Professional Athletes Who Chose to Switch Sports

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Tim Tebow signed a minor league contract with the New York Mets on Thursday and will begin his professional baseball career in the fall instructional league on Sept. 19 in Port St. Lucie, Florida. Mets general manager Sandy Alderson insisted that signing Tebow, a former NFL quarterback, is not a publicity stunt.

“While I and the organization, I think, are mindful of the novel nature of this situation, this decision was strictly driven by baseball,” Alderson said on a conference call with Tebow and agent Brodie Van Wagenen on Thursday to announce the agreement that includes a $100,000 signing bonus. “This was not something that was driven by marketing considerations or anything of the sort. We are extremely intrigued with the potential that Tim has.

“He has demonstrated over his athletic career that he is a tremendous athlete, has got character, a competitive spirit. Aside from the age (29), this is a classic player-development opportunity for us. As an organization, we’re going to provide that development opportunity for Tim.”

The decision nonetheless was made at the highest levels of the organization — by Alderson and chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon — and did not intimately involve the team’s baseball-operations personnel. The Mets were one of 28 teams to attend Tebow’s showcase last week in Los Angeles.

Tebow acknowledged his upcoming baseball journey is “not one that will be necessarily easy.”

“I know this is a tough game,” Tebow said. “But I’m looking forward to putting in the work and I felt like this was the best fit.”

Tebow, who hasn’t played organized baseball since his junior year at Nease High School in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, in 2005, has been working out with former big league catcher Chad Moeller in Scottsdale, Arizona, since Memorial Day. Tebow spent almost two hours last week at the Southern California’s Dedeaux Field running a 60-yard dash, shagging fly balls, throwing from the outfield and taking swings against former major league pitchers David Aardsma and Chad Smith in his audition for clubs.

Tebow won the Heisman Trophy for the Florida Gators in 2007 and helped the team take two national championships. He played professionally for the Denver Broncos and New York Jets from 2010 to 2012. He spent training camps with the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles in 2013 and 2015, respectively, but never played in the regular season for those teams.

Tebow is not the first athlete to cross-over into other sports. Some of these other big names are listed below.

Michael Jordan – Basketball to Baseball
The most famous case of an athlete switching sports was by one of the most famous athletes of all time, Michael Jordan. The greatest basketball player to have ever lived, MJ tried to conquer another sport when he swapped the NBA for Minor League Baseball in 1994. The decision was made in 1993, when Jordan first retired from basketball, and he later stated it was because his father – who died that year – had always envisioned his son as an MLB player. The switch was short-lived, with Jordan returning to the NBA in 1995. It was largely viewed as a failure, despite Jordan doing well for a beginner.

Brock Lesnar – WWE to Football to MMA
Brock Lesnar’s inclusion in this list is slightly controversial. Lesnar is best known for his work in the WWE, but he was originally hopeful of becoming an NFL star and more recently tried his hands at MMA. In both football and MMA, Lesnar’s success is up for debate. His football career lasted just one pre-season, where he made a habit of getting into fights before a cut ended his football career, and thus it could be seen as a failure. While his MMA career included becoming UFC Heavyweight Champion, yet consecutive first round defeats once competitors realized Lesnar struggled with blows to the face ended his MMA career as quickly as it had started.

Jerry Rice – Football to Golf
One of the greatest NFL players of all-time, and widely regarded as the greatest wide receiver in NFL history, Jerry Rice holds the NFL records for the most receptions, touchdown receptions and yards for a wide receiver. There can be no doubt then that Rice could play football, and play it well, but his ability as a golfer is a little more up for debate. Rice played golf for over 20 years before his retirement from football in 2005, and ventured into the world of golf in 2010, taking part in the French Express Classic. He finished in 151st position out of 152 players, 17-over and only one shot ahead of last place. Rice never played golf competitively again.

Chris Chelios Hockey to Bobsled
Perhaps the most unusual sport for an athlete to have switched to on this list, former NHL defenseman Chris Chelios tried his hand at the bobsled in 2004. Chelios, who has made the fifth most NHL appearances of any player in history, began training with the U.S. Bobsled federation in 2004 in midst of the NHL lockout, in the hope of competing at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin. Chelios eventually joined up with the Greek team, who took him on board but sadly were unable to qualify. He did go to the 2006 Winter Olympics, but competed in ice hockey and captained the U.S. team.

Dwain Chambers – Track & Field to Football to Rugby
Another disgraced track and field athlete who was forced into searching for a new career, Dwain Chambers is one of the fastest Europeans in history. He holds the European 60 meters record (6.42 seconds) and is the fourth fastest European over 100 meters in history (9.97 seconds). Chambers set the world junior record in 1997 and raced at the 2000 Sydney Olympics by was banned for doping in 2003. He received a two-year ban from athletics and a lifetime ban from the Olympics and Commonwealth Games. He tried to break into the NFL Europe and later rugby league, but failed at both.

Emmanuel Yarborough – Sumo to Judo
He may not look like your typical athlete but he is one. Weighing in at 270 kg, Yarborough is the heaviest athlete in the world, and he stands at 6-foot-8 and wears size 21 shoes. He was originally trained in Judo, but due to his size, Sumo wrestling seemed like his natural calling. In 1995, he became the World Amateur Sumo Champion. He is regarded as the most famous sumo wrestler outside of Japan. He tried to make the move from sumo to UFC in 1994, competing in UFC 3. In total, Yarborough fought three MMA fights, losing twice and winning once, in what was not only a bizarre spectacle, but also a spectacular failure.

