The Smartest Athletes In Sports History
These athletes have both brains AND brawn.
The old stereotype of the dumb jock couldn’t be further from the truth when it comes to the people on this list. We’ve gathered up some of the smartest people to ever play sports at the highest levels, proving that some people really can have it all.
The athletes on our list come from all eras and many different sports with well-documented proof of their brilliance, whether it be advanced degrees, impressive post-sports careers or test scores. Here are some of the most intelligent athletes in the history of sports, presented in alphabetical order because we weren’t smart enough to come up with a way to rank them.
Not many people can claim they’ve been a professional athlete, a published poet, a celebrated painter and a geneticist, but Dave Baldwin can. This Renaissance man spent six seasons as a relief pitcher for several MLB teams starting in the late 1960s.
He was solid on the mound but Baldwin really flourished after baseball. He earned his master’s degree in systems engineering and his doctorate in genetics from the University of Arizona after retirement, with his research being published in respected journals like the Harvard Business Review.
Baldwin has also had his original poetry published in several publications and even has one of his paintings on display at the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.
Tennis is one of those sports you’d probably assume is full of intelligent, worldly people and Marion Bartoli fits that bill. The French-born, former Wimbledon champion once had her IQ measured at 175, which is a higher score than Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking!
Bartoli’s father is a doctor, so she probably comes by the intelligence naturally. It’s also been reported that she paints in her spare time, which makes her sound even brainier.
He wasn’t the greatest baseball player of all time by any stretch of the imagination but it was probably because Moe Berg had much bigger things on his mind. The New York native played 15 seasons in MLB as a catcher for several different clubs and was called the “strangest fella who ever put on a uniform” by legendary manager Casey Stengel.
Berg was such a brilliant guy, the United States actually used him as a spy during World War II after his baseball career had ended. His remarkable life was covered in the 2018 film, “The Catcher Was a Spy.”
There aren’t many people in sports history as accomplished as Bill Bradley. Aside from landing in both the Pro Basketball Hall of Fame and College Basketball Hall of Fame for his playing career, Bradley is a Princeton graduate, a Rhodes scholar and a former U.S. senator.
While at Princeton, Bradley majored in history and wrote his senior thesis on “The 1940 Senatorial Campaign in Missouri.” After graduation, he put off his NBA career by two years after he was named a Rhodes scholar, which is arguably the most prestigious honor a student can get.
After his incredible pro career, Bradley spent nearly 20 years serving as a U.S. senator representing his home state of New Jersey. He even ran for president in 2000, which seems to be about the only endeavor at which he ever failed.
In 12 seasons as a relief pitcher in MLB, Craig Breslow was an impressive left hander who held down a career 3.45 ERA and racked up more than 400 strikeouts. But those accomplishments might not be as impressive as the ones he’s had in the classroom.
Breslow graduated from Yale with a 3.5 GPA and majors in molecular biochemistry and biophysics before scoring an outstanding 34 on the MCAT and being accepted to medical school. He decided to put on a uniform instead of a lab coat, however.
He helped the Boston Red Sox win a World Series in 2013 and eventually retired in 2017. Since then, he’s put his big brain to good use working in the front office for the Chicago Cubs.
You think you’re smart? Bobby Brown helped the New York Yankees win four World Series during his eight-year career as a third baseman in the 1940s and ’50s, all while he was attending medical school at the same time.
The eventual Dr. Brown served in the U.S. Navy, went to Stanford and UCLA as an undergraduate and got his degree in cardiology from Tulane. He worked as a cardiologist for 25 years after leaving baseball. Talk about a solid backup plan!
An absolute beast of a goaltender, Ken Dryden was instrumental in the Montreal Canadiens winning six Stanley Cups in the 1970s, eventually landing him the Hockey Hall of Fame. But before he stopped pucks for a living, Dryden studied history at Cornell and would work as a lawyer and politician after his hockey career ended, serving in Canada’s Parliament from 2004-2011.
Dryden is also a celebrated author, writing novels as well as non-fiction books on sports, education and Canadian culture.
Before landing with the Minnesota Lynx and helping them win a WNBA championship as a rookie in 2017, Temi Fagbenle already had a very interesting life. She studied anthropology at Harvard, earning her degree in three years while also playing hoops for them, before transferring to USC to earn a master’s degree while playing her final season of college basketball.
