The Greatest Work-Hard, Play-Hard Athletes in History
Most athletes are finely tuned machines, spending their lives trying to perfect their craft and looking to gain every physical advantage possible over their opponents. They work to keep their bodies and minds in peak condition so that, when their moment comes, they are ready to seize it without anything holding them back.
But that regimented lifestyle isn’t for all athletes. No, some of the most famous in the world of sports seemingly make it their personal mission to test the boundaries of their bodies’ tolerance for punishment—and not in the form of physical exertion, but punishment at the hands of a litany of vices, be it booze, other drugs, food, gambling or women.
Stories of the prodigious carousing, late-night partying, and general destructive behavior are in no shortage when it comes to athletes. But a select few push the envelope so far, burning the candle at both ends in an effort to satiate a seemingly bottomless appetite for thrills both on and off the field.
Here are the greatest work-hard, play-hard athletes in history.
12. Dock Ellis, MLB Baseball
Although Dock Ellis isn’t enshrined in Cooperstown, there is no question that he entered the pantheon of the game’s most notoriously successful characters on one misty San Diego evening in June 1970.
On a days-long acid trip while on the road with the Pirates, Ellis badly miscalculated, dropping another tab of the drug on the morning of his start when he thought he wasn’t pitching until the next day. Just hours later, in a game that lasted only two hours and 13 minutes, he shut down the Padres, not allowing a hit while striking out six in what was Major League Baseball’s 174th no-hitter.
That’s not to say the LSD didn’t have any negative effects that day—Dock walked eight San Diego hitters and hit one more for good measure, his wildness no doubt a side effect of the various hallucinations he claims to have experienced. But, he unbelievably was able to buckle down in pressure situations, and two Willie Stargell solo home runs ended up carrying the day for Pittsburgh and their tripping righthander.
Ellis would pitch the finest season of his career the following season, as the Pirates won the 1971 World Series under Danny Murtaugh.
If you haven’t seen it yet, check out No Mas’ fantastic animated depiction of Dock’s no-no.
11. Michael Irvin, NFL Football
The Playmaker—as he likes to call himself—was a key cog in the ’90s Dallas Cowboys machine, racking up 1,000-yard receiving seasons in all but one year from 1991 through 1998. Irvin played a central role in the Cowboys’ three Super Bowl seasons (1992, 1993 and 1995), leading the team in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns all three years.
The one season from 1991 through 1998 when Irvin failed to reach the 1,000 yard mark was 1996, when he was suspended five games following his arrest on cocaine and marijuana possession charges at a party celebrating his 30th birthday. Initially, Irvin unabashedly pleaded not guilty and arrived at court in a full-length mink coat.
During the course of the police and media’s investigation, it was revealed that Irvin and other Cowboys’ had a home near the team’s practice facility where they would go to “relax” (read: where they would do drugs and hang out with strippers).
As his trial pressed onward, and with prosecutors pushing the issue of his alleged witness tampering, Irvin eventually relented, pleading no contest to a felony drug possession charge, and was sentenced to 4 years’ probation, a $10,000 fine and up to 800 hours of community service.
This run-in with Johnny Law apparently didn’t phase Irvin one bit, as he was again arrested on cocaine possession charges less than a year after he retired. Then, while working as an NFL commentator for ESPN in 2005, he was arrested on marijuana and drug paraphernalia charges, later claiming that the pipe and drugs were his brother’s.
10. David Wells, MLB Baseball
Perhaps no baseball player in the last 25 years has garnered as much attention for his atypical (to put it kindly) athlete’s physique than David Wells, the southpaw who pitched for nine teams over 21 seasons in the bigs and who made no bones about his penchant for food and booze. Boomer’s voracious appetite even landed him on the cover of Sports Illustrated during his second tour of duty with the Blue Jays.
A 1997 SI profile brought to light Wells’ fanatic obsession with baseball’s first larger-than-life hero and legendary carouser, Babe Ruth—an obsession that caused the big lefthander to wear an original Ruth cap during the first inning of a start with the Yankees.
The next season, Wells famously threw only the second perfect game in Yankees’ franchise history, dropping the Minnesota Twins 4-0, only to later admit in his 2003 autobiography that he was hungover for his legendary start after a night of drinking on the eve of the game.
By the time he signed with Boston in 2005 at the age of 41, Wells’ waistline had grown to comical proportions, yet he continued to soldier on before retiring after a 2007 campaign split between the Padres and Dodgers, finishing with 239 career wins, a 4.13 ERA and 1.266 WHIP.
9. John Daly, PGA Golf
John Daly turned professional in 1987, but it was four years before the man with the blond mullet and a hankering for women…and alcohol…and food…and gambling…and nicotine (is that all?) made his mark on the world of professional golf.
After playing in just ten PGA Tour events over the previous four years (and only three majors), Daly qualified for the 1991 Tour and then unbelievably took that year’s PGA Championship at Crooked Stick. He went on to win that year’s Rookie of the Year and 19 tournaments over his more than 20-year career, including another major—the 1995 British Open at the The Old Course.
