Football

Bo Jackson, Gale Sayers headline list of greatest football-track stars

Bo Jackson, Gale Sayers headline list of greatest football-track stars

The 1984-85 San Francisco 49ers won the Super Bowl and the team is generally considered on the short list among the greatest teams in NFL history. But coach Bill Walsh’s crew also holds another distinction — greatest track and field team in NFL history.

Jack Shepard of Track and Field News pointed out in a recent e-mail to MaxPreps that the 1984-85 49ers had three national high school track and field record holders on its roster. Wide receiver Renaldo Nehemiah set a national record in high school in the 110-meter hurdles with a time of 12.9 seconds. Tight end Russ Francis set the national record in the javelin (until the 1980s when adjustments were made to the implement) with a throw of 259 feet, 9 inches. And then there was nose guard Michael Carter, who tossed an other-worldly distance of 81 feet, 3.5 inches in the shot put.

As the 49ers’ lineup shows, track and field and football have had a close association with multiple NFL players competing on the track at some point in their career. Shepard noted that back in the 1960s, he once researched how many professional football players had run track and he came up with a list of 500-600 players.

Recent examples of the link can be found in Seattle Seahawks receiver D.K. Metcalf’s run at making the 2021 Olympic team as a sprinter earlier this month. Currently at the high school level, MaxPreps All-American lineman Bryce Foster ranks as the No. 1 shot put and discus thrower in the country.

MaxPreps has put together a list of the top 50 football-track and field combo athletes in high school history. The list includes Hall of Fame football players and gold medal Olympians. Players were ranked based on a combination of their success in both sports.

The athletes on the list had to compete in both football and track and field while in high school, and usually at a very high level. One name you won’t find on the list, however, is Jim Thorpe. Known as one of the greatest football-track athletes in history, Thorpe actually barely played high school football, quitting school upon the death of his father. He later made a name for himself as a football and track star at Carlisle (Pa.) as a college athlete.