On top of all that, Fagbenle is a true citizen of the world, being born in the U.S. but raised in England and having family roots in Nigeria. Standing at 6 feet 4 inches, she’s a giant in more ways than one.
Like some others on this list, Ryan Fitzpatrick went to Harvard as an undergraduate but he’s the only NFL starting quarterback in modern history who came from that prestigious school. His score of 48 out of 50 on the Wonderlic test — the intelligence exam used by NFL teams when making draft considerations — is said to be the highest of any quarterback in history and is in the top 99th percentile of all time.
Fitzpatrick graduated from Harvard with a degree in economics while playing football and scored a 1580 out of a possible 1600 on the SAT before securing his spot there.
Spanish baller Pau Gasol could easily earn the title of “The Most Interesting Man in the NBA.” In a career that has spanned 19 seasons, Gasol has won two NBA titles and been named an All-Star six times. Before going pro, Gasol was a student in medical school in Spain, which he decided to pursue at the age of 11, after Magic Johnson’s announcement in 1991 that he had HIV. Gasol plays piano and can speak five languages, several of which he reportedly taught himself.
When he retires from the NBA, it honestly wouldn’t be shocking to see him finish that degree and become a doctor.
It doesn’t get much more demanding than attending Oxford in England as a Rhodes scholar while playing as a quarterback in the NFL at the same time. Pat Haden did just that after earning the prestigious scholarship following his magna cum laude graduation from USC in 1974. Haden was USC’s star QB and went on to play for the Los Angeles Rams for six seasons before becoming a partner at an investment firm. Along the way, he also got a law degree and worked as USC’s athletic director from 2010 to 2016.
Another brainy quarterback was Charley Johnson, who spent 15 years in the league passing for three different teams. While Johnson was racking up more than 24,000 passing yards and taking the Denver Broncos to the franchise’s first winning season ever, he was also doing plenty off the field. In his free time, he managed to earn a master’s degree and doctorate in chemical engineering, as well as serve as a second lieutenant for NASA.
That was just what he accomplished during his playing career. After he retired from the NFL, Johnson went on to become head of New Mexico State University’s Chemical and Materials Engineering Department.
Boxing and high-level intelligence aren’t typically linked in the minds of most people — something about getting punched in the head for years makes it seem like an unlikely match — but Vitali Klitschko was no ordinary fighter. He held the WBO and WBC world heavyweight championships for about 10 years combined, while also serving as a member of parliament in his native Ukraine during his boxing career.
He earned his nickname, “Dr. Ironfist,” because he also held a doctorate in sports science while fighting, a first for any world champion in the sport.
Since retiring from the ring with a 41-2 record, Klitschko has become the mayor of Kiev, which he has said is a much tougher job than boxing.
Pitcher Mike Marshall had a brilliant career in MLB, which makes sense when you realize how sharp he is above the shoulders. Marshall spent 14 seasons as a reliever for nine different teams, winning the Cy Young Award in 1974 with the LA Dodgers and leading his league in saves in three different seasons.
But he was just as brilliant off the field, earning a doctorate in exercise physiology while he was still pitching. He used his own research to help himself avoid injuries and has since put those lessons to use in teaching younger pitchers his methods.
There’s only one man who’s ever scored a perfect grade on the Wonderlic test ahead of the NFL Draft and that was punter Pat McInally.
It shouldn’t have come as a huge surprise, given that McInally graduated cum laude from Harvard, but there’s a reason his 50-out-of-50 grade has never been duplicated in the 40-plus years it’s been used by the league. He also became the first Harvard alum to play in either the Pro Bowl or the Super Bowl, doing both in 1981.
In his spare time since football, McInally collects rare books and has served as a newspaper columnist.
Tom McMillen’s own life and career had a lot of parallels with that of Bill Bradley, who was one of his role models. McMillen was also a great basketball player, a Rhodes scholar and would serve as a politician after his hoops career ended.
McMillen studied philosophy, politics and economics at the University of Maryland before earning his scholarship to Oxford in 1974. He continued to study at the prestigious English school when he started his NBA career in 1975, leading what The New York Times called “a hectic double life.”
A decade after retiring from basketball in 1976, with nearly 6,000 points and 3,000 rebounds under his belt, McMillen was elected as a U.S. congressman from Maryland, serving from 1987 to 1993.
