Who are the five greatest athletes?

With swimmer Michael Phelps winning his 22nd Olympic medal last week, many people openly wondered if he’s among the greatest athletes of all time. Our Sports staffers jumped into the debate, with each giving his list of the top five greatest athletes in history.

It’s (prime) time to give Deion his proper credit

By C. Jemal Horton, jemal@unioncountyweekly.com

When my fellow members of the South Charlotte Weekly Sports department and I decided to write about the five greatest athletes of all time, the usual suspects came to mind: Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods.

Those athletes certainly are among the best – if they’re not unquestionably the best – in their respective sports, but I decided to take a slightly different approach to my list.

For me, those in the discussion for being the greatest athletes ever had to be people who were versatile – people who proved they could compete in more than one sport or event at an extremely high level. So, no, people such as Ali, who’s my third-favorite athlete of all time behind Magic Johnson and Arthur Ashe, didn’t make my list.

Here’s who did:

5. CHARLIE WARD
For one thing, I think Ward’s the best college quarterback who ever lived. He won the Heisman Trophy in 1994 – the same year the New York Yankees drafted him in the 18th round of the baseball draft – and 12 years later was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.

But most everyone knows he never played pro football or baseball.

Ward spent 11 years as a productive, starting NBA point guard, with most of that time being spent with the New York Knicks, whom he helped to the 1999 Finals.

4. JIM THORPE
I’m always nervous about judging guys who played (and died) before the advent of color TV, but it’s hard to argue with Thorpe’s credentials: Olympic gold medal winner in the decathlon and pentathlon while also playing professional football and baseball.

Much like the great Jim Brown, it sounds as if Thorpe would’ve been great in any era.

3. JACKIE JOYNER-KERSEE
No, I’m not including a woman to be politically correct – Joyner-Kersee was a freak of an athlete, and she belongs on this list.

Joyner-Kersee is best remembered for her prowess as a track and field athlete, but her success was different because she wasn’t just a sprinter or a jumper; as a competitor in the heptathlon, she starred in seven different events in four different Olympic Games.

But she wasn’t just a track star. Joyner-Kersee also scored more than 1,100 points as a women’s basketball player at UCLA, and she even spent a short time in the now-defunct American Basketball League.

2. BO JACKSON
Forget what Bo’s statistics were; this was all about the eyeball test for me.

When I watched Jackson play football as a Heisman winner at Auburn and a running back in the NFL, he looked like the best player on the field. When he played pro baseball for the Kansas City Royals, before later joining the Chicago White Sox and California Angels, he looked like he could be the greatest power hitter and outfielder the game had ever seen.

1. DEION SANDERS
Say what you want about Sanders’ inability – or unwillingness – to tackle ball carriers during his football-playing days, he’s still an NFL Hall of Famer and remains in the discussion for being the best cornerback who ever played.

On top of that, the man they called “Prime Time” also played parts of nine seasons of Major League Baseball with a more-than-respectable .273 career batting average. In 1992, he hit .304 and led the league with 14 triples, all while stealing 26 bases.

While at Florida State, he was a star on the football, baseball and track teams. To this day, Sanders is the only man ever to play in both the Super Bowl and the World Series.

Unfortunately, Deion’s end-zone dancing and sometimes-childish behavior off the field rubbed many people the wrong way, which is why I believe he doesn’t get the credit he deserves.
But looking strictly at the accomplishments, few athletes can touch Prime Time.

Here’s what Brown does for my top-five list

By Aaron Garcia, aaron@unioncountyweekly.com

I judge athletes in this type of conversation by one quality: pliability. To me, athletic ability is somewhat innate and not simply quantified by rings or trophies or medals (though they help) but rather in one’s ability to apply his skills to any given activity.

To me, the best athletes are the ones who would excel no matter what set of equipment they’re handed, whether the ball is pitched, goes through a hoop or is tied to a tether. That’s why I consider the following five players the best athletes ever.

5. BOB HAYES
So often we dream about what Olympic sprinters would be capable of while wearing a helmet and shoulder pads, and so often we are disappointed. Somehow, Hayes was able to couple his raw speed with his gridiron potential, and he flourished.

After winning gold at the 1964 Games in the 100-meter dash and the 4×100 relay, Hayes then was drafted in the seventh round by the Dallas Cowboys and became one of the most feared receivers of his day.

