By: Billy BeerSlugger
First of all let me say this debate is not about the most popular athlete ever, it’s the greatest athlete ever. I’ve considered athletes that play individual and team sports. Sports with balls and sports without balls. Sports that have a finish line, goal, pin, basket, plate and net. Sports that athletes throw, run, catch, shoot, tackle, swim, swing, spike, juke and pedal. I’m trying to be as objective as possible and not discount any sport. I’m not going to neglect an athlete just because they didn’t win “The Big One” because we are talking about athletic ability and especially in team sports, one person does not get you to the top of the mountain.
Merriam-Webster describes an athlete as: a person who is trained or skilled in exercises, sports, or games requiring physical strength, agility, or stamina. I am going to throw speed in there as well.
To narrow down the field I am only considering athletes that have a combination of all of these traits: speed, strength, agility and stamina. A bowler may be able to throw a strike but maybe can’t run a six minute mile, a world class weight lifter can put up 500lbs but maybe can’t run the 100m dash in under 14 seconds. A golfer may be able to hit a ball 250yrds but can’t long jump 10ft. A cyclist may be able to climb the Wall in Manyunk but can’t change direction while running as fluently as basketball or football player.
Gone from consideration are athlete’s like Tiger Woods, Michael Phelps and Lance Armstrong. Nothing to diminish their accomplishments but they are not the caliber of well rounded athlete I’m considering. I’m looking for athlete’s that could play multiple sports if they wanted to and probably did.
I truly believe that the All Time Decathlon High Scorer, Roman Šebrle (Czech Republic) could be considered the greatest athlete of all time. Traditionally, the title of “World’s Greatest Athlete” has been given to the man who wins the decathlon. 10 events which measure strength, speed, agility and endurance. However, being that IAAF changes their scoring system around every 20 years or so, some call the scoring system flawed and the fact that he’s not an American, I’m going to choose someone else.
So yes, my pick is Barry Sanders. Barry Sanders? Yes Barry Sanders. Why you ask, here’s why.
The man could change direction any which way and not only make the defender miss but make him look completely foolish. He had legs like tree trunks, could stop on a dime and start up again like no one I’ve ever seen play the game of football. Probably the most agile person I’ve ever seen run the ball. Barry clocked in with a 4.37 in the 40 yard dash at the NFL combine and while that’s not the fastest time ever, it was his quickness that made him special.
Barry not only could make a man miss, he could straight up bounce off a tackler. You would think he was stopped in the backfield and then all of a sudden Barry gets pushed 3 yards back, the defender that hit him is on the ground and Barry runs for 20 yards the other way. Barry could bowl over people as well and wriggle out of tackles. The man basically invented the spin move (the circle button on Madden).
I don’t think you will ever see a runner like Barry Sanders again. Selected to the Pro Bowl every year of his career, 2 time offensive player of the year, Co-Mvp of the 1997 season. 15 career touchdown runs of 50 yards or more, most in NFL history. The man only missed 6 games in his entire 10 year career, that’s endurance for you, especially for a guy that supposed to get hit every time he touches the ball.
Barry retired in 1999, about 1,458 yards away from breaking Walter Payton’s all time career rushing for the NFL. Not because Barry couldn’t play anymore, but because Barry was such a competitor and wanted to win so bad that he retired instead of spending another season with the last place Detroit Lions (some things don’t change). Sanders could have easily played 3 or 4 more years.
To put it into perspective Payton needed 3 more years to get the 1,500 more yards and Emmit Smith played 5 more years to get 3,000 more yards than Barry. No one else in the NFL Hall of Fame has a higher per carry average than Sanders (5ypc) except Jim Brown (5.2ypc).
He set 34 NCAA records during his 1988 Heisman Campaign, over 2,600 yards and 39 touchdowns.
During an NBA Slam Dunk contest, Sanders dunked, flat footed and he’s 5’9”.
I could go on and on about this guy, but one of the greatest things about him (in my eyes) is that he never spiked a football. He never did a dance in the endzone. For as good as he was he wasn’t a showboat. He brought his hardhat to work, did his job and went home. There’s something to be said about that in an era when you got more press for your endzone antics then your play on the field sometimes.
Anyway, you don’t have to agree with me but the guy has everything an athlete needs, speed, power, endurance and probably one of the most agile human beings ever.