Mo Alie-Cox has plenty of footsteps he can follow
These 15 players made it to the NFL after playing college basketball
As Indianapolis Colts tight end Mo Alie-Cox attempts to make the transition from college basketball to a spot on a 53-man football roster, he realizes the mission is possible. He would join a long line of players who’ve proved they can excel at a high level in two sports, including Tony Gonzalez, a 14-time Pro Bowler after a two-sport career at Cal-Berkeley, and Julius Peppers, a nine-time Pro Bowler who played football and basketball at North Carolina.
But what about the guys who, like Alie-Cox at Virginia Commonwealth, were primarily basketball players in college?
Here are 15 players who made successful transitions to football after their college basketball careers concluded.
Basketball resume: Cornell Green played three years at Utah State University (1960-62), where he was an All-American and All-Skyline Conference player. His best year came as a senior, when he averaged 25.7 points and 11.8 rebounds. His No. 24 jersey is one of five retired by the school.
Football credentials: Green was leaning toward the NBA after being drafted by the Chicago Zephyrs in the fifth round of the 1962 draft. But the Dallas Cowboys invited him to training camp, and to his surprise he made the team as a defensive back and began the trend of identifying college basketball players for football. Green made the NFL All-Rookie team that first year, and during his career he played in five Pro Bowls and the 1972 Super Bowl. Green, who played in the NFL for 13 seasons, was named to the Dallas Cowboys’ 25th Anniversary Team.
Basketball resume: After averaging 27 points and 12 rebounds a game as a senior and leading Detroit’s Central High School to a state title, Antonio Gates intended to play both sports at Michigan State. But once he got to East Lansing, Gates clashed with coach Nick Saban and transferred to Eastern Michigan.
Gates, a bruising, 6-foot-4 power forward, was good in his one season at Eastern Michigan (10.2 points and 7.4 rebounds in 1999-2000). But he became a dominant college player after transferring for a second time to Kent State (2001-03). He led the Golden Flashes to the Elite Eight as a junior, averaging 16 points and 8.1 rebounds as the team upset Oklahoma State, Alabama and Pittsburgh in the NCAA tournament. As a senior, he averaged a career-high 20.6 points. Already in the Kent State Hall of Fame, Gates will be inducted into the Mid-American Conference Hall of Fame later this month.
Football credentials: With the NBA having little use for an undersized power forward, Gates set up workouts with NFL teams and eventually signed with the San Diego Chargers in 2003. An eight-time Pro Bowler, Gates is tied for sixth all-time in receiving touchdowns (111, along with Tony Gonzalez), and with his first touchdown this upcoming season with the Los Angeles Chargers he will rank first among tight ends.
Basketball resume: Jimmy Graham was a part-time starter in each of his four seasons at Miami (2005-09), averaging a career-high 18.7 minutes as a senior, when he scored 4.0 points and grabbed 5.9 rebounds per game. Graham, a physical, 6-7 power forward, scored a career-high 19 points in a game against Virginia as a junior and grabbed a career-high 15 rebounds in a four-point loss to third-ranked North Carolina his senior season. He ended his basketball career at Miami ranked eighth in career blocks.
Football credentials: After Graham graduated from Miami, the football team invited him to try out at tight end. He made the team as a graduate student and had 17 catches for 213 yards and five touchdowns in 2009. The New Orleans Saints saw enough potential to draft Graham in 2010 in the third round.
Graham reached his first Pro Bowl in his second NFL season (he’s been named four times), and in his seven seasons in the league (five with the Saints and the past two with Seattle) he’s emerged as one of football’s best tight ends.
Basketball resume: Sam Clancy averaged 14.4 points and 11.6 rebounds in his four years at Pitt (1977-81), helping the team reach the NIT in 1980 and the NCAA tournament in 1981. He is the first player in school history to score 1,000 points and grab 1,000 rebounds, and Clancy is still the school’s all-time leading rebounder with 1,342. The Phoenix Suns drafted him in the third round of the 1981 NBA draft. He didn’t make the team and played one year in the Continental Basketball Association.
