Who is the greatest athlete of the modern era?
There are many amazing athletes that have made their way through sports but only a handful have been successful at more than one sport. Youth sports today urges athletes to pick early and stick to it, to become an expert in one field. Yet there are some in sports history who have not done that. Some who have excelled at multiple sports early and into the professional realm.
Which of these multi-sport athlete is the best? We have listed the most successful and widely regarded greatest athletes over the last 150 years. We have made arguments for and against each as the greatest athlete of all time.
Jim Thorpe (1887-1953)
A member of the Fox and Sacks Tribe from Oklahoma he hated school and was shipped to Carlisle, Pennsylvania where he became a national phenomenon on the gridiron and the oval.
At Carlisle, he was teamed with Pop Warner, the grandfather of American football and they etched their way into history. Warner saw Thorpe’s talent even as he had to deal with his laziness and pride. Thorpe qualified for the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, Sweden in the pentathlon and the decathlon. In the American Trials he swept the events to earn his spot on the Olympic Team. Once in Sweden, Thorpe swept his two events in dominating fashion. His final score would be an Olympic record for 20 years.
But track and field was not Thorpe’s strongest sport. Football was where he thrived and where his coach, Warner, was also at his best. The Carlisle Indians had been competitive prior to Thorpe’s arrival, but they became a juggernaut with Thorpe on their team. This was an age where collegiate football was the best football in the country (professional not having caught on yet). In an era where players played both ways, Thorpe was the best running back in the game, a dominating defensive back as well as their punter and place kicker. During his reign the Indians took out Harvard and Army, the perennial best teams. Thorpe was the best player of his generation in the budding sport of football.
But during the early 20th century it was baseball that held the best athletes. Thorpe played profession baseball as well. After a career as the best football player in the country and then the greatest all-round athlete in the world, Thorpe played professional baseball for the New York Giants as well as some time with the Reds and the Cubs. He would bounce around professionally for 9 seasons while also playing professional football. His final professional stats as a baseball player was a batting average of .252 over 289 games with 82 RBI’s. Not bad for an athlete who played 2 other sports.
Even through his baseball years, Thorpe was playing professional football in the early years of the sport. He continued his dominance there though the organization and teams were unimpressive.
There is even modern research that says Thorpe played professional basketball. Basketball was so small at this time there were no official records.
To review, Jim Thorpe was the greatest football player at both the amateur and professional level of his generation, a Gold Medalist in two Olympic events as well as a Olympic Record that would stand for two decades and a professional baseball player.
Argument For: The fact that he played so many professional sports well is certainly an argument for him. He was the best in two of the sports he played, football and track and field.
Argument Against: He played in the early days of professional sports, the quality of athletes he played is much lower than those of later years. Though he played in the most competitive of America’s sports at the time, baseball, he was a nominal player being kicked around the Majors and Minors his whole life.
Otto Graham (1921-2003):
There is a good argument to be made that Otto Graham was the greatest quarterback of all time, but what isn’t as widely known is that he was also an outstanding basketball player. As a senior at Northwestern he was selected as a first team All-American in basketball. He was a Navy flyer during the war, but after WWII he chose to play football for Paul Brown’s Cleveland Browns. The All American Football Conference’s inaugural season was pushed back to 1946, so Graham signed with the Rochester Royals of the National Basketball League (the precursors of the NBA). In his one season in the NBL he helped the Royals win the championship, but only averaged 5.2 points in 32 games.
Arguments For: Two professional sports and championships in both of them. Graham was the best football player during his years with the AAFC and then again when they merged with the NFL.
Arguments Against: Talk about the beginning of professional sports! Like Thorpe he came so early into the American sports that most of the leagues and systems of the professional game were just beginning.