4. MICHAEL JORDAN
Jordan often gets panned for his brief stint in professional baseball, but answer this: How many guys could step into a Double-A lineup and manage two hits every 10 at-bats after last playing in high school? How about plating 51 RBIs or stealing 30 bases on professional catchers?

Jordan probably earned a spot on this list for his basketball exploits, but becoming even a marginal baseball player after a 13-year absence from the game makes him one of the best athletes ever.

3. BO JACKSON
Jackson remains the latest and greatest representation of pure athleticism of the last 25 years. After dominating the Southeastern Conference in baseball, football and track – he averaged a league-record 6.6 yards per carry and won the 1985 Heisman Trophy, batted .401 the same year and qualified for the NCAA track and field championships in the 100-meter dash – Jackson went on to become an all-star in both baseball and football. That’s a feat we might never see repeated.

2. DAVE WINFIELD
Winfield was such a good athlete while at the University of Minnesota that he was drafted by four professional leagues after graduation – Major League Baseball, the NBA,  the ABA and the NFL. Heck, the Minnesota Vikings drafted Winfield in the 17th round, even though he hadn’t played a down of college football. He chose baseball and in 2001 was elected to the Hall of Fame.

1. JIM BROWN
Before Brown became one of the most feared runners in the history of football, he averaged 15 points as a sophomore basketball player at Syracuse, lettered in track and field, and scored 43 goals in 10 games as an All-American in lacrosse. Then he rewrote the NFL’s record book as the most dominating offensive player the game had seen despite retiring at the age of 29 (while playing 12- and 14-game seasons). His marks of 104 yards per game and 5.2 yards per carry by a running back might never be touched.

Six-time champion Jordan No. 1 in my top five

By Andrew Stark, andrew@unioncountyweekly.com

I will start by saying that picking just five athletes that I deem to be the greatest of all time is a daunting task. With Michael Phelps recently winning his record 22 Olympic medals, including 18 that are gold, there has been talk of him possibly being the greatest athlete of all time. But he did not crack my top five.

For me, the top three athletes were absolute no-brainers, but Nos. 4 and 5 were much, much tougher. In the end, however, I feel pretty good about my choices.

Here they go:

5. NOLAN RYAN
The legendary baseball player wasn’t a name that immediately popped into my head when I was thinking about my list. But think about it: Ryan pitched, as an elite power hurler, mind you, for 27 seasons in the big leagues. He logged more than 200 innings in 14 of those years, won 324 games (which is tied for 14th in history) and, as the all-time strikeout king, has more than 800 more whiffs than his next-closest competitor.

While his strike out mark will never be broken, his seven no-hitters (not to mention his 12 one-hitters) are even more untouchable.

4. LANCE ARMSTRONG
Assuming that he never tests positive for steroids, which would immediately take him off top-five my list, the great cycling champion makes a strong case for himself.

Winning seven consecutive Tour de France races is impressive enough, but to do it after surviving testicular cancer is even more astonishing. Armstrong started as a swimmer and was once the No. 1 ranked triathlete in the country. The fact that he then went on to become the greatest ever in the sport of cycling gives him elite status.

3. MUHAMMAD ALI
The three-time heavyweight boxing champion was lightning quick, scared of no man and dominated during what I consider to be the golden era of boxing. Ali would taunt his opponents before the match and more than back it up in the ring.

2. BO JACKSON
An All-Pro in football and an All-Star in baseball, Jackson was the quintessential elite athlete. He made acrobatic catches look routine, had speed, power, a cannon for a right arm, and his 1989 Major League Baseball All-Star Game home run is still awe-inspiring.

On the football field, he was big and powerful, and had breakaway speed and dazzling moves. If a horrific hip injury had not derailed his career, Jackson absolutely would be at the top of my list.

1. MICHAEL JORDAN
Back in 1984, MJ entered the NBA as a dunker. Soon after, however, his game evolved and he wound up becoming the best and most complete basketball player of all time.

After dropping a playoff-record 63 points on Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics in the 1986 postseason, Bird was quoted as saying that the former North Carolina Tar Heel was “God disguised as Michael Jordan.”

If that pesky baseball experiment had not happened, Jordan would have easily added to his mind-blowing numbers.

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