Becoming a professional athlete is really, really hard. The rough odds of becoming a pro in one of America’s major sports is around 1 in 6,000. Now imagine becoming a professional athlete in two sports. Sounds unthinkable! Even the great Michael Jordan, perhaps the greatest basketball player ever, managed to become just an average minor league ball player. As impressive as that is, a precious few have played two sports at the highest level. Today we highlight a few.
It is a shame the longevity of Bo Jackson’s career was cut short by a horrific hip injury. Heisman Trophy winner in 1985 at Auburn University, Jackson was drafted by both football’s Los Angeles Raiders as the #1 overall pick and baseball’s Kansas City Royals. Bo played 4 seasons with the Raiders before the hip injury in ‘91 ended his football career. His career yards per carry averaged an unprecedented 5.4 yards.
His baseball career continued for four years after the injury, but he was never the same. Boasting a career batting average of .250 with 141 career dingers and 415 career RBI’s, Jackson was an All-Star in 1989 and an even better outfielder than he was a hitter. His legacy may have been “greatest athlete of all time” instead of “one of the greatest athletes of all time” had it not been for the injury.
One of the best cornerbacks and return men in NFL history, Deion “Prime Time” Sanders also played Major League Baseball over three different decades. An eight-time NFL All-Pro and two-time Super Bowl champion, Sanders had 53 career interceptions, 22 career touchdowns, and is often considered the greatest shutdown cornerback in the history of the league. He played for the Atlanta Falcons, San Francisco 49ers, Dallas Cowboys, Washington Redskins and Baltimore Ravens. He won a Super Bowl with both the 49ers and Dallas Cowboys.
Sanders was also an outfielder for the Yankees, Braves, Reds and Giants. He even led the National League in triples in 1992, the same season he played in the World Series with the Atlanta Braves. Pretty incredible to win two Super Bowls and play in a World Series as well. Sanders finished his baseball career with a .263 career average, 39 home runs, 168 RBI’s and 186 stolen bases. In his best season (‘92), he hit over .300
A two-time NBA champion with the Boston Celtics, former shooting guard Danny Ainge played three years of professional baseball with the Toronto Blue Jays before jumping to the NBA. Ainge was an underwhelming career .220 hitter, so his choice to switch to basketball was probably the right one. Ainge played on the great Larry Bird teams in the 80’s and also played on some very good Phoenix Suns teams with Charles Barkley in the early 90’s. He won national player of the year while playing his college ball at BYU, and also coached in the NBA in ‘96-99 with the Suns after retiring as a Sun’s player in 1995. He is currently the general manager of the Celtics.
One of the most versatile athletes ever to walk the planet and Jim Thorpe is widely considered one of the greatest athletes of the 20th century. He was an Olympic gold medalist and Hall of Fame NFL player. Thorpe also played six years of baseball in the 1910’s and 20’s as an outfielder for the Giants, Reds and Braves. His legacy lives on eternally although there is very little footage of him in action. It’s also difficult to make comparisons of him to modern athlete.
Two-Sport College Athletes Who Succeeded In Pros
There are also a handful of athletes who were standouts in two sports in college, but decided only to pursue one of those sports professionally.
Charlie Ward was a critical part of the New York Knicks dominant 90’s teams, but actually won the 1993 Heisman Trophy at Florida State as a QB.
Russell Wilson has won a Super Bowl with the Seattle Seahawks and also was a stud baseball player in college who was drafted into the majors where he’s now a part of the Yankees minor league system.
Dave Winfield was a stud in every sport he played! He was drafted by the Atlanta Hawks in the NBA, the Utah Jazz in the ABA, the Minnesota Vikings in the NFL, but chose to play baseball with the New York Yankees. He achieved the milestone of 3,000 hits and made 12 All-Star appearances.
Jeff Samardzija was a standout wide receiver at the University of Notre Dame, where he also dominated as pitcher. He was an All-Star in 2014 with the Oakland A’s and currently pitches for the San Francisco Giants.
Donovan McNabb was a six-time Pro Bowl quarterback with the Philadelphia Eagles who appeared in a Super Bowl in the early 2000’s. When he attended Syracuse University played basketball, primarily as a bench player, for legendary coach Jim Boeheim.
Kenny Lofton was a six-time All-Star and four-time Gold Glove winning outfielder, most notably with the Cleveland Indians. He was also a star basketball player at the University of Arizona where he helped lead the Wildcats to the Final Four in the 1988 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. If Lofton did not choose to play baseball, he likely would have had a career in the NBA as a point guard.