There have been a ton of Christians that have made their way to the top of the athletic world, and it only makes sense because they make up more than 70 percent of the country’s population. One sub religion that doesn’t have a lot of members in terms of America’s percentage is Mormonism, which only boasts 1.6 percent of America’s people.
A lot of the athletes that are Mormon never end up making it to the pros, since going on a mission at ages 18 or 19 is commonplace. However, some end up holding off on those missions until after their professional careers are over. Some of them do indeed go on their missions, only to return home to pursue their pro careers. Not all of them make a huge splash in the pros, but it’s still interesting to see that choice being made.
Most of the Mormon athletes you see in the pros make their way through Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, first. This is the largest Mormon school in the country by far, and their athletic programs are always competitive. But which Mormons have had the best athletic careers? We have taken both college and professional careers into consideration to bring the 25 best, and here they are.
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25 John Beck
The first athlete on our list is a former quarterback from Brigham Young University (and certainly won’t be the last). Beck was named as a finalist for the Johnny Unitas Award and Davey O’Brien Award as a finalist in 2006 when he threw for 3,885 yards and 32 touchdowns. Beck was drafted early in the second round by the Miami Dolphins in 2007, but his NFL career never materialized, and he is now in the Canadian Football League. Interestingly enough, Beck left the NFL with a career record of 0-7 as a starter.
24 Ezekiel Ansah
There are many young players on this list that will have a chance to climb up the rankings, and Ezekiel (better known as Ziggy) Ansah is one of them. Ansah was a standout linebacker at BYU, notching 62 tackles and 4.5 sacks in his senior year. Ansah was drafted fifth overall by the Detroit Lions in the 2013 NFL Draft, leading the league in sacks for rookies with eight. Ansah comes from Ghana, Africa, and has played in all but two games in his first two seasons in Detroit.
23 Jimmer Fredette
There are certain college basketball players that seem to grab the attention of fans everywhere, and one of them was Jimmer Fredette. Fredette came from Glens Falls, New York to the Mormon school of BYU where he was named the 2011 National college player of the year, and a first team All-American when he led all scorers in his senior season. In the 2011 NBA Draft, Fredette was selected 10th overall by the Milwaukee Bucks, then traded to the Sacramento Kings. Fredette is currently a free agent that has averaged 6.1 points, 1.4 assists and 1 rebound per game.
22 Manti Te’o
The first athlete on our list to not attend Brigham Young University is Manti Te’o, who had a very memorable career at Notre Dame. Te’o got a lot of playing time early with the Fighting Irish and became one of the nation’s top linebackers by his senior season when he was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy and led the Irish to an undefeated regular season. The 24-year-old Hawaiian was selected in the second round by the San Diego Chargers in the 2013 NFL Draft, and has been serviceable despite some injury problems so far.
21 Rulon Gardner
Americans love beating the Russians in just about anything, but especially the Olympics. Aleksandr Karelin was a Russian Greco-Roman wrestler that had been undefeated for 13 years entering the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney. In the 130 kilogram weight class, Karelin was the heavy favorite, but Gardner pulled off the upset and won the gold. Gardner followed that performance up with a bronze in the 2004 Olympics. Things were a little rough after his career, as he gained more than 200 pounds and appeared on “The Biggest Loser”.
20 Dennis Pitta
Dennis Pitta was one of the most memorable pass catchers to ever come through BYU, ranking first in career receptions and third in receiving yards at the school. Pitta was a three time All-Mountain West player and one time All-American, and he was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens in the fourth round of the 2010 NFL Draft. While the Fresno native hasn’t put up big numbers, he has shown his potential but only played in seven total games between 2013 and 2014. Pitta’s best season so far came with 669 yards and seven touchdowns in 2012.
19 Ty Detmer
We now meet our second BYU quarterback on the list in the form of Ty Detmer. Detmer was a star while with the Cougars, taking home the 1990 Heisman Trophy and a slew of other awards. A two time All-American, he still wasn’t a highly touted prospect coming into the NFL. Detmer was drafted in the ninth round in 1992 and spent his NFL career playing for six different teams, wrapping it up with the Atlanta Falcons in 2005. Detmer finished with 6,351 passing yards and 34 touchdowns.
