But also deserving recognition is a list of athletes who excelled in one sport, and there are many
By ARNIE LESHIN, Santa Fe Today
Why the campaigning for the 50 greatest black athletes? Why not mixing the salt and pepper greats together, as in 50 in one. Or would it look better to double the number and call it the 50 greatest black athletes and 50 greatest white athletes?
No way, for either way is out of place, senseless, would make for mucho arguments, and so my goal is to present the Fab Four, the greatest, most versatile athletes regardless of what color they are. The numbers don’t matter, just this awesome quartet followed by the best in each sport.
I do so backed by my 6 ½ decades on the sports beat. From Little League to the prep schools, to the colleges, to boxing, to the ABA, to the NBA, to the WNBA, to the NHL, to the Super Bowls, to the Olympics, and along many other long and winding roads. I’ve seen plenty of the best and the best of the rest.
My way is to bring out the versatilities of athletes. Not just compete in a number of sports, but to excel in them. From this, I do not hesitate to present my Fab Four. It it is in alphabecitcal order, nothing else, so you can even shuffle them around.
. . . Let’s start with the late and great Jackie Roosevelt Robinson. I lived in Brooklyn, was a Giants fan, but never booed, never disrespected the man, and If you know him only for his exploits on the baseball field, that wasn’t even his best sport in four years of displaying versatility at UCLA.
No, it was football, where as a running back he shifted gears, used his smarts and legs, his speed, and was equally adept at catching passes and taking them into the end zone. UCLA has him displayed in the trophy case as one of its finest gridiron heroes.
Now he would have played basketball, too, but the football coaches said no because it ran into their season and had more chance of him picking up injuries.
But he did compete in track and field, indoors only because outdoors conflicted with baseball. In the Pac 10 championships, he finished first in the 100 and 220, anchored the victorious 4 x 100 relay team to a conference record, and displayed his versatility by winning the then-broad jump and getting second in the high jump.
In the NCAA championships, he was runner-up in the sprints and took third in the broad jump. He was named to the first teams in football, baseball and track, and was named the conference’s Performer of the Year.
In baseball is where he upgraded his greatness. Signing in 1947 as the first African-American, he went through tough and trying times as a Brooklyn Dodger to become Rookie of the Year, Most Valuable Player, into the Hall of Fame, and yes, the best second baseman of all. He passed away in 1975.
. . . Had enough? Here’s more, this time in the name of Vincent Edward “Bo” Jackson. He was devastating in track and field and in football at Auburn. On the football field he won the Heisman Trophy, was named to the All-America First Team, and his strength and speed made him tough to catch, tough to bring down, and you could throw him the ball and he’d sprint away because no one could catch him.
Yes, he was awesome at Auburn, the target of every opponent and the SEC’s best player. He often dragged would-be defenders into the end zone with him. In the NFL, He and had multiple games with over 200 rushing yards when with the Oakland Raiders. He once a punt back 87 yards. He once ran a kickoff back 101 yards. Once he got in front, he was off to the races.
In track, he won the NCAA 100 and 220 two straight years, setting the Southeastern Conference record in both. He also competed in the decathlon and was among the best of the rest. He was good in the field events and could even run the distances. Rather than compete in the Olympics, he decided to complete his senior year as a Tiger, thus the Heisman.
Baseball? He could laid down the bunt because of his speed, he could hit short and long, often taking the extra base, and matched this with his stellar play in the outfield, although he did play shortstop at times, and once filled in as the catcher.
Playing for the Chicago White Sox, he shifted the ream of possibilities with one play in which scaled a 7-foot outfield wall to make a catch, then tossed the ball up to a fan. On his next at-bat, he clouted a home run that just kept traveling and was estimated at 512 feet.
He played baseball and football. He had gotten permission from the teams he played for to check out the schedules, and he’d go from one to another, and was the only one ever chosen to play in the baseball All-Star game and football Pro Bowl.
But a devastating hip injury suffered in a football contest when with the Los Angeles Rams cut his splendid career short. He played a while longer, but could no longer be the Bo Jackson everybody knew, too much pain, and surgery followed. He still has problems with his hip and sometimes needs to walk with a cane.
