NFL Nostalgia: Ranking the Best Athletes in NFL History
We are here to celebrate athleticism in all of its forms: speed, strength, agility, precision, leaping, throwing, kicking, lifting, grappling, punching, dribbling and driving.
Versatility is the name of the game for this NFL countdown. These players didn't just run a fast 40-yard dash at the scouting combine or score a bunch of touchdowns. They excelled not just in football, but in other athletic endeavors as well.
To make the countdown, an individual had to be a great pro football player—no moonlighting Renaldo Nehemiah-type track superstars allowed. Being a multifaceted football player who could fill multiple roles or positions certainly helped. But nearly every player on this list also demonstrated greatness at some other sport, whether in the NCAA basketball tournament, the Olympics or on a pitch in Australia.
The football players on this countdown ran with Carl Lewis, homered off Nolan Ryan and fought everyone from Muhammad Ali to Andre the Giant. There are hurdlers, weightlifters and bobsledders. These athletes have been to the Olympics and the World Series. They've forced other sports to change their rules to stop them, and some even had towns named after them.
It takes a great athlete to star in the NFL. But it takes a truly special athlete to make this countdown.
25. Darren Bennett: Punter, Australian Footballer
No one ever watches Australian rules football and questions the courage or athleticism of the players.
We question their sanity. Maybe their sobriety. But it takes a special kind of athlete to compete in the combination of soccer, rugby, never-ending punt return and Mad Max outtake they call premiership football (or "footie") down under.
Darren Bennett played for 12 seasons in that borderline riot of a league, making the Melbourne Football Club's all-time team.
After competing in some international competitions with soccer and rugby stars, the 6'5", 235-pound Bennett found himself punting for the San Diego Chargers. He earned All-Pro honors as a 30-year old rookie, made the NFL 1990s All-Decade team and stayed in the NFL until age 40. As you might expect, Bennett was known for his linebacker-like tackles when return men got through the rest of the coverage.
Scoff at a punter making this list if you like. But Bennett was no ordinary punter, and Australian football is nothing to scoff about.
24. Stephen Neal: Guard, Wrestling Champion
Stephen Neal pinned future Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams in a high school meet in San Diego. He also pinned future WWE champion Brock Lesnar to win an NCAA championship for Cal State Bakersfield.
Neal lettered in football, wrestling, track, swimming and tennis in high school. He chose to focus on wrestling in college, as Cal State Bakersfield didn't even have a football program.
As a wrestler, Neal compiled a 156-10 record for the Roadrunners, winning two NCAA titles and various championships and awards. The photo above was taken after he won the 1999 Wrestling World Championships in Turkey. Neal later just missed the cut for the 2000 Olympic team.
He then retired from wrestling and began trying out for NFL teams. Though Neal possessed zero college football experience, New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick liked what he saw. Neal went to camp with the Patriots in 2001, and after a brief detour with the Eagles, he stuck with the Patriots practice squad. He emerged as the starting guard for the 2004 Super Bowl team and started half the season for the 16-0 2007 team.
Neal would rank much higher on this list, but shoulder injuries hampered him throughout his football career. After all, Neal is one of the greatest wrestlers in NCAA history, and he's the only person on Earth who can say he won a Super Bowl and pinned both a WWE champion (in a real match) and a Heisman Trophy winner.
23. Charley Powell: Defensive End, Boxer
The fellow on the right is Muhammad Ali, aka "The Greatest," boxing as Cassius Clay at the time. The one on the right is Charley Powell, defensive end for the 49ers and Raiders in the 1950s and 1960s.
In the photo, Ali is in the process of handing Powell a third-round knockout; it appears to be around 12 seconds away. But it's hard to hold that against Powell. It was 1963, and Ali was three fights from taking the heavyweight title from Sonny Liston.
Powell was no soup can, and this bout was no publicity stunt. Powell rose as high as No. 4 overall in the Ring magazine heavyweight rankings in the early 1960s, according to Lance Pugmire of the Los Angeles Times, and he amassed a 25-11-3 lifetime record with 17 knockouts even though he played football in the autumn and only boxed in the offseason.
MLB's St. Louis Browns signed Powell to a contract out of high school, and he played a year for their minor league affiliated based in Stockton, California. According to Pugmire, he turned the Harlem Globetrotters down to play baseball. Legend has it Powell sacked Bobby Layne 10 times in one game as a rookie.
What's certain is that Powell was one of the greatest multisport athletes in San Diego high school sports history, a champion sprinter and shot-putter as well as a standout basketball and football player.
Powell may have fought for the heavyweight championship if he stuck to boxing or been a Pro Bowl defender if he stuck to football (his brother, Art Powell, was an All-Star receiver in the AFL). Heck, he could have ended up a slugging outfielder or Harlem Globetrotter. What Powell became instead was one of the truly unique characters on the sports scene in the 1950s and '60s.
22. Robert Smith: Running Back, Sprinter
Robert Smith's football career almost ended before it truly began in 1991.
Smith was UPI's No. 1 football recruit in the nation in 1990. He rushed for 2,322 yards and 31 touchdowns in his senior year of high school while winning the 100-meter dash and finishing second in the 200- and 400-meter events in the Ohio high school state track and field championship. Smith chose to attend Ohio State, which is where the trouble began.
