Best Multi-Sport Athletes of All Time

Matt MartinezCorrespondent ISeptember 19, 2011

Best Multi-Sport Athletes of All Time

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    Most professional athletes pour themselves into their craft. Most realize at a young age what they are destined to do. They hone their skills to an incomparable level and then push it a little further.

    However, a select few show elite talent in more than one discipline—and when they do, it's electric.

    Remember where you were when you heard about Bo Jackson? Remember your quizzical reaction to a man capable of dominating two major sports?

    With only 20 spots on the list, let's set a few ground rules. First, the athlete has to be a superstar in at least one of his or her sports. You won't see the likes of Scott Burrell (the only man to be taken in the first round of two different sports). His professional career didn't pan out well enough to consider him a superstar, so he's out.

    Second: no high school studs. I know Allen Iverson led his high school football team to a state title, but he didn't play past the prep level. If you didn't show your skills in college or beyond, you don't count.

    Lastly: Olympic medalists do count. There's nothing more admirable than representing your country on the world stage.

    All right, let's get into it. These are the Best Multi-Sport Athletes of All Time.

20. Donovan McNabb

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    Sorry Eagles fans, but Donovan McNabb was probably the most productive quarterback in your team's history. Yeah, he never won the big one, but he did you get you there. To be fair, no one has been able to lead the Eagles to a Super Bowl win.

    With his NFL career winding down, McNabb has put up Hall of Fame numbers. The six-time Pro Bowler has tossed 100 more touchdowns than picks and rushed for more than 3,000 yards in his career.

    He also suited up for the Syracuse Orange on the hardwood. As a reserve for Jim Boeheim, McNabb played on Syracuse's 1996 squad that lost to Kentucky in the national championship game.

19. Julius Peppers

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    Julius Peppers is a bona fide star in the NFL. The second overall pick of the 2002 draft has amassed six Pro Bowl selections, has been named to the All-Pro team five times and was honored as a member of the NFL 2000s All-Decade Team. His 91 sacks rank him 35th in the NFL's history.

    But enough about his terrorization on the gridiron.

    As you can plainly see above, Peppers was not only a member of UNC's football team; he played a little hoop as well. Though he was heavily recruited by Mike Krzyzewski at Duke, Peppers chose North Carolina under the premise that he would be allowed to compete in both sports.

    Peppers made one of the best teams in the nation as a walk-on. A key reserve, he played in the Final Four as a freshman. The next year, he continued to come off the bench but put in an 18-point, 10-rebound effort in UNC's loss to Penn State during the NCAA tournament. The following year, Peppers focused on football.

18. Walter Ray Williams Jr.

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    This one stretches my sports geek-dom to new levels. Yes, I have attended a PBA event. Yes, I own more than one bowling ball and a nice pair of bowling shoes.

    But this isn't about me. It's about Walter Ray Williams Jr.—the all-time winningest bowler and leading money earner in the PBA's history. Williams has snagged 47 titles and more than four million bucks throwing rocks.

    He's also one hell of a horseshoe pitcher. To be exact, Williams is a nine-time world champion at shoes. I guess that pendulum stroke is good for more than just knocking over white pins 60 feet away. It's good for ringers and heel calks too.

17. Tony Gonzalez

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    It's difficult to find anyone who doesn't believe Tony Gonzalez is the best receiving tight end of all time.

    The numbers don't lie. He's caught for more than 12,000 yards on over 1,000 receptions and gotten into the end zone 88 times. The first-rounder has been selected to the Pro Bowl 11 times. He's a nine-time All-Pro and a member of the 2000s All-Decade Team. In short, he's a beast.

    But Gonzo's talents extend beyond the football field. While at Berkeley, Gonzalez played alongside Jason Kidd on the hardwood. Though he only averaged about seven points and five rebounds as a junior, Gonzalez was an important piece of a Bears team that danced all the way to the Sweet 16.

    His All-Pac-10 and All-American honors on the gridiron made his choice easy: the NFL.

