The Magnificent Seven: Codebreakers

NFL star Chad Ochocinco laced up a pair of football boots earlier this week as he lined out for the Sporting Kansas City reserves. We take a look at seven others who famously tried their hand at more than one sport.

Tomás O'Leary (centre) captains the Cork Minor Hurling team to All-Ireland victory in September 2001.
Tomás O'Leary (centre) captains the Cork Minor Hurling team to All-Ireland victory in September 2001.
Image: ©INPHO/Andrew Paton

1. Tomás O’Leary

This week’s seven entries form a little bit of a mixed bag. Some have made the list because of their sheer novelty and “did you know” factor. Others are included because they have truly earned their spot, excelling at two – often dramatically different – sports.

Munster and Ireland scrum-half Tomás O’Leary falls firmly into the latter category. As a son of four-time All-Ireland hurling champion Seánie, O’Leary Jr’s natural ability with the stick and small ball doesn’t come as too much of a surprise.

Now that he has switched the sliotar for a more oval-shaped plaything, O’Leary’s own success in hurling is normally raised as an interesting piece of trivia or even overlooked entirely.

He was good though. Very good.

From a young age, gaelic games had been pretty much all that O’Leary had known, an experience typical for many young men growing up in 1980s Cork regardless of their father’s sporting inclination.

It was only when he moved to rugby-playing CBC Cork in his adolescence that he realised that Croke Park glory may not be the final stop on his sporting odyssey.

As a teenager, he continued to excel at both to the point where he had captained the Cork minor hurlers to an All-Ireland title in 2001 yet still found himself whisked away to the U21 Rugby World Cup three years later. By that time, he had drifted in from his traditional schoolboy role on the wing and made the number nine jersey his own.

The familiar taste of Croke Park success hadn’t dissipated with O’Leary’s sporting switch however. The next time, though, it would be in a green shirt rather than a red.

2. Tony Romo

Tony Romo may make the big bucks by slinging spirals for the Dallas Cowboys, but that didn’t stop from picking up his golf clubs in an attempt to qualify for the US Open.

Again. And again. And again.

Romo’s regular attempts to qualify for one of golf’s most prestigious showpieces are no publicity stunts though. He truly believes that he has what it takes to put together a round impressive enough to see him past the hoards of his fellow amateurs who all share a similar dream.

Nor is this a case of celebrity delusion – he’s actually quite a handy golfer, his handicap fluctuating somewhere between scratch (the same standard as a professional golfer) and four for the last number of years.

Last summer, Romo’s seemingly annual attempt to qualify for the US Open very nearly came good. In the initial local qualifying round, he found himself in a place rather unfamiliar to Cowboys’ players and fans in recent years – something called a “playoff,” whatever that is.

He pulled through, winning his place in the sectional round – the last step on the road to Pebble Beach. Though his 36-hole adventure ultimately crumbled beneath the weight of a costly amount of double- and triple-bogies, Romo didn’t even have time to finish his round.

Real life beckoned – Cowboys coach Wade Phillips needed him back in Dallas to play ball. The type that he gets paid for.

3. Clive Allen

A journeyman in the truest sense of the word, striker Clive Allen didn’t care to restrict himself to football teams as he mooched about from club to club in the 1980s and 1990s.

His penchant for London teams (Allen played for QPR, Arsenal, Crystal Palace, Spurs, Chelsea, West Ham and Milwall) was underlined when the retired 35-year-old decided to try his hand at kicking a different sort of goal, signing WLAF American football team the London Monarchs.

Allen certainly felt at home during his brief spell with the Monarchs – after all, “home” was initially White Hart Lane and thereafter Stamford Bridge, both of which were quite familiar to a man who had bagged over 200 league goals over the course of his career.

His spell on the gridiron would never prove to be quite as successful, although Allen did prove himself to be more than competent as a placekicker. In fact, during his WLAF career he had one successful attempt from 60 yards, a mammoth kick which remains only three yards short of Tom Dempsey’s NFL record.

Allen never did quite reach the same heights as during his football career – but when your 17-year professional stint is littered with goals such as the one below, that’s hardly surprising.

4. Teddy McCarthy

Dual stars are not as rare a breed in the world of GAA as they are in other sports, yet there is still only one man who holds the distinction of winning All-Ireland Senior Football and Hurling medals in the same year.

1990 was a special year for Cork midfielder Teddy McCarthy.

Having started inter-county life as a promising underage footballer, the Glanmire man’s proficiency with the hurl and sliotar at club level soon piqued the interest of the Rebels’ hurling selectors. They drafted him onto the county’s senior panel for the 1986 Championship, though it seemed that McCarthy was present as an intriguing back-up prospect rather than a viable first-team option.