Jackie Robinson (1919-1972):
It is very hard to make an unbiased assessment of Jackie Robinson. His exploits are so shrouded in legends and myths, that we sometimes forget what an exceptional all around athlete he was. At UCLA he lettered in four sports (football, basketball, baseball and track). Due to the color of his skin he was forbidden from playing baseball in the Major Leagues until he was 28. He was a running back and a kicker on UCLA’s 1939 undefeated football team. He won the 1940 long jump in the NCAA Championships in Track and Field, and was also a starter on the varsity basketball team for two seasons.
He then joined the United States Army during World War II, before signing with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues in 1945. It was his exploits with the Monarchs that caught Branch Rickey’s eyes and led to his Major League contract in 1946. He was National League Rookie of the Year in 1947, and Most Valuable Player in 1949. He has one of the most impressive baseball records in history from age 28 on, and was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 1962.
Arguments For: He was clearly excellent at football and baseball he just had to be the one to break the color barrier in professional sports and he didn’t do it until he was 28. What his professional career would look like without the discrimination is something we can only guess.
Arguments Against: He only played one professional sport.
Dick Groat (1930-living):
Dick Groat is very hard to judge. He was a 2-time All-American at Duke from 1949-1952 in basketball and was named College Basketball Player of the Year both seasons. He averaged over 23 points per game during his college career. He was selected with the 3rd pick overall in the 1952 NBA draft by the Ft. Wayne Pistons. He played only 26 games for the Pistons, averaging nearly 12 points a game when he was drafted into the United States Army.
Coming out of the service in 1955, he chose baseball over basketball. He divided the bulk of his 14 year career between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the St. Louis Cardinals. There is a pretty good case to be made that Dick Groat should be in the Baseball Hall of Fame. He won the National League Most Valuable Player Award in 1960, when the Pirates shocked the sports world by winning the National League pennant and then upsetting the New York Yankees in that memorable 7-game World Series. He was traded to the Cardinals in 1963 and proceeded to lead them to a strong 2nd place finish in Stan Musial’s final season. He was a runner-up in the MVP balloting that year to Sandy Koufax. He then played in 161 of the Cardinals 162 games in St. Louis’ World Championship season in 1964, making the All-Star team for his 5th and final time. Give him his two seasons back that he was serving his country and you would have a shortstop with 2500 (he actually had 2138) hits and was a key component of several championship teams. Just for comparisons, Pee Wee Reese had a 16 year career with 2170 hits and he’s in, while Phil Rizzuto had a 13 year career with 1588 hits and he’s in. Groat was graded by Bill James as an A- on defense, while Reese was also an A- and Rizzuto was an A+. His case is a good one.
It’s not clear to this day whether he was a better Baseball Player or Basketball Player, but there was much more money to be made on the baseball diamond during his time.
Arguments For: He was one of the best basketball players in the world because he won the basketball player of the year in college which was stronger than the professional league. He was one of the best baseball players in the golden age of baseball for teams that won.
Arguments Against: He is in neither the MLB nor NBA Hall of Fame as others on this list are. Because the NBA was so weak he couldn’t make money doing it and had to choose one over another which other athletes didn’t have to do. Also, World War II really affected his athletic career and we will never be able to judge what could have been.
Dave Debusschere (1940-2003):
Debusschere is in the Pro Basketball Hall of Fame, spending 13 seasons in the league with the Detroit Pistons and the New York Knicks. He was the starting power forward for the Knicks in their last two championship seasons of 1969-70 and 1972-1973. He averaged 16.1 points per game and 11.0 Rebounds per Game during his NBA career.
During his off season he spent two years pitching for the Chicago White Sox, posting a 4-3 record with a 2.90 ERA in those two seasons.
Arguments For: A Hall of Famer with a winning record in the Majors.
Arguments Against: With no MVPs, he was never the top in either of the sports he played. His only two season with the White Sox is not nearly as impressive as other athletes on this list.
Bob Hayes (1942-2002)
A forgotten great, Bob Hayes, like Thorpe, did both football and track and field. Hayes greatness came at a time of segregation in American sports. He was a two-sport athlete in high school but was limited on what events he could compete in. He earned a scholarship to Florida A&M where he still faced discrimination by the wider sporting community.
