9 NFL players who also excelled on the basketball court

9 NFL players who also excelled on the basketball court

universityofwyomingorg October 10, 2018

We’re approaching the convergence of football season and basketball season – every diehard sports fans’ favorite time of year – and there have been numerous current and former players who have doubled up on the two sports.

Here are current and former NFL players who also excelled on the basketball court.

A common thread you’ll notice is that many former college basketball forwards who are between 6-4 and 6-7 have been able to make the transition to playing tight end based on their physical profile and catching ability. There have also been multiple players who played football in their final year of eligibility after playing college basketball for four seasons and they made the most of their final fall on a college campus before jumping to the NFL.

Antonio Gates

NFL position: Tight end

NFL team: San Diego/Los Angeles Chargers

Antonio Gates is one of the poster children for college basketball players who have successfully made the transition to the NFL. If you’ve watched the NFL at any point in the last 15 years, there’s a good chance you’ve heard a broadcaster say something along the lines of “Did you know that Antonio Gates played basketball in college?”

After leading Kent State to the Elite Eight in 2002 and averaging 20 points per game a season after that, Gates quickly became the NFL’s premier tight end, earning First Team All-Pro honors in his second, third and fourth seasons in the league.

You can watch Gates and the Golden Flashes play Indiana for a chance to go to the Final Four in the full game replay below.

Gates actually attended four colleges – Michigan State (where he hoped to also play football for some guy named Nick Saban, ever heard of him?), Eastern Michigan, College of the Sequoias and then Kent State.

season School points/g rebounds/g assists/g steals/g FG% 3P% FT%
1999-00 Eastern Michigan 10.2 7.4 1.3 1.0 51.8 16.7 58.2
2001-02 Kent State 16.0 8.1 2.7 1.2 51.8 25.0 70.6
2002-03 Kent State 20.6 7.7 4.1 1.5 47.8 34.9 70.9

MORE: 5 moments from Saturday that could affect the College Football Playoff picture

Jimmy Graham

NFL position: Tight end

NFL teams: New Orleans Saints, Seattle Seahawks, Green Bay Packers

Jimmy Graham appeared in 120 games for Miami (FL) and he started one-third of them as a big-bodied forward.

The ‘Canes made the NCAA tournament during Graham’s junior season as a No. 7 seed. Graham had nine points and seven rebounds in Miami’s first-round win over St. Mary’s before the team lost to Texas in the second round.

After his college basketball eligibility was exhausted, he played football for the Hurricanes during the 2009 season, catching 17 passes for 213 yards and five touchdowns. The New Orleans Saints drafted him in the third round of the 2010 draft.

Graham is a five-time Pro Bowl selection and former First Team All-Pro tight end.

Season Points/g rebounds/g blocks/g FG% FT%
2005-06 1.8 2.2 0.4 44.4 45.2
2006-07 5.6 4.0 0.7 53.8 50.0
2007-08 6.0 4.9 1.2 52.6 58.1
2008-09 4.0 5.9 1.2 48.6 40.0

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Julius Peppers

NFL position: Defensive end/outside linebacker

NFL teams: Carolina Panthers, Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers

In addition to being a unanimous All-American on the gridiron for North Carolina, Julius Peppers walked-on for the two basketball coaches – Bill Guthridge and Matt Doherty – who bridged the gap between UNC coaching legends Dean Smith and Roy Williams, but he still played for a pair of successful Tar Heel teams.

UNC went 22-14 in 2000, peaking at No. 2 in the AP Top 25 poll before making the Final Four as a No. 8 seed. In the following season, the Tar Heels were 26-7, climbing to the top spot in the poll and earning a No. 2 seed.

As a sophomore, Peppers was North Carolina’s fifth-leading scorer and rebounder.

As a football player in 2001, he won the Chuck Bednarik Award and Vince Lombardi Award, which honor the best defensive player in the country and the best lineman/linebacker, respectively.

Season Points/G rebounds/G FG%
1999-00 4.5 3.5 57.1
2000-01 7.1 4.0 64.3

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Darren Fells

NFL position: Tight end

NFL teams: Arizona Cardinals, Detroit Lions, Cleveland Browns

As a senior at UC Irvine, Darren Fells was among the premier basketball players in the Big West, ranking first in field goal percentage, third in rebounds per game and ninth in points per game. The Anteaters finished second in the conference during his sophomore season and they lost in the Big West conference championship game when he was a senior in 2008.

Following his graduation, Fells played professional basketball overseas in Argentina, Belgium, Finland, France and Mexico, before starting his NFL career in the spring of 2013. He started 12 games for the Cardinals in 2015 and 13 games for the Lions last season. His best statistical season came in ’15 with Arizona, when he had 21 catches for 311 yards and three touchdowns.

