March 23, 2011
I’m sure you’ve heard by now that Chad Ochocinco is trying out for Major League Soccer’s Sporting KC. Ochocinco has never shied away from publicity, and MLS needs all the publicity it can get, so the tryout itself can’t be looked at as anything but positive. The potential for controversy really comes down to the decision the team will have to make at the end of the tryout.
Maybe he’ll legitimately earn his way onto the team. There’s no denying that he, like so many pros in any sport, is an exceptional athlete. He’s faster, stronger, more agile, more fit, and has better hand-eye coordination than 99.99% of the athletes in this country (when you include amateurs), so there’s no doubt in my mind that he has an infinitely better chance of making the Sporting KC team than I or any of the guys on my softball team would have. But is freaky athleticism enough to secure a spot on a professional soccer team when you haven’t played organized soccer in a decade?
Michael Jordan was one of the greatest athletes the world has ever witnessed. But even “His Greatness” wasn’t able to successfully make the switch from basketball to baseball. Recently retired pitcher John Smoltz was one of the best hurlers in baseball of the past three decades. His outstanding skills, however, have not yet been enough to launch a second career in golf. Had either of them given the same time and focus to their “second” sports that they gave to their “first” sports, is it possible that Jordan would today be mentioned in the same breath as Cal Ripken, Wade Boggs, and Ken Griffey, Jr., and that Smoltz would have spent the last two decades competing with the likes of Ernie Els, Vijay Singh, Phil Mickelson, and Tiger Woods?
Multi-sport athletes are certainly not new. Jim Thorpe, who competed well before the time of anyone reading this, is a legend in baseball, football, basketball, and many track and field events. In more recent history, Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders put up very respectable baseball numbers while also playing professional football. But few have been able to truly excel at more than one professional sport. Even for the extremely gifted, it takes so much time and effort to compete at the highest level in one sport that there just aren’t enough hours in the day or energy in the body to be similarly elite at another game.
Did you know that Tom Brady was drafted by the Expos? Daunte Culpepper was drafted by the Yankees. John Elway played in both the Yankees’ and the Royals’ minor league system. Pat Riley was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys, Danny Ainge played a few seasons for the Blue Jays, Tony Gwynn was drafted by the Clippers, Dan Marino was drafted by the Royals, and Randy “Macho Man” Savage played minor league ball for the Cardinals and Reds (Oh, yeah!). Each of these guys made a choice to concentrate on a single sport in an endeavor to excel, recognizing, I’m sure, that he couldn’t reach the level of greatness that he eventually reached if his efforts were divided between two sports.
Is it completely a matter of divided efforts, though? Or are some elite athletes just better suited for certain sports? Did Dan Marino turn down the opportunity to play baseball because it was clear to him that his skills gave him a much better shot at being a stand-out football player than a stand-out baseball player? A former college football playing buddy of mine often questions the choices he’s made. “For all I know,” he’ll say, “I could be the greatest pickle ball player, buffalo chip tosser, or Marco Poloist in the world, but I haven’t ever attempted any of them.” Maybe every elite athlete is built specifically for a certain game—athleticism can make him/her very good at many things, but only truly exceptional at one.
Whatever the case may be, the Ochocinco soccer tryout makes a great story. Can he achieve greatness in a second professional sport? I highly doubt it. But I marvel at his athleticism, and I don’t think I’m alone in saying that I can’t wait to watch the story unfold.