Top 50 football-track and field athletes

  1. Ollie Matson
    High school: Washington (San Francisco)
    Graduation year: 1948
    Football resume: All-NorCal by the San Francisco Examiner as a senior, Matson was an All-American at the University of San Francisco and went on to a Hall of Fame career in the NFL.
    Track resume: Competed in the 100 and 220 in high school and took third at the state meet. Went on to compete in the Helsinki Olympics, where he took Bronze in the 440 and Silver in the 4×440 relay.
  2. Mel Renfro
    High school: Jefferson (Portland, Ore.)
    Graduation year: 1960
    Football resume: A high school All-American on Jefferson’s two undefeated teams in 1957 and 1958, Renfro went on to an All-American career at Oregon before a Hall of Fame career with the Dallas Cowboys.
    Track resume: The Track and Field News “High School Athlete of the Year” as a senior, Renfro nearly won the state meet all by himself while breaking a state record in the long jump. He earned All-American honors at Oregon in the broad jump and the high hurdles.
  3. Rod Woodson
    High school: Fort Wayne Snider (Ind.)
    Graduation year: 1983
    Football resume: A high school All-American and a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, Woodson is also in the NFL Hall of Fame.
    Track resume: Woodson set state records in the hurdles while at Snider and twice earned All-America honors in college at Purdue. Qualified for the Olympic Trials, but did not compete in order to pursue NFL career.
  4. Bob Hayes
    High school: Gilbert (Jacksonville, Fla.)
    Graduation year: 1960
    Football resume: Although a backup in high school on an undefeated Gilbert team in 1958, Hayes went on to play at Florida A&M and was drafted into the NFL in 1964. He had a Hall of Fame career as a receiver as one of the game’s fastest players.
    Track resume: Known as the “World’s Fastest Human” after setting a world record in the 100 meters at the 1964 Olympics with a time of 10.06. Also won gold in the 400-meter relay.
  5. Milt Campbell
    High school: Plainfield (N.J.)
    Graduation year: 1953
    Football resume: An all-state running back, Campbell played one year in the NFL with the Browns and played several years in the Canadian Football League.
    Track resume: Campbell set state records in the low hurdles and high jump in high school. He competed in the 1952 Olympics in the decathlon as an 18-year old senior, winning the silver behind Bob Mathias. Came back in 1956 and won the gold in Melbourne.
  6. Michael Carter
    High school: Jefferson (Dallas)
    Graduation year: 1979
    Football resume: A standout player in high school and college as a defensive lineman, Carter earned All-Pro honors three times in the NFL with the 49ers.
    Track resume: Carter’s throw of 81 feet, 3.5 inches in the shot put at the Golden West Invitational as a senior is legendary and is regarded by Track and Field News editor Jack Shepard as an unbreakable record. Carter later won the silver medal at the 1984 Olympics.
  7. James Lofton
    High school: George Washington Prep (Los Angeles)
    Graduation year: 1974
    Football resume: A quarterback in high school, Lofton became an All-American receiver at Stanford and had 14,004 yards receiving in a Hall of Fame NFL career.
    Track resume: A state champion in the long jump in high school with a jump of 24-3.5, Lofton won an NCAA championship four years later with a jump of 26-11.75.
  8. Herschel Walker
    High school: Johnson County (Wrightsville, Ga.)
    Graduation year: 1980
    Football resume: Named the first Dial Scholar Athlete of the Year while rushing for over 3,000 yards as a senior, Walker eventually won the Heisman Trophy while at Georgia and played in the USFL and NFL for 15 years.
    Track resume: A state champion in the 100, 220, shot put and 4×100 relay, Walker also earned All-America honors in college.
  9. Gale Sayers
    High school: Omaha Central (Omaha, Neb.)
    Graduation year: 1961
    Football resume: Sayers was an All-American in high school and in college at Kansas. The Rookie of the Year in the NFL in 1965, Sayers had a Hall of Fame career despite multiple knee injuries.
    Track resume: As a senior, Sayers won the state meet in the long jump with a leap of 24-10.5.
  10. Bo Jackson
    High school: McAdory (McCalla, Ala.)
    Graduation year: 1982
    Football resume: After an all-state senior season, Jackson went to Auburn and won the Heisman Trophy as a junior. He played four seasons in the NFL before a hip injury ended his career.
    Track resume: Jackson set state records in the high jump and triple jump and he was also a two-time state champion in the decathlon. He also competed as a freshman and sophomore at Auburn.
  11. Darrell Green
    High school: Jones (Houston)
    Graduation year: 1979
    Football resume: A Hall of Fame defensive back, Green had 54 career interceptions. He is also a member of the College Football Hall of Fame.
    Track resume: All-state in track in high school, Green reportedly earned 10 All-America certificates in track and field while in college at Texas A&I.
  12. Eric Metcalf
    High school: Bishop O’Connell (Arlington, Va.)
    Graduation year: 1986
    Football resume: All-conference in college at Texas, Metcalf made the Pro Bowl three times in a 13-year NFL career.