Despite his success on the course, it is Daly’s hard-living style off the course that has brought him more headlines than anything else since his surprise victory at the 1991 PGA. Whether it be his four marriages (and physical altercations with his various wives), admitted alcoholism and gambling addiction, gargantuan beer belly or habit of chain-smoking on the course, Daly seems to find himself in the tabloid headlines every few years.
Before undergoing LAP-BAND surgery, allegedly getting back on the wagon and starting a comeback, Daly had one last ridiculous run-in with the law, getting held overnight in 2008 by police in Winston-Salem, North Carolina after he was found passed out drunk at a local Hooters.
Unfortunately for Daly, it was a testament to his booze-fueled past that almost no one was surprised by this news.
8. Wayne Rooney, Premier League Soccer
Considered by many to be England’s best current player, Manchester United striker Wayne Rooney has put together an impressive career, being named England Player of the year in 2008 and 2009. He played in two World Cups for his homeland (2006 and 2010), and his Man U squads have won the Premier League four out of the the last five seasons, and even took home the 2007-08 UEFA Champions League title.
But, Rooney’s prowess isn’t relegated to on the pitch. No, his exploits off the pitch are well-documented, including all-night benders, encounters with hookers and public urination.
Don’t believe Rooney ranks up there with the hardest partying athletes? Just Google “wayne rooney booze.”
What’s that? 17.7 million results?
7. Dennis Rodman, NBA Basketball
“The Worm” was known as one of the NBA’s best defenders and rebounders during his playing days. He was key member on five championship teams (the 1989 and 1990 Pistons and 1996, 1997 and 1998 Bulls) and earned a reputation as one of the Association’s most dedicated, yet most flamboyant, players.
Rodman’s off-court behavior began to turn erratic near the end of his tenure in Detroit, and after he was shipped to San Antonio before the 1993-1994 campaign, he went off the deep end. Reports of boozy partying with rock stars, the rapid accumulation of tattoos and piercings, colorfully dyed hair, and an alcohol-induced Las Vegas marriage to Carmen Elektra dominated news headlines concerning Rodman, despite his continued production and contribution to his teams throughout his career.
All of Rodman’s hard-living appears to finally be catching up with him. At his induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame last year, Rodman looked and sounded extremely haggard, and his recent admission that his partying lifestyle continues should be cause for concern.
6. Joe Namath, NFL Football
The image of Joe Namath the football player is well-ingrained in the American sports psyche:
He quarterbacks two Bear Bryant Alabama teams to Orange Bowls and wins the 1964 National Championship. Drafted in both the 1965 NFL and AFL drafts, he chooses the bright lights of New York and the AFL’s Jets over the NFL’s St. Louis Cardinals.
In 1967, Namath becomes the first quarterback to reach 4,000 passing yards in a single season and, the next year, guarantees victory in Super Bowl III and delivers, beating Don Shula and Johnny Unitas’ heavily-favored Baltimore Colts by a score of 16-7.
After the game, he jogs off the field with his index finger raised triumphantly, headed toward an injury-riddled, statistically lackluster career that ends with a four-game stint with the Los Angeles Rams in 1977.
But there’s more to the story than just Joe Namath the football player. A long denouement followed by a future-ironic-throwback-jersey appearance in L.A. isn’t where this one ends. Not by a long shot. Not for a guy nicknamed “Broadway Joe.”
Already a controversial and intriguing figure by the time he left Alabama for pro ball, Namath parlays his braggadocio in Super Bowl III into a role as professional football’s first media darling and, ultimately, a cultural icon and Hall of Famer.
He parties with A-listers, shills for an untold number of companies (including a famous Noxema ad with an unknown Farrah Fawcett), dates the likes of Raquel Welch, stars in a handful of movies and a (short-lived) TV show, and even opens nightclubs (leading to a public spat with Commissioner Rozelle).
And it seems the image of Broadway Joe wasn’t just made for TV. Since his playing days, stories have been written about Namath partying through the night on the eve of games, even arriving at the stadium still under the influence—which only helped according to some people.
5. Lawrence Taylor, NFL Football
Many claim L.T. reinvented the position of outside linebacker, changing it from a reactionary-type position to a more aggressive, attacking role. His pass rush was legendary, and he remains one of the most feared and intimidating players in NFL history.
But it’s no secret that Taylor had a dark side awash in drugs, alcohol and prostitutes throughout much of his Hall of Fame career.
Routinely submitting clean teammates’ urine during his playing days, Taylor reportedly spent $1,000 a day on cocaine. He finally failed a drug test in 1987, and then failed another one year later. A third test would have resulted in a lifetime ban from the game, so L.T. claims he gave up the drug for the remainder of his playing career.
Unfortunately for the rest of the league, Taylor still had some tricks up his sleeve to get himself revved up for games, sending prostitutes to opponents’ hotel rooms, as well as routinely calling on these ladies’ services for his own benefit.
L.T.’s downward spiral was just beginning by the time he retired in 1993, and it would only get worse.
