By Niles Pender: In the 21st Century Age of Specialization, the focus in the world of sports has shifted from all-around athletes to ones who are identified early on as having potential in a particular sport. Their training is then tailored for that sport only, and their future revolves around developing their minds and bodies to be adept in their chosen activity.
There was a time however, when the elite athlete participated in every sport that was available to them. The star quarterback was usually also the point guard in basketball as well as the baseball team’s star pitcher. For better or for worse, those days are little more than a memory now.
For old time’s sake, here’s a listing of some notable athletes who were talented enough to be drafted by the NFL as well as the NBA. The list is longer than you might imagine.
Chuck Connors is probably best known as the star of TV’s Rifleman, one of the most popular Westerns of the early 1960s. Standing 6’6″, Connors displayed athletic ability early on, and one of his ambitions was to play baseball for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
He realized his dream in 1949, but his professional sports career actually began in 1946 when he played basketball for the Boston Celtics. Connors’ athleticism also impressed the Chicago Bears enough to draft him, but he never joined the team.
A member of the Naismith Hall of Fame, a member of Ohio State’s 1960 NCAA basketball championship squad and a member of eight Boston Celtics NBA championship teams, John Havlicek is a true hoops legend.
What’s not so well-known about “Hondo” is that he was drafted as a wide receiver by the Cleveland Browns in 1962 and even attended training camp, but decided to cast his lot with Red Auerbach, Bill Russell and K.C. Jones instead.
As a member of Adolph Rupp’s last great Kentucky team (The Runnin’ Runts), Pat Riley was a tenacious rebounder despite his 6’4″ stature. He was known as a leaper and a dogged defender. Upon graduation in 1967, Riley was selected by the San Diego Rockets in the first round of the NBA Draft as well as being an 11th round choice of the Dallas Cowboys in the NFL Draft. Wisely, Riley chose the hardwood and went on to become one of the game’s winningest head coaches.
As a member of the New York Yankees in the early 1980s, Dave Winfield was one of the era’s most-feared sluggers. An exceptional all-around athlete, Winfield starred in every sport he involved himself in.
Elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2001, Winfield holds the singular distinction of being the only athlete to be drafted by four different professional leagues; Baseball (San Diego Padres), the NFL (Minnesota Vikings), and both the ABA (Utah Stars) and NBA (Atlanta Hawks).
More recently, a trio of Pro Bowl-caliber NFL tight ends have made their marks both on the gridiron and on the basketball court, although none of them were drafted by the NBA. Tony Gonzalez of the Atlanta Falcons played power forward at the University of California as well as being an All-American for the Golden Bears football team. San Diego’s Antonio Gates was a standout basketball player at Kent State in 2001 and 2002.
Gates led the Golden Flashes to the NCAA Tournament in his senior season and they advanced to the Elite Eight before losing to eventual national runner-up Indiana. Gates’ career path is unusual in that he never played college football and wasn’t drafted by the NFL. After being told by scouts that his future in the NBA was questionable, he instead held a tryout for NFL scouts and was almost immediately signed as an undrafted free agent by the Chargers.
Jimmy Graham of the New Orleans Saints attended the University of Miami on a basketball scholarship, played four seasons and then joined the football team as a grad student in 2009, his only season with the Hurricanes on the gridiron. He was then drafted in the third round by the Saints.