The odds of making the professional level in any sport are staggering but there have been some very gifted athletes who made it to the pros in two sports.
Others concentrated on one professional sport but had previous success in multiple sports on the college level. That’s who I want to talk about today - those few supermen and one superwoman who excelled in multiple arenas of athletic competition. I’ve selected, in my opinion, the ten greatest of these athletes and have ranked them accordingly. You might have some others in your list but these are the ones I think stand out from the rest for their accomplishments. Let’s start with ten and work our way down.
#10: John Havlicek
We know “Hondo” for his work on the parquet floor of the Boston Gardens, home to the great Boston Celtics teams of the 50’s and 60’s. One of the best defensive players to have ever played, Havlicek was also known for his clutch shooting, always seeming to hit the big shot at the most crucial moment. But did you know that Havlicek was also an excellent football player? Good enough to be drafted by the Cleveland Browns as a wide receiver in 1962. Hondo had been one of the integral members of the NCAA champion Ohio State Buckeyes basketball team but because he was on the team with so many other great players, Jerry Lucas in particular, some thought he would not get much attention in the draft. The always-astute Red Auerbach saw his potential, however, and drafted him with the seventh pick in the first round. John Havlicek proceeded to help the Celtics win 8 NBA titles.
Here’s a little trivia question for you: who is the only man to be on a team that won a World Series and one that won an NBA title? The answer is..
#9: Gene Conley
Many of you younger readers have probably never heard of Conley because he played during the 50’s. Conley was a pitcher for the Milwaukee Braves in 1957 when they won the World Series over the Yankees and he played on several championship teams for the Celtics. Conley was not just a so-so player who sat on the bench most of the time. He was good enough to be selected to the All-Star team three times in baseball and, while not a proficient scorer, he did average 8 rebounds a game during his NBA career which also included some time with the Knicks. Conley, now 80, lives in Vermont and still attends both Red Sox and Celtics games frequently.
#8: John Elway
We all know #7 as being one of the best quarterbacks ever during his career with the Denver Broncos. This column does not have space sufficient enough to list all of his career statistics. And some may even know about his prowess on a golf course where he regularly plays in celebrity tournaments but most of you probably don’t know that Elway played professional baseball for two seasons. Athletes, then, could play professionally in one sport and retain their amateur status so Elway had played minor league ball in the Yankees organization for two summers. While at Stanford, Elway had pitched and played outfield and some scouts thought he had the potential to make it to the big leagues. In fact, Elway used that potential as his back-up plan when he refused to sign with the team that had drafted him in football, the Colts. Reluctantly, the Colts owner traded his rights to the Broncos and the rest is history.
#7: Dave Winfield
Winfield is the only player that I know of that has been drafted by four different professional organizations: the San Diego Padres (baseball), Atlanta Hawks (NBA), Utah Stars (ABA), and the Minnesota Vikings (NFL). He played both baseball and basketball at the University of Minnesota and excelled at both.
As we now know, he chose professional baseball over the other sports and was good enough to be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2001. Winfield played for several MLB teams, most notably the Padres, the New York Yankees and the Toronto Blue Jays, where he helped them win the World Series in 1992. While with the Yankees, Winfield had to endure the continuous insults of owner, George Steinbrenner. For the most part, Winfield never threw any insults back, trying as best as he could to stay above the mud-slinging of the Yankees boss. Winfield finished his career with the Cleveland Indians where he collected his 3,110th hit and his 485th home run.
#6: Jackie Robinson
Jackie Robinson chose baseball and we all know the impact he had on that sport. He probably deserved to be in the Hall of Fame for the significant role he played in breaking the color barrier in baseball alone, but Robinson did that one better. He went out and produced Hall of Fame-deserving statistics.
But baseball wasn’t Robinson’s only sport to excel in. While at Pasadena Junior College, Jackie played baseball, but he also played football, basketball, and track. Not sure when he had time to study. In football, he played quarterback and safety. He set broad jump records in track. And he averaged double figures in scoring and rebounding in basketball. After graduating JC, he enrolled at UCLA and, believe it or not, still found time to letter in four sports.
Surprisingly, baseball was his worst sport. Most scouts felt that he could have easily played pro football, but history had him destined for other things. Jackie Robinson just may have been the most versatile athlete ever if it weren’t for the man who tops the list at #1.
To find out who the top five are, check out the column next week.
Randy Blalock is a columnist for the Barrow Journal. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.