Listed at 6-7 and 270 pounds, Fells has great size, even by NFL tight end standards.

season points/g rebounds/g assists/g FG% 3P% FT%
2004-05 5.9 4.9 0.9 49.6 0.0 68.3
2005-06 9.8 7.1 1.8 49.3 16.7 72.0
2006-07 10.2 6.1 2.0 53.5 42.9 62.6
2007-08 14.4 7.2 2.1 56.9 61.5 74.2

Julius Thomas

NFL position: Tight end

NFL teams: Denver Broncos, Jacksonville Jaguars, Miami Dolphins

Julius Thomas played in two NCAA tournaments with Portland State after the Vikings won the Big Sky’s automatic bid in 2008 and 2009. Thomas was an incredibly efficient offensive player, having taken only one three-pointer in his college career, and he made roughly two-thirds of his career field goal attempts.

He set school records for career games played (121), career wins (78) and career field goal percentage (.663). Thomas was named to the Big Sky All-Tournament Team twice and his game-winning dunk in the final seconds of the 2009 Big Sky Championship game sealed a conference title and NCAA tournament appearance for the Vikings.

Thomas joined the Portland State football team as a walk-on in 2010, recording 29 receptions for 453 yards and two touchdowns. The Broncos selected him in the fourth round of the 2011 NFL Draft.

Season points/g rebounds/g steals/g FG%
2006-07 5.1 2.8 0.7 63.9
2007-08 4.0 3.1 0.4 71.4
2008-09 6.9 5.2 1.0 64.3
2009-10 10.8 5.9 1.5 67.5

Tony Gonzalez

NFL position: Tight end

NFL teams: Kansas City Chiefs, Atlanta Falcons

Before he cemented himself as one of the greatest receivers in NFL history, Tony Gonzalez was a two-sport athlete at Cal, where he was an All-American tight end and a forward on Cal’s basketball team. As a junior, he caught 44 passes for 699 yards and five touchdowns, then averaged nearly seven points and five rebounds for the Bears on the hardwood.

After the Chiefs drafted him with the 13th overall pick in the 1997 NFL Draft, Gonzalez was a First Team All-Pro tight end in three different decades as he earned the honor six times in his career, along with 14 Pro Bowl nominations. He ranks second in NFL history in career receptions (1,325) and sixth in career receiving yards (15,127) and career receiving touchdowns (115).

Season points/g rebounds/g FG%
1994-95 7.1 3.9 64.0
1995-96 5.3 4.6 46.6
1996-97 6.8 4.5 44.9

Quinten Rollins

NFL position: Cornerback

NFL teams: Green Bay Packers

Former Miami (OH) basketball player Quinten Rollins had one of the more unlikely transitions to becoming a professional athlete. Like Gates, Rollins competed on the hardwood in the MAC, but after four seasons playing basketball for the Redhawks, he joined the school’s football team for one season, earning MAC Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2014.

The Green Bay Packers drafted him in the second round of the 2015 NFL Draft and he played for the Packers for three seasons, including the 2016 season when he started 10 games. Rollins, who is currently a free agent, recorded 85 tackles, three interceptions and one sack in the NFL.

Season Points/g rebounds/g assists/g steals/g FG% 3P% FT%
2010-11 5.5 2.5 2.1 1.5 44.0 29.2 83.7
2011-12 7.7 2.8 3.2 1.6 46.4 20.5 63.2
2012-13 5.2 3.0 3.9 1.9 42.8 26.7 42.7
2013-14 6.9 3.9 3.9 2.4 42.0 25.0 65.3

Rico Gathers

NFL position: Tight end

NFL team: Dallas Cowboys

Rico Gathers was an All-American forward at Baylor who set the school’s single-game, single-season and career rebounding records, in addition to tying the program record with 141 career games played and ranking second all-time with 31 double-doubles. He once had a 25-point, 28-rebound game. In short, he was an incredible force in the paint at 6-8, 280 pounds.

Gathers entered the 2016 NFL Draft and he was selected in the sixth round by the Dallas Cowboys. On Sunday, Gathers made his first career catch in the NFL – a 32-yard reception against the Texans.

Season points/g rebounds/g FG%
2012-13 5.7 5.7 52.5
2013-14 6.4 6.4 47.3
2014-15 11.6 11.6 45.9
2015-16 11.2 9.0 51.2

Mo Alie-Cox

NFL position: Tight end

NFL team: Indianapolis Colts

Former VCU starting forward Mo Alie-Cox played 142 games for the Rams, competed in four NCAA tournaments and he helped them win the 2015 A-10 tournament and a share of the 2016 A-10 regular season title.

He is VCU’s all-time leader in career shooting percentage (57.4%) and he’s second in career blocks (255).

After his college basketball career was over, Alie-Cox signed with the Indianapolis Colts as an undrafted free agent and his professional status has since moved between being on the team’s active roster, its practice squad and being a free agent. He recorded his first reception of his NFL career against Houston.

season points/g rebounds/g blocks/g FG%
2013-14 3.3 3.6 1.4 51.9
2014-15 7.4 5.7 1.9 59.4
2015-16 10.4 5.1 1.9 61.2
2016-17 9.5 4.2 2.0 54.3

Other notable players who played college basketball: New York Giants LB/DE Connor Barwin (Cincinnati), former QB Donovan McNabb (Syracuse), former WR Terrell Owens (Chattanooga), former WR Vincent Jackson (Northern Colorado), former TE Martellus Bennett (Texas A&M), former WR Antwaan Randle El (Indiana), former QB Jerrod Johnson (Texas A&M)

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