded to the Broncos.
The rest is history.
Huh, maybe pitching was the secret to Elway throwing a vortex football 90 yards.
9. Joe Mauer
Joe Mauer has already compiled two American League batting titles, but he’s just as well-respected because of his work behind the plate.
And his knack for game-calling goes back to his high school days as a three-sport star in Saint Paul, Minn.
Mauer was a stand-out catcher for the baseball team, striking out only once in his four-year high school career, along with a .605 batting average his senior season.
And eventually, he was selected ahead of Mark Prior by the hometown Minnesota Twins as the first overall pick of the 2001 draft.
Just as impressive, Mauer completed 241 of 288 passes for 3,022 yards and 41 touchdowns during his senior season. He finished his two-year career as a starter with 5,528 and 73 touchdowns, leading his team to two consecutive Class 5A state championship games.
Also, he was named to the All-State basketball team during his final two seasons.
Mauer's greatest accomplishment and honor might be his selection as Gatorade National Player of the Year for both football and baseball his senior year.
But in the end, he turned down a football scholarship at Florida State to enter the MLB Draft.
Florida State coach Bobby Bowden told Mauer he respected his decision, and left the offer to play quarterback on the table, in case the baseball thing didn’t work out.
Sorry, Bowden. But maybe you should have had a better backup plan then Chris Rix and Drew Weatherford.
8. Brian Jordan
Brian Jordan doesn’t own any high school championship rings and records, but he was an absolute stud on the baseball and football fields at Milford Mill Academy in Maryland.
And his natural abilities earned him an athletic scholarship to the University of Richmond.
After four years of two-sport stardom for the Spiders, Jordan decided to give equal time to his sports, instead of dropping one of his first loves, like most athletes do.
He was drafted in the first round of the 1988 MLB Draft by the St. Louis Cardinals, and later signed a contract with the Atlanta Falcons, who took him in the seventh round of the NFL Draft earlier in the year.
While climbing the ladder in the Cardinals’ minor league system, Jordan started at free safety for the Falcons from 1989-1991.
After intercepting five passes and recording four sacks in his brief NFL career, he finally decided to give up football and focus on finally getting to the show.
Eventually, he made his MLB debut in 1992 for the Cardinals. His career ended in 2006 as a Texas Ranger, but the trip included time as a member of the Atlanta Braves (representing them at the 1999 All-Star Game) and the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Jordan finished his baseball career with a .282 average and 184 home runs.
7. Julius Peppers
Since getting drafted in the first round by the Carolina Panthers, Julius Peppers has been one of the NFL’s most feared defensive ends. But could you imagine the punishment Peppers dished out as a high school running back?
Entering his freshman year at Southern Nash High School in North Carolina, Peppers was 6'5" and weighed 225 pounds.
Basketball was his first love and No.1 passion; he lettered all four years, and was an All-Conference power forward four consecutive seasons.
And once the football coach finally convinced him sophomore year to put on the pads, it was obvious he was a natural.
He finished his high school football career with 3,501 rushing yards and 46 touchdowns, and was considered the most dangerous defensive lineman in the state.
And in his senior campaign (’97-’98), he was named All-American as an all-purpose talent, along with being honored as the North Carolina High School Male Athlete of the Year.
Plus that following spring, Peppers help Southern Nash win the state championship in track as the winning sprinter in the 4×200 meter team relay and as a triple jumper.
Eventually, Peppers chose the University of North Carolina over Duke University, because Blue Devils' coach Mike Krzyzewski wanted him to focus solely on basketball.
However, Tar Heels' football coach Carl Torbush allowed him to play football and then be a walk-on for the UNC Men’s basketball team.
Not surprisingly, Peppers added to his career accolades at UNC by winning the Chuck Bednarik Award as the nation’s top defensive player and the Lombardi Award as the best collegiate lineman in 2001.
Also, he was a key reserve on the 1999-2000 Tar Heels team that made it to the Final Four. One of his teammates was fellow UNC two-sport star, Ronald Curry.
Check out those hops!
6. Michael Jordan
Okay, so Michael Jordan is definitely one of the most gifted and skilled athletes to ever step on the hardwood, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s the best natural athlete.