4. Wade Boggs, MLB Baseball
The Chicken Man finished his 18-season Hall of Fame career with the Red Sox,Yankees and TTFKATTBDR (The Team Formerly Known As The Tampa Bay Devil Rays) by becoming the first player to join the 3,000 hit club on a home run, driving a hanging curveball over the right field wall at the Trop on August 7, 1999. Boggs would remain the only player to reach this plateau with a long ball until Derek Jeter joined him in 2011.
Despite his legendary on-field resume, Boggs is notorious for his ability to down prodigious quantities of Miller Lite while traveling to the West Coast back in his playing days. While guest hosting the morning show on Seattle’s 950 KJR, former Major League pitcher Jeff Nelson claimed Boggs drank 50 to 60 beers from clubhouse-to-clubhouse on trips out west.
When the truth of his story was questioned, Nelson called former teammate Paul Sorrento, who then estimated that Boggs would take down 70 beers on the trip.
That’s right—former teammates alleged that a member of the game’s most elite fraternity could handle as many as 70 Miller Lites on a nine-hour trip (based on the timeline given by Nelson).
When discussing the subject with Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon on ESPN’s Pardon The Interruption in 2005, Boggs disputed one person’s estimate of 64, but he didn’t exactly deny his capacity for 12-ounce curls while 30,000 feet in the air:
Kornheiser: Okay, so there was a sign on College Game Day about a year ago that said “Wade Boggs once drank 64 beers on a cross-country flight.” Tell us that’s true, or tell us you got close on that.
Boggs: No, it’s not true. No, it’s not true. It wasn’t 64. But, uh, a lot of people have fun with that. It’s noth—, it’s nothing to brag about. But, uh, you get bored on a cross-country flight going from Boston to L.A., so, uh, you gotta, you gotta spend the time doing something.
Kornheiser: What was the number? Give us the number.
Boggs: No, we don’t need to, we don’t need to divulge the number. It was, uh. Put it this way: it was, it was a few Miller Lites.
What’s clear is that Boggs drank some unthinkable amount of one of the great American swills in an unreasonably short period of time, and that he did it regularly, yet he would somehow still get up and play—and play well—the very next day, sometimes just hours later.
Which begs the question, “If Major League Baseball is testing for PEDs, should they also install a Breathalyzer in the on-deck circle?”
3. George Best, Premier League Soccer
George Best was the greatest soccer player to ever come out of Northern Ireland—a man the BBC dubbed being “arguably second only to Pele in his footballing skill.” He plied his trade on the professional circuit for 22 years—the first 12 of which came in a Manchester United kit.
He won two Premier League titles with Man U (1965 and 1967) and the team won the European Cup in 1968, with Best named European Footballer of the Year and Football Writers’ Association Player of the Year.
But Best was also infamous for his extravagant behavior off-the-field, quoted as saying, “I spent 90% of my money on women, drink and fast cars. The rest I wasted.”
Out of the First Division by the age of 27 (he made his pro debut with Man U at 17), Best spent the remainder of his life seemingly trying to drown himself in alcohol, while circling the globe playing for various less-respected teams.
In 2000, Best was diagnosed with severe liver damage brought on by his drinking, and required a transplant two years later. Despite being given a second lease on life, his drinking resumed, and Best eventually passed away in 2005 at the age of 59.
2. Micky Mantle, MLB Baseball
The Mick was not only a millions kids’ idol back in the ’50s and ’60s, but he was also a legendary boozehound, attacking New York City’s nightlife like an Oklahoma kid in a Big Apple candy store.
After slugging 536 home runs and registering a ridiculous .977 career OPS over 18 seasons with the Yankees, Mantle purportedly remarked, “If I knew I’d live this long, I would have taken better care of myself” when he was only 46 years old.
He was dead 17 years later in 1995, after it was discovered his liver had been ravaged by alcohol-induced cirrhosis, cancer, and hepatitis c. He received a liver transplant that, in the end, could not prevent the cancer from hurrying his demise at the age of 63.
1. Babe Ruth, MLB Baseball
King Ruth? Yup.
The Babe’s appetite for a broad range of vices—whether it be booze, food, stogies or women—is well-documented. One reporter famously dubbed an early season ailment in 1925, “the bellyache heard ’round the world,” and claimed it resulted from an overdose of hot dogs and soda. According to ESPN, others claim the Sultan of Swat actually suffered from venereal disease, tainted alcohol or an intestinal abscess.
One way or the other, it’s clear the Sultan of Swat was partaking in something that was not good for his constitution. But, he wasn’t going to give up these temptations without a fight, notoriously telling Yankees owner Colonel Ruppert, “I’ll promise to go easier on drinking and to get to bed earlier, but not for you, fifty thousand dollars, or two-hundred and fifty thousand dollars will I give up women. They’re too much fun.”
He didn’t keep good on his promise, never giving up his hard-partying ways (or his women) for Ruppert or anyone else, before succumbing to cancer in 1948 at the age of 53.
Photo Credit: Getty Images.