Photo: John Atashian / Contributor via Getty Images
  /  11.15.2023

Becoming a professional athlete is already akin to finding a needle in a haystack. Yet, there are those who have been blessed with an extra scoop of athleticism that allowed them to excel in more than one league. From Heisman winners in the NBA to Olympic gold medalists in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, we have compiled a list of those athletically gifted enough to achieve success at the highest level in multiple arenas. 

1. Michael Jordan

You could live off the grid and still know about the illustrious basketball career of Air Jordan himself. Fresh off a three-peat with the Chicago Bulls, Jordan stepped away from the NBA before the start of the 1993-1994 season to play Minor League baseball. He would later disclose that the move was prompted by the tragic murder of his father. He signed a contract with the Chicago White Sox in 1994 and played for their Double-A minor league affiliate the Birmingham Barons. He was second on the team in stolen bases and appeared for the Scottsdale Scorpions in the Arizona Fall League before returning to the Bulls in March of 1995. He went on to lead Chicago to another three-peat from 1996-1998. Although his foray into baseball was short-lived, it was believed that he had the will and work ethic to make it to the Majors. Terry Francona, who managed Jordan with the Birmingham Barons, said, “He respected the game. I love the guy. And I don’t love the guy just in the press. I love the guy. I respect him. I appreciate how he handled everything.”

2. Deion Sanders

One of the most common multi-sport pairings that we see is football and baseball, and simply put, Deion Sanders was one of the best to ever do it. Before he was Coach Prime, he was high stepping his way into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and was insanely close to achieving the unprecedented. In 1992, Sanders starred for both the Atlanta Falcons and the Atlanta Braves. There is a slight overlap in the NFL and MLB seasons, and on Oct. 11, Prime Time put his own moniker to the test. On this day, both the Braves and the Falcons were on the road, and Sanders planned to play in both games. He arrived at 10:45 am that Sunday morning – just in time to catch the Falcons team bus to the stadium in Miami – fresh off the Braves win in Pittsburgh that ended at 11:49 pm.

He played every defensive snap except for the first and had 42 return yards on a pair of kicks in the Falcons’ loss to the Dolphins. The game ended at 4:02 pm and Sanders arrived at Allegheny County Airport at 7:45pm, an hour before the start of the baseball game. He reached Three Rivers Stadium 16 minutes before first pitch but would not play. As with most history-making efforts, you’ll have some haters. Braves general manager John Schuerholz said that if he had known of Sanders’ intention to play both games the same day, he would have left him off 25-man the playoff roster.

They lost the game, but the Braves did go to the World Series, with Sanders an integral part of that. A day that should have been “joyous, phenomenal, exhilarating, exciting, tremendous, captivating” simply wasn’t for Sanders. “But it wasn’t. And the one thing that bothers me: People say, ‘Prime played two sports in one day.’ I didn’t. I suited up for two sports in one day,” he said in a past interview.

Sanders went on to win two Super Bowls, was inducted into several football halls of fame and racked up countless accolades. He also enjoyed a nine-year professional baseball career. Not bad for a “side gig.”

3. Bo Jackson

Similar to Sanders, Bo Jackson is regarded as one of the best athletes of all time and played professional football and baseball simultaneously. He didn’t just play in both the NFL and MLB – he excelled in them. He was named the 1989 MLB All-Star Game MVP and was then named to the NFL Pro Bowl a year later. The 1985 Heisman Trophy winner and College Football Hall of Famer also ran competed in track and field for Auburn University. His athletic career came to an untimely end due to a hip injury in 1991.

4. Jim Thorpe

Before Sanders and Jackson, there was Jim Thorpe – the first to play professional baseball and football at the same time. Not only is he a charter member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he also helped found the American Professional Football Association, which you now know as the National Football League. The gold medalist in both the decathlon and pentathlon at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, he retuned to the States highly revered as the greatest athlete in the world. However, those medals were stripped in 1913 when it was revealed that he had been paid to play minor league baseball in 1909 and 1910. They were later returned, but not until 1982, long after his death. A member of the Sac and Fox Nation, Thorpe was the first Native American to win an Olympic gold medal for the United States.

5. Bob Hayes

Track and field, and football go hand in hand when it comes to certain positions like wide receiver and cornerback, but “Bullet” Bob Hayes took it to another level. He reached the peak of both sports winning two gold medals in the 1964 Olympics. His 100 meter win came with a then-world record and his chase down win in the 4×100 meter relay is one of the fastest legs in history. He was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys out of Florida A&M University in 1964 and enjoyed an illustrious NFL career. He won a Super Bowl and was named to two All-Pro teams and three Pro Bowls before being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

6. Jameis Winston

Yet another Florida State Seminole falls on this list in Jameis Winston. Like Sanders, Winston starred for the baseball and football teams at FSU. Prior to stepping foot in Tallahassee, he was drafted to the MLB out of high school in the 15th round by the Texas Rangers. Instead, as a redshirt freshman, he went on to win the Heisman Trophy and led his team to the 2014 BCS National Championship. He also as the closer and a designated hitter for the ranked Seminoles baseball team in 2014. He was drafted No. 1 overall in the 2015 NFL Draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

7. Russell Wilson

He’s not just Ciara’s husband. Russell Wilson was a two-sport star that was drafted not once, but twice to the MLB as a middle infielder. He was drafted out of high school in the 41st round in 2007 and in the fourth round in 2010. Two seasons of minor league baseball with the Rockies’ organization in 2010-2011 prompted former NC State football head coach Tom O’Brien to suggest Wilson finish up elsewhere if he wanted to continue both sports. Wilson went on to Wisconsin and ended up being drafted by the Seattle Seahawks in 2012. He won a Super Bowl with the team.

8. Kyler Murray

The Arizona Cardinals quarterback rounds out the list as one of the most recent MLB/NFL stars. Excelling in both baseball and football, it wasn’t until he went first overall in the 2019 NFL Draft that he decided to focus on just one. He was drafted by the Oakland Athletics as the ninth overall pick in the 2018 MLB draft but was allowed to continue playing football at Oklahoma. As the starting quarterback for the Sooners, he won the Heisman Trophy and his draft stock skyrocketed, prompting him to choose the NFL route.


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