After Smith enjoyed a stellar freshman season, his commitment to academics—he was pursuing a pre-med degree—rankled some of his coaches. Smith later said he felt like he was "bullied" out of the program. He switched over to track and field and spent a year away from the Buckeyes football program.
Fortunately for Ohio State and the NFL, Smith patched things up with the program, opening the door for him to return to football. The Vikings selected Smith with the 21st overall pick in the 1993 draft, and after a few injury-marred early seasons, he exploded for four straight 1,000-plus-yard campaigns, joining Randy Moss and Cris Carter to fuel Dennis Green's unstoppable Vikings offense of the late 1990s.
Smith was one of the NFL's fastest players in his prime. He was also one of the league's smartest and most disciplined players. Athleticism without brains or discipline can make someone a playground hero. But athleticism with those virtues—plus the courage to stand up to those who want you to compromise—leads to countdowns like this one.
21. Ernie Ladd: Defensive Tackle, Pro Wrestling
There are a lot of tough guys on this countdown. There are also a few crazy guys on this countdown.
But the only guy tough and crazy enough to call Andre the Giant "Andre the Dummy" was Ernie Ladd, aka "The Cat" (to football fans) or "The King" (to wrasslin' buffs).
The 6'9" Ladd attending Grambling State on a basketball scholarship. Legendary football coach Eddie Robinson persuaded him to try defensive tackle instead. Ladd grew into a 315-pound terror. He joined the Chargers in 1961 and became a perennial All-Star in the upstart league, helping the Chargers win the AFL title in 1963 and playing in three other league championship games.
Ladd began wrestling for money in the offseason. Pro wrestling paid better than pro football back then, and as his knee injuries mounted, he began concentrating his efforts on the squared circle. Ladd developed a popular heel persona: The King wore a crown, talked a lot of smack and won lots of bouts. But when he grappled with a top good guy, Ladd would run from the ring as soon as the going got tough.
Before Hulk Hogan arrived, Ladd was Andre the Giant's greatest adversary. He was big enough to look like a legitimate match for Andre, and his motormouth routine allowed the 400-plus-pound French behemoth to simply be a hulking force of nature.
OK, pro wrestling is not a real sport. (Spoiler alert?) But it requires incredible athleticism. That was even more true back in Ladd's day, when spectators were closer to the action in small-town arenas and wrestlers often performed several times per week. Injuries and salary hassles kept Ladd out of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but he is in the WWF Hall of Fame.
While Ladd ran away from Andre a few times, everyone else was in big trouble when The King arrived.
20. Otto Graham: Quarterback, Basketball Sharpshooter
Otto Graham attended Northwestern University on a basketball scholarship. He finished second in the Big 10 in scoring in two consecutive seasons.
"That boy can shoot from east, west, north or south," said Branch McCracken, longtime Indiana basketball coach, of Automatic Otto. "No angle is difficult for him, and he's really terrific."
Graham also played baseball for Northwestern. His ability to bunt for base hits made him a career .300 hitter.
As for football, Graham played for intramural teams until head football coach Pappy Waldorf heard about a kid with a live arm tearing up the campus games. Graham was soon leading Northwestern to victories over Ohio State, which was as impressive a feat then as it would be now. Paul Brown, the Buckeyes head coach, took notice.
Graham would eventually help Brown revolutionize professional football as quarterback (and, initially, defensive back and sometime punt returner) of the Cleveland Browns. But World War II arrived first.
Graham found himself with some free time between the end of his military tour of duty in 1945 and the start of the All-America Football Conference season. So he joined the Rochester Royals of the National Basketball League, one of the precursors to the NBA, and averaged 5.2 points per game, helping the Royals win the league championship.
The Rochester Royals are better known today as the Sacramento Kings. Graham is better known as one of the fathers of modern quarterbacking. But in an era when the pro leagues that now define our sports landscape were still taking shape, Graham was a two-sport champion. Not bad for a basketball player from Northwestern.
19. Curley Culp: Defensive Tackle, Wrestler
As a child, Curley Culp worked on his father's pig farm in Yuma, Arizona. He also hoisted 50-gallon garbage barrels and worked at an ice plant, according to Mark Palmer of InterMat. He grew up the Southwestern version of country strong.
By high school, Culp played both defensive tackle and fullback for the football team and starred for the wrestling team. Many NFL linemen were top-notch wrestlers in high school, but Culp would go on to become the NCAA heavyweight champion in 1967.
Culp went 19-0 with 14 pins for Arizona State in 1967, per Palmer. Opponents were astounded by his combination of size, strength and quickness. Culp was so huge that they often mistook his biceps for legs. Culp pinned his final opponent, whom he outweighed by 55 pounds, in just 51 seconds.
Culp went on to try out for the 1968 Olympic team, but he fell short of the cut. Pro football was calling, anyway. Legend has it that Culp often broke offensive linemen's helmets during college practices, according to Palmer. He brought that mixture of strength, quickness and blunt aggression to the great Kansas City Chiefs of the late 1960s and early '70s, then to Bum Phillips' rugged Oilers of the late 1970s.
"I have to say that I never experienced human strength to the level of Curley Culp," Frank Paquin, one of Culp's opponents in the 1967 NCAA wrestling tournament, told Palmer. "It wasn't that he was a great technical wrestler. His strategy was just to get his hands on his opponent and destroy him with his strength."