Football credentials: Clancy was also drafted by the Seattle Seahawks in 1982 in the 11th round and made a smooth transition from college basketball power forward to NFL defensive end. He played 10 seasons in the NFL (he also played in Cleveland and Indianapolis) and three years in the USFL (Pittsburgh and Memphis).
Basketball resume: After two years of junior college basketball, Marcus Pollard transferred to Bradley and became a two-year starter (1992-94). Pollard, a 6-5 center, averaged 7.3 points and five rebounds, shooting 50.3 percent from the field.
Football credentials: Pollard signed with the Colts in 1995 as a practice squad tight end, although he hadn’t played football since high school. He was activated in the middle of that first season, starting a 14-year NFL career. Pollard’s NFL numbers: 349 catches for 4,280 yards and 40 touchdowns.
Basketball resume: Pete Gent averaged 21 points in his senior year at Michigan State, becoming the first player in school history to lead the team in scoring three straight years (1962-64). Gent, a 6-4 forward, left Michigan State as the school’s second-leading scorer. He was drafted by the Baltimore Bullets in the 14th round of the 1964 NBA draft.
Football credentials: The Cowboys, who successfully converted Cornell Green from basketball to football, invited Gent to training camp. Gent made the team as a wide receiver and caught four touchdowns in five injury-plagued years in the NFL. He later wrote the football novel North Dallas Forty. He died in 2011.
Basketball resume: Lonnie Wright arrived at Colorado State in 1962 during an era when freshmen were ineligible to play (football and basketball were the only sports affected by that rule). So he joined the track team and broke the school record in the shot put (52 feet, 9 inches) in 1963. Once on the basketball court, Wright led the team in scoring all three years (1963-66), including a team-high 20.9 points as a senior, which still ranks as the fourth-best scoring average in school history. Wright was drafted by the St. Louis Hawks in the sixth round of the 1966 NBA draft.
Football credentials: By the time the Hawks drafted Wright, he had already signed with the Denver Broncos of the AFL after also receiving interest from the Cowboys. He played two seasons as a safety with the Broncos and then switched sports to play with the Denver Rockets (now the Nuggets) in the ABA. His professional stats: In football, Wright had five interceptions and one reception; in five ABA seasons, Wright averaged 10.7 points.
Basketball resume: Preston Pearson, a 6-2 guard, walked on at Illinois, where he played three years (1964-67) and started the last two. He had his best year as a senior, averaging 8.7 points and six rebounds. Pearson has long claimed that he once blocked a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar skyhook.
Football credentials: Pearson was selected in the 12th round of the 1967 NFL draft by the Baltimore Colts, where he played three seasons, mainly on special teams. The team accommodated his request to be traded, sending him to Pittsburgh, where he was switched to running back. After he was waived by the Steelers, Pearson signed with the Cowboys, where he emerged as one of the league’s best all-purpose backs. Pearson played in five Super Bowls (winning two rings) and played under three of the NFL’s best coaches (Don Shula, Chuck Noll and Tom Landry). His career numbers: 33 touchdowns, 3,609 rushing yards and 3,095 receiving yards.
Basketball resume: After Wayne Moore excelled in football and basketball in high school, Lamar Tech gave him a hoops scholarship. He wasn’t much of a scorer, but Moore, at 6-8 and 235 pounds, dominated the boards at Lamar (1965-69), and in his senior year he was second-team all-conference (1968-69) after leading the team in rebounds (302). During his last season, he grabbed 20 rebounds in Lamar’s upset win over No. 7-ranked Tulsa.
Football credentials: In 1969, Moore was signed by the San Francisco 49ers at the recommendation of safety Johnny Fuller, who had played college football at Lamar. The Niners had Moore on their practice squad for a year but lost him to the Miami Dolphins when they waived him. From 1970 through 1978, Moore became a fixture on the Miami offensive line and was the starting left tackle on the 1972 team that went undefeated and won the first of his two Super Bowl rings. He was 44 when he died of a heart attack in 1989.
Basketball resume: An All-American two-sport athlete in high school, Ken Johnson attended Indiana on a basketball scholarship (1967-70) and was the team’s MVP his junior and senior seasons, when he was the starting center. The 6-foot-6, 265-pound Johnson averaged 14.7 points and 10.5 rebounds as a senior (1969-70), earning All-Big Ten honors. The Cleveland Cavaliers selected Johnson in the 10th round of the 1970 NBA draft.
