By Arnie Leshin
I didn’t get many arguments when my book, “The Best Damn Sports Stories” ran my chapter on “I give you my best.”
Of some ‘beg to differ with you’ that I did get, it usually wound up with being told that I revealed things that weren’t known by every Tom, Dick and Harry. That was good, nice to hear that, nice to find new interest in the quartet I selected. Sure, there were others, still are, but we are talking about ‘sports’, not ‘sport.’
So I recently tuned in to an ESPN hour-long special that heard from past and present followers from the world of sports. It was neat, there were great things said about each and every candidate, and its mission was to, as I did, choose their all-time best.
Difficult, but fun.
Not bad. For me, it was almost perfecto. They agreed on three of my four all-time greats, not necessary in any order — Jim Brown, Bo Jackson and Jackie Robinson.
My other great, Jim Thorpe, was discussed, but so were others. Apparently Thorpe was no doubt very good, a big bundle of versatility, but it was so long ago that many of his accomplishments were not listed in detail. In his time, it was either word of mouth, news clips, and results sometimes stored away.
There was more to be found on Brown, Jackson and Robinson. For them, it was like whatever sport was played, they joined in. Robby, for instance, was so elite at UCLA, football, basketball and track and field got more play than baseball, which was considered his number one sport.
Same with Bo. He could have included the Los Angeles Summer Olympics his junior year as a sprinter with his exploits in college baseball, football, and track and field, but said it would inter-fair with his academics and football practice.
At Auburn University, he carried off the prestigious Heisman football Trophy. In turn, he traded in the Olympics for the national track championships in the 100 and 200 meters, and anchored the victorious 4 x 100 and 4 x 200 relay teams.
. . . Brown? Well, he obviously gained fame for his spectacular play on the football field, but if you track down how special he was in lacrosse, baseball, basketball and track and field, all at Syracuse University, you would know just how versatile he was.
So to take it alphabetically, let’s start with Brown. He and Jackson are still alive and still being interviewed for all the glory they brought. Robinson passed away at age 53 in 1972.
When Brown was growing up in Manhasset, Long Island, and the neighborhood Native-Americans were playing lacrosse in the streets, he learned quickly and developed into the best high school player in the country, leading his school to two national titles, and being sought by colleges that had a knack for lacrosse.
He decided on Syracuse, agreed to a full ride. Never heard from the football program, even though he was among the best in the land at racing for touchdowns and frustrating defenses. So he headed to upstate New York to play lacrosse.
But when a football found its way to Brown during a practice close-by to the lacrosse practice, Brown didn’t throw it back. Instead, he toyed with his lacrosse teammates, darting past them, throwing one arm out and making moves as some of the football coaches and some of the players couldn’t
believe what they were seeing.
Especially head coach Ben Schwartzwalder. Then one of his assistants who recruits downstate informed the long-time coach that that is Jim Brown, and he just rolled past defenses at Manhasset High, ran for the most touchdowns in the state, and just frustrated defenses, but he informed football recruiters that he was going to play in college.
Schwartzwalder flipped, like this great football player is here and playing lacrosse?
Lacrosse and football did not play in the same season, so it didn’t take Schwartwalder long to contact the school’s athletic director, the head lacrosse coach, and Brown. At first Brown wasn’t interested, but when he got the permission of the AD and lacrosse head coach, he figured he’d drop in on the football team and run a few plays.
He was only a freshman, but had the speed and the moves of a senior. He carried the ball like he owned it, leaving defensive team players shaking their collective heads. They threw him some passes and he just reeled them in and took off, one arm out and two legs in full gear.
He joined several more practices, but freshmen were not eligible to play for the varsity, so he punished other school’s freshmen. His sophomore year started him on two roads to greatness, that being lacrosse and football. He was All-America in both, player of the year in both.
Drafted by the Cleveland Browns, he was Rookie of the Year, ran for a grand total of 12,312 yards, and scored 126 touchdowns in only nine seasons, retiring at age 29 with number 32 and as a Hall of Famer. Oh, and he also kicked the extra points.