Jordan’s one of the greatest, but it was his famous work ethic and rigorous training regime that permitted him to be the first to the mountain top and stay there.
His innate, unique capability could be traced back to his high school years at Laney in Wilmington, North Carolina, where Jordan anchored his athletic career by playing basketball, baseball, and football.
After infamously being cut from the varsity basketball team as a sophomore, Jordan added some extra inches, was motivated to prove his worth, and began dominating the competition.
This continued on through the North Carolina years, then the Chicago years, but after securing his first “three-peat” in 1993, Jordan abruptly retired from basketball to pursue a baseball career!
His decision sent shockwaves through the sports world, as he signed a minor league contract with the Chicago White Sox. But even more surprising was how well Jordan played considering he hadn’t swung a bat since high school.
In his brief professional baseball career for the Birmingham Barons, the White Sox Double-A affiliate, he batted .202 with three home runs, 51 RBI, and 30 stolen bases.
Though impressive considering the circumstances, Jordan hung up his spikes for sneakers and went on to record his second “three-peat” with the Chicago Bulls.
In 1994, he knew he wasn’t going to make it as a baseball player. So why in 2009, can’t he realize he’s not going to make it as a front-office executive?
5. Deion Sanders
“Neon” Deion Sanders was a can’t-miss, one-man act throughout the 90s, never missing an opportunity to put on a show.
“Primetime” invaded the NFL in 1989, the same year he was drafted by the New York Yankees (although his MLB debut was in 1992).
He was drafted a year earlier by the Kansas City Royals in the sixth round but chose to return to Florida State.
Florida State head coaches Bobby Bowden and Mike Martin knew they were getting a once-in-a-generation athlete, because at North Fort Myers High School in Florida he was All-State talent in baseball, football, basketball, and track.
Once he arrived in Tallahassee, Sanders continued his never-ending schedule and ceased to take a break. He started immediately in the Seminoles’ secondary, outfield, and relay team, where he won a conference track championship.
Plus, he was a standout punt returner, leading the nation in return average and breaking the school’s all-time record for career punt return yards.
Sanders switched cleats for spikes in the spring, running anchor in the track relays, while hitting .331 and swiping 27 bags on the ball field during his final college semester.
On one occasion, he played the first game of a Saturday baseball doubleheader, ran a leg of the 4x100 relay, then returned to play the night game.
Deion made his money on Sundays, though.
During his 14-year career, Sanders was a perennial All-Pro and one of the most dominate pass defenders blessed with remarkable closing speed.
Eventually, he became the first two-way starter in the NFL since Chuck Bednarik and ended his career with 22 touchdowns: nine interception returns, six punt returns, three on kickoff returns, three receiving, and one on a fumble recovery.
Also, he had a nine-year, part-time baseball career, highlighted by a league-leading 14 triples in just 97 games. And during the 1989 season, he hit a home run and scored a touchdown in the same week (only player to do so).
On top of that, Sanders is the only man to play in both a Super Bowl and World Series.
4. Ken Griffey Jr.
Ken Griffey Jr. has one of the most beautiful swings in baseball, and plays with an elegance and grace that few can match.
“Junior” definitely reigned supreme at Cincinnati’s Moeller High School, receiving the state’s Athlete of the Year honor twice while playing running back and wide receiver for three years (winning the state title junior year), and four years starring in the outfield and out of the bullpen.
Naturally, Griffey was the first overall selection in the MLB Draft following high school graduation. And ever since debuting in the majors at age 19, he’s become one of the most prolific home run hitters and center fielders in baseball history.
Currently ranking fifth on the career homer list and earning 10 Gold Glove Awards, “The Kid” had the ability to be the greatest ever to play his sport, and would more likely hold the career home run record if it weren’t for his injury-riddled career.
Playing throughout the Steroids Era, Griffey managed to keep clear of accusations because it’s a well-known fact that he doesn’t really bother lifting or practicing in the offseason.
Is there a correlation between his workout regime and unfortunate injury streak? You be the judge.
3. Bo Jackson
Recently, I caddied the Fred Biletnikoff Annual Golf Tournament involving a bunch of ex-Raiders and Niners.
