Isn’t playing college or professional football hard enough? Apparently not for the fiercest of competitors. The big story of last weekend in the NFL was how Seattle Seahawks wide receiver DK Metcalf ran in the 100-meter dash in the USA Track and Field Golden Games and Distance Open Sunday. While Metcalf failed to quality for the Olympics against many of the nation’s fastest sprinters, it of course begged the question of the sheer level of talent that exists for professional athletes, who can casually just jump in and run with the pack (or at least in the back of it) at an elite event.
These sorts of stories always tend to recall the perfect, token example of a multi-sport athlete: the one and only Jim Thorpe, who played professional football and baseball AND won the gold medal in the pentathlon and decathlon in the 1912 Stockholm Olympics. Literally the two Olympic events that required the most varied athletic talents.
Of course, these types of discussions spur talk of what actually defines athleticism (one of my favorite dinner table conversations and one that Thorpe always comes out as the clear winner in), but also about what is the optimal sport to pair with football?
There are obvious connections between sports when you see certain athletes excelling. For example, when it comes to baseball, we’ve recently seen a rash of starting NFL quarterbacks who also were drafted by MLB teams (Kyler Murray, Russell Wilson, Patrick Mahomes). Again: NFL starting quarterbacks who also had the opportunity to play professional baseball — that’s a bananas level of athleticism. There’s definitely a correlation between the arm strength and accuracy involved in throwing a baseball and passing a football that lends itself to this particular pairing.
Then, of course, there are the receivers who excel in track — like Metcalf. We’ve seen numerous wide outs at the collegiate level also participate in sprints and hurdles especially, and even those who didn’t run at the collegiate level were track stars in high school (e.g., Ted Ginn Jr.). It obviously behooves receivers to be fast, to be able to accelerate over short distances — like under 100-meters — and to be able to hurdle things. Track can also serve as one of the best kinds of offseason workouts for receivers, since it’s literally repeated conditioning exercises.
And then there’s the less common but no less prominent examples from basketball. How many times did we hear about how retired tight end Antonio Gates played basketball in college? “HE JUST WENT UP iN THE POST FOR THAT CATCH!” still rings in my head. Even just this year in March Madness, we got to reminisce about how Ryan Day once recruited Gonzaga starting point guard Jalen Suggs to play quarterback for Ohio State.
There are naturally logistical challenges that prevent great football players from also being great basketball players — namely, seasonality. It’s hard to play sports that can overlap in timing, especially football that has such extensive practice times compared to some other sports.
On that note, we must consider high school athletics — the last time that many athletes had the chance to play multiple sports, and ask the question of when do athletes have to become differentiated? We all knew those extremely talented athletes in high school. There were some who were laser-focused from an early age on a single sport. In some areas, it was easy for, say, great basketball players to play AAU and focus on hoops 12 months of the year. Then there were others, for whom it was more accessible to be a jack of all trades who could pick up and be really good at any given sport.
There’s also the consideration of athletes, especially in small high schools schools, who almost “have” to play multiple sports because there simply aren’t enough kids to fill teams, and who naturally excel at a few different events as a result. Finally, there’s the athletes who, either because of a lack of personnel on the team or because of their own athleticism, played both sides of the ball, especially in football.
All that being said, there is a balance, and, at a certain point, even the most talented athletes become jacks of all trades and masters of none, ultimately needing to select one sport (or position) to play in college or, if they make it that far, professionally. That’s because the level of talent against which they are competing is also elevated as positions become more specialized. It’s not enough to be a really good receiver and a really good defensive back — athletes have to be great at their chosen position.
For some coaches, that differentiation can wait. We saw how Urban Meyer, during his days coaching college football, loved recruiting players as athletes and simply holding out and seeing how those players would develop and fit in with the team. Apparently he still loves following this tac in Jacksonville, if picking up Tim Tebow is any indication. There’s a reason Braxton Miller was able to move to receiver, when such a move might not have been possible in other coaching regimes. It makes sense in college, especially when coaching staffs are recruiting players who are still developing in their size and abilities.
Frankly, this strategy is also what John Gruden has been doing in carrying on Al Davis’ legacy with the Raiders. We’ve seen how that’s worked out at the NFL level, where players are already highly specialized and being an amazing athlete simply isn’t enough anymore.
Coming full circle, there are those athletes who somehow do have the athletic ability to play more than one sport. At the end of the day, it’s a rare but very cool thing to see athletes being able to find success outside of football or basketball or whatever their chosen sport is. It’s another level of athleticism entirely.