Back in his days with the Orangemen, he also came out for basketball. As a sophomore, he averaged 15 points per game and was ferocious under the boards, hauling in 15 a game and finding time to block shots, although back then they didn’t keep statistics for rebounds.
But he never started because the NCAA did not permit a team to start more
than one African-American player at the time. And Syracuse had an All-America black player in Vinnie Cohen from Boys High in Brooklyn.
Can’t forget baseball. As an awesome right-handed pitcher, he even threw a pair of no-hitters for Manhasset High. And he could hit, field his position, and run the bases with reckless abandon. The New York Yankees offered him a $150,000 contract to sign with them, but he stuck to lacrosse and football.
In lacrosse, he broke about every record that ever stood. He brought its popularity and made lacrosse a sport. One time he got to a match still in his track jersey because he didn’t have time to change after winning the 100, the 220, the 440, and anchoring three of the victorious relay teams. Then he scored 10 goals for the lacrosse team.
Football? He hit harder than he was every hit. He bounced defenders off of him, then sped the rest of the way, shaking off a few more and then handing the ball to one of the referees or just putting it down in the end zone. He played both fullback and running back in college and the pros.
In college he led the nation in scoring and rushing, even made good one year on 17 of 19 extra points. In the NFL, he averaged 5.2 yards per carry and averaged 104.3 yards per carry. He scored 126 of his touchdowns with 106 rushing and 20 receiving. He left with a pro total of 12,312 yards.
Imagine, the Cuse, under Schawrzwalder, had other big-name football players like the late Ernie Davis, Floyd Little and Larry Csonka, but Brown was Brown and nationally among the best in the land in both lacrosse and football.
. . . Action Jackson, that was Bo. He showed his heels in track, went undefeated in the sprints his Auburn jfnior and senior years. Walked off with the Heisman and the vote wasn’t even close. He led the nation in scoring and rushing his junior year. Got off touchdown runs of 100 yards twice, 92 and 93 yards twice, and three others untouched after racing from midfield.
He was in the same mold as Brown. Never one who taunted, never crossed into the end zone and spiked the ball. Like Brown, he either downed the ball or handed it over to the referee. In his years at Auburn, Bo had a speech problem that he grew up with. He stuttered and was shy about it, but never nasty, never aloof.
You name it, he played it. Just not long ago. But when he did, he was as good as they came. His epic career slowed down when he played for the NFL Oakland Raiders. Until now, he wasn’t injury-prone, not in Pop Warner ball, not in high school, and not in college.
But in his fifth year with the black and white and their supporters at home in the first round of the playoffs, he carried the ball in the third quarter against the rival Denver Broncos and sped down the sideline when he tried to keep his balance.
It was a severe hip injury, one that would require help getting to the sideline, but he was so strong and so proud, he played through it until the hurt was much too much to bear, and owner Al Davis signaled from the Oakland box up top to get Jackson out of the game.
He wouldn’t see another play, not this day, not this season, and his future looked dim. It wasn’t hip, hip hurray, it was more like a crushing blow,although he still showed up at practice, but that was out of habit and just wanting to be with the team.
This of course also affected his baseball career, but he wasn’t quitting, not yet.
He was equally adept in both professional sports. On the gridiron, he was a powerful ball carrier, tough to bring down, and who had flashy moves. He also excelled via the air lanes, latching onto short or long passes and off to the races with defenders in pursuit to no avail.
On the baseball field he was an excellent centerfielder with a strong arm, great range, and could go back or forward to track down balls. The fans loved him, even on the road, He was awesome at bat. His senior season at Auburn, he batted .425, clouted 18 home runs, drove in 78, crossed the plate 64 times and stole 25 bases.
That continued when he played first for the Kansas City Royals. He was named as a starter for the All-Star game. No hip problems than, and he just performed well, as an All-Star would. Three times he was named to the American League All-Star team, all as a starter, and in the seventh inning he raced back to the fence in straightaway centerfield, leapt and snared the ball.
