Best All-Around Athletes in Sports History
How do you define true elite athleticism?
Is it solely whoever is the fastest, strongest and most agile competitor out there? That's what some would argue, but there is another, often overlooked, element to it. Athletes that can successfully make the transition from sport to sport are in a league of their own in terms of athleticism.
To be a true elite athlete, you can't hit a baseball with the greatest of ease and have hands of stone when catching a football. You can't catch a football with soft hands and then dribble a basketball so awkwardly you could be mistaken for dribbling a football.
In order to be one of the best all-around athletes in sports history, you have to be able to make that transition. The athletes on this list have done just that.
Here are the 30 best all-around athletes in sports history:
31. LeBron James
32. Randy Moss
33. Terrell Owens
34. Danny Ainge
35. Frank Robinson
36. Kirk Gibson
37. Tim Duncan
38. Willie Gault
39. Kobe Bryant
40. Brock Lesnar
30. Tony Gonzalez
Tony Gonzalez is arguably the greatest tight end in NFL history. He holds the record for the most catches, receiving yards and touchdowns by a tight end. He’s been voted to the Pro Bowl 11 times in his career and is Canton-bound.
Gonzalez pretty much created the whole “basketball players can play tight end” stereotype. He played on the basketball team at Cal and thought long and hard about entering the NBA Draft. Gonzalez actually made the Miami Heat Summer Pro League team back in 2001.
29. Marion Jones
With or without steroids, Marion Jones is still a sprinting great. She currently boasts five gold medals. Yeah, she still has five golds and a bronze even after she was stripped of seven medals for being linked to the BALCO case.
Jones isn’t just a runner, she’s played basketball her entire life. She played at North Carolina and won a national championship. Jones has been playing in the WNBA on the Tulsa Shock for the past two years.
28. Tom Glavine
Tom Glavine is unarguably a future Hall of Famer. In his outstanding pitching career, he won over 300 games which include five different 20-win seasons. Glavine was a five-time All-Star, two-time Cy Young winner, a World Series champion, and even won four Silver Slugger Awards.
His other sport was hockey, and it wasn’t just a hobby. As in MLB, he was drafted right out of high school to the NHL. Glavine was selected over the legendary Brett Hull.
27. Bob Gibson
Bob Gibson was a phenomenal baseball player. During his 17-year career he played with the St. Louis Cardinals, was voted an All-Star nine times, won nine Gold Gloves, two World Series, and was then inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
The first-ballot Hall of Famer had an impressive lifetime ERA of 2.91 and is a member of the 3,000 strikeout club.
Gibson didn’t just play baseball, though—he was a baller. In high school, he was an all-state basketball player and earned a full ride to Creighton through basketball, not baseball. Gibson actually spent some time with the Harlem Globetrotters.
26. Charlie Ward
Charlie Ward was a stud quarterback at Florida State. 1993 was his best year when he led the Seminoles to a National Championship and won award after award including the Johnny Unitas Award, Davey O’ Brien, Walter Camp, Maxwell, and Heisman Trophy.
Ward chose to play in the NBA because he wasn't chosen in the first round of the NFL Draft. He was selected 26th overall by the New York Knicks. Ward was also drafted into the MLB two straight years by the Milwaukee Brewers and New York Yankees even though he never even played college baseball.
He wasn’t an All-Star, but he had a successful career in the NBA. Ward played 11 years in the league mostly for the Knicks. He helped lead the team to an NBA Finals berth in 1999.
25. Brian Jordan
Brian Jordan is one of the most recent athletes to play in two professional sports leagues.
In the MLB, he played outfield for the St. Louis Cardinals for most of his career. Jordan hit 184 home runs as a pro and was voted to one All-Star team. He also played three years in the NFL at safety for the Atlanta Falcons.
24. Gene Conley
Gene Conley played basketball in the winter and baseball in the summer for Washington State. He would end up doing the exact same thing professionally.
In basketball, Conley jumped back and forth between a bunch of different leagues, but his most memorable days were without a doubt with the Boston Celtics. He was a key player off the bench for a team that won three NBA titles.
Conley had more success individually as a baseball player. He was a three-time All-Star pitcher who played most of his career with the Boston/Milwaukee Braves. Conley won a World Series in Milwaukee, making him the only athlete to ever win a championship in two different major American sports.