As a track athlete he went undefeated in high school in 100-meter dash. When he was finally able to compete nationally for Florida A&M he broke the world record. He would set it again in 1963 when he was still focusing primarily on football for A&M. But after these two world records he decided to look towards the 1964 Olympics (It took the influence of the President of the United States to convince him to do it). In Mexico City for the 1964 Games, Bob Hayes was amazing. He completely dominated his 100-meter for an easy Gold Medal. Then in the relay he would be the hero of the Games bringing the Americans from obscurity to victory over the course of his 100 yards. His final length would set a World Record for the team (Silver and Bronze also came under the World Record). His final leg was run in a time of 8.60 seconds, still the fastest time ever recorded (yes, even faster than Usain Bolt).
After 1964 he went back to his true love, football. In the 7th round he went to the Dallas Cowboys. He dropped to the 7th round because the rules at the time said Hayes wouldn’t be able to play until 1965. The Cowboys drafted a guy who would have to wait a year before he could suit up for them. It was worth it. He led the League in touchdowns for a wide receiver his rookie year. He did it again in 1966. He was too fast for any of the professional defensive backs to guard. He would be an All-Pro player 3 times and win a Super Bowl with the Cowboys. His career would end with 371 receptions, 7414 yards and 71 touchdowns.
Bob Hayes is in both the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio and in the Track and Field Hall of Fame.
Argument For: He was the fastest man in the world. This is one of the most prestigious titles in world sports. He was the best in the world in his second sport. In his top sport on the professional level he was the best at his position for 3 years. He was the top wide receiver, certainly a skilled and important position in football. He would win the top team and individual awards in this sport as well. And I repeated, Hall of Fame in 2 sports.
Arguments Against: He was a star in track and field which is not as highly regarded for athletic skill, yet he was in the most prestigious of the events.
If you would like to read more about Bob Hayes check our our profile on him here.
Renaldo Nehemiah (1959-living):
Nehemiah was a two sport athlete at the University of Maryland. In track and field he won 3 NCAA Titles in his freshman year. As a sophomore he would break the record in the the world record in the 110 Meter Hurdle, an was deprived of a chance at an Olympic Gold Medal in 1980 due to the United States boycott of the Moscow Olympics. He was clearly the best at that event at the time. He was the first to break 13 seconds in the event and held the World Record from 1979 until 1993.
He interrupted his running career to spend three seasons as a wide receiver for the San Francisco 49ers, catching 43 passes in his 40 games for 754 yards from 1982-1985. He helped San Francisco win a Super Bowl Championship in his final year. His hands were not good, but similar to Bob Hayes, his speed was very hard to contain. He chose to return to track in 1986, but couldn’t get back to the level of success obtained prior to his football career. The 49ers replaced him at wide receiver with none other than Jerry Rice.
Arguments For: He was the top hurdler in the world and a solid wide receiver in the NFL.
Arguments Against: Next to Bob Hayes, his football skills just weren’t as good.
Bo Jackson (1962-living)
Bo Jackson is the most commonly assumed greatest athlete in modern sports debates. He played professional football and baseball in the 1980s. He was drafted in 1986 coming out of Auburn University as the Heisman winner. He went, like Hayes, in the 7th round to the Oakland Raiders. Jackson would play just 5 years with the NFL but he would certainly make a name for himself. He made the Pro Bowl once in those five years. As a running back he would accrue 2,782 yards and 16 touchdowns in his years in the NFL.
Baseball he would play for 8 years, most of them with the Kansas City Royals. In those eight years he would star in an All-Star Game when he earned the MVP of that game. The Royals would never be competitive during his time and he has no World Series experience. Over the course of his career he would bat .250 with 598 hits, 415 RBI and 141 Home Runs.