The game was played in Boston, but it didn’t matter, the crowd rose and gave him his due with a long standing ovation than and when he left the field after the third out. In the eighth inning, he blasted a 2-run home run that hit the scoreboard in centerfield and broke a 3-3 tie.
Same thing in the NFL All-Star game that same year in Cleveland. He took the opening kickoff and went 90 yards up the middle. In the second quarter, he gathered in a punt and took it 53 yards to pay dirt. He was the MVP of the game, just as he was in the baseball All-Star classic. Never done before and never done after.
No bragging, that wasn’t his thing. He just loved to play both sports, and enter track and field events when he could, although he had to inform both the baseball and football teams when he did.
The next NFL season is when his hip went. It left him with a limp, it left him without his speed, his power, in both sports. It left the fans without a superstar, no more Bo. The hip became worse, and not his usual self, he was later waived and picked up by the Chicago White Sox.
But the hip proved to be a more serious problem and he had to miss the entire 1992 season. Then, with the California Angels, he retired in order to have a hip replacement. He did it in a quite way, never wanting the publicity, and just like that, anathletic career that spelled greatness ended much too soon.
But he never left the game, either one. He became an annalist on both TV and radio in baseball, and was often a guest on football panels. His stuttering wasn’t as bad now, he matured, but he sure missed taking the field. He gathered in kudos whenever he was seen, and he never hesitated to offer a thank you, never turned down an autograph, and never turned down a photo with a fan or fans.
A super two-sport athlete, with Oakland in the NFL he was named to the Pro Bowl the same year that he was chosen to baseball’s All-Star game while with Kansas City. He lived with a combination of blazing speed, strength, good hands, and a super low key attitude. He was as modest as they came and as talented as they came.
So he got a new hip, was still embarrassed by his stuttering problem, but overcame this and lives life as if nothing happened. He doesn’t like to talk about it, but once on a television show, he was asked about his past glory in the athletic world, and his response was, “They were great times for a short time, but life goes on.”
One more thing, Auburn had three super athletes, Bo Jackson, Charles Barkley, and Frank Thomas, and they still remain close.
. . . A gifted four-sport athlete at UCLA, Jackie Robinson became a baseball great, but baseball might not have been his been his best sport. He was an exceptional football player, he ran sprints in track, and was a starter on the basketball team.
Fortunately for the die-hards in the borough of sports-minded Brooklyn, Robby was signed by in 1945 by the then Dodgers after hitting .387 for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Baseball League. He broke the major
up from the club’s AAA Montreal Royals to play for the Dodgers.
The future Hall of Famer proved hat he could play any position equally well, but the Dodgers thought he was best in the infield, first, second, short and third. Good glove anywhere, excellent range, strong arm. He walked pigeon-toed, but was a most intimidating base runner, He drew throws, and if they got past the fielder, he headed for the next base, including home plate.
He was a dancer, made a move and either took off or darted back to the base. At Ebbets Field they loved it. He brought adventure to the game.
As a hitter, he would lay the ball down, he would spray the ball to all fields, he could hit the long ball. As a base runner at third, No. 42 would drive the opposing pitcher batty by faking to swipe home plate, and if there was a pause on the mound or a balk or wild pitch, or passed ball, or wild throw, Robinson would come home.
Every time Brooklyn needed some offense, it would call on Jackie. He was great at coaxing walks, and he was just as much a nuisance on the other bases, and there wasn’t anybody better.
Being a different color in difficult times, he handled it well, always keeping in step with his teammates, coaches, and fans. He accepted the challenge. He showed up every day to play. Racial slurs were heard, but he didn’t step out of line. He relied on his courage, his bravery, to face the depth of the bias he faced.
He was named National League Rookie of the Year in 1947. He was chosen NL Most Valuable Player in 1949. He hit .311 in over 10 seasons. In 1955,he sparked the Dodgers to their first World Series championship by defeating their Bronx rival New York Yankees.
