With the start of the Tokyo 2020/2021 Olympics, let’s take a look back at which Olympians have also played in the NFL. There have been a total of 39 NFL players who have competed in the Olympics. Of those, 38 played in the Summer Olympics and 1 in the Winter Olympics. A total of 22 NFL players won medals, with 15 winning gold.
Summer Olympians who have played in the NFL
Who are some of the standout Olympians to have played in the NFL over the past 100+ years?
Jim Thorpe, Canton Bulldogs | 1912 (Decathlon and Pentathlon)
Jim Thorpe was the first NFL player to be an Olympian. He won two golds at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm. Thorpe competed in four events, including the high jump and long jump, finishing fourth and seventh, respectively. He won eight of the 15 events comprising the pentathlon and decathlon, winning both events with ease. His victory in the decathlon came despite having a mismatched pair of shoes after his were stolen.
Thorpe was later stripped of his Olympic titles after discovering he had been paid to play baseball before the 1912 Olympics. However, this was not found until six months after the Olympics, breaking the rule that any protests must be made within 30 days. Thorpe was reinstated as champion in 1982; he was named co-champion alongside Ferdinand Bie and Hugo Wieslander. His family was awarded commemorative medals after his original ones were stolen from a museum.
Thorpe would go on to play football for numerous teams, retiring when he was 41. He was later inducted into the halls of fame for pro football, college football, American Olympic teams, and the national track and field competition. In 2018, he was one of the first inductees into the National Native American Hall of Fame. Thorpe is regularly mentioned as one of the greatest athletes of the 20th century.
Eugene Vidal, Washington Senators | 1920 (Decathlon)
A talented multi-sport athlete, Vidal was a letterman in football, basketball, baseball, and track at the University of South Dakota (USD). Vidal then went on to play football, basketball, and run track at Army. He became the first graduate of USD to be on an Olympic team in 1920, competing in the decathlon. Vidal won eight of the 100-meter dashes but could only place seventh overall in the event. He would return to the Olympics in 1924 as an assistant track coach in charge of the modern pentathlon and decathlon squads.
In between his two appearances as an Olympian, Vidal played professional football with the NFL’s Washington Senators in 1921. Vidal would only appear in one game for the Senators before becoming an assistant coach for the Oregon football team between 1926 and 1928. Vidal went on to become President Franklin Roosevelt’s top civil aviation director from 1933 to 1937. In his obituary, he was described as a “pioneer promoter of civil aviation.”
Jack Riley, Boston | 1924 (Wrestling)
A heavyweight wrestler and football star at Northwestern, Riley won a silver medal in 1932 at the Los Angeles Olympics. He played one season as a tackle for Boston before turning to professional wrestling. Riley went undefeated as a professional wrestler, winning 132 matches. He served in the US Marine Corps during World War II, rising to the rank of major. Having been an All-American in 1931, he was later named to the College Football Hall of Fame.
Sam Francis, Chicago Bears | 1936 (Shot Put)
After finishing fourth in the shot put in 1936, Sam Francis was the first overall selection in the 1937 NFL Draft. He would never play for the team who drafted him, the Philadelphia Eagles, instead spending four years in the league across three different teams: Chicago Bears, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Brooklyn Dodgers.
Francis finished his career with 253 carries for 873 yards and 5 touchdowns. He served in the Army through World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, holding the rank of lieutenant colonel upon his retirement. Francis was also inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
Glenn Morris, Detroit Lions | 1936 (Decathlon)
In the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Glenn Morris set a new world record as he won gold in the decathlon. It took four years for him to go from Olympian to NFL player, and even then, he played just four games for the Lions before injuries ended his career. Outside of football, he was briefly an NBC radio commentator, starred in a film about himself, and became the fourth Olympian to play Tarzan on screen. Morris served in the Navy during World War II.
Clyde Scott, Philadelphia Eagles | 1948 (110-meter hurdles)
A matter of months after being selected eighth overall in the 1948 NFL Draft, Clyde Scott won a silver medal in the 110-meter hurdles. He won two NFL championships during his four-year career, scoring 6 touchdowns and racking up 781 scrimmage yards. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame and is one of just two players to have his number retired at the University of Arkansas.
Ollie Matson, Chicago Cardinals | 1952 (400-meter and 4 x 400-meter relay)
Prior to beginning his NFL career, Ollie Matson won two medals in the 1952 Olympic games. Matson was drafted third overall by the Chicago Cardinals, winning Rookie of the Year honors alongside Hugh McElhenny. He played 14 years in the NFL, carrying the ball 1,170 times for 5,173 yards and 40 touchdowns. Matson added 222 receptions for 3,285 yards and 23 touchdowns. When he retired, his 12,799 career all-purpose yards were second only to Jim Brown. Matson has been inducted into both the Pro Football and College Football Hall of Fame.
Milton Campbell, Cleveland Browns | 1952 & 1956 (Decathlon)
After winning silver in the 1952 Olympics, Milton Campbell became the first African American to win the gold medal in the decathlon of the Summer Olympics. Campbell was drafted in 1957 but released after just one year. His release came after he married a white woman, which went against the segregationist ideals above his athletic ability. He went on to play in the Canadian Football League between 1958 and 1964.
Bo Roberson, San Diego Chargers | 1960 (Long Jump)
Bo Roberson won a silver medal as an Olympian in 1960 before going on to play in the NFL for six years. He is the only person to have an Ivy League degree, a Ph.D, an Olympic medal, and a career in the NFL.