In the late 80s and early 90s, he was a pop culture phenomenon. As an athlete, he was a superstar, supernatural talent.
Saving the late Jim Thorpe for last is because he made history in a different era as the most gifted athlete in every sport, and he played them all. Of these four, he’s remembered the least, but with respect for his domination.
. . . Now James Nathaniel Brown is still around, and often makes the news because of his interest in many subjects. He grew up in Long Island of New
York State and learned to play lacrosse from Native Americans who played it in the streets. He joined the Manhasset high school team and put it on the map his sophomore season. The next two years, he was named the nation’s top player and his school twice won the mythical national championship.
He was also the top of the heap on the football field. His first season, he was named Long Island’s top player. The next year, he made All-State, and by his senior campaign, was on the All-America list. But he decided to stick with lacrosse and received a grant-in-aid scholarship from Syracuse University, which he also put on the map and would become the best player in the land.
There was a day his sophomore year when he was noticed by the football coaches. They knew of his talents in lacrosse, so with injured running backs unable to practice, they needed a body and asked him to help out after they spoke with the lacrosse coaches.
He did, he weaved, he cut to the side, burst through the line and worked his way past defenders, twice ran the ball into the end zone, and was the talk of the football practices as the players and coaches all collectively shook their heads.
When they checked out his high school career, they were flabbergasted, didn’t realize what they had discovered on their campus. He was better than anyone on their roster.
And with lacrosse a spring sport, he was allowed to join the football team. The rest is history. He was All-America in both sports, led the then-Orangemen to the NCAA lacrosse title and was Player of the Year, and took the football team to the Cotton Bowl where it defeated Texas.
Always in shape, his role on the basketball team was shooting guard, and he sure could shoot and drive the lane, and his defense was tenacious. He started his last two seasons and averaged 16.6 points per game and handed out 4.3 assists to go with 3.1 steals.
He ran track and field outdoors when a lacrosse match didn’t interfere, and became the team’s top sprinter and top field-event athlete to make him an unprecedented four-sport star. He went unbeaten in the 100 and 220 and anchored the two sprint relay teams.
As a professional football player with the Cleveland Browns, he proved to be quintessential, a balance of violence, speed and wizardry. He played in eight pro bowls, averaged 115.3 yards per game, and ran for 13,312 yards in only eight years as he retired at age 29. He won every award during that time, even did the place kicking, and never missed a game.
. . . Jim Francis “Jim” Thorpe, you name it, he did it. He did track and field, baseball, basketball, football, lacrosse, and excelled in each one. He won six medals in the 1912 Olympics, but they were taken away from him after it was discovered that he played two professional baseball seasons and got paid for them, whereas the Olympics was for only amateurs.
A Native American, he was the best football player in the land. He ran the ball, passed the ball, did the kicking, and had the ambition and energy to be as good on defense. He was dominant on the lacrosse field, setting the stage for the likes of Jim Brown and college programs.
In track, he ran anything from 100 yards to a mile. In field events, he threw any weights he could find, and no one could stay with him in the shot put, discus and javelin. When a teammate was injured, he replaced him in the pole vault and won.
At Oklahoma State, he competed in track and field, football and baseball because that was the maximum allowed. He was national champion in the shot and disc, All-America in football and baseball, and broke numerous records along the way.
In Oklahoma, he remains a legend. There are museums, schools, restaurants and streets named after him. From Carlislie, a small town in Pennsylvania where he led the high school to the mythical national football and baseball titles, he was just a remarkable athlete, as versatile as anyone could be.
He later had his Olympic medals returned to him in a ceremony in Oklahoma after he passed away in 1953. It was fitting, but a little too late.
There are others who played multiple sports, but none with the success of these four. Every sport had elite players, but it was in that sport that they were celebrated, were supreme athletes. Let’s look at the best in their sport
in no special order. If anyone was left out, it’s because I wasn’t writing a book, just mixing salt and pepper in alphabetical order.
Baseball: Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Roberto Clemente, Ty Cobb, Joe DiMaggio, Bob Gibson, Reggie Jackson, Derek Jeter, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Cal Ripkin, Jr., Babe Ruth, Mike Schmidt, Ted Williams . . . Kevin Coster.