He was not one to let opportunity slip by unnoticed however and, when he was given the nod to start the 1986 All-Ireland final against Galway, he grasped it with both hands, putting in an assured performance which brought him his first inter-county medal.

Having experienced the bitter taste of back-to-back defeats against Meath in the 1987 and 1988 All-Ireland Football finals, McCarthy entered the the 1989 Championship more resolute and determined before. He exited with an All-Ireland medal, adding his name to an elite roster of men who hold medals under both codes.

The next year, he went one better. Just two weeks after scoring a three-point victory over Galway in the hurling decider at Croke Park, McCarthy lined out alongside his other teammates against their old foes from Meath, the side who had caused so much hurt in recent years.

Revenge may have been sweet, but for McCarthy, creating a little bit of history was even sweeter.

5. Deion Sanders

“I never wanted to be mediocre at anything. I wanted to be the absolute best.”

Deion Sanders’ words will resonate with most sports stars possessing even a modicum of ambition. While many limit their dreams to one sport though, “Neon Deion” wanted to be the best at them all.

To this day, Sanders remains the only athlete to have played in both the Super Bowl and baseball’s World Series. Many fine individuals in both sports have played out long and illustrious careers without ever making it to the big dance, a harsh fact which they begrudgingly accept. For Sanders, it was almost unthinkable that he wouldn’t grace both stages at some point in his career.

The most remarkable thing about Sanders is not that he was a talented athlete across a range of sports, nor his positional versatility on both gridiron and the baseball diamond. It was the fact that he managed to do both at the same time.

His career in both sports was no Jordan-esque dalliance in which he experimented with one while taking a break from the other. Rather, Sanders made his major league debut for the New York Yankees in May 1989, little over a month after he had been drafted out of Florida State by the Atlanta Falcons.

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Truth be told, the American Football field was his natural home, a fact which became glaringly obvious when he returned a punt for a touchdown on his first official start for the Falcons. A fact which was confirmed by his appearance on the Pro-Bowl rosters eight times over a nine-year period.

He didn’t like to be reminded that he would never be quite as proficient with the baseball bat. Sportscaster Tim McCarver learned about Sanders’ sensitivity the hard way.

6. Phil Neville

As Everton defender Phil Neville watched Andrew Strauss and Ian Bell stride out to the crease in Colombo last weekend, his mind may have drifted to an alternate reality in which he was the one opening the batting for England in a World Cup quarter-final.

Before he was snaffled up with older brother Gary by the Manchester United youth system, Neville had been a promising young cricketer, tipped by many as an international representative for the future.

The praise heaped on Neville wasn’t wishful thinking or conciliatory ego-massaging in an attempt to persuade him to stick with cricket. At just 15 years of age, he had hit a century for Lancashire’s second team and remains the youngest player ever to reach the milestone for the county.

Of course, Neville’s big hitting that afternoon wasn’t that much of a shock. After all, by that time he had already been called up to both the England U14 and U15 squads and had been handed the captain’s armband.

Yet, despite his early promise, he chose to renounce his dreams of leading Lancashire out at Old Trafford in order to pursue the bright lights and big wages of, em, Old Trafford.

Neville doesn’t like to talk about his teenage change of heart that often, but if the early evidence is to be believed, Andrew Strauss could have done with his presence in Sri Lanka last week.

7. Marion Jones

Before she became an Olympic champion – and subsequently a disgraced and dishonoured Olympic champion – American sprinter Marion Jones was quite the useful basketball player by all accounts.

While she regularly wowed observers with her track performances at the University of North Carolina, those who knew Jones had an inkling that it was her skills as point-guard that would really bring her to national prominence.

In fact, it was a basketball scholarship rather than a track one which brought her to UNC in the first place. It didn’t take long for the 18-year-old Jones to vindicate the recruiters’ faith in her as she helped the Tar Heels to their first and only NCAA basketball championship in her first year at the university.

The call of the track proved too great, however, as Jones went on to dope herself to multiple Olympic golds in Sydney in 2000. As she struggled to rehabilitate her professional image, she retreated to a place of comfort, a place where she had competed on a level playing-field and still come out on top – the basketball court, signing a contract with three-time WNBA Champions Tulsa Shock in March 2010.

Jones will be the first to admit that she still has a long road to travel before her professional reputation is even partially restored. Her reconversion to basketball should be an interesting one to keep tabs on.

Read more of Niall Kelly’s Magnificent Seven series >

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Niall Kelly

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