Centers and guards around the AFL and NFL in Culp's era could definitely relate.
18. John Elway: Quarterback, Outfielder
John Elway stepped to the plate during batting practice at the Yankees' minor league complex during his spring break in 1982. The Stanford undergrad and Yankees second-round pick dropped a perfect bunt on his first pitch, hit a line drive to the opposite field on the second and pulled a home run over the right field wall, just as the batting instructor ordered.
As Doug Williams relayed for ESPN years later, team owner George Steinbrenner said at the time: "Right then I knew. He will be a great outfielder for me, in the great tradition of Mantle, Maris, DiMaggio and all the others."
Elway batted .318 in low-A ball for the Yankees that summer, with power (four homers in 151 at bats), speed (13 stolen bases), plate discipline (more walks than strikeouts) and an outstanding outfield arm (eight assists in 41 games). Elway could bunt for base hits and gun down runners vying for triples from deep right field.
But Elway was only moonlighting, picking up a healthy chunk of extra money, and giving himself a little leverage in case he got drafted by an NFL team that was poorly run, like Robert Irsay's early-'80s Colts.
Elway chose football over baseball, and that Yankees leverage kept him away from Irsay's dumpster fire. In Denver, the quarterback who sometimes broke his receivers' fingers with hard passes in college (or branded their bodies with the "Elway cross" when his throws hit them in the belly) displayed one of the strongest arms in NFL history. The young Elway was also a gifted scrambler who rushed for about 250 yards per year when designed quarterback running plays were not in vogue.
Elway led the Broncos to a pair of Super Bowls late in his career, when his athleticism was overshadowed by his grizzled old-guy leadership and such. He has been a successful sports executive for so long that it's hard to remember the fleet-footed, powerful and more-than-a-little brash athlete Elway once was. Steinbrenner's assessment aside, Elway likely would have fallen short of being the next Mantle or DiMaggio.
He was better off becoming the one and only John Elway.
17. Larry Allen: Offensive Line, Weightlifter
With over 300 pounds of plates on either side, even an NFL-grade weightlifting bar begins to bend and bow. Spotting becomes a team effort. And even the strongest men in NFL history step aside for Larry Allen.
You can watch Allen bench-press 700 pounds here. Rocket Ismael's presence in the Cowboys fitness center dates the footage between 1999 and 2001. The official world record at the time for bench-pressing without a specially designed weightlifting shirt (Allen's sweaty tank top doesn't count) was 711 pounts. Allen also boasted a 900-pound squat and other Festivus-worthy feats of strength.
While researching Allen and watching the video in the link, I violated the cardinal rule of the internet by reading the YouTube comment thread. Powerlifting experts (or those who pretend to be) quibbled about Allen's technique, the role of his trio of spotters and so on. Allen's lift may not have counted in an organized powerlifting competition, just as a slam dunk after jumping over an Escalade wouldn't count in an NBA game.
Fair enough. But there are far fewer Muscle Beach wannabes criticizing this video of Allen chasing down a linebacker at least 60 pounds lighter than him to prevent a pick-six.
Allen's combination of incredible strength and surprising quickness made him a Hall of Famer and one of the greatest offensive linemen in NFL history. With dedicated powerlifting training, he likely could have set world records. But what he did on the football field was far more impressive.
16. Bronko Nagurski: Running Back, Defensive Tackle, Pro Wrestler
Professional football was a far different sport in the 1930s. Professional wrestling was also far different.
The football of the era was a cross between rugby in the mud and the World War I scenes from Wonder Woman. College athletes played both offense and defense. Professional football players did the same while struggling for legitimacy. Pro football in the '20s and '30s had a seedier reputation than even pro wrestling in those days, which was just as real a sport as it is today but then looked like boxing's flamboyant, 99 percent on-the-up-and-up cousin.
Into those strange long-ago times came Bronislau "Bronko" Nagruski, son of Ukrainian immigrants, raised in the rugged timber country of northern Minnesota. While playing with two broken vertebrae at the University of Minnesota, Nagurski once recovered a fumble on defense, ran six straight times to score the go-ahead touchdown, then intercepted a pass to preserve victory in the rivalry game against Wisconsin. George Halas took notice and signed him to the Chicago Bears.
Nagurski excelled as a defender, rusher and sometime passer for the Bears. Meanwhile, wrasslin' beckoned as an offseason moneymaker. Nagurski took to the physical demands immediately and grew into the showmanship. Nagurski won the prestigious National Wrestling Association title in 1939 and would win many other belts over the years.
Yes, Nagurski's football fame made him a wrestling draw, which made him an appealing choice to "win" those titles. But Nagurski was a pioneer, one of several ex-football players whose "flying tackle" antics made wrestling more exciting and paved the way for the off-the-ropes stunts which came later. And few can argue with the rigors of both two-way football and barnstorming the wrestling circuit. Nagurski played five football games and defended his wrestling title eight times in one 21-day period in 1937, crossing the country (in the days before airlines) in the process.
Nagurski is in both the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame. He was an all-time great in both endeavors, and his presence made both football and wrestling a little more legit.
15. Julius Peppers: Edge-Rusher, Power Forward
After 15 years as one of the NFL's top pass-rushers, it's easy to forget Julius Peppers played basketball for a North Carolina team that reached the Final Four.