23. Dick Groat
At Duke, Dick Groat was a two-time All-American basketball and baseball player. His senior season on the basketball team, he scored a record NCAA record 839 points and won the UPI National Player of the Year.
Groat was drafted with the third overall pick in the draft by the Fort Wayne Pistons, but he only played one year as he went to the military and never returned to the team.
He chose to stick with baseball after returning from the military, though. Groat was voted an All-Star eight times, won the National League MVP, and won two World Series titles.
Groat was also inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame.
22. Allen Iverson
Before there was Cam Newton, before there was Vince Young, before there was Michael Vick, there was Allen Iverson. He not only led his high school basketball team to a state title, he carried his football team to a championship too.
Iverson was a football fiend in high school starting at quarterback, free safety, and as a return ace. He could’ve most likely gone pro at all three positions. At safety, Iverson picked off seven passes in one game, which as you can imagine, is still a Virginia state record.
He left Georgetown early and was selected with the first overall pick by the Philadelphia 76ers. Iverson was voted an All-Star 11 times in his career and was the league MVP in 2001.
He’s without a doubt a future Hall of Famer as one of the greatest scorers in league history. Iverson led the league in scoring four times and averaged 26.7 points per game throughout his career.
He averaged 29.7 points per in the postseason, which is second most all-time to only Michael Jordan himself.
21. Joe Mauer
More and more athletes nowadays focus on just one sport in high school, unlike back then when every great athlete played for multiple teams. Let’s just say Joe Mauer kept it old school.
In high school, Mauer made the All-State basketball team two years in a row, and that was his worst sport. He was the number one football recruit in the nation and turned down a full ride to play at Florida State.
I don’t know how it’s possible to be better in something else when you’re a number one recruit, but Mauer was just that in baseball as he batted over .500 and was selected with the first overall pick by the Minnesota Twins.
From there, Mauer has had what looks like a future Hall of Fame career. He has a career .326 batting average, which is unheard of for a catcher. Mauer has been voted an All-Star four times and won three Gold Gloves, four Silver Slugger Awards, and an AL MVP.
20. Bryan Clay
Bryan Clay didn’t play more than one sport, but he was a decathlete. Decathletes are included in this list because their athletic ability translates to other sports.
Clay was tested by SPARQ, which is basically an SAT for athletes. He was run through different tests to determine his speed, power, agility, reaction and quickness.
He recorded the highest score ever in the football test at 130.4 while a guy like Reggie Bush scored 93.38. Clay’s basketball rating of 90.0 was better than LeBron James, Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade and Kobe Bryant’s score.
In actual track and field, Clay is just as dominant. He won two gold medals and a silver in the decathlon at the Olympics and World Championships. He also has two gold and two silver medals at the Indoor World Championships in the heptathlon.
19. Bill Russell
Bill Russell was the greatest winner to ever play the game of basketball. The NBA didn’t name the Finals MVP trophy after him for nothing.
He was voted to 12 straight All-Star teams, won five MVP awards, but most importantly he won 11 NBA championships including a run of eight straight.
He was a beast on the boards, averaging 22.5 rebounds a game, but his average ballooned to 29.45 in the 11 Game 7s he played in. If they would’ve actually kept tack of blocks back then, he may have averaged a triple double.
One reason why Russell was such an incredible shot blocker and rebounder was because of his leaping ability. He was a very successful high jumper in college at USF and was ranked the seventh best in the world. Russell almost participated in the high jump in the 1956 Olympics, but he played basketball for team USA instead.
18. Lou Gehrig
Only a disease that took his name could stop this amazing athlete from succeeding.
In college, Lou Gehrig couldn’t play baseball at first because he had already played professionally so he joined the football team instead. He started fullback for Columbia University and was one of the best players on the team. Gehrig did eventually play baseball for Columbia and his play was so impressive that the New York Yankees scooped him up.
As a Yankee, he was a major part of “Murderer’s Row.” Gehrig was voted an All-Star seven straight times, won two AL MVP’s, six World Series titles, and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. The vote was unanimous for one of the greatest baseball players to ever live.
17. Michael Jordan
It’s not like he needs an introduction, but here it goes: When someone combines amazing physical gifts with a work ethic like no other, that’s when the greatest athletes of all-time are made. That’s when Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player ever, was made.
The story of Jordan getting “cut” from his high school basketball team makes it seem like Jordan went to the top from nothing, when in reality he was the same spring-loaded athlete. He just didn’t make the varsity team because he was 5’11”, but he was only a sophomore.
