Arguing the most impressive sports records is a difficult task: Does longevity matter? What about a one-game or one-season outburst that's stood the test of time? Are records that are older automatically better? How do we factor in changes that have dramatically altered several sports?
Imagine going back 30 years and watching NBA players pull up for a 3-pointer on a two-on-one fast break with regularity. On the other hand, imagine sitting down for a game tonight and seeing a baseball player playing his 2,000th consecutive game or trying to steal a base nearly every time he got on.
It just didn't -- or now doesn't -- happen.
There are plenty of records that will never be broken because people are no longer trying to break them. From May 30, 1982 to Sept. 19, 1998, Cal Ripken Jr. played 2,632 consecutive games. It's an absolutely silly record: more than 500 games longer than Lou Gehrig's second-place streak and roughly 2,400 games longer than the longest active streak, which belongs to Matt Olson. That is simply a record players aren't chasing any more. Same with Rickey Henderson's 1,406 stolen bases, nearly 500 more than second-place Lou Brock and over 1,000 more than active leader Dee Strange-Gordon (336). Baseball has changed massively with smarter practices regarding players' health, the rise of advanced statistics and analytics and more.
It's not limited to baseball, either.
This is not to say that Ripken Jr.'s and Henderson's records aren't impressive. They're extremely impressive. Hard to even comprehend. Frankly, they're unbreakable, even if people were still trying to break them. But the criteria for this list includes two things: impressive and still trying to be broken.
Let me repeat it so everyone is clear: Cal Ripken Jr. and Rickey Henderson own incredible records. They won't be on this list.
LaDainian Tomlinson's single-season touchdowns
In his 2006 MVP campaign, Tomlinson rushed for 28 touchdowns (a record) and scored 31 total touchdowns (also a record).
The 28 rushing touchdowns is the record by just one: Both Priest Holmes (2003) and Shaun Alexander (2005) had a season with 27. But since 2006, no one has topped a comparatively meager 18, by DeAngelo Williams (2008), Adrian Peterson (2009), LeGarrette Blount (2016) and Jonathan Taylor (2021).
The 31 touchdowns scored, meanwhile, are three more than Alexander's 28 in 2005. But since then, no one has topped 23, done by Randy Moss in 2007.
Consider this: In 2006, Tomlinson had 38 goal-to-go rushes. In 2021, only 12 teams had at least 38 goal-to-go rushes. Even the true three-down running backs who get a ton of goal-to-go work haven't replicated Tomlinson's efficiency. In 2006, Tomlinson scored on half (19 of 38) of his goal-to-go carries. Last year, Taylor scored on 13 of 39, just 33%. There are amazing seasons -- and then there's a huge gap -- and then there's 2006 LaDainian Tomlinson.
Jerry Rice's career receiving yards and receiving touchdowns
Rice's career has no parallel, but two records stand out in particular: 22,895 career receiving yards (the most by over 5,000 yards) and 197 receiving touchdowns (the most by 41).
Cooper Kupp would have to replicate his 2021 season -- arguably the greatest receiving season ever -- nine more times to pass Rice in yards and 10 more times to pass him in touchdowns.
What about a younger player, you ask? Justin Jefferson's 3,016 career receiving yards are most ever by a player through two seasons. He'll only have to keep this pace up 14 more seasons to pass Rice in yards. Rice also owns the record for career receptions (1,549) and 1,000-yard receiving seasons (14), but there are players who have come somewhat close to those two, so we won't include them for now.
Jim Brown's eight rushing titles
We'll make this quick. Brown played nine NFL seasons. He won eight rushing titles. No one else has more than four (accomplished by Steve Van Buren, O.J. Simpson, Eric Dickerson, Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders). The durability, the consistent excellence, the absolute dominance at his position... they're incredible impressive.
Every running back wants to be the league's best. No one has come close to owning that title as thoroughly over a long period of time as Jim Brown.
Nolan Ryan's career strikeouts
Like Rice, this is one where the sheer magnitude is jaw-dropping. Ryan's 5,714 career strikeouts are nearly 900 more than second-place Randy Johnson and roughly 2,600 more than active leader Justin Verlander, who is 39.
Johnny Vander Meer's consecutive no-hitters
This one needs little explanation. On June 11, 1938, he no-hit the Boston Bees. Four days later, he no-hit the Brooklyn Dodgers. No one is getting three in a row.
Barry Bonds' single-season .609 OBP
In 2004, Bonds reached base safely 376 times (135 hits, 232 walks, nine hit by pitches). He only registered 373 at bats. The result? A mind-boggling .609 OBP, a record that likely won't be touched.
Bonds' 688 career intentional walks
How much did opposing pitchers fear Bonds? His 688 intentional walks are more than double second-place Albert Pujols' 316. (Note: This stat has been kept since 1955.)
Ichiro Suzuki's 262-hit season
Seven players have reached the 250-hit club in a season. Six of those seasons happened in the 1920s or 1930s. The other was Ichiro Suzuki's record 262 hits... in 2004. It's a truly remarkable accomplishment given the changes in the game, and it's unlikely to be surpassed. Since 2004, the most hits in a season by a player not named Ichiro Suzuki is 225 by Jose Altuve in 2014.
Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game
There was no one like Wilt Chamberlain. Let's start with the list for most points in a game:
That's a lot of Wilt Chamberlain, but what we're concerned with is that number at the top. In the 60 years since that record was set, Kobe Bryant's dazzling 81 points in 2006 against the Raptors is the closest that anyone has come to breaking it.
And, with all due respect to that Bryant performance, it's not even that close.
Chamberlain played every minute of his record-breaking game. That was the norm: He averaged 48.5 minutes per game in 1961-62. He attempted 63 field goals -- still an NBA record -- and 32 free throws. For comparison's sake, Bryant attempted 46 field goals and 20 free throws in his 81-pointer.
There's one major caveat here: Roughly halfway through the fourth quarter, the teams started fouling incessantly -- the Knicks to prevent Chamberlain from reaching 100, the Warriors to get the ball back and pass to Chamberlain. A career 51% free-throw shooter, Chamberlain went 28-for-32 from the stripe.
One could argue the popularization of the 3-point line makes this record breakable. I'd argue the opposite. Jump shooters in general are less likely to score in other ways -- particularly free throws. When Klay Thompson set the NBA record with 14 threes in a game, he finished with "just" 52 points and shot only two free throws. There are 29 examples of a player making more than 10 threes in a game. The highest-scoring game of those is Damian Lillard with 61.
John Stockton being the all-time leader in assists and steals
It's hard to fathom holding the all-time record in two major statistical categories, but that's exactly what Stockton has: 15,806 career assists (nearly 4,000 more than second place) and 3,265 career steals (nearly 600 more than second place).
Stephen Curry's 3,117 career 3-pointers
Curry passed Ray Allen for most career 3-pointers in NBA history last season, and the NBA Finals reminded us Curry isn't even close to done. At 34, Curry has plenty of time to extend his record.
Pretty much every Wayne Gretzky career total
If Gretzky had never scored a single goal, he'd still have the most points in NHL history. That's right: Gretzky's 1,963 career assists are more than anyone else's career goals plus assists (Jaromir Jagr had 1,921 career points, second all-time). Add in 894 goals and Gretzky's points record of 2,857 is absurd. A few other notes about The Great One...
- Gretzky had 575 multi-assist games. Mario Lemieux is second with... 282.
- Gretzky had 824 multi-point games. Jagr is second all-time... with 540.
- Gretzky had 50 career hat-tricks; the active leader is Alex Ovechkin... with 28.
Speaking of Ovechkin, he represents the greatest threat to one of Gretzky's breakable records: He has 780 goals, and Gretzky had 894.
Rafael Nadal's 14 French Opens
This article was in part inspired by Nadal's 14th career French Open title in June. Bjorn Borg is next with six. In fact, the second-most titles at a single major for a man is Novak Djokovic's nine at the Australian Open. Nadal and the clay of Roland Garros form a pair like no other -- and he's not done yet.
Secretariat's 1973 Kentucky Derby
In 1973, Secretariat covered the 1.25 miles at Churchill Downs in 1:59.4, still the record nearly 50 years later. Only one horse since -- Monarchos in 2001 -- came in under 2 minutes. Every year, Secretariat's record run gets more impressive.
Secretariat's 1973 Belmont Stakes
After winning the Derby and the Preakness, Secretariat finished up the Triple Crown in style, winning the Belmont Stakes by an astonishing 31 lengths in a still-standing record time of 2:24 which is not only the best Belmont run ever, but it is still the fastest time ever run in the U.S. over a mile and a half on dirt.
Jack Nicklaus top-two finishes in majors
Every golf fan knows that Nicklaus' 18 major wins is the gold standard and that Tiger Woods is second at 15. What isn't exactly common knowledge is that Nicklaus finished runner-up in a major an astounding 19 times. The 37 top-two finishes at majors are by far the most of anyone. Woods is second with 22.
Tiger Woods' weeks atop the Official World Golf Rankings
Woods likely won't catch Nicklaus for majors without a miracle, but his reign of dominance shows just how great he was at the height of his powers. Woods has spent 683 weeks atop the OWGR; next is Greg Norman at... 331.
Richard Petty's 1967 season
Petty's 200 career NASCAR Cup Series wins are nearly double anyone else. There's a reason he's called "The King." But his 1967 season was particularly incredible: 27 wins, including 10 in a row. No one will touch the 27 wins -- especially since NASCAR shortened its season in 1972 as it ushered in the "Modern Era." But what about the 10 straight wins, which is mathematically slightly more possible? Never mind, it won't be replicated either.
Michael Phelps' medals
Phelps claimed 28 medals -- including 23 golds -- in his tremendous career. The peak, of course, came in 2008, when he won eight golds in Beijing to break Mark Spitz's record from 1972. But he also won six golds (and two bronzes) in 2004, four golds (and two silvers) in 2012 and five golds (and a silver) in 2016.
Sue Bird's and Diana Taurasi's five gold medals
Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi are testaments to longevity and superstardom, and their status as the only basketball players -- man or woman -- with five Olympic gold medals shows as much. These two icons have long been the faces of the sport both in international competition and in the WNBA, and while this is just one of many of their accomplishments, it's arguably their most impressive.