Arguments For: He played two of the most popular and widely accepted athletically gifted sports. He made a Pro-Bowl in each of these sports. He played both sports simultaneously rather than succeeding at one and moving to the other. He played in the NFL and the Major Leagues, not one of the Minor League teams. Most of Jackson’s hype comes from potential, what would have happened with he hadn’t gotten hurt. Unfortunately he did.
Arguments Against: When standing his record against the earlier two candidates he comes up short. His 1 Pro-Bowl with the Raiders isn’t nearly as good as Hayes’ 3 and a Super Bowl win. Even his baseball stats are similar to Thorpe’s though Thorpe played baseball in his later years and bounced among the Majors and minors with those numbers. Though the minors in the early 20th century were much better than the minors today. Jackson didn’t have a very long career in either sport, especially placed next to both Thorpe and Hayes. The fact that Hayes and Thorpe are both in the Pro Football Hall of Fame proves that in the sports that overlapped the three athletes, football, Hayes and Thorpe were better than Jackson.
Michael Jordan (1963-living)
Unlike our other 2-star athletes, Jordan only played basketball in college. He was one of the star players on the University of North Carolina’s NCAA Championship winning teams. He spent three years at UNC where he earned All-American honors as well as the Wooden and Naismith awards. In those three years he averaged 17.7 ppg with 54.0 percent shooting. He would leave the Tar Heels a year early in 1984 and was drafted by the Chicago Bulls.
Jordan made an impact from his first year. He was elected to the All-Star game and won Rookie of the Year. He took a terrible Bulls team to the playoffs. He would win his first of 3 MVP awards in 1987. Finally in 1990, Jordan and the Bulls had a team to win. Again Jordan would win the MVP and finally breakthrough in the Eastern Conference Finals to the NBA Finals. They would defeat the Lakers and win his first of 6 Finals MVPs. This set up a truly impressive streak of 3 NBA Championships in a row.
But in 1993 he shocked the sporting world when he announced his retirement. His father had recently been killed and he had starred on the USA Dream Team the year before. But what surprised everyone even more was his signing with the Chicago White Sox Minor League team. At 31, he played a single season of professional baseball with a .202 BA.
In 1995 he would return to the NBA where he would again win three consecutive NBA Titles. He would play a total of 15 seasons in the NBA. He averaged 30.1 ppg with a 49.7 field goal percentage. He would earn all the top individual and team honors and was inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame and join the conversation of greatest basketball player of all time.
Arguments For: He may be the best at one sport than any of the others were at their individual sport. But even there we pause, was he a better basketball player than Hayes was a runner or Thorpe a football player?
Arguments Against: His second sport in nowhere near as good as any of the aforementioned athletes. His baseball career was nothing like the others in contention.
Deion Sanders (1967-living)
Deion Sanders was a three-sport star at Florida State University. He played in the outfield for the 5th best college baseball team in the country, ran the sprints for the SEC Champion track and field team and was a 2 time All-American corner back and winner of the Jim Thorpe Award for the Sugar Bowl winning Seminoles. Now that is a collegiate career.
Sanders was originally drafted by the MLB to play for the Kansas City Royal in 1986 but remained in college. The Yankees drafted him in the 1988 draft. He made his Major League debut in May of 1989. Sanders was on the Yankees Opening Day roster for the 1990 season.
He, like Bo Jackson, played football while playing baseball (of course their seasons are at different times). He was drafted in 1989 by the Atlanta Falcons where he would play on the defense for 4 seasons.
Both with baseball and football, Sanders was embroiled in controversy. He played only a single full season with the Yankees after incidents on the field and contract negotiations he was placed on wavers. He would play four seasons with the Atlanta Braves, four seasons with the Cincinnati Reds as well as a season with the Giants.
In total he would play 9 years of Major League Baseball and finish his career with .263 BA, 39 home runs, 558 hits and 186 stolen bases. He would make no All-Star teams but would make it to the World Series with the Braves in 1992 where he batted .533. The Braves would lose to the Blue Jays.
