Jul. 15—Shohei Ohtani added to his legend Tuesday night, picking up the win on the pitcher’s mound and leading off for the American League in a 5-2 victory over the National League in Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game.
Ohtani will enter the second half of the regular season with a .279 batting average, 33 home runs and 77 RBI at the plate and a 4-1 record with a 3.49 ERA and 87 strikeouts in 67 innings on the mound.
It’s a two-way performance not seen for more than a century in the majors, and it got me wondering if we’ll ever see a similar revival in the NFL.
Technically, there was a two-way player in the league as recently as 2019. The Baltimore Ravens’ Patrick Ricard played 342 snaps at fullback and 140 snaps as a defensive end that season. But he was strictly on offense in 2020, and his career numbers (21 catches for 104 yards and four touchdowns on offense; 18 tackles, four tackles for loss and one sack on defense) over four seasons don’t suggest the same kind of impact Ohtani’s had with the Los Angeles Angels — despite his two Pro Bowl appearances on offense.
Two-way players have been somewhat more common in college football. UCLA’s Myles Jack was named the Pac-12’s offensive and defensive freshman of the year in 2013 after posting 51 tackles with two interceptions and a touchdown as a linebacker and rushing 38 times for 267 yards and seven scores on offense.
Jack gravitated more toward defense later in his career with the Bruins and has been exclusively a linebacker over five seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
There was some thought Ohio State’s Chris Gamble might give the two-way role a try after an outstanding showing during the Buckeyes’ 2002 national championship season. He caught 31 passes for 499 yards that year as a wide receiver and intercepted four passes as a cornerback.
But, outside of 60 punt returns, Gamble played only cornerback over nine NFL seasons with the Carolina Panthers.
Charles Woodson likely is the most famous two-way star of the modern college football era. His talents on offense, defense and special teams helped Michigan to a share of the national championship and earned him the Heisman Trophy — over runner-up Peyton Manning — in 1997.
Woodson led the Wolverines with seven interceptions as a cornerback, averaged 8.6 yards and scored one touchdown on 33 punt returns and caught 11 passes for 231 yards and two scores en route to the national crown.
During his 18-year Hall of Fame NFL career, Woodson returned 90 punts and five kickoffs, but all 13 of his career touchdowns came on defense and he never recorded an offensive stat.
The closest pro football has come to a true two-way star in recent memory was Deion Sanders in 1996. While taking a break from his dual MLB career, Sanders caught 36 passes for 475 yards and one touchdown as a wide receiver and made 33 tackles with two interceptions and a fumble recovery for a touchdown with the Dallas Cowboys.
But that was hardly a full-time role during Prime Time’s unique career. He finished with 60 receptions for 784 yards and three touchdowns over 13 NFL seasons. Sanders also hit .263, drove in 168 runs and stole 186 bases over nine seasons in MLB.
Sanders was inducted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a defensive back and scored nine special teams touchdowns in addition to 10 on defense and three on offense.
He might have been the NFL’s best bet for a full-time two-way star in the modern era, especially if he hadn’t also been playing baseball.
But it’s hard to imagine pro football getting its own version of Ohtani anytime soon.
Which only serves as more reason to appreciate what the sports world’s brightest star is doing this year.