New England Patriots

L-R; Wayne Gretzky, Tom Brady, Michael Jordan (Getty Images)

By Matt Dolloff,

With Tom Brady, the only debate left is whether he’s the greatest athlete of all time in literally any sport in recorded history. But there’s a problem: we’re stuck arguing what “greatest athlete” even means.

Since Brady has never been the most purely athletic quarterback, some will balk at giving him that title due to the word “athlete.” A recent column by Shalise Manza-Young at Yahoo! Sports is one example. Manza-Young pointed more to guys like Usain Bolt and Jim Brown. And yes, those were two professional athletes whose pure athleticism ranked at the top of everyone in history. This isn’t a criticism or singling-out of her piece and it’s a fair argument. But the issue is that we’re having the wrong argument.

What do you call Brady’s career? To be sure, he’s not literally the most athletic. But he has overcome his limitations to win at a higher level than any other football player. From the past four decades, there are two clear comparisons to Brady in terms of both accomplishments and how they did it: Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky. All three guys had their share of elite skills, but they mainly dominated with their minds, their competitiveness, their poise in championship situations.

Jordan wasn’t exactly unathletic – his leaping ability is iconic. But basketball didn’t come easy to him his whole life. He faced adversity from doubters early on, which no doubt helped build the killer instinct that made Jordan a six-time NBA Finals MVP. Jordan may not have been the athlete that LeBron James is, but his compete was unmatched. A lot of guys could shoot well and score a lot. But nobody did it at a high level, consistently, on the biggest stages like Jordan did. That’s why he remains the all-time champion of the NBA and one of the few pro athletes you could compare to Brady.

Tom Brady is one of the most accomplished pro athletes in history, but there's an ongoing debate about what 'greatest athlete' even means. (Kim Klement-USA TODAY)

Tom Brady is one of the most accomplished pro athletes in history, but there’s an ongoing debate about what ‘greatest athlete’ even means. (Kim Klement-USA TODAY)

Gretzky? He was undersized and slow. But he played hockey like the ultimate chess master, thinking and anticipating plays way ahead of his opponents. His virtuosic vision made it virtually impossible to hit him or prevent scoring chances. He knew what his opponents were going to do before they did. Like today’s fans with Brady, plenty of hockey fans in the ’80s were probably left wondering how the hell Gretzky did it year after year.

When it seems like some kind of black magic, it’s probably just greatness.

You may disagree that any of Brady, Jordan or Gretzky belongs in the “greatest athlete” debate, if you view it through a lens of straight-up athleticism. But there is a distinction between the “greatest athletes” and the “greatest players to have competed in professional athletics.” Because it takes way more than athletic ability to dominate a sport like those three did. They are the true standards for greatness and transcendence in sports.

MORE: Brady stakes claim as greatest winner ever

So, it’s time to settle on a definition of “greatest athlete.” Let’s not hold our breath to get the internet to agree on anything, but otherwise, we’ll be stuck in the wrong debate forever. Are we talking most athletic or greatest winners? If it’s the former, then the Brady/Jordan/Gretzky class needs a new title.

Whatever you call them, though, they’re the greatest at something.

Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Yell at him on Twitter @mattdolloff or send him a nasty email at