LeBron who? The NFL stars who had success in another sport

by Sean Tyler @seantyleruk

A week or so ago, it emerged that basketball legend LeBron James, a three-time NBA champion, once considered playing for the Dallas Cowboys.

During the 2011 lockout, James started to train as a football player. Of course, he ultimately stayed with basketball but not before Jerry Jones, the owner of his favourite team, had sent him a contract. James went on to win consecutive NBA championships with Miami Heat in the next two seasons and obviously, it’s all gone swimmingly from then on.

We’ll never know how the 6’9” forward for the LA Lakers would have worked out in cleats and helmet. But it’s fun imagining a successful pro from another sport switching codes to play football, or vice versa.

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Some NFL stars could have had promising careers in another sport if they’d chosen to pursue that option. Take baseball, for instance. Many of you will know that Arizona QB Kyler Murray was drafted first overall by the Cardinals in the 2018 NFL Draft, but also ninth in the MLB Draft by the Oakland Athletics, making him the only player to be drafted in the first rounds of both sports. (The A’s still hold his licence, should he decide to chuck in the whole football thing.)

He wasn’t alone in being drafted by MLB teams and, due to their ability to throw with speed and accuracy, most have been quarterbacks: John Elway, Dan Marino, Michael Vick, Colin Kaepernick, Johnny Manziel, Matt Moore and Jameis Winston were all drafted in both sports. Russell Wilson was drafted by two MLB teams and even TB12 himself, Tom Brady, was selected by the Montreal Expos.

To a man, they opted for football and the rest, as they say, is history. But what about those players that did switch to or from the NFL, and hit the heights in both fields? There aren’t many but there are certainly a few worthy of mention.


TONI FRITSCH – SOCCER


Back in the Sixties, Anton (“Toni”) Fritsch was a soccer player in Austria. He made 123 appearances for Rapid Vienna, winning the Austrian League three times and the Austrian Cup twice. He also represented his country nine times, and scored twice in a 3-2 win against England in 1965, earning himself the nickname “Wembley Toni”.

The nippy striker then went on to be the first Austrian to play in the NFL. He was picked up by the Dallas Cowboys as an undrafted free agent in 1971, even though he’d never played the game in his life, and trained to be a kicker – soccer-style kicking was all the rage at the time. His debut season couldn’t have gone any better, with a game-winning kick in his debut against the Cardinals, and the ‘Boys winning Super Bowl VI in early 1972. Given his earlier exploits in his home country, that makes him the only player in history to win professional titles in both association and American football. 

Photo Agency

His 11-year NFL career took in the San Diego Chargers, Houston Oilers and New Orleans Saints, and his record of kicking a field goal in 13 straight playoff games remained untouched until Adam Vinatieri equalled his feat in 2007.

Fab fact: Fritsch is credited with introducing the “rabona” (where the kicking leg wraps around the back of the standing leg) to the NFL. He used it to take an onside kick in a 1972 Divisional playoff game against the 49ers, helping to seal a historic 30-28 victory.


BO JACKSON – BASEBALL


Vincent “Bo” Jackson is the only athlete in history to be named an All-Star in both baseball and football, arguably making him one of the greatest of all time. And his achievements are all the more impressive when you consider he played both sports pretty much simultaneously.

Having won the Heisman Trophy in 1985 while at Auburn, Bo was drafted as the first overall pick by the Buccaneers in the 1986 NFL Draft. He’d already told the Buccs not to bother; he wouldn’t play for them. And he wasn’t joking: Jackson turned down the five-year, $7 million contract in favour of a shorter, cheaper deal with MLB outfit the Kansas City Royals.

Getty Images via Sporting News.com

He eventually joined the Los Angeles Raiders as a running back a year later, having agreed with owner Al Davis that he could report in once the baseball season was over. He made it to LA by Week 8 in his rookie campaign, playing in seven games and scoring six touchdowns, three of which came against the Seahawks in Week 12. His 221 rushing yards that night, just a month into his fledgling NFL career, is still a Monday Night Football record.

He managed 10 games in 1988 (580 yards, 3 TDs), 11 in 1989 (950 yards, 4 TDs) and, despite a curtailed 1990 campaign, Jackson was selected to the Pro Bowl. All the while, Jackson turned out for the Royals, as well as the Chicago White Sox and the California Angels, hitting 141 home runs over eight seasons and earning All-Star status in 1989.

A hip injury ended his football career in 1991, after just 38 games, but after a hip replacement, he managed to prolong his baseball career until 1994. 

Fab fact: Jackson’s Nike endorsements included the “Bo Knows” campaign for the first Nike Air trainer, in which he plays a range of different sports.


WILLIE GAULT – ATHLETICS


NFL fans of a certain age, myself included, may (just about) remember Willie Gault as a wide receiver and kick returner for the Bears (1983–87) and Raiders (1988–93). Gault, picked #18 in the 1983 NFL Draft, was a member of the Chicago team that defeated the Patriots in Super Bowl XX in 1985. In his 11 NFL seasons, he claimed 6,635 yards, made 9 punt returns and 45 kick-off returns, and scored 45 touchdowns.

