Eight exceptional Athletes.
The odds of becoming a professional athlete are long. The odds of playing more than one sport well against elite competition are astronomical. Here are athletes who were blessed with the skill to excel—some even just briefly—in multiple sports:
1. ‘Bullet’ Bob Hayes Wins Two Olympic Gold Medals … Then Becomes Hall of Fame Receiver
At the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Hayes set a world record in the 100-meter dash before running possibly the fastest 100 meters ever in the 4×100-meter relay, capturing gold medals in both events. Hayes then took his talents to the football field, becoming one of the best deep threats in NFL history with the Dallas Cowboys. Hayes made three Pro Bowls, two All-Pro Teams, won a Super Bowl and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009. As his football coach Jake Gaither at Florida A&M once put it, “Bob Hayes, he’s a football player. He just happens to be the world’s fastest human.”
2. Bo Jackson Wins MLB All Star Game MVP, Makes NFL Pro Bowl
From 1989 to 1990, Jackson doubled as one of Major League Baseball’s best outfielders and one of the National Football League’s best running backs. In the 1989 MLB All Star Game, he crushed a lead-off home run and won MVP honors. A year later, Jackson was selected to the NFL’s Pro Bowl. Sadly, a hip injury ended his career in both sports, but as Jackson later told USA Today, “There’s no reason for anyone to feel sorry for what happened to me, or what might have been. I didn’t play sports to make it to the Hall of Fame. I just played for the love of sports.
3. Deion Sanders Suits Up for an NFL, MLB Game on Same Day
On October 11, 1992, Sanders—one of the best defensive backs in NFL history—started for the Atlanta Falcons against the Miami Dolphins during the day, then boarded a chartered jet to join the Atlanta Braves in Pittsburgh for Game 5 of the National League Championship Series. While astonishing, the crusty baseball community took offense. Sanders, an elite baserunner, did not play that night.
Braves general manager John Schuerholz later said, “If we thought he was going to play football, we would not have put him on the 25-man roster.” New York Daily News columnist Bill Madden described Sanders’ odyssey as a “whirlwind 24 hours of unadulterated selfishness.”
While Sanders missed out on playing in his own doubleheader, he remains the only athlete to appear in a Super Bowl and World Series. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2011.
4. Babe Didrikson Zaharias: Gold Medalist, Golf Star
The Babe was one of the all-time greatest athletes. Among her myriad athletic feats, she medaled in three track & field events in the 1932 Olympics: 80-meter hurdles (gold), javelin throw (gold) and high jump (silver). After picking up golf for fun, she won 10 LPGA major titles, including the 1954 U.S. Women’s Open despite having colon cancer. When she died in 1956 at age 45, Jimmy Powers of the New York Daily News wrote: “When you look back and consider how many idols of our world of play succumbed to the dread killer cancer … Babe Didrikson top[s] the list of awesome victims.”
5. Bob Gibson Plays ‘Pro’ Basketball Before Dominating Baseball
After an impressive basketball career at Creighton University, Gibson played a season of professional ball for … the Harlem Globetrotters in 1957-58. Gibson impressed Globetrotter legend Meadowlark Lemon enough for him to tell the Omaha World-Herald: “I thought Bob was a better basketball player than a baseball player.” Lemon’s understanding of Gibson’s prodigious baseball talents appears to have been underdeveloped. Gibson, who starred for the St. Louis Cardinals from 1959-75, won an MVP, two Cy Young Awards as the best pitcher in the National League, two World Series MVPs and is a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Lemon’s assessment of his basketball talent confirms just how special an athlete Gibson was.
6. All-Star Outfielder Brian Jordan Becomes Pro Bowl Alternate Before His MLB Career Begins
Jordan was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1988 MLB Draft, but he decided to first try his chances at the NFL. Jordan caught on with the Falcons, became their starting safety by his second year (playing alongside Deion Sanders), and even was named a Pro Bowl alternate in 1991. When the Cardinals convinced Jordan to focus exclusively on baseball with a nice contract, Sanders blamed Jordan’s agents for selling their client short and lamented, “I can’t believe he gave up football.” It turned out to be the right move for Jordan, however, as he went on to play 15 years and was named an all-star in 1999.
7. Dave DeBusschere Pitches MLB Shutout … and Has Hall of Fame NBA Career
On August 14, 1963, an imposing 6-foot-6 pitcher took the mound for the Chicago White Sox and tossed a complete-game shutout in a 3-0 victory over the Cleveland Indians. The name of the White Sox’s pitcher that day: Dave DeBusschere. He went on to win NBA championships with the New York Knicks in 1970 and 1973 during a career that led to his induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
DeBusschere’s dominant night on the mound was more than a tick in the win column. It was retribution against his hometown Detroit Tigers, who balked at an opportunity to sign the local legend who had starred as a multi-sport athlete at Austin Catholic High School, the University of Detroit Mercy and had been selected by the Pistons in the 1962 NBA Draft. The Tigers, according to the Chicago Tribune, told DeBusschere that “baseball and basketball, despite his great size, do not mix.” His success in the majors was fleeting—a 3-4 won-loss record in two seasons.
8. Danny Ainge Hits MLB Home Run at 20 … Then Becomes NBA Standout
The former Boston Celtics guard was once a prospect for the Toronto Blue Jays, and, at age 20, became the youngest Blue Jay to hit a home run on June 2, 1979. (Vladimir Guerrero Jr., also 20, was 18 days younger when he broke that team record in 2019.) Pat Gillick, the Blue Jays’ executive who selected Ainge, later told the Toronto Sun, “I think if he had stayed at it, he could have been a very good second baseman…[and] would have hit around .280.” Ainge—who starred at Brigham Young University—eventually focused on basketball. He was selected by the Celtics in the 1981 NBA draft, jumpstarting a championship career—both as a player and executive—with the storied franchise.