He put up multiple 40-point games that year in JV and went on to average a triple double his senior season, so again, he was still a monster athlete.
Jordan continued that success to UNC as a two-time All-American, a Naismith College Player of the Year, and a national champion. In the NBA, he was a 14-time All-Star, five-time MVP and should’ve been more, 10-time scoring champ, and nine-time defensive first-team.
Far greater than his individual numbers accomplishments though are his six NBA championships which included two three-peats where he won six Finals MVPs.
After his father was murdered in 1993, Jordan retired to play baseball to honor his dad who had dreamed of MJ playing in the majors. He wasn’t successful in making it to the majors, but he played in the minors under the Chicago White Sox.
With his combination of hunger and athletic ability, Jordan most likely would’ve made it to the big leagues had he kept with it.
16. John Elway
John Elway was not only the No. 1 football recruit in the nation coming out of high school, he was drafted by the Kansas City Royals after he graduated. Of course, he turned them down to play at Stanford where he continued his stardom.
He was an All-American on the gridiron and played well enough on the diamond to get drafted again, this time by the New York Yankees.
When he was drafted first overall by the Baltimore Colts, he threatened to play pro baseball if they didn’t trade him, and they took him seriously because he was definitely good enough to do so. Elway went on to be voted to nine Pro Bowls, win an MVP award, two Super Bowls, and be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
He was not only one of the greatest dual-threat passers to ever play the game, he was one of the best quarterbacks period.
15. Dan O'Brien
Dan O’Brien is one of the greatest decathletes ever.
His score of 8891 broke a world record in 1992 and is now the second highest score recorded in a decathlon ever. O’Brien won five total gold medals in his track and field career. He won four in the decathlon, one in the Olympics and three at the World Championships, and one in the heptathlon at the Indoor World Championships.
O’Brien could’ve even won another if he hadn’t made his famous blunder skipping the lower levels on the pole vault then failing to get over the bar and qualify for the 1992 Summer Olympics.
14. Herschel Walker
Most people begin their day with a bowl of cereal, toast and orange juice. Herschel Walker begins his day by doing 3,500 sit-ups and 1,000 pushups. Walker defines the term: beast.
Playing college football at Georgia, he rushed for over 1,600 yards and 15 touchdowns each of his three seasons there. He was a three-time All American and won the Maxwell and Heisman Trophy his junior year, but he is the only player to finish in the top three in the Heisman voting three years in a row. He was later inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
His time in the USFL took away from his NFL numbers, but if combined, Walker rushed for 13,787 yards in his professional football career. He is still the only player in NFL history to gain 4,000 yards rushing, receiving and returning.
Walker is eighth in league history in all-purpose yards and is the only player besides Derrick Mason to record over 10,000 yards from scrimmage and 5,000 yards returning in a career.
Running a 9.3 in the 100 yard dash, he almost qualified for the Olympic sprint team, but he did make the 1992 Winter Olympic two-man bobsled team. At the age of 49, he’s still competing athletically, this time, in the MMA. With a fifth-degree black belt in Taekwondo, Walker is 2-0 in his fighting career.
13. Dave Winfield
Dave Winfield must have felt loved during his days as an athlete. Everyone wanted him. He was drafted into the MLB, NBA, ABA and NFL, and he never even played a down of college football.
In college at Minnesota, Winfield was a star on the baseball and basketball team. At 6’6”, he fit in well on the basketball court. He led the Golden Gophers to a conference basketball championship in 1972.
Winfield wisely chose baseball and went on to play in MLB for a whopping 22 years. During his time in the majors he was voted onto 12 All-Star teams, won seven Gold Gloves, and six Silver Sluggers. He was inducted into Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility as well as the College Baseball Hall of Fame.
12. Jackie Robinson
Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball with not only his unwavering character, but his insane athletic skill set.
Robinson lettered in football, basketball, baseball and track at UCLA. He was an All-American in football, two-time Pac-10 leading scorer in basketball, NCAA champion in the long jump—and baseball was his worst sport. So much for that.
After he returned from the Army, he worked his way from the Negro Leagues into the minor leagues all the way to the majors where he became a star for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Robinson was voted an All-Star six straight times, won the National League MVP, was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, and is the only ball player to have his number retired league-wide.