That's Peppers, dunking on the alley-oop. Ironically, the guard dishing him the opportunity was Tar Heels quarterback Ronald Curry, who went on to a fine career as a Raiders receiver.
Peppers averaged 5.7 points and 3.7 rebounds per game in his freshman and sophomore seasons after walking on for Bill Guthridge's program. Those weren't jaw-dropping numbers, but Peppers was concentrating on football, which means he didn't train for basketball and joined the basketball team well after the season started. Peppers became a key reserve for a pair of teams that reached the NCAA tournament, scoring 21 points with 10 rebounds in his final college game, a second-round NCAA tournament loss to Penn State, before focusing on football once and for all.
Matt Doherty, who replaced Guthridge (and played college hoops with a fellow named Michael Jordan) believed Peppers could have reached the NBA if he had focused on basketball. "He had feel," Doherty told ESPN.com's Rob Demovsky in 2015. "He wasn't just a rebounder or banger. He could pass the ball, make the 15-18 foot shot and had soft hands."
Plenty of contemporary NFL stars have some college basketball success in their past. Curry, Antonio Gates, Jimmy Graham, Donovan McNabb and Terrell Owens would all have vied for spots if this were a top-50 countdown. Peppers claims this spot and carries the flag for the others because of his uniqueness. It's easy to see how catching entry passes qualifies a football player to catch touchdown passes in traffic, but harder to imagine how an alley-oop dunk converts into 143.5 sacks and counting.
Oh, and if you think there was a glaring omission in the preceding paragraph, just keep scrolling down.
14. Tony Gonzalez: Chiefs, Falcons, Tight End, Power Forward
Tony Gonzalez was a three-time All-Pro tight end in the throes of an ugly contract dispute when he took the court with the Miami Heat's summer league team in July 2002.
Gonzalez had reached the Sweet 16 as a forward for Cal in the mid-1990s. But he chose football over basketball...as a career, anyway. Gonzalez liked to play in non-NBA-affiliated summer leagues to stay in shape and scratch his hoops itch. The Kansas City Chiefs didn't like that. Gonzo didn't like that they didn't like it. So he spent his summer with the Heat.
Gonzalez hauled in 11 rebounds in his Heat debut against the Pacers. Heat coaches removed him from the game so they could get a better look at rookies who were less likely to be wearing helmets come autumn. Team president Pat Riley would later say Gonzalez could have been a "10-year pro" in the NBA.
It never happened. Gonzalez suffered an ankle injury while playing for the Heat, and he and the Chiefs came to an understanding. He went on to become the greatest tight end in NFL history.
Gonzalez was also a great football player for Cal. But his basketball success sent scouts scrambling for the hardwood in search of power forwards who could be converted to tight ends. Some, like Antonio Gates, became stars. Most became training camp curiosities, long forgotten.
The Cowboys are currently trying to convert Rico Gathers from Baylor forward to Jason Witten's heir apparent. Nearly 20 years later, teams are still looking for the next Tony Gonzalez. But if not for an injury and a little bit of compromise, the NFL might have lost the real thing to the NBA.
13. Joe Thomas: Offensive Tackle, Shot Put, Discus
Many prep and college offensive linemen are track and field weight men in the offseason. Hurling the shot put, discus or javelin are great ways to improve flexibility and coordination while maintaining strength.
But few young offensive linemen grow up to be a future Hall of Famer like Joe Thomas. And few were as great at both football and the field side of track and field.
Thomas set Brookfield Central High School records in both shot put and discus back in the early 2000s. He even went on to star for the University of Wisconsin's track team, qualifying for the NCAA regionals in both shot put and discus for two straight years. Thomas held the Badgers indoor shot put record for many years.
Thomas was also recruited as a basketball player out of high school. And when the Badgers needed extra beef on defense during bowl games, he played on both the offensive and defensive line. He recorded seven tackles against Auburn in the Music City Bowl as a freshman at the end of the 2003 season.
Thomas is now the face of the Browns franchise, the team's only truly great player over the last decade. He's also one of the NFL's most outspoken veteran voices. Thomas' leadership and consistent excellence at an unforgiving position overshadow his pure athleticism. He could have been an Olympic track and field star or perhaps a power forward or a defensive end. He became the Browns left tackle instead.
It's a thankless job, but Thomas has made the absolute most of it.
12. Rod Woodson: Defensive Back, Return Man, Hurdler
The Steelers were overjoyed when Rod Woodson fell to them with the 10th pick in the 1987 draft. They weren't so thrilled when he took off for Europe that summer to pursue a track and field career.
Woodson had been a two-way player at Purdue, starring at cornerback, returning kickoffs and punts and gaining over 200 scrimmage yards as an offensive weapon in his senior season. According to NFL Media's Gil Brandt, he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.31 and 4.33 seconds at the combine, with great shuttle and jump results as well. Woodson's jumping ability should not have been a surprise, since he qualified for the Olympic trials in the 110-meter hurdles in 1984 and held an NCAA record in the 60-meter hurdles at the time.
But abandoning the NFL for international track in a non-Olympic year? Remember that this was 1987, a turbulent time for the league. The USFL had just collapsed and a strike was looming. With no competition for player services, teams began to roll back contract offers for rookies. Bitter holdouts were common. And Woodson was good enough to run stride-for-stride with Olympic superstars like Greg Foster, which earned him a little negotiating leverage.