    Track resume: A two-time NCAA champion in the long jump, he was also the 1988 U.S. Track and Field champion in the event.
  13. Bobby Mitchell
    High school: Langston (Hot Springs, Ark.)
    Graduation year: 1954
    Football resume: A Hall of Fame receiver and running back with the Redskins and Browns, Mitchell played in the College All-Star Game while at Illinois.
    Track resume: In track in college, Mitchell set a world record in the 70-yard low hurdles and he helped Illinois win a Big Ten championship.
  14. Randy Moss
    High school: DuPont (Rand, W.Va.)
    Graduation year: 1995
    Football resume: All-American in high school and college, Moss finished his Hall of Fame NFL career with 15,292 receiving yards.
    Track resume: In his only season on the track team at DuPont, Moss won the 100 and 200-meters at the West Virginia state meet. He also ran track at Marshall.
  15. Raghib Ismail
    High school: Elmer L. Meyers (Wilkes-Barre, Pa.)
    Graduation year: 1988
    Football resume: An All-American running back in high school and runner-up to Ty Detmer in the Heisman Trophy voting while at Notre Dame, Ismail played in the Canadian Football League and nine season in the NFL.
    Track resume: One of the top sprinters in the nation while in high school, Ismail finished second in the 55-meters in the NCAA Indoor Championships.
  16. Lynn Swann
    High school: Serra (San Mateo, Calif.)
    Graduation year: 1970
    Football resume: All-American in high school as a quarterback, Swann became an All-American receiver in college at USC and had a Hall of Fame career in the NFL.
    Track resume: Swann was the state champion in the long jump with a leap of 24 feet, 10 inches.
  17. Bob Mathias
    High school: Tulare Union (Tulare, Calif.)
    Graduation year: 1948
    Football resume: A running back at Tulare, Mathias played a post-graduate season at Kiski Area (Pa.) before becoming a running back at Stanford.
    Track resume: Mathias won the hurdle events at the California state meet as a senior and then won the decathlon later that summer in London. Four years later, Mathias became the first athlete to win the decathlon twice.
  18. Renaldo Nehemiah
    High school: Scotch Plains-Fanwood (Scotch Plains, N.J.)
    Graduation year: 1977
    Football resume: A running quarterback in high school, Nehemiah returned to football with the San Francisco 49ers from 1982 to 85.
    Track resume: A national record holder in high school in the 110-meter hurdles with a time of 12.9 seconds, Nehemiah was the Track and Field News “High School Athlete of the Year.” A three-time All-American at Maryland, Nehemiah was unable to compete in the Olympics due to the 1980 boycott.
  19. Paul Warfield
    High school: Harding (Warren, Ohio)
    Graduation year: 1960
    Football resume: An all-state player at Harding and an All-American at Ohio State, Warfield had a Hall of Fame career in the NFL with the Browns and Dolphins.
    Track resume: A state champion in the long jump and 180 hurdles, Warfield was a potential Olympic long jumper while at Ohio State, leaping 26-feet, 2 inches.
  20. Nolan Cromwell
    High school: Ransom (Kan.)
    Graduation year: 1973
    Football resume: An all-state quarterback in high school and honorable mention All-America while at Kansas, Cromwell switched to defense in the NFL and made the 1980s All-Decade team.
    Track resume: A national junior champion in the decathlon, Cromwell earned All-American honors in the hurdles and decathlon at Kansas. He qualified for the Olympic Trials in the hurdles.
  21. Lam Jones
    High school: Lampasas (Texas)
    Graduation year: 1976
    Football resume: An all-state pick in football, Jones was also All-American in college at Texas and was the No. 2 overall pick in the 1980 NFL draft.
    Track resume: A state champion in the 440-yard dash as a senior. After graduating, Jones earned a spot on the 1976 Olympic 4×100 meter relay team and won the gold medal. He also finished sixth in the 100 meters.
  22. Mel Gray
    High school: Montgomery (Santa Rosa, Calif.)
    Graduation year: 1967
    Football resume: All-Northern California in high school, Gray was all-conference at Missouri and was a four-time Pro Bowl selection in the NFL as a receiver.
    Track resume: Gray won the state meet in the 100-yard dash as a senior in a national record time of 9.4 seconds.
  23. Michael Bates
    High school: Amphitheater (Tucson, Ariz.)
    Graduation year: 1989
    Football resume: An Parade All-American in high school, Bates became one of the NFL’s all-time great kick returners. He earned five trips to the Pro Bowl and is a member of the 1990s All-Decade Team.
    Track resume: He set state records in high school and was an all-conference performer at Arizona State. He competed in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and won the Bronze Medal in the 200 meters.
  24. Robert Griffin III
    High school: Copperas Cove (Texas)
    Graduation year: 2008
    Football resume: An all-district quarterback in high school, Griffin won the Heisman Trophy while at Baylor. He had one Pro Bowl season in the NFL before injuries limited his career.
    Track resume: One of the top hurdlers in the world while in high school, Griffin had the top times in the nation and was ranked No. 1 in the world at one point. He also set records in the hurdles in college and qualified for the Olympic trials.