Bleacher Report

One of the NFL’s fastest-ever (his personal best for the 100 metres stands at a blistering 10.10 seconds), it should be no surprise that Gault qualified as a member of the U.S. Olympic track team. Alas, it was in 1980 when the United States – among others – boycotted the Moscow Games. Nonetheless, he went on to form part of a world record-setting 4×100 metre relay team (along with Emmit King, Calvin Smith and the legendary Carl Lewis) at the 1983 World Championships.

Fab fact: Gault has also set several world records in veteran categories, including the 100 metres (10.88 seconds) for the 50–54 age group in 2011.


HERSHEL WALKER – BOBSLEIGH


Walker earned a wealth of accolades, including the Heisman Trophy, while at the University of Georgia, and is widely regarded as the greatest college running back of all time. He then began his professional football career with the New Jersey Generals of the United States Football League (USFL), before going on to the Cowboys, Vikings, Eagles and Giants.

In 12 NFL seasons, Walker scored 84 touchdowns and gained 8,225 rushing yards, 4,859 receiving yards and 5,084 kick-off -return yards, making him the only player to gain 4,000 yards three different ways. He’s also the only NFL player with a 90+ yard reception, 90+ yard run and a 90+ yard kick-off return in one season (1994) and once scored two 84+ yard touchdowns – one rushing, one receiving – in the same game! 

USA TODAY Sports, AP Photo

But why is Walker worthy of our attention here? Because he joined the US bobsleigh program and competed in the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France, as a member of the national team while with the Vikings. Running backs – 200-pound blokes with strong legs and a low centre of gravity – are well suited to being push men, apparently. And competing as the push/brake man in the two-man bob, Walker and his driver Brian Shimer were placed seventh, 0.3 of a second off a medal.

Walker is also a black belt at taekwando and undefeated as an MMA fighter. OK, he only had two fights but still, you wouldn’t wanna mess with the fella!

Fab fact: In 1989, the Cowboys traded Walker to the Vikings for five current players and six future draft picks, making the HWT (Herschel Walker trade) the largest trade in league history. 


MARQUISE GOODWIN – ATHLETICS


Some of us know Mr Goodwin as the wide receiver and kick returner who was recently traded to the Eagles from the 49ers. He was initially drafted in the third round of the 2013 Draft by the Bills and to date, Goodwin has recorded 2,323 yards receiving, 468 return yards and a further 89 rushing, and notched 13 TDs. Some of his early seasons in Buffalo were blighted by injury, and he was also crocked in the second half of last year, which meant he missed San Francisco’s trip to the Super Bowl. 

49ers.com

Goodwin’s track and field career is a similar tale of “close but no cigar”. In his specialty, the long jump, he won two national college championships, and represented the United States in Junior, University and World Championships, as well as the 2012 Olympic Games in London, where he finished 10th.

After a three-year hiatus, he marked his return to athletics with a silver medal at the 2015 Pan American Games, but finished a disappointing seventh at the Olympic Trials a year later – so no trip to Rio for Marquise.

In his time, he has also competed in the 60, 100 and 200 metres, and the triple jump.

Fab fact: Goodwin’s career-best long jump of 8 metres 45 centimetres would have been good enough to beat Greg Rutherford and win Olympic gold in London.


DEION SANDERS – BASEBALL


With “Prime Time”, now an analyst for CBS and the NFL Network, we may have saved the best till last. Sanders was successful at football, athletics and baseball at Florida State University, before being drafted by the Atlanta Falcons in the first round of the 1989 NFL Draft. He played primarily at cornerback, but also as a kick returner, punt returner and wide receiver.

During his 14-year career, he was named to eight Pro Bowls and made consecutive Super Bowl appearances: Super Bowl XXIX with the 49ers, when they beat the San Diego Chargers, and XXX with the Dallas Cowboys, who saw off the Steelers. He also turned out for the Redskins and Ravens before retiring in 2005. Sanders was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2011 and named in the NFL 100th Anniversary All-time Team.

Bleacher Report

“Neon Deion” also had a solid nine-season baseball career, playing as an outfielder for the New York Yankees, Atlanta Braves, Cincinnati Reds and San Francisco Giants. He lost his one World Series appearance in 1992, when the Braves lost to the Toronto Blue Jays, but nonetheless, Sanders is still the only person ever to appear in both a World Series and a Super Bowl.

Fab fact: On 11 October 1992, Sanders played for the Falcons against the Dolphins in Miami, then flew to Pittsburgh to join the Atlanta Braves for their National League Championship Series game against the Pirates later the same day. Alas, he didn’t make it out on to the diamond, which rather ruins the story, but I guess his manager wasn’t chuffed with him having played an hour of gridiron as preparation for their big game.