Fortunately for the Steelers and NFL history, Woodson did not quite make the cut for the 1987 Summer World Championships in Rome. He slammed into a hurdle and failed to finish one race. Woodson's track style had a little too much football to it, as he careened from hurdle to hurdle in a way that left him a split-second behind top international competition.
Woodson signed with the Steelers before the start of the 1987 season. You know the rest: 17 seasons at cornerback and safety, 71 interceptions, 17 touchdowns as a defender and return man, a Super Bowl appearance with the Steelers, a win with the Ravens and a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
11. Bobby Bell: Prep Quarterback, College Two-Way Lineman, AFL-NFL Linebacker
Bobby Bell attended a segregated K-12 school in North Carolina that was so tiny, there were only about 25 students in his grade, according to BigTen.org's Larry Watts. Bell helped the basketball team win some state titles, but Cleveland High School was not big enough to field a traditional football team. Bell quarterbacked a 6-on-6 team instead.
Bell shined at segregated prep All-Star games, throwing passes that traveled 70 yards in the air, according to the Chicago Tribune. University of North Carolina assistant coach Jim Taylor noticed Bell, but the Tar Heels football program was still segregated at the time. So Taylor called colleague Murray Warmath at Minnesota, according to Watts, getting Bell a scholarship that would take him far away from Taylor's ACC rivals. Taylor even arranged for Bell to work out with the coaches at Shelby High School, the local white prep. Warmath wanted to see some game film, but Cleveland High School didn't have film equipment.
Warmath saw a two-way lineman in Bell. "He always had speed, even when he was a quarterback at Shelby High, but he used to run flat-footed like a duck," the Tribune relayed during Bell's college years. Turning a hard-throwing passer with underutilized speed into a lineman must have made sense in the Big 10 of the early 1960s. The Golden Gophers went to two Rose Bowls and won a national championship with Bell rarely leaving the field; he was even the long snapper on punts.
Bell also walked on to (and integrated) the Minnesota basketball team, but annual Rose Bowl appearances limited his value on the hardcourt. The NFL, AFL and CFL all coveted the Outland Trophy winner who finished third in the Heisman race and, no longer flat-footed like a duck, ran a 4.5-second 40-yard dash, according to Brent Kalwei of the Daily Star-Journal. Lamar Hunt lured Bell to the team that was about to become the Kansas City Chiefs.
Hank Stram finally found a sensible position for Bell: outside linebacker. Bell (shown sacking Bart Starr in Super Bowl I) became one of the best all-purpose linebackers of the 1960s or any other era.
"He was the best athlete I've ever physically seen until Bo Jackson came to Kansas City to play for the Royals," teammate Jim Lynch told Watts.
At a bigger high school or in a more enlightened era, Bell might have been a multisport phenomenon. But he overcame every obstacle in his path to become a Super Bowl champion and Pro Football Hall of Famer.
10. Walter Payton: Running Back, Race Car Driver
Let's be honest: Walter Payton's odd foray into auto racing doesn't validate his athletic accomplishments.
Payton held the NFL rushing record for years. His game fit both the Neanderthal thudding of the 1970s and the more elegant 1980s. He was versatile enough to play quarterback during Bears injury emergencies. And Payton was a successful long-jumper and basketball player in high school, as well as a drummer in the marching band.
But this countdown is all about finding the best of the best athletes. Why Payton and not Marcus Allen or Adrian Peterson? Success in another sport is the extra "something" that put nearly every one of these superstars over the top.
Yes, auto racing is a sport, one that requires extraordinary reflexes and stamina. Payton participated in an amateur celebrity race in 1988 at Long Beach. He finished 18th. Tom Cruise won, so the level of competition left something to be desired. But Payton caught the racing bug. In 1990, he hooked up with Paul Newman's racing team on the International Motor Sports Association LuK Clutch Challenge series. After racing Oldsmobiles on that circuit, he moved on to a Mustang in the Trans-Am series.
At the time, he compared his racing career to his high school football career. Payton hoped to gain experience, move up to higher levels, perhaps even NASCAR's Winston Cup series. But a nasty crash— Payton went airborne, hit a guardrail twice and landed upside-down—ended his racing career. Payton became an investor (that's him with IndyCar's Dale Coyne in the photo above) in racing teams and avid fan instead.
Payton died from a liver disease at age 45, just a few years after the sudden end of his racing career. We were destined never to see him win a Daytona 500. Fortunately, the one-of-a-kind Payton provided plenty of football thrills.
9. Willie Gault: Wide Receiver, Sprinter
Willie Gault ran the 100-meter dash in 11.3 seconds and the 200 meters in 23.24 seconds at a meet in Los Angeles last year.
That's really fast. But it's not, you know, Olympian fast.
But read that first sentence again. Gault posted that time last year. He retired from the NFL in 1993. He was 55 years old when he appeared in that meet. Those results were both over-55 records, according to USA Track & Field.
Gault (shown winning a race in 2010) may no longer be one of the fastest humans on earth, but he is clearly the fastest man who qualifies for the AARP.
Gault, as you might expect, was even faster back in the early 1980s. An NCAA superstar sprinter and hurdler, Gault qualified for the 1980 Olympics in both the 100-meter dash and the 4x100 relay. He was part of a relay team anchored by Carl Lewis. But the United States boycotted the Moscow Olympics that year. Gault, Lewis and Co. did set a world record in the relay at the 1983 World Championships.
