The human body is an incredible thing. Pushed to the edge of its limits, it can accomplish jaw-dropping feats. Some professional athletes do just that. Now, many people probably know a little bit about the ESPN headliners: Michael Jordan, Babe Ruth, Wayne Gretzky, Joe Louis, Jerry Rice. These are all competitors who ushered their sport into a new era of athleticism and inspired future generations to pick a ball or try on a glove. They deserve recognition for their athletic prowess, and they receive it duly. This week’s post will ignore those who have been praised and lauded and instead focus on a few amazing athletes who either many may have heard of but have physical achievements often understated, or who are relatively unknown despite incredible feats.
Just as the “Babe” we all know was retiring from America’s pastime, another “Babe” started making headlines. Babe Ruth’s female name-twin was Babe Didrikson, an athletic phenom who competed in basketball, track, golf, baseball, tennis, swimming, diving, boxing, volleyball, handball, bowling, billiards, skating, and cycling – just about everything.
Didrikson started earning her credentials as a winner while playing basketball in the Amateur Athletic Union, where she led her team to the championship. A year later, she competed in AAU track and field, setting four world records while winning six events. She also helped her team win the team championship – even though she was the only member of said team. During the same year, she traveled to Los Angeles for the Olympics and picked up a few medals.
Gold medals and world records; what else could she be capable of? Well, she picked up a golf club in 1935, at the age of 24, and three years later, she was trying to enter men’s tournaments. It took until 2002 for another female to play in a PGA tournament. Didrikson was adored by American fans, achieving celebrity status as a female golfer while winning 82 tournaments, including 10 majors and 17 straight amateur victories. Didrikson passed away at the young age of 45 after developing colon cancer – she was still a top ranked golfer despite her fatal malady.
Deion Sanders & Bo Jackson
Michael Jordan famously attempted to transition from basketball to baseball, a choice that saw him not turning too many heads while batting .202 for the Chicago White Sox’s minor league affiliate. Around the same time, a couple of NFL players were also involved in the MLB but saw more success than MJ in each of their sports.
Deion Sanders, a game-changing cornerback and special teams player, won the Super Bowl while playing with the San Francisco 49ers and with the Dallas Cowboys. But he also had a chance to play in the World Series, making him the only person to ever do so. He wasn’t just a gimmick, either; during the World Series, he batted .533, despite playing with a broken bone in his foot. He also is the only player hit a home run in a major league game and score a touchdown in an NFL game in the same week. Deion Sanders should undoubtedly be recognized for his unparalleled athleticism, despite his brashness and eccentricity, summed up by how he described his two-sport balance: “football is my wife, and baseball is my mistress.”
If you know the Nike campaign from the late 80s, you know what Bo knows. Bo Jackson, according to the ads, could do anything (except hockey). In college, Jackson was a three-sport star; he saw success in baseball, football, and track & field. The end of his senior year was approaching, and Jackson had just won the Heisman Trophy. He’s a college football legend. He’s invited to Tampa Bay, who will likely sign him with their overall number 1 pick and pay him millions to run the football for them. Jackson had already visited a few NFL teams and was told by the Tampa Bay offices that the NCAA had given the okay for him to visit. He flew in on a private jet, ate an expensive meal at a fancy restaurant, and went to lively clubs and hot spots. When he got back to Auburn, he was ready to start his final season of baseball – except his coach sat him down and told him that the Buccaneers did not get permission from the NCAA. Bo Jackson would be prohibited from playing college baseball again.
Now, naturally, Jackson thought that Tampa Bay had intentionally deceived him to prevent him from playing baseball and getting injured. Their multi-million dollar draft pick would be wasted if he got hurt while playing another sport. Whether it was true or not, Bo took it personally – and got vengeance. Bo Jackson left millions of dollars on the table and instead of signing with the Buccaneers (who wasted their 1st round draft pick on him), he signed with the Kansas City Royals, an MLB team, as a 4th round draft pick.
The Los Angeles Raiders signed Jackson a year later, working out a contract that would let him continue playing baseball and start playing football. He excelled in both sports. In baseball, he was called up from the minors in his rookie season, and he eventually won the AL MVP award. Legendary wall climbs and deep outfield throws to home plate characterized Jackson’s abilities. In the NFL, he was a Pro Bowler who managed over 5 yard per carry throughout his career. His athletic reign ended when a huge tackle popped his hip out of place. He left the field with one last physical feat; he claimed to have popped his hip back into its socket, prompting the trainer on the sideline to remark how it was “impossible” since “no one’s that strong”.
Jack Youngblood & Bert Trautmann
If you think about it, Jack Youngblood did what anyone should do in his situation. Only a handful of athletes can turn professional, and only two teams make it to the championship each year. In the NFL, legends like Ed Reed, Tony Gonzalez, and Barry Sanders have extensive, electrifying careers but never make it to the big game. If you’re Jack Youngblood, and your team is playing in the Super Bowl, you find a way to play. Of course, that’s easy for me to say sitting in my cushioned chair behind a glowing screen – without a broken fibula.
Youngblood, an All-pro defensive end for the Los Angeles Rams, played through the 1979 playoffs and Super Bowl XIV with a fractured left leg. I remember a VHS I had when I was younger that had Youngblood saying something like, “give me a couple of aspirin, tape the damn thing up, and we’ll worry about it when the game is over.” That sort of gutsy play and pain immunity is unrivaled across the world of sports – except maybe by Bert Trautmann.
Before Manchester City faced Birmingham City for the Football Association Cup, Trautmann had already demonstrated outstanding athletic ability, becoming the first goalkeeper to win the Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year award. Manchester City had managed to build a 3-1 lead when Trautman collided with a Birmingham attacker. Trautman was knocked out when Peter Murphy’s right knee struck him in the neck.
This was an era of hard-nosed tough guys; rub dirt on it if it hurts, and no substitutions! Trautman stayed in the game, later admitting that he had been “in kind of a fog” for the remaining fifteen minutes. He made a few spectacular saves and helped Manchester City hold on in the final minutes. An X-ray later revealed that the collision dislocated five vertebrae, cracking one into two pieces. The injury was so severe that if one vertebra had not wedge itself against the cracked vertebra, Trautmann could have lost his life. Instead, he continued playing excellent soccer and showed the world what it means to be an amazing athlete.