Bob Hayes, Dallas Cowboys | 1964 (100-meter & 4 x 100-meter)
Bob Hayes is the only Olympian to have won both a gold medal and a Super Bowl. He won a gold medal in both his events at the 1964 Olympics. His final leg in the 4 x 100 is one of the most memorable moments in Olympics history.
Hayes was selected in the 1964 NFL Draft by the Dallas Cowboys. Playing as a split end, he was named first-team All-Pro twice, second-team All-Pro once, and earnered three Pro Bowl selections. Furthermore, Hayes led the NFL in receiving touchdowns in 1965 and 1966, won Super Bowl VI, and was inducted into the Cowboys’ Ring of Honor.
Tommie Smith, Cincinnati Bengals | 1968 (200-meter)
Despite winning gold in the 1968 Olympics, it was off the track that Smith is best remembered. He advocated for a boycott of the 1968 Olympics. Still, when they did not materialize, he and his training partner decided to wear their black gloves, go barefoot to protest poverty, wear beads to protest lynchings, and wear buttons that said OPHR (Olympic Project for Human Rights).
After winning the 200-meter gold in a world record time that would stand for 11 years, he and his training partner made headlines by raising their fists at the medal award ceremony. This was deemed a domestic political statement, and the IOC pressured to have them both removed from the games. His football career was short-lived, but his statement at the 1968 Olympics has stood the test of time as one of the most memorable Olympic moments.
Michael Carter, San Francisco 49ers | 1984 (Shot put)
When in high school, Michael Carter set an American national high school record of 81 feet, 3.5 inches in the 12-pound shot put. He added more than nine feet to the previous record, and no one has come within two feet of his mark since. He was selected for the 1984 Olympics, where he won silver.
As a fifth-round NFL pick by the 49ers, Carter played from 1984-1992. During that time, he was selected to the Pro Bowl three times and was a three-time Super Bowl champion. Carter is the first Olympian to win an Olympic medal and win the Super Bowl ring in the same NFL season.
Michael Bates, Seattle Seahawks | 1992 (Decathlon)
Michael Bates won a bronze medal after being selected in the 1992 NFL Draft by the Seattle Seahawks. During his career, he was named to five Pro Bowls and five All-Pro teams. Bates was also named the NFL Alumni Kick Returner of the Year in 1996 and made the 1990s All-Decade Team. As of 2017, he held 12 franchise records for the Carolina Panthers.
James Jett, Los Angeles Raiders | 1992 (Decathlon)
James Jett earned a gold medal in 1992 as part of the 4 x 100-meter relay team. Jett ran in the preliminary rounds, but not the final, giving his spot to Carl Lewis. He went on to have an impressive career as a wide receiver in the NFL. Jett finished as the eighth leading receiver in Oakland Raiders team history. He finished with 4,417 yards and 30 touchdowns on 256 receptions in a 10-year career.
Which other Summer Olympians have played in the NFL?
- Harold Muller, Los Angeles Buccaneers | 1920 (High Jump – Silver)
- John Spellman, Providence Steam Rollers | 1924 (Wrestling – Gold)
- Jim Bausch, Chicago Cardinals | 1932 (Decathlon – Gold)
- Colin Ridgeway (Aus), Dallas Cowboys | 1956 (High Jump)
- Glenn Davis, Detroit Lions | 1956 & 1960 (400-meter hurdles & 4×400-meter – 3 x Gold)
- Ray Norton, San Francisco 49ers | 1960 (100-meter, 200-meter, and 4 x 100-meter)
- Bob Pickens, Chicago Bears | 1964 (Wrestler)
- T.J. Jackson, Philadelphia Eagles | 1964 (100-meter)
- Henry Carr, New York Giants | 1964 (200-meter & 4 x 400-meter – 2 x Gold)
- Jess Lewis, Houston Oilers | 1968 (Wrestler)
- Jim Hines, Miami Dolphins | 1968 (100-meter & 4 x 100-meter – 2 x Gold)
- Larry Burton, New Orleans Saints | 1972 (200-meter)
- Gerald Tinker, Atlanta Falcons | 1972 (4 x 100-meter – Gold)
- James Owens, San Francisco 49ers | 1976 (110-meter hurdles)
- Randy Dean, New York Giants | 1976 (Handball)
- Lam Jones, New York Jets | 1976 (4 x 100-meter – Gold)
- Ron Brown, Los Angeles Rams | 1984 (4 x 100-meter – Gold)
- Sam Graddy, Denver Broncos | 1984 (100-meter – Silver & 4 x 100-meter – Gold)
- Jeff Demps, Tampa Bay Buccaneers | 2012 (4 x 100-meter)
- Marquise Goodwin, Buffalo Bills | 2012 (Long Jump)
- Nate Ebner, New England Patriots | 2016 (Rugby Sevens)
- Jahvid Best (Saint Lucia), Detroit Lions | 2016 (100-meter)
- Marvin Bracy, Seattle Seahawks | 2016 (100-meter)
Winter Olympians who have played in the NFL
There has only been one Winter Olympian who has played for an NFL team. Johnny Quinn and Jeremy Bloom were both Olympians, but neither played in an official NFL game.
Herschel Walker, Philadelphia Eagles | 1992 (Bobsleigh)
During his NFL career, Walker would become an Olympian at the 1992 Winter Olympics. He was selected to the four-person team but eventually competed in the two-person competition. Walker and his teammate Brian Shimer finished seventh. Walker would go on to play another six seasons in the NFL but was not selected for future Olympic Games.
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