NFL players who were college stars in sports other than football

·4 min read

NFL players who were college stars in sports other than football originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

Have you ever wondered what athletes like LeBron James and Russell Westbrook would be capable of if they strapped on padding and made their way to the gridiron?

While it’s unlikely to see NBA All-Stars switching sides anytime soon, the NFL has several players who starred in other sports before giving football a try.

Most recently, Devon Allen put his speed on full display while working out with the Philadelphia Eagles. Allen, a former wide receiver with the Oregon Ducks, rose to fame as a three-time national champion in the 110-m hurdles and two-time Olympian, finishing fourth in Tokyo.

Allen was ultimately cut by the Eagles yesterday, but he joins a tradition of uber-athletes to give football a shot.

Farther south, the Atlanta Falcons kept Jared Bernhardt, a former lacrosse star at Maryland.

Bernhardt spent five seasons with the Terrapins, winning a national championship as a freshman and finishing runner-up during his fifth year. During his final season, he also won the Tewaaraton Award, designated for the best college lacrosse player in the country. He holds school records for career goals (202) and points (290).

He then transferred to Ferris State, where he went under center as quarterback and led the Bulldogs to an undefeated record and Division II championship.

Here’s a look at some other NFL players who excelled in college at a sport other than football.

Antonio Gates – basketball

Gates originally enrolled at Michigan State, looking to play both basketball and football under two men early in their head coaching careers -- Tom Izzo and Nick Saban.

Upon learning that Saban wanted him to exclusively play football, Gates did a stint at Eastern Michigan and in junior college before settling at Kent State, where he averaged 18.1 points and 7.9 rebounds. During his junior season, Gates led the Golden Flash to the Elite Eight as a No. 10 seed.

Despite building an All-American career at Kent State, NBA scouts told the 6-foot-4 forward that he wouldn’t make it in the NBA, sending Gates back to football. He quickly found success, signing with the Chargers where he spent the next 16 seasons as a tight end and was named to eight Pro Bowls.

Matt Gay - soccer

You’d be hard pressed to find anyone in Orem, Utah, who could’ve predicted the way Matt Gay’s career has played out.

The Los Angeles Ram kicker clearly always had raw talent, dating back to high school when he was named a two-time first-team All-State soccer player. Beyond that, his kicking stats were nothing to write home about and he seemed destined to be another really good soccer player who dabbled in football -- a dime a dozen in high school sports.

Gay pursued soccer for two years at Utah Valley University, leading the team in goals and points his freshman season. He eventually transferred to Utah, joined the football team and never looked back. In two seasons with the Utes, he was a two-time All-American and honored with the Lou Groza Award for the nation’s top kicker.

He enjoyed a breakout season -- his third in the league -- last year with the Los Angeles Rams. In the Super Bowl, Gay made his lone field goal attempt from 41 yards and went 2-for-2 on extra points en route to a 23-20 win for the Los Angeles Chargers.

Bob Hayes - track and field

Hayes was a huge part of the track-to-football pipeline that continues today.

The NFL Hall of Fame wide receiver got his start as a sprinter, winning two gold medals at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. He caught the attention of the NFL, where he debuted with the Dallas Cowboys in 1965. He led the NFL in receiving touchdowns in his first two seasons and is credited for transforming traditional defensive schemes. 

Hayes is one of only three Hall of Famers to win an Olympic medal -- joining Jim Thorpe and Ollie Matson.

Rico Gathers - basketball

Gathers’ decision to leave basketball for football continues to perplex.

The 6-foot-6 forward from Louisiana built an impressive resume playing basketball at Baylor. He became the school’s first-ever player to exceed 1,000 rebounds. He also holds the school record for most career rebounds at 1,134 -- six more than his cousin, the late Hank Gathers. He received All-Big 12 honors, was an honorable mention All-American and seemed to have etched his name across the program’s record books.

Gathers surprised many when he reportedly approached Art Briles, head coach of Baylor football, about joining the team, despite having not played a down of football since middle school. Gathers never even suited up, instead opting to declare for the 2016 NFL Draft where he was selected by the Dallas Cowboys in the sixth round.

Gathers' time as a tight end in the NFL could only be described as tumultuous -- showing glimmers of promise, but marked by injuries and marijuana use that violated the league’s policy on substances of abuse.