He shouldered more pressure than any athlete in the history of sports and still managed to produce.
11. Rafer Johnson
Rafer Johnson was an elite decathlete, but he had plenty of options when he chose his Olympic path.
At UCLA, he started on the basketball team under John Wooden. He was also offered a football scholarship to the school, but he turned it down because of his Olympic dreams. He was so athletic that the Los Angeles Rams took a chance and drafted him late just in case he had a change of heart.
He started off his track and field career with a bang, taking home gold in the decathlon at the Pan American Games. In the 1956 Olympics an injury resulted in him taking silver. He broke the decathlon world record in 1958, and won gold in Rome at the 1960 Olympic Games, also breaking the world record.
10. Bob Hayes
Bob Hayes is the Usain Bolt that could actually play football.
In college at Florida A&M, he played football, but it was basically a hobby as all his focus was on track. He set what were at the time world records in the 60 and 100 yard dash before he even went to the Olympics. At the games in Tokyo, he won gold in the 100m dash and the 4x100m relay, setting a world record in each.
Hayes was drafted in the seventh round by the Dallas Cowboys and he made every single team that passed on him pay. He was so fast, zone defenses were forced to become more developed in the NFL because no one man could keep up with him.
Having a successful career as a wide receiver and punt returner, he was voted to three Pro Bowls and elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
9. Jackie Joyner-Kersee
Jackie Joyner-Kersee is one of, if not the greatest women athlete of all time.
In college at UCLA, she dominated on the basketball court. Joyner-Kersee was a four-year starter who scored 1,167 points in her career there. She was so good, UCLA named her as one of the school’s 15 greatest women’s basketball players ever.
Her real fame came in track and field, where she was a gold medal machine. Joyner-Kersee won eight total gold medals in Olympics, World Championships and Pan American Games in the heptathlon and long jump.
She not only holds the world record in the heptathlon, but she boasts the six highest scores ever recorded.
8. Deion Sanders
If showboating counted as a sport, Primetime would be even higher on this list. In all seriousness though, Deion Sanders was a baller.
Sanders was destined for stardom since high school. He was All-State in football, basketball and baseball. In 1985, he was named one of the top 33 high school football players in Florida history, and Florida as a state is pretty good at football.
At Florida State, he ditched basketball for track, but stuck with football and baseball. On the football field, he was a three-time All-American and won the Jim Thorpe award his senior year. In track, he led the team to a conference championship.
He was drafted in college by the New York Yankees and spent most of his MLB career with the Atlanta Braves. Sanders used his speed well, stealing 186 bases in his career. He’s the only player to ever hit a home run and score a touchdown in the same week.
Speaking of touchdowns, Sanders is one of only two players to score a touchdown six different ways: rushing, receiving, kick return, punt return, interception return and fumble return; talk about versatility. In his time in the NFL, Deion was voted to eight Pro Bowls, won Defensive Player of the Year, won two Super Bowls, and was eventually inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The man who ran a 4.1 40 at his pro day is arguably the greatest cover corner to ever play the game.
7. Bo Jackson
Bo Jackson is one of the most talented “what if” players in sports history. Had he not gotten injured, the possibility exists that he could’ve been the greatest athlete to ever live.
At Auburn, Bo dominated college football, rushing for 4,303 yards on 6.6 yards a carry in his career. His senior year, he won the prestigious Heisman Trophy. He debated joining the Olympic team after some success in track, but the time he would’ve had to dedicate would take away from the MLB and NFL.
He chose to play professional baseball first for the Kansas City Royals. During his time in the majors, he had four 20-home run seasons. Jackson was also voted to the All-Star team which would eventually make him the first athlete to do it in two different sports after he made a Pro Bowl in the NFL.
Baseball may have been his first choice, but he was born for football. In just four NFL seasons, he missed games because of baseball and shared time with Marcus Allen, but he still managed to rush for 2,782 yards on 5.2 yards a pop and 16 touchdowns.
No back has ever had a better combination of size and speed, as Bo ran a hand-timed record 4.12 at the NFL Combine. After his brutal dislocated hip injury, he popped it back into place by himself.
6. Wilt Chamberlain
You can count the NBA players that have a respectable argument as the greatest basketball player to ever live over Michael Jordan on one hand. Wilt Chamberlain is one of those players. The 7’1”, 275-pound freak athlete was arguably the freak of freaks when it came to athletic ability.
