This week marks the 20th anniversary of Dallas Cowboys great Emmitt Smith breaking Chicago Bears legend Walter Payton’s all-time rushing record of 16,726 yards. Of course, Smith wasn’t quite finished yet; he played for 2½ more seasons, winding up with 18,355 rushing yards.
This is a milestone that is unlikely to ever be broken. For one thing, it’s Emmitt Smith we’re talking about. The man rushed for 1,000-yard seasons like clockwork basically forever. But the NFL also has changed quite a bit since then. Offenses don’t focus on running backs like they used to, and playing as long as Smith did as a ball carrier is seemingly impossible. Adrian Peterson, who hasn’t played this season, is the closest “active” yards leader at 14,918, to give you a sense of how out of reach is Smith’s record.
That got us thinking about other sports records that are seemingly unreachable, whether it’s because of the way the game has changed since they were set, the absurd talent of their holders as compared to the rest of the league or a mixture of both. Here’s a short list of records you’ll probably never see broken — at least not in our lifetimes.
Jerry Rice: 22,895 receiving yards
Active leader: Julio Jones (13,406)
Rice had an incredible 14 seasons with 1,000 or more receiving yards, including three with more than 1,500. A big part of this was his incredible durability; he only played fewer than 16 games two out of his 21 years. Rice also had the good fortune of going from one Hall of Fame quarterback (Joe Montana) to another (Steve Young). But let’s be real: Rice was more or less uncoverable for two straight decades all on his own. It also explains why no one is ever going to catch his receiving touchdown record: He has 197, and the next-highest receiver, Randy Moss, has 41 fewer scores.
Wayne Gretzky: 1,963 career assists
Active leader: Sidney Crosby (896)
The old saying about “The Great One” is that if he never scored a single goal in his career, he’d still lead the NHL in total points on assists alone. To give you a sense of just how difficult it would be for someone to do that, he would have to average 98 assists a year over a 20-year career just to approach that total. No one has actually had 98 or more assists in a single season since … Wayne Gretzky, in 1990-91. In all, it’s only been done three times by a player not named Wayne Gretzky (twice by Mario Lemieux and once by Bobby Orr).
Cy Young: 749 complete games
Active leader: Adam Wainwright (28)
Unless there is a dramatic change in how teams approach pitching — something on the level of “all the pitchers are now literally robots” — there’s no way anyone gets close to Young’s complete game mark. All MLB pitchers combined had 36 complete games in 2022; Young had 36 or more complete games by himself in 11 separate seasons. While we’re at it, it seems extremely unlikely that anyone is going to get close to Young’s 511 wins or 315 losses anytime soon, either.
Wilt Chamberlain: 50.4 PPG in a single season (1961-62)
Active leader: James Harden (36.1 PPG in 2018-19)
Kobe Bryant was what we could call a prolific scorer, right? He had 10 50-plus-point games in his 2006-07 campaign. In 1961-62, Wilt had 45 50-plus-point games, 15 60-plus-point games and three 70-plus-point games — oh, and one in which he scored 100 points. Unless the NBA introduces a 4-point shot, this isn’t happening. And even then …
Boston Celtics: Eight straight NBA titles
Active leader: Golden State Warriors (1)
You know how hard it is to win just one title in the NBA? The Shaquille O’Neal/Kobe Bryant Los Angeles Lakers managed three straight. The Stephen Curry/Klay Thompson/Draymond Green Warriors almost did it four times in a row, save for LeBron James & Co. defeating them in 2016. James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh managed back-to-back titles. These were some incredible teams … but in the modern NBA, almost every team is tough to beat come playoff time. The Celtics had the advantage of an all-time player in Bill Russell, an all-time coach in Red Auerbach, a seemingly endless array of other players who were considered legends and an NBA that had fewer than 10 teams.
Simone Biles: 19 world gymnastics gold medals
Active leader: Simone Biles
To give you a sense of how far away Biles is from her competition, the next-most-decorated gymnast in terms of world gold medals, Svetlana Khorkina, has nine. No other active women’s gymnast has even two — likely because they’ve had the great misfortune of competing at the same time as Biles.
Cal Ripken Jr.: 2,632 consecutive games played
Active leader: Matt Olson (296)
This is, again, one of those records that is more about how the game is played these days than anything else. Ripken was unusually durable, for sure. But these days, it’s likely he would have been encouraged to take a few days off every now and then just to make sure he was well-rested.
UConn Huskies women’s basketball: 111-game winning streak
Active leader: South Carolina Gamecocks and South Dakota State Jackrabbits (6)
The next-highest streak on this list (90) also is held by the UConn Huskies, so if we’re going to see it broken ever again, it’s probably going to happen out of Storrs, Connecticut. Although, realistically, Geno Auriemma’s squads have been so historically dominant that it’s hard to see even a new version of them going on such an absurd undefeated streak again.
Rickey Henderson: 1,406 career stolen bases
Active leader: Dee Strange-Gordon (336)
Baseball writer Bill James once said that if you split Rickey Henderson in two, you’d have two Hall of Famers. Well, if you split him in four, you’d still have a guy with more stolen bases than the current active leader. People still do put up big stolen-base campaigns; Jose Reyes stole 78 as recently as 2007. But Henderson’s sheer consistency and longevity make this record unreachable. To put it another way, someone stealing 78 bases a year would have to keep that mark up for more than 18 seasons to break Henderson’s record.
Michael Phelps: 28 Olympic medals
Active leader: Arianna Fontana (11)
Not only does Phelps have the most Olympic medals ever, he also holds the records in gold medals (23) and individual gold medals in a single Olympics (eight, at the 2008 Beijing Games). Swimming has a lot of events and therefore a lot of opportunities to win, but Phelps’ dominance remains unmatched by any other Olympian.
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