11 of the Most Memorable Multi-Sport Athletes in History
To those bestowed with a wealth of athletic talent, it can be difficult to choose a single sport to pursue. Some of them delay the decision for as long as possible, while others just try to do it all. Here are 11 of the most memorable multi-sport athletes in history.
1. Bo Jackson
When the New York Yankees drafted Vincent Edward “Bo” Jackson as a high school graduate, he wasn’t quite ready to choose baseball over football and track and field. So he continued all three sports at Auburn University, where he won the 1985 Heisman Trophy (the college football equivalent of the NFL's Most Valuable Player award) before going on to play for the NFL’s Los Angeles Raiders and the MLB’s Kansas City Royals simultaneously. A hip injury ended his pro sports career in the mid-1990s, but he’s widely recognized as one of the most gifted athletes in recent history.
2. Jim Thorpe
Jim Thorpe was a member of the Sac and Fox Nation who shined in pretty much every sport he tried. He took gold in the decathlon and pentathlon at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics; though his medals were later revoked on account of his semi-professional baseball career—the Olympics were still strictly amateurs-only—they were returned to his relatives in the 1980s. He spent 1913 to 1919 playing pro baseball before focusing on pro football for the next several years, and even became the American Professional Football Association’s (an NFL precursor) inaugural president in 1920. Thorpe’s widow Patricia led the charge to name a Pennsylvania town—Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania—in his honor after his death in 1953.
3. Babe Didrikson Zaharias
The baseball skills of a young Mildred Ella Didrikson (later Zaharias) earned her the nickname “Babe,” after Babe Ruth. The moniker stuck for her entire iconic sports career, beginning in the early 1930s with both basketball—she played for the women’s All-America team—and track and field (she medalled in hurdles, javelin, and high jump at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics). She took up golf around that time, too, winning competitions throughout the 1940s and early ’50s and even co-founding the Ladies Professional Golf Association in 1950.
4. Deion Sanders
In September 1989, Deion Sanders (a.k.a. Prime Time and Neon Deion) scored a home run for the Yankees. Mere days later, he scored a touchdown for the Atlanta Falcons—making him the only athlete to ever accomplish both feats in the same week. Sanders is also the only athlete to have played in a World Series (with the Atlanta Braves in 1992) and a Super Bowl (with the San Francisco 49ers in 1995 and the Dallas Cowboys the following year).
5. Danny Ainge
Danny Ainge has been a Boston Celtics mainstay in more ways than one. He played for the team from 1981 to 1989—winning championships in 1984 and 1986—and later served as the president of basketball operations from 2003 to 2021. (He then left Boston to become CEO of the Utah Jazz.) But long before Ainge’s storied career with the Celts, he was a promising high school football and baseball player, too. He was drafted by MLB's Toronto Blue Jays in 1977, where he played for three seasons while also playing college basketball at Brigham Young University.
6. Clara Hughes
When Canada’s Clara Hughes began cycling as a teenager in 1990, it was mainly just a cross-training tactic to help her become an even better speed skater. But she was such a natural that she ended up pivoting to cycling in full force, winning a number of competitions throughout the early 1990s and picking up a couple of bronze medals at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Hughes started speed skating again in 2000—though she didn’t give up cycling—and clinched bronze in the 5000-meter event at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. The win earned her the distinction of being Canada’s first athlete to medal at the Summer and Winter Games. (She went on to win three more speed skating medals at subsequent Winter Olympics.)
7. Dave Winfield
It didn’t come as a huge surprise when Dave Winfield got drafted by the MLB’s San Diego Padres and the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks (plus the American Basketball Association’s Utah Stars) in 1973. He was hot off a successful collegiate career at the University of Minnesota, where he won a basketball conference title in 1972 and had been named MVP at the College World Series the following year. The NFL’s Minnesota Vikings drafted him, too—though he hadn’t played football since he was a kid.
“I was surprised at that, but they were looking at me for my athletic ability,” Winfield later told Yahoo Sports. “The Vikings thought I could play tight end. I was six-foot-six, 230-232 pounds, I could run and I could catch.” Winfield wasn’t enticed by the offer at all, because he “didn’t want to get injured.” He chose baseball, spending the 1970s with the Padres, the ’80s with the Yankees, and a few shorter stints with other teams before retiring in 1996.
8. Kenny Lofton
Though Kenny Lofton grew up playing basketball and baseball in Indiana, he knew full rides for basketball were easier to come by. “So when I was offered the opportunity to attend the University of Arizona on a basketball scholarship, I jumped at it,” he wrote for The Players’ Tribune in 2015. During 1988’s March Madness, the team—which also counted future NBA greats Steve Kerr and Sean Elliott among its number—got as far as the Final Four.
But Lofton didn’t end up in the NBA. Instead, after a short stint on Arizona’s baseball team, he got drafted by the Houston Astros and went on to become a valued centerfielder for the Cleveland Indians (now Guardians) throughout the 1990s. By the time he retired in 2007, Lofton had been named an All-Star six times and also boasted four Golden Glove Awards.
9. Lottie Dod
England’s Charlotte “Lottie” Dod holds the Guinness World Record for Wimbledon’s youngest women’s singles champion—she won the competition in 1887 at just 15 years and 285 days old. Dod continued besting her tennis rivals for the next several years and eventually turned her attention to golf, taking first place in the 1904 British Ladies Amateur Championship. In addition to being a skilled skater, curler, and field hockey player, she also won a silver medal in archery at the 1908 Olympics in London.
10. Kyler Murray
In June 2018, the Oakland Athletics chose Oklahoma University outfielder Kyler Murray in the first round of the draft. Things got a little complicated later that year when Murray—also a superstar quarterback for the Sooners—clinched the Heisman Trophy and decided to focus on football. The Arizona Cardinals drafted him first in April 2019, making him the only athlete ever to get chosen in the first round of both the NFL and MLB drafts. Murray is still focusing on football, but has said as recently as June 2021 that he hasn’t shut the door on a possible pro baseball career. He’s also really good at chess.
11. Erin Phillips
Australia’s Erin Phillips is a two-time WNBA champion, having won the finals in 2012 with the Indiana Fever and again in 2014 with the Phoenix Mercury. She retired from the league in 2017, which gave her more time to focus on a passion from her youth: Australian rules football, a rugby-esque contact sport played on cricket ovals. That same year, Phillips joined the Adelaide Crows for the first season of the newly formed Australian Football League Women’s (AFLW) and has stayed with the team ever since.