  25. Qadry Ismail
    High school: Elmer L. Meyers (Wilkes-Barre, Pa.)
    Graduation year: 1989
    Football resume: Ismael earned All-American honors in college as a returner. He played nine seasons in the NFL.
    Track resume: One of the top hurdlers in the nation, Ismael was Track and Field News’ top hurdler as a senior. He was also All-American in college at Syracuse.
  26. Harold Muller
    High school: San Diego (Calif.)/Oakland Tech (Oakland, Calif.)
    Graduation year: 1919
    Football resume: Muller played on San Diego’s 1916 team that was determined to be the best team in the nation. He later graduated from Oakland Tech and went to Cal-Berkeley, where he was an All-American.
    Track resume: Muller competed in the Antwerp Olympics in 1920, winning the silver medal in the high jump. He also competed at Berkeley, leading the Bears to three conference championships.
  27. Jamaal Charles
    High school: Port Arthur Memorial (Port Arthur, Texas)
    Graduation year: 2005
    Football resume: Earned Parade All-American honors and was All-Big 12 while at Texas. Made the Pro Bowl four times in his NFL career.
    Track resume: Charles won a pair of events at the Texas state meet and he was a four-time All-American while at Texas.
  28. Tyrone Wheatley
    High school: Robichaud (Dearborn Heights, Mich.)
    Graduation year: 1991
    Football resume: The state player of the year in Michigan, Wheatley was a three-time All-Big 10 pick. He played nine seasons in the NFL.
    Track resume: Wheatley was a seven-time state champion in high school and was an All-American hurdler at Michigan.
  29. Terry Bradshaw
    High school: Woodlawn-Shreveport (Shreveport, La.)
    Graduation year: 1966
    Football resume: An all-state quarterback in high school and an All-American in college, Bradshaw was the No. 1 overall pick in the 1970 NFL draft and went on to win four Super Bowls with the Steelers while earning a spot in the Hall of Fame.
    Track resume: Over the course of two weeks as a senior at Woodlawn, Bradshaw broke the national javelin record four times with a final throw of 245 feet.
  30. Jeff Demps
    High school: South Lake (Groveland, Fla.)
    Graduation year: 2008
    Football resume: An all-state player as a running back, Demps was a key player on Florida’s national championship football team in 2009. He has been a member of several NFL teams but has only one professional carry.
    Track resume: Demps set national records in high school and was a national champion while in college. He competed in the 2012 Olympics and earned a Silver Medal in the 4×100 meter relay.
  31. Gerald Tinker
    High school: Coral Gables (Fla.)
    Graduation year: 1969
    Football resume: Tinker was a starter on a Coral Gables team that ranks as one of the greatest in Florida High School history. He played two seasons in the NFL.
    Track resume: A state champion in the 100 and 220 as a senior, Tinker eventually landed a spot on the Olympic 4×100 meter relay team that won a gold in the 1976 Olympics.
  32. Mort Kaer
    High school: Red Bluff (Calif.)
    Graduation year: 1923
    Football resume: A standout athlete in high school, Kaer went to Southern Cal and was the school’s first unanimous All-American. Played briefly in the NFL.
    Track resume: Kaer won three events at the California state meet, including the long jump with a leap of 23-2. Attended the Olympics in 1924 and competed in the pentathlon.
  33. Rafer Johnson
    High school: Kingsburg (Calif.)
    Graduation year: 1954
    Football resume: Johnson played football at Kingsburg, but did not play after high school. He did play basketball at UCLA.
    Track resume: Johnson won the decathlon at the CIF meet as a junior and senior and eventually won the 1960 decathlon at the Rome Olympics.
  34. Willie Gault
    High school: Griffin (Ga.)
    Graduation year: 1979
    Football resume: Gault was all-state in high school and earned All-American honors at Tennessee. He played 10 seasons in the NFL as a receiver.
    Track resume: An All-American in college, Gault qualified for the 1980 Olympics, but was unable to attend due to the boycott. He was part of a gold medal relay team at the World Championships in 1983.
  35. Tyreek Hill
    High school: Coffee (Douglas, Ga.)
    Graduation year: 2012
    Football resume: Hill played football at Coffee and several different college stops before being drafted by the Chiefs. He’s a three-time All-Pro in his five seasons.
    Track resume: Hill was a high school All-American in track, putting up some of the fastest times in the nation. He was also a national champion at the junior college level.
  36. Marquise Goodwin
    High school: Rowlett (Texas)
    Graduation year: 2009
    Football resume: Goodwin played football in high school and college (at Texas) and has played nine seasons in the NFL.
    Track resume: Goodwin competed in the US Track and Field championships as a senior and set the high school record in the long jump with a leap of 26-10. He is a two-time NCAA national champion.
  37. Jahvid Best
    High school: Salesian College Preparatory (Richmond, Calif.)
    Graduation year: 2007
    Football resume: At Salesian, Best rushed for over 3,325 yards as a senior. He played at California and was eventually drafted by the Detroit Lions. He played three seasons in the NFL and retired due to multiple concussions.
