Patrick Mahomes. That’s it. That’s the article. Well, maybe not.
Mahomes, 25, has a chance to become the youngest NFL quarterback in history with two championship rings if he can unseat Tom Brady and the Buccaneers in Super Bowl 55 on Sunday. Impressed yet?
What were you doing before age 26? Yelling at your roommate for leaving their dirty socks on the kitchen table (again)? Working hard in the early years of your career wondering when you were going to pay off student loans? Trying to wash off the Sharpie on your face after having one too many whisky sours the night before?
While the sports media hype machine has a unique way of taking the newest, shiniest toy and shoving it down your gullet, Mahomes has earned every bit of praise spoken in his direction since he burst onto the scene in 2018. Even in a league where offense is king, it’s not supposed to be this easy — Mahomes has just made it look that way, even though he entered the NFL on the heels of a less-than-spectacular college career.
Mahomes’ impact is far beyond just being a perenniel MVP candidate and Super Bowl champ. Everywhere you go, you see him: Shampoo ads, on Twitter, on baseball fields, but most importantly, this Sunday in the Super Bowl, the Chiefs’ second consecutive appearance in the big game.
Every now and then, though, a sports wunderkind enters the fray and captures the hearts and imaginations of the country. Simply put: Sometimes you just have to appreciate history unfolding before your eyes, and making history is exactly what Mahomes is doing.
He has a ring. He won an MVP. He’s thrown for 114 touchdowns in just 46 regular-season games. He’s the fastest to 10,000 yards in NFL history. He’s the latest in an a very exclusive group of young, superstar athletes to win, dominate and permeate pop culture early in their careers.
Just to put into perspective the rarified air that Patrick Mahomes has joined, below is a list of team-sport athletes who had similar accomplishments as Mahomes before their 26th birthday, taking into account a few key questions:
- Did the athlete win a pro championship before age 26?
- Did the athlete reach an impressive level of individual achievement before 26?
- Did the athlete permeate pop culture?
Now, before you get all mad online and send angry tweets, just something to note: There are a few obvious omissions who don’t satisfy some of the criteria above, like Ken Griffey Jr., LeBron James and Michael Jordan. While all of these guys are considered all-time greats in their respective sports, just consider the elite company that Mahomes is in.
Jordan, for example, didn’t win his first NBA ring until he was 28 years old (essentially a crusty old man). LeBron James didn’t win his first title until he was 27. Griffey never won a ring; he retired and was instantly placed on the infamous “best to never win a title” water-cooler list, along with athletes like Dan Marino. Then there are guys like Derek Jeter, who won early and often, but didn’t really fit into the record books the way Mahomes has.
There are also plenty of athletes who made waves at the collegiate level who didn’t translate into bona-fide, game-changing stars and a fixture in American pop culture.
There’s a very select list of athletes who have achieved the same amount of team success, individual achievement and praise away from the field, court or ice that Mahomes can be lumped in with. Below is the short list.
Accomplishments before 26: 1964 national champion (University of Alabama). AFL Rookie of the Year (1965). First to throw for 4,000 yards in a season. Super Bowl 3 winner. Super Bowl 3 MVP.
There’s a whole lot of hubbub made over whether or not Joe Namath should actually be a Hall of Famer, and while the myth of Super Bowl 3 far exceeds the reality of Super Bowl 3, Namath’s legend is still larger than life.
The hunky gunslinger was the first player in NFL history to toss for over 4,000 yards in a season, in 1967 when he was just 24 (the league had yet to officially merge). The following year, as a 25-year-old, Namath and the Jets stunned the world by upending the Colts in Super Bowl 3, making good on a guarantee and proving the AFL could hang with the NFL with the official merger looming.
Namath also transcended the sport, proving how marketable the modern athlete could be, with his fashion sense and charisma taking center stage. Speaking of, Namath even had a short-lived talk show — “The Joe Namath Show” — that lasted just one season and 13 episodes.
No one is as cool as “Broadway Joe” — and no one may ever be, either. Sorry, Patrick.
Accomplishments before 26: Three-time NBA champion (2000-2002), youngest player to earn NBA All-Defensive team nod (2000), Slam Dunk contest champion (1997)
The odyssey of the late, great Kobe Bryant has been detailed in depth since his untimely death in January 2020, but he’s one of the few athletes whose legend lives up to the reality.
Rising to the hype and lights of the Lakers, Bryant captured three straight titles alongside Shaquille O’Neal between 2000 and 2002, his age 21 through 23 seasons. Obviously, Hall of Famer Phil Jackson had a fair amount to do with Bryant becoming a superstar, but it was apparent to many before the first ring that Bryant’s talent was legitimate.