In the NFL he would also bounce around. After playing with the Falcons he would play the majority of his career with the Dallas Cowboys. As a defensive back he would be a Pro-Bowler 8 times and win the Defensive Player of the Year in 1994. He won two Super Bowls with the Dallas Cowboys and is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Sander would play 14 total seasons in the NFL. Though he is listed as a defensive back Sanders played three ways in football. He also played wide receiver and was the sole punt returner for each of the teams he played for. In an era of specialization, Sanders harken back to the football players like Thorpe and Sammy Baugh.
Arguments For: He compete in 3 sports in college and played at the top levels of both baseball and football for a total of 23 seasons. He was one of the best defensive players in the NFL and won 2 Super Bowls. His football numbers are of comparison to Hayes NFL career though he played more variety than Hayes. They played opposite sides of the ball but were clearly instrumental and effective for championship teams. Sanders may also be a better baseball player than Bo Jackson. Though Sanders doesn’t have an All-Star appearance he has better career numbers , playoff experience and a longer career than Jackson.
Arguments Against: Sanders was not the same caliber of baseball player as Hayes was a runner. Both ran track and field in college, Hayes broke World Records, Sanders won Conference Championships. Sanders and Hayes are on equal footing when it comes to their overlapping sport, football. It depends how you weight being a world-class track star to being a starting player on a World Series baseball team. My inclination is to weight the World Record Holder, but its a push. Much of the same argument goes with Thorpe. Thorpe was the best football player in the weakest era of football. Sanders was a Pro-Bowler and Super Bowl Champion in its heyday. Thorpe won multiple Gold Medals. Sanders went to a World Series.
Want to know more about the Atlanta Braves teams Sanders played for, read here?
Jim Brown (1936-present):
The great Jim Brown was an All-American in lacrosse while in college at Syracuse, and was elected to the Lacrosse Hall of Fame. He also averaged 11.3 points per game for the Orangemen on the basketball court, while finishing 5th in the NCAA Decathlon in 1955.
And, by the way, he is also the GREATEST FOOTBALL PLAYER of ALL TIME.
Joe Gibbs wasn’t an athlete on the field but his success as a coach ought to be recognized in this discussion of athletes that excel at multiple sports.
Joe Gibbs started his professional coaching career in football. He began at San Diego State University before jumping to the NFL as an offensive backfield coach for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1973. He spent three years as an Offensive Coordinate for the Bucs and the Chargers before landing his first Head Coaching job for the Washington Redskins. With the Redskins he would win 2 Coach of the Year Awards (1982, 1983) and 3 Super Bowls. He was voted one of the greatest NFL coaches in the NFL’s 100 and is in the Football Hall of Fame. After 12 seasons with the Redskins he retired from coaching in 1988.
Four years after retiring, Gibbs and his son J.D. started a NASCAR team, Joe Gibbs Racing. Their first season they had a single car, #18 driven by Dale Jarrett. Now, almost 20 years later, they have one of the most successful teams in the sport. They have won 8 NASCAR Championships over the three series including Kyle Busch’s 2019 Cup Championship.
He currently fields the #11 Denny Hamlin who won back to back Daytona 500 in 2019 and 2020 (adding a third Daytona win in 2016) and a runner-up finish in the Cup Series Championship in 2010. Also on Gibbs team is Kyle Busch, the best driver in NASCAR over the past two seasons. He is the defending Cup Series Champion with which he also won in 2015. He has 56 wins in the top series in NASCAR with most of those wins coming since he moved to Joe Gibbs racing in 2008.
Gibbs also has #19 Martin Truex Jr. who won the Cup Series before his team when under. His move to Gibbs racing showed the desire most drivers have to race for him. He also fields the #20 car driven by Erik Jones.
From a coaching and leadership of athletes standpoint, Gibbs stands out from them all. From the gridiron to the racetrack he has been at the top of the game wherever he has competed.
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Want to read more about our commentary on sports specialization, read here.