By 1983, Gault was also part of another legendary team: He was the top wide receiver and deep threat for the Bears that took the NFL and nation by storm in 1985. That team was known for its defense, but Gault averaged 19.8 yards per reception over five seasons for the Bears, often delivered the long-bomb knockout punch to battered opponents.
Gault also made the U.S. bobsled team for the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, but the novice sledder was relegated to the third sled, and only two sleds compete.
Gault's times were always Olympic-caliber, but his timing never was. Decades later, he's still a record-setting competitor. Fate kept him from Olympic glory. A Super Bowl ring with one of history's most storied teams— and four decades of high-level excellence—are pretty good consolation prizes.
8. Darrell Green: Cornerback, Sprinter
The NFL was full of Olympic-caliber sprinters in the 1980s. We just met Willie Gault, who would probably have won gold if not for the global politics of the era. Ron Brown won a gold medal in the 4x100 relays in the 1984 Olympics, then returned kicks for the Rams for several years. Renaldo "Skeets" Nehemiah, a record-breaking hurdler who also lost likely gold to the 1980 Olympics boycott, spent a few years for the 49ers despite never having played college football. Heck, the Cowboys even drafted Carl Lewis in 1984 on a lark.
But the NFL's undisputed fastest man for most of the 1980s was Darrell Green.
Green was a track star, too. He ran a 10.08-second 100-yard dash at a Division II meet while at old Texas A&I (now Texas A&M Kingsville). He earned D-II All-America status several times and likely would have earned a 1984 Olympic spot if he still had amateur status. His collegiate results generally placed him within a stride or two of Gault and Brown.
But Green was a far better football player than any of his track and field brethren, including Gault. He began his defensive career as a burner who could chase Tony Dorsett down from behind or turn a quarterback's mistake into a touchdown. He soon developed into a complete all-around cornerback, with agility and technique to match his speed, plus the strength to get the job done as a tackler despite his 5'9" frame.
Could Gault, Brown or some other speed demon have won a race against Green when they were all in their primes? It's possible. But none of them had nearly Green's impact as a football player. Green was still one of the fastest players in the league in his early 40s from 2000-02.
The draft-a-track-star fad had been long forgotten by then. But the best of the bunch remained.
7. Herschel Walker, Running Back, Bobsleder, MMA Fighter, Track Star, Etc.
Herschel Walker rushed for over 8,000 yards for four NFL teams, and that may be the least remarkable feat of his athletic career.
- Competed in the 1992 Olympics as the brakeman on a two-man bobsled. Walker's bobsled endeavor is largely remembered as a wacky footnote. His sled finished seventh in the Olympics. That's quite a wacky footnote.
- Earned All-American nods twice as a college sprinter and helped Georgia to an SEC championship in the 4x100 relays. Walker once posted a 10.10-second (wind-assisted) 100-meter dash. At 220 pounds.
- Has studied taewkondo and competed in tournaments since his youth. He is now a fifth-degree black belt.
- Won a pair of Strikeforce MMA bouts in his late 40s.
- Once danced with the Fort Worth Ballet.
Walker was also the United States Football League's greatest player ever, rushing for 5,562 yards in three seasons after altering the course of football history by going pro after his junior year. He was also the centerpiece of one of the most notorious trades in history, a deal that jump-started a new era for the Cowboys and again marked a turning point in football history.
He did all of this while never lifting weights, instead doing simple exercises like pushups and situps. Lots of them. Like, 1,500 pushups and 3,500 situps per 24-hour period. "Per day" isn't the proper term, since Walker was famous for waking up in the middle of the night to squeeze a few hundred in.
Walker is now 55, and he still talks about fighting another MMA bout. Heck, the Winter Olympics are coming, and he may get another bobsledding itch. Walker fell just short of a Hall of Fame career as a running back due to too many ordinary seasons after the trade and too many great ones lost to the USFL. But he made his mark on the sports world as one of the most unique athletes in history. And he may not be finished yet.
6. Ollie Matson: Running Back, Kick Returner, Olympic Medalist
Maybe running uphill all his life was what made Ollie Matson so strong and so fast.
Matson was a superstar running back at University of San Francisco, but the racially integrated Dons were not welcome in much of the nation. Matson endured boos, taunts, cheap shots and worse. His touchdowns were sometimes mysteriously called back in road games. The Dons were only invited to the bowls of the era (nearly all of which were played in the South) if they left Matson and his African-American teammates behind, according to Frank Litsky of the New York Times. Coaches refused. The university lost so much money that it canceled its football program.
While at San Francisco, Matson took a break from football to run the 100-yard dash in the NCAA track finals. Despite little specialized training, he finished fourth in the nation. Matson tried out for the 1948 Olympic track team and barely missed the cut. He made the team in 1952 and won a silver medal in the 4x400-meter relay and a bronze in the 400 meters. As the photo above shows, Matson was much larger than his fellow sprinters of the era, making him a one-of-a-kind Olympian.
The Chicago Cardinals drafted Matson in 1952, and the 220-pound sprinter was an immediate All-Pro. Matson played running back and defensive back early in his career. He was also the greatest return man of his era, with nine career punt- and kick-return touchdowns. Matson played 14 seasons with the Cardinals, Rams, Lions and Eagles. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1972.
