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Can There Be a Modern Multi-Sport Athlete?

Deion Sanders and Bo Jackson posing together before an MLB game. Photo courtesy of mlb.com

For most athletes, making it to a professional league is a daunting enough task. Yet a few select people in modern history managed to play at the highest levels of two sports.

The most famous examples of this phenomenon have to be Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders, both of whom played professionally in the NFL and MLB.

BO JACKSON:

Jackson is the only player ever to be named an All-Star in both football and baseball. After winning the 1985 Heisman Trophy, which is annually awarded to the best college football player, he decided to join the Kansas City Royals in the MLB instead of going to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who had drafted him that same year. And despite being named the MLB All-Star Game MVP, he eventually came back to football as a 7th round draft pick to the Los Angeles Raiders.

In 1991, a hip injury ended his NFL career, and he decided to focus on baseball again. As a power hitter and speedy centerfielder, he enjoyed success on the Chicago White Sox and the California Angels (as they were then named).

Even more impressively, he successfully transitioned to baseball while simultaneously starting a small acting career and completing his college degree at Auburn. He regularly appears on TV to showcase his athletic skills.

DEION SANDERS:

Sanders played 9 years in the MLB and 14 in the NFL. For many of those seasons, he played part-time as a player in both leagues, and is still the only person to play in both a World Series and a Super Bowl, as well as the only person to hit a home run and score a touchdown professionally in the same week.

He had simultaneous football and baseball contracts, and several times throughout his career, one of his teams would find a loophole in the contract requiring him to commit fully to one sport for the rest of the season. This resulted in him missing out on several NFL training camps and even an entire MLB postseason while on the Atlanta Braves.

Sanders had some memorable highlights as a professional baseball player, including an outstanding 1992 World Series performance despite playing with a broken bone in his foot. But over the course of his career, he couldn’t consistently play well.

His football career was more successful as an eight-time Pro Bowler and a winner of 2 Super Bowl rings, and many think it is likely he will make the NFL Hall of Fame once he is eligible. As Sanders said, “football is my wife and baseball is my mistress.”

More recently, players have had a harder time achieving success in multiple professional sports. Specialized athletic training now starts earlier in life and there’s a larger pool of athletic talent available from around the world.

But some players have still tried to pursue their multi-sports dreams in recent years.

RUSSELL WILSON:

Wilson is currently the quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks, but after graduating high school, he was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles in the 2007 MLB Draft. According to later interviews, he heavily considered forgoing college and signing with the team. But ultimately, he decided to go to NC State, where he played both football and baseball.

Then, in 2010, the Colorado Rockies drafted him in the 4th round. He reported to spring training and played in their minor league affiliate teams during the summer (without much success).

Seeing his prospects of making the MLB narrowing by the day, Wilson instead transferred to Wisconsin in the fall to play football again. Over the 2011-2012 season, he led the Badgers to a Big Ten Championship victory over Michigan State and won the Rose Bowl over Oregon.

The next year, Wilson once again found himself drafted, this time by the Seahawks in the 3rd round of the NFL Draft.

Fast-forward 6 years—Wilson has won the NFL Rookie of the Year Award and the 2013 Super Bowl for the Seahawks’ first ever championship, and currently is the second-highest ever rated quarterback in NFL history (behind Aaron Rodgers).

But even as a dominant NFL player, it was not too late for one last hurrah in professional baseball. Wilson had promised his late father that he would one day wear a Yankees jersey, and he followed through on that promise, pinch-hitting for Aaron Judge on March 2, 2018.

In his only MLB at-bat, he struck out on 5 pitches against Atlanta Braves reliever Max Fried.

TIM TEBOW:

Tebow is a former NFL quarterback, current MLB minor-league outfielder, and eternal pop-culture sensation (to complete the trifecta).

As the starting quarterback for the University of Florida, Tebow won the Heisman Trophy in 2007. He was a first-round draft pick in the 2010 NFL Draft by the Denver Broncos, and became their starting quarterback midway through the season after they started 1-4. With him on the field, the Broncos mounted a series of 4th quarter comebacks, eventually winning the AFC West and a playoff game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Yet Tebow sported the lowest pass completion rate in the league that season and persistently fumbled the ball, leading to his trade to the New York Jets in the offseason. Over the next few years, he received little playing time on the Jets as well as on the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles, eventually being cut from the Eagles’ roster. He never started another NFL game.

In 2016, despite not playing baseball since high school, Tebow signed a minor-league contract with the New York Mets. On the first pitch of his first at-bat as a member of the team, he hit a home run. But he couldn’t maintain that level of performance and remained on the Mets’ Single-A affiliate team for the rest of the 2017 season.

In 2018, Tebow was promoted to the Double-A team and once again hit a home run on his first at-bat with the team. This time, though, his success was more prolonged and he made the Double-A All-Star Game.

Wherever he traveled, Tebow significantly boosted attendance numbers, and with his recent success and the worsening Mets season, many speculated he could be a late-season call-up to the majors.

But 2 weeks after his All-Star Game appearance, he broke a bone in his right hand, putting him out of commission for the rest of the season and likely dashing any hopes of him making the majors as an aging and inconsistent designated hitter.

Unfortunately, Tebow looks to fit the category of too little, too late.

 

Over the years, several other notable players have experimented with multiple professional sports with varying levels of success. Dave Winfield, the Hall of Fame MLB slugger, was drafted by 4 professional leagues after college (the NFL, the NBA, the ABA, and the MLB). Jim Brown, one of the best football players of all time, is also considered to be the best lacrosse player ever. Wilt Chamberlain, the NBA great, is also a member of the volleyball Hall of Fame. Herschel Walker, the famed NFL running back, also was a member of the 1992 USA Olympic bobsledding team and won multiple MMA fights after his 50th birthday. Michael Jordan, who needs no introduction, briefly retired from basketball to pursue a wildly unsuccessful baseball career.

But nobody in recent years can rival the success many of those greats had in a variety of professional sports. However, two athletes have the potential to turn that trend on its head.

The first is Kyler Murray, the leading contender for the Oklahoma Sooners starting quarterback job and the 9th overall selection in the 2018 MLB Draft by the Oakland Athletics. The A’s agreed to let Murray play one more year of college football as part of his contract, opening the door to a potential MLB and NFL career.

The second is Usain Bolt, the fastest man in the world. After recently retiring from sprinting, he has been exploring a professional soccer career with several clubs. Last week, he signed with the Central Coast Mariners, an Australian team in the country’s top division, and has begun training.

Will his speed translate to soccer success? Can he reverse the recent difficulties athletes have had in playing multiple professional sports? Only time will tell.