Basketball: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Bird, Kobe Bryant, Wilt Chamberlain, Patrick Ewing, Walt Frazier, LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Oscar Robinson, Bill Russell, Jerry West, Nancy Lieberman, Sheryl Swoops, Diana Taurasi, Elena Della Donne . . . Gino Auriemma.
Boxing: Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Joe Frazier, Marvin Hagler, Benny Leonard, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Floyd Mayweather, Archie Moore, Willie Pep, Ray Robinson, Sandy Sadler . . . Rocky Balboa.
Football: Tom Brady, Dick Butkus, Mike Ditka, John Mackey, Joe Montana, Walter Payton, Jerry Rice, Barry Sanders, Gale Sayers, Roger Staubach, Emmitt Smith, Lawrence Taylor, Johnny Unitas . . . Knute Rockne.
Golf: Ben Hogan, Bobby Jones, Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Gene Sarazen, Sammy Snead, Tiger Woods, Sandra Haynie, Nancy Lopez, Patty Sheehan, Annika Sorenstam, Kathy Whitmore, Mickey Wright. . . . Charles Barkley.
Gymnastics: Bart Connor, Tim Daggett, Mitch Gaylord, Alexi Nemov, Vitaly Suherbo, Kohei Uchimura, Simone Briles, Gabby Douglas, Nadia Comaneci, Shawn Johnson, Svetlana Khorkina, Larisa Latynina, Lavinia Milosovici, Dominque Moceanu, Lou Retton, Kerri Strug . . . Bella Karoly
Ice Hockey: Martin Brodeur, Paul Coffey, Sidney Crosby, Wayne Gretzky, Gordie Howe, Mario Lemieux, Mark Messier, Bobby Orr, Maurice Richard, Jacques Plante, Patrick Roy . . . Paul Newman.
Soccer: Franz Beckenbauer, George Best, Thierry Henry, Lionel Messi, Diego Maradona, Pele’, Ronaldo, Zinedine Zidane, Michelle Atkins, Mia
Hamm, Tobin Heath, Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapione, Hope Solo, Amy Wambach . . . Sylvester Stallone.
Softball: Monica Abbott, Lisa Fernandez, Jennie Finch, Michelle Granger, Joan Joyce, Jennifer Mendoza, Kat Osterman, Michelle Smith, Paul Meredith, Ty Stoffet, Michael Ware . . . Eddie Feigner.
Swimming: Matt Grevers, Ryan Lochte, Michael Phelps, Murray Rose, Mark Spitz, Inge Deckker, Lilly King, Katie Ledecky, Sarah Sjostrom . . .
Tennis: Andre Agassi, Arthur Ashe, Bjorn Borg, Don Budge, Jimmy Connors, Roger Federer, John McEnroe, Rafael Nadal, Pete Sampras, Margaret Smith Court, Chris Evert, Steffi Graf, Billie Jean King, Monica Seles, Martina Navratilova, Serena Williams . . . Bud Collins.
Track & Field: Usain Bolt, Michael Johnson, Rafer Johnson, Carl Lewis, Edwin Moses, Jesse Owens, Florence Griffin Joyner, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Wilma Rudolph . . . Bruce Jenner.
Volleyball: Karch Kiraly, Steve Timmons, Sinjin Smith, Jeff Stork, Charles Kiraly, Bernie Holtzman, Flo Hyman, Holly McPeak, Misty May-Trainor, Mary Jo Peppler . . . William Morgan.
. . . Others who deserve recognition for excelling in more than one sport:
- Danny Ainge — Basketball & Baseball.
- Wilt Chamberlain — Basketball, Track and Field, Volleyball.
- Babe Didrikson — Golf & Track and Field.
- Athea Gibson — Tennis & Track and Field.
- Dick Groat — Baseball & Basketball.
- Dion Sanders — Football & Baseball. Tim Tebow — Football & Baseball.
- Hershel Walker — Football, Track and Field, Martial Arts.
- Dave Winfield — Baseball, Basketball, Football.
There, now isn’t that better than 50-best black or white athletes? Just pass the salt and the pepper.