No American gymnast has ever earned as many Olympic medals as Shannon Miller, who picked up seven of them from 1992 to 1996, including two gold medals. Gymnastics is a sport with a notoriously short career span for its athletes, so Miller thought ahead and became an equally great student, getting a bachelor’s degree in marketing before picking up a law degree from Boston College.
Miller never practiced law but has written books, worked as a motivational speaker and founded a charity dedicated to fighting childhood obesity since her gymnastics career ended.
Another guy who knew how to hit books as hard as he did people was Dallas Cowboys great Blaine Nye. The offensive lineman was a two-time Pro Bowler and part of the franchise’s first Super Bowl win following the 1971 season.
During his NFL career, Nye found time to earn master’s degrees from both Stanford and the University of Washington in business and physics, respectively. He got his doctorate in finance from Stanford after retiring from football, using his knowledge to found an economic consulting firm.
He didn’t dub himself “The Big Aristotle” for nothing. “Shaq” was always a thinking man, even when he was wrecking other NBA players en route to winning four championships and having one of the best careers in basketball history.
He went back to school and got his bachelor’s and master’s degrees during his Hall-of-Fame career but waited until retirement to get his doctorate. Dr. O’Neal became his official title in 2012, when he earned the advanced degree in education from Miami’s Barry University.
He expects the same work ethic from his kids, announcing in 2018 that they wouldn’t get an inheritance unless they earned at least two degrees each.
It’s fitting that Alan Page was born in Canton, Ohio, the home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His stellar, 15-year NFL career as a defensive lineman for the Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears earned him a place in the Hall, along with his enshrinement in the College Football Hall of Fame.
But Page proved his brilliance off the field as well, earning a law degree from the University of Minnesota in 1978, while he was still playing in the NFL. Page used that degree to become a lawyer before being elected to the Minnesota supreme court, where he served from 1993 until 2015.
For all his accomplishments on and off the field, Page was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor, in 2018.
Football isn’t exactly brain surgery — and former NFL safety Myron Rolle might be the only player who could say that with certainty. Rolle was named a Rhodes scholar in 2009, following a great football career at Florida State University, earning his master’s degree in medical anthropology from Oxford before going on to play in the NFL for two seasons.
He then attended medical school at Florida State, graduating in 2017 before starting a neurosurgery residency at Harvard. Who says football is for meatheads?
In addition to being worshipped by football fans in Cleveland, quarterback Frank Ryan has earned the respect of many students over the years. In 1964, Ryan led the Browns to the team’s most recent NFL Championship and he’d follow that feat by earning his doctorate in mathematics from Rice University about six months later.
The three-time Pro Bowler would take a job as an associate professor at Case Institute of Technology in 1967, three years before he would retire from football. After that, he worked as an analyst for the U.S. House of Representatives, and became a lecturer at Yale and professor at Rice.
Katie Smith is about as accomplished as any basketball player in history, as she earned three Olympic gold medals and two WNBA championships, and was enshrined in the Hall of Fame at both the college and professional levels.
While playing at Ohio State University in the 1990s, Smith planned to become a dentist like her father, but she decided to go pro in hoops instead. Toward the end of her record-breaking career, Smith worked toward her master’s degree in allied health professions, which she got in 2014, the year after she retired. She now coaches the WNBA’s New York Liberty.
The career and life of Byron “Whizzer” White was simply incredible. He’s a College Football Hall of Famer and was an All-Pro selection in all three of his seasons as a running back in the NFL.
But White walked away from football pretty quickly when World War II broke out, serving the U.S. Navy as an intelligence officer. After his service ended, he got a law degree from Yale and worked as an attorney. He was nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court by President John. F. Kennedy in 1962 and served as a justice until 1993, when he retired.
Oh, White was also a Rhodes scholar, if everything else he accomplished off the field wasn’t impressive enough.
As a member of the hard-hitting Pittsburgh Steelers defensive for 12 seasons, Dwayne Woodruff helped the team win a Super Bowl as a rookie following the 1979 season. He played in more than 150 NFL games as a cornerback but his football career has taken a backseat to his greater calling: the law.
Woodruff went to law school while playing football, earning his degree from Duquesne University in 1988. He actually practiced law while also playing football during the final years of his NFL career, which is a mind-boggling achievement.
Since 2006, he has served as a judge in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, which is where Pittsburgh is located.