Bryant was a runner-up in the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award voting in 1997-98 season, became the youngest All-Star to play in an All-Star game and even had two basketball video games featuring him on the cartridge: “Kobe Bryant in NBA Courtside” and “NBA Courtside 2: Feat. Kobe Bryant” were released in 1998 and 1999, respectively.
While the majority of Kobe’s individual accomplishments came after his Age 25 season, he was a six-time All-Star between 1996 and 2004, missing out on the festivities just twice in his first eight seasons in the league. The rise to the top was a little less instant than the rest on the list, but it’s hard to debate Bryant’s impact on the game all the same.
Accomplishments before 26: Four-time World Series champion (1951-53, 1956), AL MVP 1956-57
Truthfully, there’s any number of Yankees you could slot in here: Lou Gehrig was an MVP before age 26, as was Joe DiMaggio. But Mickey Mantle showed more by age 25 than either of his pinstriped predecessors.
There’s very little debate that Mantle is one of the greatest players to ever grace a baseball diamond. By his Age 22 season, Mantle was already a three-time World Series winner and won two of his three MVP awards in his Age 24 and 25 seasons.
In 1955 and 1956 — Mantle’s MVP-winning seasons — he posted an 11.4 and 11.5 fWAR, respectively, proving that even today’s advanced numbers liked Mantle as a superstar.
It was certainly tough for Mantle to follow in the footsteps of prior Yankees who kept raising the bar of greatness but he did, and “The Commerce Comet” is a legend for it.
Accomplishments before 26: Three-time national champion 1967-69 (UCLA), three-time national college player of the year, 1971 NBA champion, 1971 Finals MVP, two-time NBA scoring champion (1971-72), NBA Rookie of the Year (1970), two-time NBA MVP (1971-72)
While Kareem’s individual pre-26 achievements are second to maybe one other on this list, his standing as the anchor of a three-time national championship winning squad and largely becoming one of the league’s best players in a short period was defining.
Even with the help of Oscar Robertson during his Milwaukee days, Abdul-Jabbar was still an impact player, winning two scoring titles and back-to-back MVPs in 1971-72 — not far removed from winning three straight NCAA championships, either. He was eventually traded to the Lakers after requesting to be dealt, spending the rest of his career in Hollywood, winning titles.
But it wasn’t until …
Accomplishments before 26: 1969 national champion (Michigan State), three-time NBA champion (1980, 1982, 1985), two-time NBA Finals MVP (1980, 1982)
… Magic Johnson’s arrival that the “Showtime Lakers” came to be as a dominant force in the NBA.
Johnson entered the NBA as a highly regarded college hoops star, being selected No. 1 overall in the 1979 NBA Draft fresh off a national championship win with Michigan State. Johnson became the only rookie in NBA history to win the Finals MVP, and one of just four players to win a national championship and an NBA championship in consecutive years.
By age 25, Johnson was a three-time NBA champion and a two-time NBA Finals MVP. He was a five-time All-Star in six years. While the league MVP awards would come later after age 25, there’s no denying that without Magic, there would be no Lake Show.
Accomplishments before 26: Seven-time Hart Trophy winner, two-time Stanley Cup champion (1984-85), 1985 Conn Smythe.
If you were to ask some rando on the street if they could name a hockey player, 99 times out of 100 that name would be “Gretzky.”
While the NHL plays fourth chair to the country’s Big 4 pro sports leagues, Gretzky’s talent and prominence as “The Great One” who dominated the game at such a young age puts him in a class of his own. While it would take about 20 years for Gretzky to make his big-screen debut — a small cameo in “D2: The Mighty Ducks” — it’s impossible to deny his pop-culture influence before that. Bet ya didn’t know he had a cameo on “The Young and the Restless.”
While Gretzky put together a career of ridiculous accomplishments, it was the beginning of his NHL career (with the Oilers joining the league) that stood out: Gretzky won seven consecutive Hart Trophies and two Stanley Cups before he turned 26, changing the game forever.
Accomplishments before 26: Two-time national champion (San Francisco, 1955-56), 1956 NCAA tournament Most Outstanding Player, 1958 NBA MVP, three-time NBA champion (1957, 1959-60), youngest to average over 20 points a game
Russell, the 11-time NBA champion, is one of just four hoopers to win the national championship and an NBA championship in consecutive seasons. He was a bona-fide star coming out of college, and that held through his NBA career.
While the landscape was far different in the league at the time — there were just eight teams when Russell first scored a basket in the NBA — domination is domination, and that translates despite the era in which he played.