When we talk about which sport has the best athletes, we have to define what it means to be a good athlete. The ability to sustain speed, strength, and agility simultaneously in competition, displaying the skill to excel at more than one sport.
Jim Thorpe comes to mind when we talk about men in the sports arena that were head and shoulders above everyone else. He won gold medals in the pentathlon, and decathlon in the 1912 Olympic games in Sweden, and played professional football and baseball.
His accomplishments landed him on the 1911 and 1912 All American football teams. Thorpe was considered the greatest athlete of his time. Who are the greatest athletes of our time? Every sport boasts good athletes, but which sport has the best?
For one, we can eliminate baseball players. While there are some studs that are in the major leagues, you don’t necessarily have to be in top physical shape to play. There are quite a few pitchers that are overweight and sport oversize midriffs, but it doesn’t inhibit their ability to throw or hit the baseball.
This doesn’t mean that they aren’t considered athletes, it just means that a lack of fitness doesn’t preclude them from doing their jobs. Add to that the fact their game is not very fast, and if you are not pitching, catching, or hitting you are basically waiting around for something to happen. For the most part they would not be good candidates for other sports like basketball and football.
Let’s compare football players and basketball players. Football players have to be in excellent shape to play. Lineman, linebackers, defensive backs, running backs, all have to be in tip top shape to compete. Their combination of strength, agility, and speed that is necessary to excel is unparalleled.
You have defensive lineman that are 250 plus pounds running down quarterbacks and running backs who are supposed to be faster. The players on a whole are much faster than they were in the 70’s and 80’s, and it is not uncommon any more for receivers, backs, and defensive backs to post forty yard dash times of 4.3 and below.
It’s not just all about the speed. Agility and quickness is evident at almost every position. Many defensive lineman (especially defensive ends) over match their counterparts by being too quick off the edge, or shooting the gaps. Offensive lineman may be the most un-athletic of the bunch, but the better ones are strong and quick, with good feet.
Bo Jackson and Deon Sanders come to mind. Both excelled at football and played professional baseball. Jackson stared with the Oakland Raiders and played baseball for the Kansas City Royals, and Sanders won super bowls with the 49ers and Dallas in the NFL, and played in a world series with the Atlanta Braves. They were football players first, baseball players second.
You don’t see baseball players transitioning to football, but we have seen football players play baseball. Many college football players have played on their school’s basketball teams as well. Regardless of their size their athleticism translated over well to the hardwood.
Charlie Ward of the Florida State Seminoles won a Heisman Trophy playing football, and was the starting point guard for their basketball team. He elected to play professional basketball and was a serviceable point guard for New York. His athleticism allowed him to choose between the two.
Outside linebackers may be the most athletic bunch of all, because they have to be strong enough to shed blockers and offensive lineman, fast enough to cover and run down backs and receivers, as well as quick and agile enough to get after the quarterback.
Looking at basketball players, their athleticism can’t be denied. They have to have more body control than the other athletes in the major sports because so much of their time is spent in the air. Having jumping ability is one thing, but being creative and agile while in the air is something totally different.
We have become used to watching the exploits of Michael Jordan, Vince Carter, Kobe Bryant, Dominique Wilkins, Julius Erving, and many others as they have defied gravity and done the unimaginable with no tera-firma to support them. No other sport requires as much in-the-air time as basketball.
What makes them special is the fact that they are very vulnerable while in that position, but have to focus on scoring, shooting, blocking a shot, and executing dunks. From a strength standpoint there are quite a few players coming in the NBA now that are not physically mature due to their age. You can get away with it if you are very talented (see Kevin Durant), but you can’t get away with it in the NFL.
Hakeem Olajuwon is a good example of a professional basketball player that was an exceptional athlete. His nickname was the dream, because there was no one you could compare him to with his cat like quickness, assortment of low post moves, and rare physical ability. At six feet and ten inches tall, he was constantly among the league leaders in steals, which was unheard of for a center.
Originally from Nigeria he excelled in soccer and played his college ball with Clyde Drexler at Houston (Phi Slama Jama). Olajuwon didn’t play basketball until he was seventeen years old but loved it immediately and realized that was the sport for him. He is generally regarded as one of the best to ever play his position.
Soccer professionals are good athletes, but we have not seen a professional soccer player cross over to another sport successfully. You have to use your hands well when it comes to the major American sports, and soccer players don’t use their hands.
Hockey pros are known for their skating skill and speed on the ice, in addition to their fighting. Their creative abilities on the ice are excellent, but don’t necessarily mean they are naturally athletic. The primary abilities needed in hockey are not needed in other sports, so they really stand alone as a sport.
Raphael Nadel is probably the most athletic of all the tennis players, with all due respect to Roger Federer. He shows his strength, speed and agility every time he plays, especially on clay. The women’s game boasts some good athletes as well, but the percentage is not that high if you look at tennis players as a group.
There are great athletes in all sports and we applaud them, but I believe football players for the most part are the best athletes in the world. It is a close call, but our gridiron professionals exhibit all the necessary attributes to make that claim. Their speed, strength and agility is demonstrated more on the football field then any other arena.