What's the Toughest Sport and the Most Difficult Position to Play?

Other Feb 15, 2021

What's the toughest game and position to play in sports?

In the fall of 1963, a then-unknown journalist, writer, literary critic, and wanna-be professional athlete named George Plimpton walked into training camp with the NFL's Detroit Lions.

Plimpton didn't fit the mold of an athlete.  He was slow.  He was clumsy.  He was the oldest player on the team.  He arrived in camp as an undrafted 36-year-old "rookie" quarterback (he'd graduated from Harvard, 14 years earlier).  Although his lofty sights were set on getting into shape, completing drills with the team, learning the playbook, and suiting up to play in a preseason game, fact was -- when he first stepped onto the football field he didn't even know how to position his hands and take a snap from center.

Predictably, the results were disastrous.

Plimpton's teammates weren't told in advance about their new rookie quarterback, nor his incognito expose intended for a magazine.  That way, his experience as a pro athlete was certain to be authentic.  However, once the Lions players witnessed him on the field floundering around, utterly clueless as to how to run an offense, they couldn't believe he was given a uniform.  Turned out, Plimpton was almost comically ungifted physically, and so mentally ill-prepared to call the signals for an NFL team, that within just a few hours it became obvious he wasn't really a football player but a bad pretender.  Nonetheless, Plimpton somehow managed to talk head coach George Wilson into putting him into a game for a series of downs during a intra-squad team scrimmage.

Fittingly, he was given the number "0."  That's when bad turned to worse.

Playing in full pads and competing at game tempo, Plimpton's professional football "career" lasted just five excruciating plays.  He lined up in the quarterback position.  He five snaps.  Plimpton lost yardage on every play.

Afterward, Plimpton's exploits became the focus of a magazine essay published in Sports Illustrated, and later the basis for a best-selling book, titled "Paper Lion."  Later, actor Alan Alda played Plimpton in the movie, which took some liberties with the story.  In the movie version, Alda gets inserted into a preseason game in the closing seconds and loses 25 yards when he runs the wrong way downfield, colliding head-first into his own goalpost.  In reality though, Plimpton wasn't permitted to play in a game, for fear of a serious injury.  Given how bad the Detroit Lions have been in the 50 years that have since passed, there's probably a joke in there somewhere that Plimpton might not have been the worst pick for a quarterback, after all.

Football players are so much bigger and stronger now.  The same goes for basketball and hockey, too.  Baseball, which is the most consistent of all team sports when it comes to statistics, is probably the only game where the athletes of earlier eras bear similarities to other which come later.  Soccer is another team sport where the greatest athletes of years ago could probably be competitive in the modern game (yet even this is a matter of controversy).

Given the extraordinary advances in physicality and science, it seems almost impossible for a George Plimpton-like amateur to surface anywhere today or enjoy the slightest chance of even marginal success.  No amateur athlete is going to skate onto the NHL ice, or walk out onto an NBA court, and not be both humiliated and very likely destroyed, probably within just a few minutes.

That said, what if we were forced to chose one competitive endeavor from the rest?  If so, which sport would be the toughest for an amateur to compete in?  Accordingly, if somehow we can answer this question, then we can probably rank the sports from top to bottom in terms of difficulty.  That means, we should be able to determine which sport is the easiest for an amateur to compete in.

Still with me?  Okay, for the sake of argument, let's consider the following sports:

  • football
  • baseball
  • basketball
  • ice hockey
  • soccer
  • tennis
  • golf
  • track and field
  • boxing

That's five team sports and four individual sports.

Let's go back and use George Plimpton as our benchmark athlete.  Remember, Plimpton was 36 when he tried out with the Lions, considerably older than the league average, but still physically within the possible age range of a professional football player.  Plimpton was 6-feet, 4-inches in height, much taller than the average man, giving him roughly equal stature with other pro athletes (even in basketball).  He'll be our test dummy for comparison sake.  Again -- a healthy male, of playing age, of decent size, who is reasonably intelligent and can follow instructions.

So, what sport and position would be the toughest to play today, more than 50 years later?

Coming next in Part 2, I'll offer an assessment and welcome your comments.