The NFL and the Olympic Games


Jim Thorpe

Tonight the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks will face each other in Super Bowl XLVIII so it seems as good a time as ever to delve into the link between the National Football League and the Olympic Games. The connection goes back as far as the beginning of the NFL in 1920.
The first Olympian to play in the NFL (or the American Professional Football Association as it was then called) is still almost certainly the greatest all-round sportsman ever to grace the gridiron – the legendary Jim Thorpe. For publicity purposes Thorpe was even installed at the League’s first chairman. The link continues to this day in the shape of Tampa Bay running back Jeff Demps and Marquise Goodwin, wide receiver with the Buffalo Bills.

The only man to reach the peak of both sports is another track and field legend in the shape of “Bullet” Bob Hayes. Eight years after his triumphs at the Tokyo Olympics he was part of the victorious Dallas Cowboys team at Super Bowl VI and later followed Thorpe into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Michael Carter, shot put silver medallist in 1984 is the other Olympian to earn a Super Bowl ring – he did it just 6 months after his Olympic appearance.

Unsurprisingly the vast majority of the Olympic/NFL have been both American and have come from a track and field background but there have been a number of exceptions. Wrestling is the only other sport where multiple Olympians, including 2 gold medallists, have graduated into the NFL but the last to date left the NFL after the 1969 season.
A unique case is that of NY Giants back-up quarterback Randy Dean. He made fleeting appearances in the late 70s after having been a valuable member of the US handball team at the 1976 Games.
The only non-American to reach this list is Australian high jumper Colin Ridgway. He arrived on a college scholarship to Lamar University in Texas and was signed by the Dallas Cowboys as a punter. His stint in the NFL lasted just 3 games before he was released.

Another unusual case is that of Herschel Walker, the only NFL player to have competed in the Winter Olympics. Already an established star in the NFL, Walker was a late addition to the United States Bobsled and Skeleton Federation’s bobsled programme for the 1992 Winter Olympics. Joining the squad only after the Minnesota Vikings had ended their season his appearance on the US roster was unpopular with many of his US teammates. Pushing for Brian Shimer he finished 7th.

Finally we should remember one man who never made it to this list. Stone Johnson was a finalist in the 200 m at the Rome Olympics and a member of the US relay team that was disqualified after crossing the line first in the final. In 1963 he was playing for the Kansas City Chiefs against the Oakland Raiders when he sustained a broken neck. He succumbed to his injuries 10 days later. Although he never played a down in a regular-season NFL game, his number 33 was retired by the Chiefs.

Olympic gold and Super Bowl winner
“Bullet” Bob Hayes USA
1964 100m/4×100 Gold
Dallas Cowboys (1965-74) – Super Bowl winner 1972, San Francisco 49ers (1975)

Olympic medal and Super Bowl winner
Mike Carter USA
1984 Shot Put Silver
San Francisco (1984-92)

Olympic gold medal and NFL experience
Jim Bausch – Chicago Cardinals, Cincinnati Reds (1933)
Ron Brown – Los Angeles Rams (1984-90, 1991), Los Angeles Raiders (1990)
Milt Campbell – Cleveland Browns (1957)
Henry Carr – New York Giants (1965-67)

Glenn Davis – Detroit Lions (1960-61)
Sam Graddy – Denver Broncos (1987-88), Los Angeles Raiders (1990-92)
Jim Hines – Miami Dolphins (1969), Kansas City Chiefs (1970)
James Jett – Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders (1993-2000)
Johnny Jones – New York Jets (1980-84)
Glenn Morris – Detroit Lions (1940)
Tommie Smith – Cincinnati Bengals (1969)
Jim Thorpe – Canton Bulldogs (1920 & 1926), Cleveland Indians (1921), Oorang Indians (1922-23), Rock Island Independents (1924-25), New York Giants (1925), Chicago Cardinals (1928)
Gerald Tinker – Atlanta Falcons (1974-75), Green Bay Packers (1975)
Peter Mehringer – Chicago Cardinals (1934-36)
John Spellman – Providence Steam Rollers (1925-31), Boston Braves (1932)

For a full list of all Olympians who have played in NFL (or AFL) please visit this page

2 thoughts on “The NFL and the Olympic Games”

    1. Dean Smith was in training camps with the LA Rams and Pittsburgh Steelers but never played in the NFL in regular season, which is our criteria for our NFL list – we don’t actually include Stone Johnson in the list, but mentioned him in the story. See pro-football-reference.com, which does not list Dean Smith. While you’re there, check out our site – sports-reference.com/olympics. Thanks for reading the blog.

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