    Track resume: He won the 100 at the state meet in a time of 10.31. He also competed in the 2016 Olympics.
  38. James Jett
    High school: Jefferson (Shenandoah Junction, W.Va.)
    Graduation year: 1989
    Football resume: Jett played football in high school and in college at West Virginia. He played nine seasons in the NFL with the Raiders.
    Track resume: A seven-time All-American in college, Jett won a gold medal at the Barcelona Olympics in the 4×100 meter relay.
  39. Ron Dayne
    High school: Overbrook (Pine Hill, N.J.)
    Graduation year: 1996
    Football resume: A Heisman Trophy winner while at Wisconsin, Dayne finished his career as the NCAA’s all-time leading rusher. He played eight seasons in the NFL.
    Track resume: Dayne won the shot put and the discus as a senior and had one of the best ever throws in the discus with a distance of 216-11.
  40. Glenn Davis
    High school: Bonita (La Verne, Calif.)
    Graduation year: 1943
    Football resume: The leading scorer in the nation as a senior at Bonita, Davis went on to win the Heisman Trophy while at Army. Played briefly in the NFL.
    Track resume: Davis was one of the top sprinters in California as a senior and he also competed in track at West Point.
  41. Dwight Edelman
    High school: Centralia (Ill.)
    Graduation year: 1942
    Football resume: Played quarterback in high school and was a punter at Illinois. Edelman was drafted by the Chicago Bears, but chose to play in the NBA instead (he graduated Centralia as the nation’s all-time leading scorer in basketball).
    Track resume: A three-time state champion in the high jump, Edelman qualified for the 1948 Olympics while at Illinois. He tied with two others for the silver medal, but finished fourth due to having more misses.
  42. Earl McCullouch
    High school: Long Beach Poly (Long Beach, Calif.)
    Graduation year: 1964
    Football resume: Played at Poly and USC and was the Rookie of the Year with the Detroit Lions as a receiver in 1968.
    Track resume: McCullouch held the world record in the 110-meter hurdles for two years. He still holds the state record in the 180-yard hurdles since the event is no longer contested.
  43. Terry Albritton
    High school: Newport Harbor (Newport Beach, Calif.)
    Graduation year: 1972
    Football resume: A Parade All-American in high school, Albritton went to Stanford on a scholarship, but transferred to Hawaii to compete in track.
    Track resume: One of the top shot putters in the world in the early 1970s, Albritton held the world record of 71-8 1/3 in 1976. He missed out on a chance at the 1976 Olympics due to an injury from a motorcycle accident.
  44. Cliff Branch
    High school: Worthing (Houston)
    Graduation year: 1967
    Football resume: One of the most feared deep threats in the NFL in the 1970s, Branch was a four-time Pro Bowl receiver.
    Track resume: Branch had some of the top spring times in Texas as a senior, running the 100-yard dash in 9.2 seconds. He went on to Colorado and set an NCAA record in the 100 meters with a time of 10.0 seconds.
  45. Curtis Conway
    High school: Hawthorne (Calif.)
    Graduation year: 1989
    Football resume: An All-American quarterback in high school, Conway switched to receiver in college and the NFL. Had 8,230 career receiving yards.
    Track resume: Won the 100-meter dash as a senior at the California state meet in a time of 10.23 seconds.
  46. Sol Butler
    High school: Rock Island (Ill.)
    Graduation year: 1915
    Football resume: A star quarterback at Rock Island and a four-year starter at the University of Dubuque, Butler played several years in the early NFL during the 1920s.
    Track resume: Butler set world records in the 50-yard dash and the broad jump while in high school. Competed in the Antwerp Olympics in 1920, but a leg injury prevented him from medaling.
  47. Russ Francis
    High school: Pleasant Hill (Ore.)
    Graduation year: 1971.
    Football resume: Played only a year in college at Oregon, but was a three-time Pro Bowl tight end in the NFL.
    Track resume: In his only year at Pleasant Hill, Francis set the national javelin record with a throw of 259 feet, 9 inches.
  48. Xavier Carter
    High school: Palm Bay (Melbourne, Fla.)
    Graduation year: 2004
    Football resume: Named to the USA Today All-American team as a receiver, Carter also played football at LSU.
    Track resume: Carter posted national best times in the sprints and also set a national record in the indoor 200 meters. He also won four events at won NCAA meet.
  49. Marvin Bracy
    High school: Boone (Orlando, Fla.)
    Graduation year: 2012
    Football resume: Bracy played in the Under Armour All-American game as a senior and has had brief tryouts with several NFL teams.
    Track resume: Bracy was a World Junior Champion in the 100 meters and the 4×100 meter relay. He was a three-time US Indoor 60-meter champion.
  50. Jeff Buckey
    High school: Bakersfield (Calif.)
    Graduation year: 1990
    Football resume: All-state in football by Cal-Hi Sports, Buckey played at Stanford and played several years in the NFL.
    Track resume: Two-time California state champion in the discus. Also competed at Stanford.

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