At UCLA, he had no trouble coming away with good grades. He often helped other classmates with their assignments, always looked on as the No.1 athlete on campus, and that was in any sport.
As a good person and athlete, he treated his own color the same as other colors. In football, he was a running back, a receiver, a defensive back. In track and field, he ran sprints, usually anchor leg on the sprint relay teams, and competed in field events such as the long jump and the high jump.
But baseball was his favorite.
In 1997, his wife, Rachel, accepted in his name, the Congressional Medal of Freedom posthumously from President Reagan. In 1997, his number 42 was retired by the Dodgers, and every year it is worn by every Major League player on a day designated to him. And in the main lobby at the Mets’ CitiField is a colorful display of Jackie Roosevelt Robinson.
Remember, this is about who played multiple sports, even though there were and are elite athletes who starred in one sport.
. . . So no matter who ESPN’s panel decided who belonged ahead of Jim Thorpe, it never was a factor. What didn’t he play? He was an All-America football player, he played Major League baseball, he played professional football, he won both the pentathlon and the decathlon at the Summer Olympics. Remember, those are two different events, and if you think one is grueling, how about two?
A native American Indian who was well respected by any tribe, in the foothills of the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania, the town of Jim Thopre was named after him. In Carlisle, Pa., Thorpe’s education in athletics, and the classrooms, were spent at the Carlisle Indian School, which was the first non reservation school for American Indians. It was Thorpe who brought national attention to the school.
Twice he was named to All-American football team as a two-way back or wherever else they wanted him to play. He had a quick break only at time outs, and his day was over when the contest ended.
He was an excellent baseball player, played many different positions because he was better then anybody else on the team at any position. One time, they switched him around from the mound, behind the plate, to shortstop, to centerfield. No problem, he called time out to switch gloves.
He sparkled as a multi-talented track and field athlete. He ran sprints, distances, found time to fit in some field events, and at the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden, he won every event of the pentathlon, but the javelin throw. He won the rugged decathlon.
But when it was discovered that he played semipro baseball prior to the Olympics Games, he was stripped of his medals a month later. In his dying day in 1953, Thorpe always insisted that he had no idea that he was doing anything wrong. He said he was never asked to sign anything and they just put his name on the roster.
But none of what he called pure nonsense could stop him from playing Major League baseball from 1913-1919, and professional football from 1920-1926, and again in 1928. In the year 1950, the Associated Prep chose Thorpe as the Athlete of the Half Century.
Those that were around to see Thorpe the athlete would spend hours talking about his many accomplishments. If it wasn’t baseball, it was football. If it wasn’t those two, it was track and field. If it wasn’t the pentathlon, it was the decathlon.
One time, his track and field coach asked the team if anyone could run the 880 and the mile. Thorpe volunteered, won both, the half in 1:58.17, the mile in 4:13.06. Remember, we’re talking about the 1920s. In modern times, those were impressive times.
In 1982, Thorpe was reinstated with his Olympic records medals. His medals were also restored and presented to his family. He was gone, but to his family, friends and tribe members who fought for years over finally getting him the recognition and honors that he deserved. Yes, he was an American Indian, an elite athlete, one for the ages.
Others who showed versatility as athletes: Wilt Chamberlain (basketball, track and field, volleyball); Dick Groat (basketball, baseball); Bob Hayes (football, track and field); Bruce Jenner (decathlon); Rafer Johnson (decathlon); Carl Lewis (track and field); Bob Mathis (decathlon); Deion Sanders (football, baseball); Charley Ward (football, basketball); Dave Winfield (baseball, football, basketball); Tim Tebow (football, baseball).
As for the ladies, Babe Didrikson Zaharias (trackand field, golf); Alison Gibson (tennis, golf); Wilma Randolph (track and field, golf, tennis).
Jim Brown, Bo Jackson, Jackie Robinson, Jim Thorpe. My quartet of elite athletes who found time to excel in more than one sport.