18 Jabari Parker
It might be a little early to rank Parker this high, but he has certainly shown how much potential he has to be an all-time star. Parker was toward the top of his high school recruiting class, ending up playing for Coach K and the Duke Blue Devils. Parker was named an All-American in 2014 and USBWA Freshman of the Year before the Milwaukee Bucks drafted him second overall in 2014. Parker played just 25 games his rookie season, but averaged 12.3 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.7 assists per game.
17 Shawn Bradley
Few athletes have ever been taller than Shawn Bradley, who stood at 7-foot-6. Bradley was born in Germany, but grew up as a Mormon kid in Utah, going to the nearby BYU. While there, he was named the WAC Freshman of the Year and second team All-WAC in 1991. Bradley was drafted second overall in 1993 by the Philadelphia 76ers and spent 12 years in the NBA with Philly, the Nets and Mavericks. Bradley ended his career with 8.1 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game.
16 Jacoby Ellsbury
Jacoby Ellsbury was a fan favorite with the Boston Red Sox for a long time, making his debut with the team in 2007. Ellsbury is now a member of the rival New York Yankees and still hanging around. Ellsbury was raised as a Mormon, but doesn’t practice as much as his parents do. Ellsbury’s career so far has gotten him a .295 batting average with more than 1,000 hits and more than 80 home runs. Ellsbury has also won two World Series and reached one All-Star Game.
15 Brett Keisel
Although he might be known more for his tremendous beard, Brett Keisel had a very solid playing career in the NFL. Keisel was a late pick, being drafted in the seventh round by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2002 NFL Draft. Keisel only made one Pro Bowl in his career, but he was a long time staple on the Pittsburgh defense. Keisel totaled 30 sacks in his 12 years with the team, and hauled in two interceptions, helping the team to win two Super Bowls.
14 Bryce Harper
If there is one player from the bottom of the list that has the potential to reach the top of the list, it’s Bryce Harper. Coming from Las Vegas, Harper was one of the most highly touted prospects in ages. Harper was drafted by the Washington Nationals first overall in 2010 and didn’t take long to make it to the majors. Harper has already hit more than 80 home runs with 450+ hits in his short career, making three All-Star Games and won the Rookie of the Year award in 2012.
13 Todd Heap
Although Dennis Pitta might get there one day, Todd Heap is still the best tight end to play for the Baltimore Ravens. Ironically Heap was cut by the Ravens back in 2011 due to Pitta's emergence. Heap attended Arizona State, and was drafted 31st overall by the squad in 2001. Heap spent 11 years in the NFL, racking up 5,869 yards in his career and 42 touchdowns. Heap is also the all-time leader in receiving touchdowns for Baltimore, reaching two Pro Bowls and was named an All-Pro in 2003.
12 Haloti Ngata
Now with the Detroit Lions, Haloti Ngata spent nearly a decade with the Baltimore Ravens, as the Oregon product was drafted 12th overall in 2006. Ngata has had a standout career so far in the NFL, notching 25.5 sacks and forcing six fumbles. Ngata has been named to five Pro Bowls and five All-Pro teams and was a big part of the Ravens winning their second Super Bowl in the 2012 season. Will Ngata bring that type of production over to the Motor City? We’ll find out soon enough.
11 Todd Christensen
In the list of great tight ends, sometimes people forget about the name Todd Christensen. Like many of the others on this list, Christensen attended BYU, but his pro career was more spectacular than his college one. Christensen’s career started in earnest with the New York Giants in 1979, but became a Raider during that season and spent nearly a decade there. Christensen made five Pro Bowl teams and was selected to the All-Pro team four times, winning two Super Bowls.
10 Vern Law
Meridian, Idaho isn’t known for pumping out Major League Baseball players, but they are responsible for Vern Law. Law made his debut with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1950 when he was only 20 years old, and stayed with the team all the way through 1967, missing two years for military service. Through Law only made one All-Star Game appearance, he was a solid pitcher for a very long period of time. Law’s career ended in 1967 with a record of 162-147 and an ERA of 3.77, winning Games 1 and 4 of the famous 1960 World Series and getting the start for the memorable Game 7.
9 Danny Ainge
Although Danny Ainge has had his ups and downs as the President of Basketball Operations for the Boston Celtics, he was certainly admired as a player for the team. Ainge was drafted 31st overall in the 1981 NBA Draft out of BYU, but had a quiet rookie season. Ainge would become a regular starter for the Celtics by the time his career there was finished, as he spent his final years in the league playing for the Kings, Trailblazers and Suns. His final career stats saw him score 11.5 points, dish out four assists and haul in 2.7 rebounds per game.