Football credentials: Despite never playing football in college, Johnson signed a contract with the Cowboys. But the team was unsuccessful in making him an offensive tackle. After the Cowboys waived him in 1971, he was signed by the Cincinnati Bengals, who switched him to the defensive line. He became a starter for the Bengals in 1974 and played seven seasons in the NFL.
Basketball resume: In high school, Ron Howard was the best basketball player in the state of Washington, as well as an all-conference tight end and top track and field athlete. In 2006, Howard was inducted into the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association Hall of Fame. He continued with his first love, basketball, at Seattle University (1971-74), where the 6-2, 220-pound guard averaged 9.2 points and 6.5 rebounds.
Football credentials: Ignored by the NBA in the 1974 draft, Howard received offers from the Cowboys and New York Giants. He made the Cowboys roster as a tight end in 1974 and played mostly on special teams in his two years in Dallas, which included an appearance in the Super Bowl. The Seattle Seahawks picked Howard in the 1976 expansion draft, and he won the starting tight end job. Howard played three seasons in Seattle, where his 37 receptions in 1976 were a team record for a tight end for 26 years.
Basketball resume: Percy Howard, a 6-4 forward, averaged 12.4 points and 7.3 rebounds in three years at Austin Peay (1972-75), where he was a teammate of Fly Williams. He was selected to the All-Ohio Valley Conference team in 1974-75.
Football credentials: Howard signed with the Cowboys in 1975, and he made the team as a kickoff returner and wide receiver, playing behind Drew Pearson and Golden Richards. He played in Super Bowl X, catching a touchdown pass in the Cowboys’ loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. That was his only career reception, as Howard injured his knee the following season and never played another game. In 2008, the NFL Network named Howard to the list of Top 10 one-shot wonders.
Basketball resume: Darren Fells played four years at Cal-Irvine (2004-08), where he increased his scoring average each year. Fells, a 6-7 center, had his best year as a senior, with career highs in points (14.4), rebounds (7.2) and field goal percentage (56.0 percent, tops in the Big West conference). He ranks fourth in school history in rebounds and 15th in career scoring and is one of just six players in school history with at least 1,000 points and 700 rebounds. After college, Fells played basketball professionally in Europe and South America.
Football credentials: Fells was offered football scholarships by numerous Pac-10 schools out of high school and shocked everyone by choosing basketball. After his professional basketball career, Fells tried out for the Seattle Seahawks as a defensive end and was eventually cut. Arizona signed him as a tight end, and Fells (6-7, 281) started 24 games in three seasons with the Cardinals, catching 40 passes for 536 yards and four touchdowns. Known as one of the better blocking tight ends in the NFL, Fells signed a one-year, $1.5 million deal with the Detroit Lions in March.
Basketball resume: Quinten Rollins played guard for four seasons at Miami of Ohio (2010-14), averaging 6.3 points and 3.4 assists. During the 2013-14 season, he led the Mid-American Conference (MAC) in steals (73) as well as steals per game (2.4). He left Miami second in all-time steals (214) behind Ron Harper (287).
Football credentials: After his basketball career, Rollins came back to Miami as a graduate student and played football, lining up as a cornerback and winning the MAC Defensive Player of the Year Award after finishing the season with 72 tackles and seven interceptions. That was good enough to get him picked in the second round in 2015 by the Green Bay Packers. Rollins was a starting cornerback by the end of his rookie season (2015), and last season he had one interception and 41 combined tackles.
Basketball resume: After a high school career in which he was ranked the 41st overall power forward by ESPN, Eric Swoope played four seasons of college basketball at Miami (2010-14), where he put up his best numbers as a senior (five points per game, 2.7 rebounds per game).
Football credentials: Swoope signed a free-agent contract with the Colts in 2014 and was assigned to the team’s practice squad. He was promoted to the active roster in December 2015 and made his first start the next season. Swoope had 15 catches for 297 yards and a touchdown last season and started four games. He expects a bigger role this season, when he’s expected to help Alie-Cox in his development.