16. Todd Helton

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    I know Todd Helton has had the benefit of the Colorado elevation on his side for his entire career, but he is still a star. With 347 career homers, a .323 batting average and three Gold Gloves, it's hard to deny the guy's skills on the diamond. That said, Helton could spin it on the football field too.

    At Tennessee, Helton backed up Heath Shuler for two years. Coming into his junior year, he was slotted above Peyton Manning in the depth chart. Unfortunately, he was still No. 2 behind Jerry Colquitt. Colquitt tore up his knee in the season opener against UCLA, and Helton got a chance to show what he could do under center.

    For three weeks, Helton was the starter. The Vols lost a heartbreaker to UCLA, won big at Georgia and were shut out by Florida. Against Mississippi State, Helton suffered a knee injury of his own, and Manning began his legendary career.

15. Tom Glavine

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    It's only a matter of time before Tom Glavine gets his plaque in Cooperstown. The 300-game winner was selected to 10 All-Star games, won two Cy Young Awards and earned a World Series MVP en route to Atlanta's lone title in 1995.

    He was also one hell of a hockey player. In high school, Glavine was the MVP of his team. He was so good that the Los Angeles Kings risked their fourth-round pick on him in 1984. The Bravos won out, though: Atlanta grabbed Tommy in the second round. He probably made the right decision.

14. Charlie Ward

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    I often think about Charlie Ward. Did he make the right decision by choosing the NBA? I mean, he won college football's highest honor.

    In 1993, Ward won three extremely prestigious awards: the Heisman Trophy, the Davey O'Brien Award and the Maxwell Award.

    You see, Chuck led Florida State to a national championship when his Seminoles tiptoed past Nebraska 18-16 in the Orange Bowl. During the regular season, Ward threw for 3,032 yards and 27 touchdowns. He completed 69.5 percent of his passes and was only picked off four times.

    But Ward was a bit undersized. Standing only 6'2", Ward was projected to be taken in the third round of the NFL draft. To Charlie, that was unacceptable. He had other options. At Florida State, he was a standout basketball player too. A defensive specialist, Ward still holds FSU's all-time steals record with 236.

    Charlie elected to sign with the Knicks in 1994 after they used their first-round pick on him. He played more than a decade in the NBA but was never more than a role player. He never averaged more than eight points a game and finished with a career field-goal percentage of .408.

    Ward was also drafted by the Brewers and Yankees despite the fact that he never once stepped on a college baseball field.

13. Kenny Lofton

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    If it wasn't for Steve Kerr, Kenny Lofton might have been the starting point guard for the Arizona Wildcats in 1988, when they reached the Final Four. The lightning-quick Lofton was slotted as the backup 1, and he decided to chase his dream in Major League Baseball.

    A member of 11 different major-league teams, Lofton swiped 622 bases and hit an impressive .299 at the top of many lineups.

    His most prolific years were spent with the Cleveland Indians, where he led off for a club loaded with offensive talent. Unfortunately for the Tribe, they came up short during their World Series runs in 1995 and 1997.

12. Bob Gibson

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    Did you know Bob Gibson was a member of the Harlem Globetrotters? Well, he was.

    The nine-time All-Star and two-time World Series champ could do more than strike out opposing batters. While at Creighton, Gibson averaged 22 points per game and caught the attention of the Trotters. You see, Gibson could get up. Known for his reverse jams, Gibson helped the Trotters humiliate any and all challengers.

    Gibson also posted a 1.12 ERA in 1968, won two Cy Young Awards and captured nine Gold Gloves. I'd say he earned his spot on the countdown.

11. Tony Gwynn

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    If it wasn't for the strike that effectively ended the 1994 season, Tony Gwynn may have hit .400. As it was, he ended with a .394 clip. Gwynn was a god at the dish. He hit .338 for his career and won eight batting titles and seven Silver Slugger Awards.

