Tom Brady captured his seventh championship and fifth Super Bowl MVP award Sunday with a 31-9 victory over Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs. Brady added to his already legendary legacy, and the sports world is starting to ask: is he the best athlete in history?
First, criteria needs to be established when discussing this subjective question. So, for this article, only team sports will be looked at. It is impossible to judge athletes who compete alone against ones who play alongside teammates.
Also, only athletes from America’s four major sports leagues will be compared. It is much easier to just examine the National Hockey League, National Football League, National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball against one another rather than tacking on international leagues.
So, who is the greatest athlete in the history of North American team sports?
Now, it is hard to argue against Brady being the best NFL player of all time. He has won throughout his career, has put up great statistics with different teammates and has been a terrific playoff performer.
For the NBA, like the NFL, it is a tall task debating against Michael Jordan. Winning six NBA Finals MVP awards is one of the most hallowed accomplishments in 20th century sports. Throw in 10 scoring titles, five regular season MVPs, 32,292 all-time points and MJ puts together a strong case to be at the top of the sports mountain.
A debate is needed to determine the MLB’s representative. Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Babe Ruth, Ken Griffey Jr., Jackie Robinson and others have incredible resumes — ones worthy of “best baseball player in history.” Not to mention, two-sports stars who made both the NFL and MLB in Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders also merit consideration.
There is one more player who deserves to be mentioned. He is known by many as “The Great One.”
Wayne Gretzky came to the Edmonton Oilers for the 1979 season and was excellent from the get-go. Any questions about his size, speed or skill were immediately answered. He did not have the most imposing figure. He did not have blazing speed. His shot was not the hardest.
He just played the game better than anyone ever has in the history of the sport.
As a rookie, he put up 51 goals and 86 assists for an eye-popping 137 points. But 99 was just getting warmed up. The next season, he kicked off one of the best decades an athlete has ever enjoyed.
Starting in 1980, Gretzky became a glutton for points. For the decade, he would lead the league in points nine times. And the two years he did not come in first — 1987-88 and 1988-89 — he put up 149 and 168 points, respectively.
Gretzky averaged a tick over 207 points a season from 1982 to the 1986 seasons — 1,036 points in five seasons. This five-year stretch is unbelievable. For context, future Hall of Famer Sidney Crosby did not reach 1027 career points until his 12th campaign. Gretzky was addicted to adding goals and assists to box scores.
When it came to the playoffs, Gretzky knew how to answer the bell. Six different springs, he led the playoffs in points, including each of the four times he raised the Stanley Cup. Four of the top five highest point totals in playoff history belong to Gretzky. Not surprisingly, he holds that record with a ridiculous 47 points in 18 contests when the Oilers captured their second straight cup in 1985.
Speaking of records, Gretzky is practically the answer to any NHL trivia question.
Who has the most goals all time? Gretzky, 894.
Who has the most goals in a season? Gretzky, 92 in 1982.
Who had the most consecutive seasons with at least 100 points? Gretzky, 13 seasons from 1979 to 1992.
Not to mention, his era included punishing physical play. Skaters were able to get away with holds and late hits. Gretzky also had a target on his back during his whole career, so opponents were determined to either beat him or beat him up.
Throughout his career, Gretzky continued to produce like a well-oiled machine. From the fall through the spring every year, everyone in the hockey world knew Gretzky would not just be good, or great, but he would perform at a hall of fame level.
While his goal scoring was not quite as spectacular when netminders improved in the 1990s and he was not able to raise the Cup again after leaving Edmonton in the 1988 offseason, Gretzky was still excellent.
He was more dominant at his peak than Brady, he bests Jordan in the longevity department and he has more postseason appearances than any of the baseball players in consideration. Gretzky is the best North American athlete to have ever performed on a team.
Still not convinced? Gretzky has more assists than anyone in NHL history has points. Lastly, Robinson and Gretzky are the only players to have their number universally retired by a sports league. The MLB honored 42 after Robinson heroically broke the color barrier. The NHL honored 99 — the only number to ever be retired in the league — because Gretzky’s the greatest player in hockey history and has forever changed the trajectory of the sport.