8 Dale Murphy
Dale Murphy was a highly regarded prospect out of BYU in the early 1970s, when he was drafted fifth overall by the Atlanta Braves in 1974. In the 1980s, Murphy was a perennial All-Star with Atlanta, making the midsummer classic roster seven times in a span of eight years. Murphy wrapped up his career with the Phillies and Rockies, but will always be remembered as a Brave. Murphy’s career average isn’t great at just .265, but he knocked out nearly 400 home runs with 2,111 base hits. Murphy was on the Hall of Fame ballot for 15 years but didn’t make the cut.
7 Roy Halladay
Roy Halladay did not attend BYU, because he ended up going straight from high school to the professional baseball ranks. Halladay was a first round pick for the Blue Jays in 1995, making his big league debut in 1998. When 2002 rolled around, Halladay was ready to be a star, going 19-7 in his first full season. Halladay would end up making the All-Star Game eight times between 2002 and 2011 with both Toronto and Philadelphia. Halladay notched over 200 wins in his pitching career, with a 3.38 ERA and 2,117 strikeouts.
6 Jeff Kent
The modern day second baseman is a hard position to get a lot of batting production from, but many teams got it out of Jeff Kent. Kent was drafted late in 1989’s draft by Toronto, but only played 65 games with the big league club. Kent played for six teams in his career, but his best days came as a member of the San Francisco Giants. Kent was a tough out, batting .290 on his career with 2,461 hits, 377 home runs and 1,518 RBIs. Kent’s vote totals for the Hall of Fame so far have not been optimistic, but he will always be regarded as one of the best offensive second basemen of the past 20 years.
5 Jack Morris
Jack Morris played for four teams in his MLB career, but he will always be remembered for his first 14 seasons when he was with the Detroit Tigers. Morris is another BYU product that was drafted in 1976’s fifth round, and his third year was a memorable one as he went 17-7 with a 3.28 ERA. Morris made five All-Star Game appearances, despite some of his best seasons not getting him an All-Star nod (including two 20 win seasons). Morris nearly made the Hall of Fame in 2013 when he received 67.7 percent of the necessary votes, but it hasn’t been enough so far.
4 Harmon Killebrew
We have finally reached the Hall of Fame portion of our list, and it starts with Harmon Killebrew. Killebrew attended a small college in Idaho and signed with the Washington Senators, debuting before his 18th birthday. Killebrew saw just two full seasons before he went on to Minnesota and became a household name. Between 1959 and 1971, there were only two seasons in which Killebrew was not named to the All-Star team. His long career produced 2,086 hits, slamming 573 home runs and knocking in 1,584 runs over 22 years, making the Hall of Fame in 1984.
3 Dennis Eckersley
You can’t have a discussion about the greatest relief pitchers of all-time without bringing up Dennis Eckersley and his trademark mustache. Eckersley played for five different teams in his 24 year career, including two stints with the Boston Red Sox, who wrapped up his career after the 1998 season. Eckersley made six All-Star Game appearances, and was still able to have an impressive 197-171 career record despite most of his work coming from the bullpen, as he collected 390 saves. Eck also finished with 2,401 strikeouts and was named to the Hall of Fame in 2004 as a first ballot selection.
2 Steve Young
The final football player on our list is yet another quarterback from BYU. Young started his professional career with the Los Angeles Express of the USFL before the Buccaneers selected him first overall in the 1984 NFL Supplemental Draft. Young was traded to the 49ers to be Joe Montana’s backup as the team shipped away a second and fourth round pick for him. Young would get his chance to be the 49ers starter in 1992, as he led the team to a 14-2 record. Young finished off his career with a record of 94-49, throwing 232 touchdowns and 107 interceptions. The highlight of Young’s career, though, was winning Super Bowl XXIX against the Chargers in the 1994 season and getting inducted to the Hall of Fame in 2005
1 Jack Dempsey
The top Mormon athlete on our list comes from the boxing world, and you have to go way back to find any footage of him. Jack Dempsey was an icon during his heyday of the 1920s, known for packing a lot of power behind his punches and not letting up. Dempsey was a huge draw around the globe, and he held the World Heavyweight Championship for an impressive span of seven years from 1919 to 1926. Dempsey was named the greatest fighter of the first half of the 20th century, and was named to the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1951. Dempsey is also the only athlete on our list to have a fish named after him, so that’s just the icing on the cake.
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