    He was a good dude too. Gwynn was the recipient of the Roberto Clemente Award in 1999, the Lou Gehrig Memorial Award in 1998 and the Branch Rickey Award in 1995.

    Mr. Padre was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2007 with 97.6 percent of the vote (who didn't vote for this guy?).

    But Tony also rocked a '70s Afro on the basketball court. At San Diego State, Gwynn set assist records for a career and a season. The exceptional point guard was taken in the 10th round of the NBA but chose baseball instead. Too bad he chose a sport that muzzled that awesome 'do.

10. John Elway

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    Can you imagine the NFL's most prolific passer in pinstripes? It could have happened.

    Out of high school, Elway was taken by the Royals in the 18th round but elected to go to college. At Stanford, Elway played both sports. He excelled under center for the Cardinal football team, as he won Pac-10 Player of the Year honors twice. He was a consensus All-American his senior year and finished second in Heisman Trophy voting.

    As a ballplayer, Elway pitched and played right field. At the plate his senior season, he hit .361 and drove in 50 while posting a 5-4 record on the mound. The Yankees took him with their second pick (52nd overall) in 1981, and Elway played two seasons of minor-league ball during his summers away from Stanford.

    In fact, Elway used his standing with the Yankees to leverage his NFL career. In 1983, the Baltimore Colts nabbed John with the first overall pick. Elway did not want to play for the worst team in the league, so he threatened to play baseball exclusively if he was not traded. It worked. Elway was sent to Denver, and the rest is history.

9. Babe Didrikson Zaharias

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    Don't hate, fellas. Babe Didrikson Zaharias epitomized versatility.

    Let's start with the most obscure of her talents: basketball. Babe was an All-American. Do I really need to say any more?

    She was also a three-time Olympic medalist. At the '32 Los Angeles games, Babe won gold in the 80-meter hurdles, silver in the high jump and another gold in the javelin throw.

    Babe is also a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame. She led the LPGA in earnings in 1950 and 1951 and won the U.S. Open in 1948, 1950 and 1954. She could have won a lot more too. Babe was the top golfer in the world when she died of colon cancer at the age of 45.

8. Dave Winfield

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    Dave Winfield was a first-ballot baseball Hall of Famer. He amassed more than 3,000 hits and launched 465 dingers over his marathon of a career. He was a middle of the order hitter for more than two decades, and even after his 40th birthday, he continued his production.

    With the 1992 Jays, Winfield hit at a .290 clip and smacked 26 home runs while driving in 108. He also captured the final accomplishment unaccomplished during his illustrious career—a World Series title.

    Winfield's athleticism stretched beyond the diamond, though. While at Minnesota, Winfield thrived on the basketball court as well. His skills earned him selections in both the NBA (Atlanta Hawks) and the ABA (Utah Stars).

    To boot, Winfield was curiously taken by the Minnesota Vikings in the 17th round of the NFL draft. The catch? Winfield never played college football. He was chosen solely on his athleticism.

7. Dave DeBusschere

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    Weird to see this guy out of a Pistons or Knicks uni, isn't it?

    Dave DeBusschere won two rings with the Knicks in 1970 and 1973. He was an eight-time All-Star and a six-time All-Defensive first teamer and was a member of the NBA's 50th Anniversary All-Time Team. DeBusschere averaged 16.1 points and 11 rebounds per game during his Hall of Fame career.

    He also played in the big leagues for the Chicago White Sox. Though his career only lasted two seasons in the majors, DeBusschere managed to shut out the Cleveland Indians in 1963. His career numbers look pretty good: 3-4, 2.90 ERA.

6. Jackie Robinson

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    Aside from being a civil rights pioneer, Jackie Robinson was a phenomenal athlete.

    A career .311 hitter, Jackie won the 1949 National League MVP award. He stole almost 200 bases and propelled the 1955 Bums to a World Series. He was a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and his number has been retired by all of baseball because of the trail he blazed.