Players like Jerry Rice, Tim Brown, Kenny Stabler, Jim Plunkett, Gary Plummer and Lincoln Kennedy were in attendance, but the one athlete I was star-struck by was Bo Jackson.
I stood on the same tee-box as Jackson and witnessed him hit a drive that approached 400 yards. But he watched in disgust as his mammoth drive landed in the rough close to green on a Par Four!
Throughout Bo’s playing days, that look of disgust was featured on every player or coach‘s face that had to compete against him.
Jackson attended McAdory High School in Alabama, where he rushed for 1,175 yards and hit 20 home runs in 25 games as a senior. Plus, he was a two-time state champion in the decathlon.
Following his senior season, Jackson was selected in the second round by the Yankees, but instead chose to attend Auburn University on a football scholarship. And he never missed a opportunity to showcase his array of skills.
In 1985, he earned the Heisman Trophy and batted .401 with 17 home runs. Also, Jackson qualified for the 100 meter dash while seriously considering joining the USA Olympic team, but decided against it because it wouldn’t gain him the financial security like MLB or NFL.
Bo might have left the track, but the track never left Bo, because at the NFL combine he ran a 4.12 40 yard dash, which is still considered the fastest verifiable time at the annual combine.
Although a severe hip injury ended his pro career too soon, Jackson was the first and only athlete to be named an All-Star in two major sports. Plus, he had his own original video game.
Not to be outdone by the man was “Tecmo Bo,” Jackson’s legendary digital counterpart, who was arguably the most lethal athlete in gaming history.
Players that used “Tecmo Bo” would routinely rush for 800 yards a game and dash all over the field on one play while running the time of a whole quarter without being tackled!
2. LeBron James
By now, we’ve all witnessed the freakish athletic talent of LeBron James during his grand and ambitious NBA career thus far in Cleveland. But the Buckeye State has had the privilege of watching “King James” since his freshman year at Akron’s St. Vincent-St. Mary’s High School.
James was a three-time “Mr. Basketball” of Ohio and All-USA first team, becoming the first sophomore ever to hold such esteemed honors.
Plus, he was the 2001-2002 boys’ Gatorade National Player of the Year as a junior.
His unmatched athletic prowess was detailed heavily by the national media early on in high school, but not much attention was directed at his outstanding football career.
James strapped on the receiver pads from freshman to junior year, leading the team to the state semifinals during his last season on the gridiron.
Despite facing routine double-coverages, James managed 1,000 receiving yards his final two seasons, which earned him All-State honors for his sophomore and junior campaigns.
Definitely the most physically gifted athlete of my generation, James came in a close second place to perhaps the most unique talent of all the old-school athletes.
1. Dave Winfield
Known as one of the greatest all-around athletes of any time period, Dave Winfield was drafted by four teams in three sports out of the University of Minnesota. He chose to solely pursue a baseball career, but is still the lone player to ever achieve such a feat.
Winfield was a natural that could do it all on the baseball field- hit for power and average, run, field and throw. He was the Golden Gophers’ best hitter and pitcher, making it to the semifinals of the 1973 College World Series.
Following college, he was the fourth overall pick by the San Diego Padres, going on to win countless Silver Slugger and Gold Glove awards.
And after 22 major-league seasons in the outfield-he never played an inning of minor league ball-Winfield was elected to both the MLB and College Hall of Fame.
The full scholarship he earned allowed him to play basketball. as well. Winfield rebounded the ball notoriously and started at power forward on the 1972 Big Ten championship team, the first in 53 years for the school.
Later, he was drafted by both the Atlanta Hawks (NBA) and Utah Stars (ABA).
The most astounding fact is that Winfield had never played a down of college football.
Still, knowing how phenomenal a talent and competitor he was, the home state Vikings saw it fit to give him the opportunity, drafting him in the 17th round.
In his illustrious career playing for the Padres, Yankees, Blue Jays, Angels, Twins and Indians, Winfield totaled 3,110 hits, 465 home runs, over 1800 RBI and 223 steals.
The man could have been a modern-day Babe Ruth with a chance on the mound.