Those who denied Matson opportunities in college denied themselves the privilege of watching and celebrating one of the greatest athletes in history. Bigotry often turns out to be its own punishment.
5. Bob Hayes: Receiver, Returner, Olympic Sprinter
Bullet Bob Hayes was so fast that he won an Olympic gold medal on a chewed-up track in borrowed sneakers.
The night before Hayes' 100-meter dash, a nervous boxer kicked Hayes' shoes under the bed while the U.S. athletes were goofing around in the Olympic Village. Hayes arrived at the track with one shoe in his equipment bag. A half-miler lent Hayes a left shoe. Luckily, they both wore size 8 Adidas 100s, according to Chris Beaven of the Repository.
Hayes, running in not-quite-matching shoes in the middle of a cinder track that had already endured heavy use, tied the world record of 10.06 seconds. He then led the U.S. team from behind in the 4x100 relay for a second gold medal.
Hayes seemed to come from nowhere to become one of the world's fastest men. His high school football and track accomplishments were largely ignored because he went to a segregated school. When he attended historically black Florida A&M, he was rarely invited to sanctioned meets at major programs. Only when he ran the 100-yard dash in 9.2 seconds at a University of Miami meet did Hayes leap onto the national Olympic radar.
He also leapt onto the Cowboys radar. Innovative Cowboys exec Tex Schramm selected Hayes in a futures draft, securing his post-Olympic services. Hayes arrived in Dallas in 1965 and led the NFL in touchdowns in his first two seasons, gaining over 1,000 receiving yards (a lofty feat in the era of run-heavy philosophies and 14-game seasons) in each of his first two years.
Hayes earned enshrinement into the Pro Football Hall of Fame after a long wait in 2009. He is the only person ever to earn a Super Bowl ring (for the 1971 Cowboys) and an Olympic gold medal. He set or tied a number of sprint records during his track and field career.
Oh, and that nervous boxer who almost sabotaged Hayes' gold-medal chances? His name was Joe Frazier.
4. Deion Sanders: Cornerback, Receiver, Returner, Outfielder and More
Twenty-five years ago this October, Deion Sanders nearly became the first person to appear in both an NFL and MLB game on the same day.
Sanders, under contract with both the Falcons and the Atlanta Braves, played a few innings of a night National League Championship Series game in Pittsburgh. He flew to Miami in the wee hours of the morning (the photo above shows him leaving Three Rivers Stadium) and started for the Falcons as both a cornerback and return man against Dan Marino's Dolphins. After the game, Sanders went from limousine to helicopter to airplane to race back to Pittsburgh in time for the first pitch of Game 5.
Unfortunately for trivia buffs, Sanders was not needed in the game. But he did go on to bat .533 in the World Series, with five stolen bases and four runs scored. He then returned to finish an All-Pro season for the Falcons.
The young Sanders was a polarizing figure. Then, as now, some media members and fans tended to belittle the accomplishments of athletes they deemed too "flashy" (aka young black guys who look like they are enjoying their fame and fortune). Those who branded Sanders' frequent-flyer approach to playing two sports as a publicity stunt—to be fair, he did make sure television crews documented his journey —overlooked the fact that he needed IV treatments to get through his double shifts. Also, he was the best player on the Falcons by far, and he led MLB in triples that year. Sanders was more than just "Primetime." He was one of the greatest athletes on the planet, doing things no one before him had dared to try.
Sanders was also a track superstar in college, running 100 meters in 10.26 seconds and the 200 in 20.71 seconds. He once ran a leg of the 4x100 relays between legs of a double-header for Florida State.
Sanders became possibly the greatest pure shutdown cornerback in NFL history, of course. But that's a conversation for a future installment of NFL Nostalgia.
Last year, Sanders told Sports Illustrated's Maggie Gray that he almost played a game for the Atlanta Hawks back in his two-way Falcons-Braves era. Sanders was a basketball star in high school, so he likely could have held his own for a few minutes. Heaven knows he didn't mind the attention.
It would have been fun, but it never happened. Atlanta must have run out of helicopters.
3. Bo Jackson: Running Back, Outfielder, Hobbiest
Bo knew baseball. Bo knew football. When he decided to do both, Bo knew backlash.
When Bo Jackson declared he would pursue an NFL stint as a "hobby" while getting well-compensated as an outfielder for the Kansas City Royals, it caused an uproar. The Royals, understandably, were worried about losing their slugger to a football injury. But the proto-hot-takers of the era were also incensed. Such arrogance! Such disrespect for both games! (Hot takes haven't changed much in 30 years, except to grow shriller.)
What Jackson accomplished from 1987 through 1990 was astonishing: four Pro-Bowl-caliber (or close to it) half-seasons at running back for the Raiders, four 20-plus-homer seasons for the Royals. All this after an exceptional NCAA track and field career and predraft NFL workouts that became the stuff of Paul Bunyan stories.
Advertisers at the time understood Jackson was an individual to be celebrated. The Nike campaign quoted above needs no introduction three decades later. Most younger fans got it, too, which means history gets it.