    Jackie was also a star at UCLA. He earned varsity letter in four sports: baseball, football, track and basketball. On the track, Robinson won the 1940 NCAA men's long jump crown.

5. Bob Hayes

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    A bit of trivia: Who is the only man with an Olympic gold medal and a Super Bowl ring?

    The answer: "Bullet" Bob Hayes.

    Hayes once held world records in the 60-yard, 100-yard, 220-yard and 100-meter dashes. He won two gold medals at the Tokyo games in 1964 in the 100-meter and 4x100-meter relay.

    Not impressed yet?

    He also scored 71 touchdowns in the NFL. The three-time Pro Bowler spent the bulk of his career with the Dallas Cowboys. An elite receiver, Hayes was a part of the Super Bowl VI champs who upended the Miami Dolphins by three touchdowns.

4. Bo Jackson

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    What do you say about Bo? Bo knows. He was a menace for the Raiders; he was a spark plug for the Royals. He hit towering home runs and chased down anything hit within his zip code in center.

    In the backfield, he was impossible to take down. At 6'1", 220 lbs, he was a bruiser with insane speed. His 40 time? How about 4.12 seconds? No wonder the Raiders took him with their first overall pick in 1987.

    But his professional careers were hampered by injury. As he struggled to stay healthy, Jackson had to choose a path that would get him knocked around less. Bo played his final game in the NFL in 1990 but continued to play baseball in 1994.

    Bo's potential was never fully realized. He leaves a lot of sportswriters and sports enthusiasts wondering, "What if?"

3. Deion Sanders

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    I don't know how this guy did it. Sanders didn't have a vacation or rehab time for almost a decade. With the end of baseball season slightly overlapping the beginning of football season, Sanders had to go from studying NFL offenses to checking out the scouting report on the guy pitching the next day.

    To say Deion was a shutdown corner would be a colossal understatement. Sanders intercepted 53 balls and high-stepped his way to the end zone 22 times in 14 seasons. He earned NFC Defensive Player of the Year Honors twice, was an All-Pro selection eight times and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2011.

    During the spring and summer, Sanders was frustrating pitchers on the basepaths in the major leagues. He stole more than 20 bags in a season three times and ripped off a career-best 38 in 1994. He led the National League in triples in 1992 with 14 while hitting .304. Though Sanders wasn't a superstar baseball talent, he played with the best and was a vital ingredient in every lineup he was penciled into.

2. Jim Brown

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    Even if Jim Brown had only played football, he probably would somehow find his way onto this list. Maybe he is world-class at checkers or can hock a loogie farther than anyone on the planet.

    As it is, Brown did more than just dominate the NFL for nine seasons. Brown breached the end zone 126 times. He rushed for more than 12,000 yards and averaged more than five yards per carry—for his career!

    What made Brown special was his ability to play a multitude of sports at an elite level. At Syracuse, Brown was a four-sport threat. He ran track, was the leading scorer on the basketball team and was an All-American lacrosse player. His senior season, Brown scored 43 times in 10 games. His flurry of goals was good enough to rank him second in the country.

1. Jim Thorpe

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    No big surprise here. Jim Thorpe is undoubtedly the greatest multi-sport athlete of all time. This guy did everything.

    In 1912, Thorpe won Olympic gold in both the pentathlon and decathlon (both of which show ridiculous versatility). He played professional football for 13 years, Major League Baseball for seven years and professional basketball for at least two years.

    It's hard to say which sport Thorpe was best known for considering his multitude of talents. As a professional football player, he was an All-Pro back. Statistically, his baseball numbers aren't staggering, but he was able to compete at the highest level. On the hardwood, Thorpe barnstormed all over the country alongside his fellow Native Americans, displaying an array of ability.

    As an Olympian, Thorpe shined. He won eight of the 15 individual events of the decathlon and pentathlon. His point total stood for more than two decades before it was bested.

    Simply put, anything Thorpe attempted athletically, he succeeded in. He is an American icon and a sports legend.