So many legendary stories surround the Big Dipper, from him beating Jim Brown in a race barefoot to dislocating a player’s shoulder by blocking a shot to being able to snag a quarter off the top of the back board.
Myths or not, no one can doubt Chamberlain’s lifetime average of 30.1 points and 22.9 rebounds per game. The only man to ever score 100 points in a professional basketball game was voted an All-Star 13 times, an MVP four times, won two NBA championships, and was inducted into the Pro Basketball Hall of Fame.
Chamberlain was also a track star at Kansas participating in the 100m, shot put, triple jump, and the high jump in which he won the conference championship three years in a row. He put those hops to good use not only in basketball, but in volleyball after he retired. Chamberlain, as you can imagine, was an elite volleyball player and was voted into the International Volleyball Association Hall of Fame.
5. Lionel Conacher
Lionel Conacher separated himself from the pack in terms of athleticism at an early age. Before he had hit 20, he played for 14 different teams and won 11 championships. Let’s just say that was a sign of things to come.
Conacher began his pro career on the Pittsburgh Pirates NHL team. In the 13 years he played pro hockey, he was voted to multiple All-Star teams and placed second in the voting for the Hart Trophy twice.
During the summer, Conacher would return to Canada to play professional baseball for the Toronto Maple Leafs. He led the team to a Little World Series title; not a Little League World Series, but a championship for a pro league that wasn’t the MLB.
Conacher also played lacrosse professionally for the Montreal Maroons. He wrestled professionally a short time later and went undefeated throughout his entire career, going 27-0.
Canada didn’t have a professional football league, so he organized one himself. At that point, Conacher had played five different sports professionally.
After he retired, he was named to the Hockey Hall of Fame, the Canadian Football Hall of Fame, and the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame. It’s easy to tell why Conacher has been called “Canada’s answer to Jim Thorpe.”
4. Babe Zaharias
Babe Zaharias is arguably the greatest women’s athlete ever. She literally did it all.
As a basketball player, Babe was an All-American and led her AAU team to a national championship. As an Olympian, she won gold in the 80m hurdles, the javelin throw, and silver in the high jump. As a golfer, she won 10 LPGA major championships and was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame.
Babe was also a skilled diver, bowler and roller-skater, but she wasn’t just a do-it-all athlete. Entertainment was her calling, as she released multiple singles under Mercury Records and was an actress. She was also a state fair sewing champion.
3. Roman Sebrle
Fans often get into a debate about which sport's athletes are the most athletic. It’s not football players, basketball, hockey, boxers, MMA fighters, etc. Decathletes are the greatest athletes in the world.
A decathlon consists of a 100m, 400m 1500m, 110m hurdles, long jump, high jump, pole vault, shot put, discus and javelin.
Out of all of the decathlete champions, Roman Sebrle stands alone as the greatest ever. He holds the decathlon record with 9,026 points. He won 10 total gold medals in decathlon or heptathlon competitions in events ranging from the World Championships to the Olympic Games.
2. Jim Brown
Jim Brown is widely known as the greatest running back and arguably the greatest player in NFL history.
In college, he was an All-American his senior season and was eventually inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. In the NFL, he was even better, making nine Pro Bowls and winning three MVP awards on the way to a Hall of Fame career. His averages of 104.3 yards a game and 5.2 yards a carry are unmatched among the most talented backs in league history.
Brown was also an elite lacrosse player. He was an All-American in college and was a major pioneer for the sport. Brown was also voted into the Lacrosse Hall of Fame and is arguably the greatest to ever play the sport.
1. Jim Thorpe
The phrase “Jack of all trades” means that a person is good at everything and great at nothing. Well, Jim Thorpe’s athletic career was the polar opposite of that phrase. He was good at nothing and great at everything.
In college, Thorpe played football, baseball, lacrosse and track. On the Carlisle football team, he played running back, defensive back, kicker and punter. He was a two-time All-American and was eventually inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
Before he even went pro, Thorpe gained fame through the Olympics. In 1912, he won the pentathlon and decathlon. He participated in 17 total events, the most for any Olympian ever.
Thorpe entered the major leagues and signed with the New York Giants. He played pro baseball for a total of six years, but football was his best sport.
He played for the Canton Bulldogs for most of his career. Thorpe won three APFA titles on the Bulldogs. He was elected in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in its inaugural class.