First up in the Playground Challenge: Brian Jordan
Who is the world's greatest athlete? Contrary to what we heard last summer, the answer might not be found in a Beijing swimming pool.
The 2008 Summer Olympics again sparked the debate about which sports have the top athletic competitors -- performers who would excel in events outside of their athletic disciplines.
To settle things, Page 2 launched the Playground Challenge -- a series in which some of the world's most accomplished sports stars would compete against an "everyman" in the games we all grew up playing in gym class, at the YMCA or on the playground.
When selecting the first competitor for the challenge, we looked for an athlete who would serve as a benchmark for all the competitors to come. This accomplished athlete should have an abundance of talent, both raw and refined. He should be a competitor who has shown a range of abilities and succeeded in a variety of disciplines. This athlete would show us the way it should be done.
After careful consideration, and after attempts to regenerate Bo Jackson's hip went for naught, we selected Brian Jordan, a former MLB All-Star as well as a starting strong safety in the NFL. Jordan is one of the only men in history with the strength and size to play a physical position in the NFL and the speed and hand-eye coordination to play major league baseball. He also was a standout in track and a superb high school basketball player who was recruited to play in college. When taken as a whole, Jordan possesses every major athletic tool needed to play any sport. Jordan was a great person to start with because he killed three birds with one stone (Note to PETA: Jordan did not literally do this). We could test the skill sets of two sports at once and also learn what one of the all-time athletic freaks is like in a gym-class setting.
Throughout the day, Jordan kept bringing up an athlete he played with whom he held in very high regard -- a man who he felt could dominate anything and would have a chance to stake a claim as "King of the Playground." Keep in mind, through the years, Jordan has played on teams with Deion Sanders, Alfonso Soriano, Mark Teixeira and Brett Favre. His answer: the balding, pasty, mild-mannered John Smoltz.
"John Smoltz can play anything well. Anything. He's a great basketball player. I think he could play in the NBA if he dedicated himself. He's a great golfer. He may not look it to some, but he's got big-time game."
I met Jordan at Azusa Pacific University for a best-of-seven battle, and he did not disappoint. We put him through the paces in a variety of events, some of which he had not played since his childhood. As expected, he did everything well. From making 19 out of 20 free throws before our one-on-one game, to kicking a soccer ball like a young Ronaldinho, Jordan showed the natural coordination and understanding of technique that would help him excel in any sport he chose to dedicate himself to.
But surprisingly, I held my own, winning two events and almost pushing our duel to a Game 7. This was encouraging, because there were questions as to whether I was athletic enough to qualify as an "everyman," or if we'd have to make a call to Artie Lange to take my place.
The truly shocking part, though, was that if the event was a battle of skill, I was not only able to keep up with him, I dare say we were equals. In basketball, Jordan was content to pump jumpers instead of turning the game rough, and he paid the price, getting trounced 15-5. In Wiffle ball, although he did well, my years spent testing the measure of a man (and getting sloshed) in the backyard paid off, and I pulled the upset. In dodgeball, we battled.
When it came down to it, what really separated Jordan was not a major skill advantage, but the fact he was able to combine a high skill level with his superior size and strength, seen most clearly in arm wrestling and the 50-yard dash, both of which were no contest. A frequent refrain from many high school athletes who eventually reach a level where they can no longer compete is: "I had the talent, but I was only a little too slow, weak, etc." Well, Jordan has the talent and coordination we all thought we had, but that talent is in a frame that can tackle a running back, bench-press a bus, run a 4.5 40, and swing a 32-ounce bat like it's made of plastic and crush a ball 500 feet with it. This, to say the least, is a very, very rare combination.
AP Photo/John Bazemore
Jordan's clearly one of the best pure athletes we've seen in recent times.
So what did we learn from this first test? Well, we learned that if you're good enough to play in the NFL and the majors, you're most certainly going to kick everyone's butt on the playground, in gym class, at the Y, or anywhere else for that matter. But while the main information I gathered was that Brian Jordan was an unstoppable force, Jordan thought there was another clear takeaway from the day: The average guy might be closer athletically to the Phelps/Tiger/Lance crowd than many people would suspect. "I was very impressed by the 'average athlete' from what I saw today, I'd say you have a very good chance just because he's [Phelps] tall or strong or in great shape doesn't mean he's going to be able to play sports well."
If Jordan was impressed by the "average athlete," i.e., me, I'm assuming his expectations were pretty low to start with. But this is another piece of the puzzle, and touches on one of the most commonly misunderstood concepts in athletics. There are scores of people who rely heavily on aesthetics in their evaluations, and who equate the way athletes look with their ability. Or, in the words of a commenter on the first article I wrote for this series: "Phelps could stand out in most sports, he has a 6-5 body and is pure muscle."
The reality, however, is that in most sports, skill and coordination advantages separate competitors far more frequently than physical ones, and can make up for major athletic deficits. Yes, there are uncoordinated goofs who can utilize a physical advantage to be awesome at one sport, but these people are not going to cross over into other sports with any degree of success, no matter how much they look the part.
The fact of the matter is this: Guys who look as if they'd be great at sports and then actually have the coordination to be great at them are few and far between. Brian Jordan is clearly one of these people. We'll see how the rest fare soon enough.
Todd Gallagher is a TV producer, former professional basketball coach and author of "Andy Roddick Beat Me With a Frying Pan." You can reach him at email@example.com.