Jimmy Bullard – Soccer to Golf
Former Premier League ‘funny man’ Jimmy Bullard has his career cut short by a number of injuries, and decided to turn to the only other game he knew, golf. Bullard played in the Premier League for Wigan, Fulham and Hull, and in his prime, he was called up to the England squad three times, although he never managed to win a full cap. He retired from soccer in 2012, and tried to break into the world of professional golf in 2013. He attempted to qualify for the PGA EuroPro Tour, but failed. It was clear Bullard was not up to the caliber required to make it at that level, and he soon turned his back on the idea.

Justin Gatlin – Track & Field to Football
Brooklyn-born Justin Gatlin has been the subject of much controversy over the years. He has served two separate bans for doping, and some feel he has never truly apologised to the damage that he did to the sport. As a sprinter, Gatlin is one of the fastest men in history, despite having sullied his name and legacy. His record best is 9.74 seconds, making him the fifth fastest man in recorded history. After his second ban, a four-year ban, in 2006, Gatlin looked to break into the NFL, despite not having played football since the tenth grade. He failed to secure a contract with either the Houston Texans or the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Jose Canseco – Baseball to MMA
Former MLB star and admitted drug cheat, Jose Canseco spent 16 in MLB, with his best years coming with Oakland Athletics, Texas Rangers and the Boston Red Sox. Canseco admitted to his drug use after his retirement in his autobiography, but added that doing so was common place among baseball players throughout his career. Having retired from baseball in 2001, he set about making a career in MMA in 2009, when he fought the 7-foot-2 Choi Hong-man. Canseco claims to hold black belts in karate and taekwondo, but few could tell, as he suffered a humiliating first round defeat, bringing a swift end to his MMA career.

Usain Bolt – Track & Field to Soccer
Unlike the track and field athletes that have preceded him, Usain Bolt has not been disgraced or banned at any time. In fact, quite the opposite, Bolt has largely played the role of the good guy. The fastest man to have ever lived who doesn’t need any help from banned substances. An image which has been perpetuated by his recent rivalry with Justin Gatlin, which has been billed as good against evil by many in the media. Bolt announced in 2011 that he would like to play soccer professionally, particularly for Manchester United who he supports. He released a video of his skills in the hope of a trial. Sir Alex wasn’t interested and Bolt’s football career was over before it had even begun.

Johnnie Morton – Football to MMA
The most humiliating and damning switch from one sport to another was that of Johnnie Morton. The former NFL wide receiver who played for the Detroit Lions, Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers over an 11-year career in which he played 182 NFL games was another who tried his hand at MMA. Having left the NFL in 2005, his MMA debut came in 2007. Morton fought Bernard Ackah, who had only previous fight to his name. Ackah annihilated Morton, defeating him after 38 seconds. Morton never fought a MMA bout again and even refused to take a drug test after the fight, leading many to believe he lost so spectacularly despite doping.

James Toney – Boxing to MMA to Boxing
Former IBF middleweight, super middleweight and cruiserweight champion James Toney is one of the biggest names to have made the transition from boxing to MMA. As a boxer, Toney was a three-weight world champion and defeated 11 world champions over the course of his career, including the likes of Mike McCallum and Evander Holyfield. Spotted in attendance at UFC 108, talks soon began for Toney to enter the sport, and he did so in 2010. He wasn’t given an easy introduction, with UFC Hall of Famer and former Heavyweight Champion Randy Couture his first opponent. A first round defeat meant Couture was Toney’s first and last UFC opponent, and he returned to boxing once more.

Danny Ainge – Basketball to Baseball
Mostly known now as the general manager of the Boston Celtics, Danny Ainge was a championship-winning guard with the Celtics in the ’80s and famously the only player traded away from the 1986 title team. Ainge was, first and foremost, a Toronto Blue Jay, being drafted in 1977 and making the team properly in 1979 — that’s to say in the majors, not as a minor league prospect. After a couple of middling years with the Blue Jays, Ainge jumped ship when he was drafted by the Celtics in 1981.

Brian Jordan – Football to Baseball
Brian Jordan, whose name sounds vaguely like an advertising agency’s amalgamation of what a plucky sports hero should be named, was actually the picture-perfect definition of a fence sitter, as he wound up drafted by the Buffalo Bills just a year after being drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals. As Jordan was toiling away in the minors, though, he was suiting up for the Arizona Falcons — the Bills waived him after the draft — and managed to make a Pro Bowl before finally signing with the Cardinals properly, a deal which included a clause forbidding him from continuing to play in the NFL.

Frank Thomas – Football to Baseball
Frank Thomas actually was recruited to Auburn to play football. The Big Hurt was a tight end for the Tigers before switching to baseball full-time.
And it was the right decision. 521 home runs later, I’m sure Thomas has no regrets about his decision to quit football.

Tony Gwynn – Basketball to Baseball
Tony Gwynn was drafted by the San Diego Clippers of the NBA and the San Diego Padres of Major League Baseball on the same day. He chose the baseball route, and ended his career with a .338 average, over 3,000 hits, and more than 1,000 RBI. Gwynn was a 15-time All-Star, won seven Silver Sluggers, and also had five Gold Gloves in his illustrious career. Gwynn will forever be remembered as one of the best hitters ever to play the game of baseball.

For a larger list of multi-sport athletes, click here