Jackson could have been a Pro Football Hall of Famer if not for baseball, though hip injuries could have claim edhim either way. Without the football injuries, Jackson might have stuck in the majors for decades until he hit over 300 home runs. But doing both is what made Bo Jackson BO JACKSON, the man whose name resonates among fans too young to have seen anything but highlights and video game memes.
This countdown is full of one-of-a-kind athletes. I had to resist the temptation to use the kicker "we will never see the likes of him again" a half-dozen times so far.
Well, we will never, ever see a Bo Jackson again.
His first contract in either sport would be filled with "no other sports" language. Jackson himself has said the threat of CTE likely would have convinced him to stick to baseball. And frankly, if anyone tried to play both sports, Twitter would explode, and the professional TV take-meisters would have on-air aneurysms.
The late 80s were a unique time—just sophisticated enough to recognize how special Jackson was, just innocent enough to keep the backlash manageable and the two-sport juggling act feasible.
Bo knew it, and he made the most of it.
2. Jim Brown: Running Back, Lacrosse Star, Etc.
Brown is arguably the greatest football player in history. He is almost certainly the greatest lacrosse player in history.
Brown was an All-American lacrosse star for Syracuse in the mid-1950s, scoring 43 goals in 10 games as a senior to rank second nationally in scoring, according to author Ronald L. Mann. He was so dominant, the NCAA changed the rules of lacrosse, requiring players to keep their arms and sticks in motion at all times while in possession of the ball. Before the change, Brown would cradle the ball close to his body and dare opponents to try to wrest it from him. No one took him up on it.
Brown is in both the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the Lacrosse Hall of Fame (as well as the College Football Hall of Fame). Yet his two best sports tell only part of the story.
The racism of the 1950s kept Brown from starting for the Syracuse basketball team as an underclassman. An unwritten rule at Syracuse permitted only two African-American athletes to start at a time, and since veteran hoopsters occupied those spots, Browne came off the bench for 15.0 points per game as a sophomore and 11.3 points per game (with the kind of rebounding you might expect from Jim Freakin' Brown) as a junior before focusing his attention on other sports as a senior.
Brown pitched two no-hitters in high school and was scouted by the Yankees. He trained as a boxer. He finished fifth in the decathlon in a national AAU meet in 1954. He once won the high jump and javelin in a track meet against Colgate, then led the Orangemen lacrosse team to an 8-6 win over Army. On the same day.
Brown wasn't just a star running back for Syracuse. He intercepted eight passes on defense and kicked 37 extra points. His NFL accomplishments, in case you need a refresher: eight rushing titles, 104.3 rushing yards per game in his career, 126 total career touchdowns, one NFL championship and a level of overall dominance that may never be matched.
Not many people can follow Jim Brown on any sort of countdown.
But then again, not many people get a city named after them.
1. Jim Thorpe: Football, Baseball, Olympic Track and Field
Jim Thorpe never set foot in the charming Pennsylvania mountain hamlet that bears his name. The community of Mauch Chunk took the name of Jim Thorpe as a marketing gimmick concocted by Thorpe's third wife. The town and the memorial on its outskirts commemorate both great athletic glory and deep national shame.
Thorpe was born in the Oklahoma Indian Territory in 1887. As a teenager, he traveled east to Pennsylvania to attend the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. At Carlisle (100 miles from the town of Jim Thorpe), young Native Americans were forced to abandon their language and customs in exchange for cultural assimilation and a chance at life beyond the dwindling, dire reservations.
Athletics were a major part of the Carlisle curriculum, particularly football. Thorpe stood out at every sport he tried, from track to competitive ballroom dancing. Legendary coach Glenn "Pop" Warner finally let him try out for the football team (already a powerhouse in the primordial days of the NCAA), and before long, Thorpe was an All-American halfback, defender, and kicker.
College football glory led to national attention and a chance to compete in the Olympics. Thorpe won gold medals in the decathlon and pentathlon at the 1912 games in Stockholm, helping him become an international superstar. He received a ticker-tape parade down Broadway.
Less than a year later, Thorpe was stripped of his medals when the Worcester Telegram revealed he was paid to play some semipro baseball games before the Olympics.
The international sporting public was less persnickety about amateurism as the Olympic officials at the time. Thorpe remained a hero to many. MLB's New York Giants signed Thorpe to help win a World Series and (just as importantly) improve their box office during an international barnstorming exhibition. He also played for a traveling basketball team called the World Famous Indians.
But Thorpe's most successful barnstorming team was football's Canton Bulldogs. The team won three regional titles, then joined with the other successful clubs of the era to form the American Professional Football Association, which later adopted the catchier name National Football League. Thorpe briefly served as the league's titular president. He made a greater impact as a player-coach-ambassador for the fledgling league through the 1920s.
Thorpe's Olympic medals were reinstated posthumously in 1982. Mauch Chunk became Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania in 1953 in a bid to become the home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Thorpe is buried far from his home, a final indignity for a Native American who was forever stripped of everything but his God-given ability.
It is easy to see echoes of Thorpe every time an athlete loses a scholarship over a free tattoo, has the book thrown at him for some minor offense or gets criticized for an end-zone dance or postdraft celebration that is not properly "assimilated" into what some perceive as the mainstream. The NFL's first great athlete is also its greatest history lesson and cautionary tale.
Too many great athletes still fight uphill battles against prejudice, inequity or callous indifference. Few endured as much as Thorpe. None shined more brightly or courageously.