NFL

Two-Sport Stars Continue to Impact the NFL

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Football is like no other sport in that a player’s responsibilities vary so greatly from position to position. It’s bizarre to look at Chargers RB Danny Woodhead (5-foot-8, 200 pounds) and Cardinals DE Calais Campbell — who is a full foot taller and 100 pounds heavier — and appreciate how odd it is they play the same sport for a living.

Because football relies on such specialized skill-sets, it often calls upon players who developed those skills in different sports. With that in mind, here is a rundown of the two-sport athletes who have made the league the athletic melting pot it is today.

We’ll start with the quarterbacks, because in the NFL, everything starts with the quarterbacks,

No. 1 overall pick Jameis Winston was a two-sport star at Florida State, throwing strikes on the diamond as well as the gridiron. He was good enough at baseball that the Texas Rangers selected him in the fifteenth round of the 2012 draft. Winston even created a bit of buzz prior to the draft when he told the MMQB.com’s Peter King about the prospect of playing two sports: “It always has been my dream, but I’m just playing football right now.”

That comment certainly caught the attention of Buccaneers officials, who put a clause in Winston’s rookie deal preventing him from playing professional baseball any time during the course of his contract.

Winston is not he only high-profile NFL quarterback connected to the Rangers. Seahawks QB Russell Wilson had his rights acquired by the Rangers in the Triple-A edition of the Rule 5 Draft in December 2013. Unlike Winston, Wilson has nothing in his contract that prevents him from playing baseball (although that may change in his next contract, which is expected to be signed at some point before training camp).

Wilson has taken batting practice with the Rangers each of the last two offseasons, He smashed an impressive home run in one batting practice back in March, causing baseball observers to wonder about his true two-sport potential.

While baseball has provided another platform for some prominent NFL quarterbacks, basketball has done even more to prepare players — tight ends, in particular — for NFL success.

The most prominent example is Antonio Gates, who joined the Chargers as an undrafted free agent in 2003 after playing basketball — not football — at Kent State. Fast-forward 12 years later and Gates has more than 10,000 receiving yards on his resumé. Also, with 99 career touchdowns he is just two scores away from moving into seventh place on the all-time receiving touchdowns list. No. 6 on that list? Tony Gonzalez, another future Hall of Fame tight end who played basketball in college.

Watch game film of Gonzalez or Gates and it’s easy to see their basketball skills in action, as they post up smaller defenders and impose their will in the middle of the field. The same goes for Jimmy Graham, who was a four-year contributor to the Miami basketball team. Graham has already authored two seasons with 1,200-plus yards and three seasons with 10-plus scores.

When Seattle traded for Graham earlier this offseason, one of the first things coach Pete Carroll spoke to Graham about was his basketball career.

“[Carroll] sat me down just talking about my basketball career and going back and talking about all these things that he’s heard about me and I could tell that he’s a detail-oriented person,” Graham said.

Basketball produces more than tight ends, too. Packers pass rusher Julius Peppers played basketball at North Carolina, playing a big role off the bench for a team that advanced all the way to the Final Four.

While basketball and football account for most of the NFL’s dual-sport stars, there are other sports that deserve a mention.

Australian rugby star Jarryd Hayne opted to change sports earlier this offseason, joining the 49ers as a free agent. Despite twice being named as the best player in the National Rugby League, Hayne opted to try his luck as an NFL running back.

“This is a huge risk,” Hayne said. “I’m taking a massive leap of faith.”

Hayne is not the first player to jump from Australian rugby to American football. Former Chargers punter Darren Bennett got started as a rugby kicker, which is where he learned the drop-kick method that he brought to the NFL back in 1995. It is a technique that allows punters to kill the ball using backspin and is now used by most punters.

Kickers are among football’s most likely two-sport athletes. Many of them grew up playing soccer, including Jaguars kicker Josh Scobee. That leads to a funny anecdote from Shahid Khan, who owns both the Jaguars and Fulham FC.

“[Scobee] told me he gave up his hopes of professional soccer once he played with Clint [Dempsey],” Khan told NBC’s ProSoccerTalk. “He thought he couldn’t make it, so he figured he’d better get good at kicking a ball for football.”

When taking in these dual-sport possibilities, one stands out as more impressive — and terrifying — than the rest. Texans playmaker J.J. Watt used to be a hockey star in his home state of Wisconsin. If not for being priced out of the sport, he might be one of the NHL’s preeminent enforcers right now instead of being the reigning Defensive Player of the Year.

“I grew up in Wisconsin loving hockey,” Watt told Peter King. “I mean, I started when I was three years old on skates. I played all over—in Canada all the time, all over the U.S., over in Germany for a 10-day tournament. Hockey, honestly, was my first love. The excitement, the fast pace, the intensity of the game … I still love it to this day.”

This is what makes the NFL so exciting. The eclectic skills needed to fill out a roster cause teams to bring in athletes from all different backgrounds, each with different athletic histories and possibilities.

Even though there’s no modern day Bo Jackson or Deion Sanders, their legacy lives on.

Which NFL stars have true two-sport potential? Talk about it with Michael Lombardo during his weekly NFL Chat on Friday at 2pm EST. But you don’t have to wait until then … you can ask your question now


About Michael Lombardo

Michael Lombardo

Michael Lombardo has spent more than 10 years as a team expert at Scout.com, primarily covering the Chargers, Cardinals and Panthers. He has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and other venues.