Debating a heroes’ hall for sports

by Gary Shelton on July 19, 2020

in general

Sunday, 4 a.m.

The game was a simple one, a driving game to gnaw away at the traffic in front of us. You know the sort: A idle subject to pass the miles.

We were talking about heroes, my wife and I. We were talking about the proposal to form an American Hall of Heroes.

A few rules, we decided. No presidents of either party. And no soldiers (Medal of Honor winners get their own wing). They had to be American, and they had to have some measure of celebrity.

The definition of heroes, by the way, includes one that is admired, so that left plenty of wiggle room.

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And so we bantered through Martin Luther King and John Glenn and Davy Crockett and Bob Dylan and Ben Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and Rosa Parks and Will Rogers and Pocahontas and Charles Lindberg and Aretha Franklin and Thomas Edison and Neal Armstrong and Susan B. Anthony and Harriet Tubman and George Washington Carver. We discussed Bill Gates and Bob Hope and Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe. We forgot a few names. We rejected a few.

And then we got to sports.

Hey, this is a sports site. You knew I'd get there eventually.

So here goes. One man's preliminary list of American sports legends.

You are allowed to argue. You are allowed to do so loudly.

  1. Michael Jordan. Yeah, that's where I start. In all the world, who made you want to emulate him the way we all wanted to be like Mike? He could drive to the hole, and you'd forget about how much money he made or how much he had accomplished. Sorry. LeBron, but there was only one Mike.

2. Muhammad Ali: One of the great disappointments of my journalism career is that I was just too late to cover Ali. He was powerful, and he was charismatic, and if you're hung up on his controversy, remember that the Supreme Court said he was right.

3. Jesse Owens: Most of the later reports say that Hitler had left the stadium by the time Owens won his gold medal, but don't doubt that there was pressure.

4. Jackie Robinson: He was sensational, and he was fluid, and baseball might not have been his best sport.

5. Michael Phelps: I saw Phelps win most of his golds, including some late in his career when the explosion seemed to have left him. Still, the guy knew how to win. A dynamic performer.

6 Lawrence Taylor: Just think how good he would have been if he had his life under control.

7. Barry Sanders: He doesn't have the all-time rushing record for one reason. He didn't want it. No one could make. you hold your breath whenever he had the ball quite like Sanders.

8. Walter Peyton. Peyton is one notch behind Sanders, but it's a great debate between two classy guys. Personal note: I once saw Peyton ejected from a football game for bumping a ref. He got a raw deal.

9. Babe Ruth: He re-invented the game. How many people ever did that?

10. Willie Mays. Mays probably would have set the major league home run record if not for his military service and the wind at Candlestick. Everything that Barry Bonds did with the juice, Mays did without it.

11. Jim Brown. Jim Brown made linebackers pay every time he touched the ball. In 12- and 14-game seasons, he gained more than 12,000 yards before leaving at the age of 29. Would he be a star today? Who would stop him?

12. Ted Williams. If didn't matter how fast. you threw it or where. Teddy Ballgame could hit it.

13. Pat Tillman: If you study Tillman, you'll find those who question his ability as a safety. That doesn't matter given the size of his sacrifice. He was good enough to turn down a $3.6 million contract to join the service, where he became an inspiration to thousands.

14. Billie Jean King: Long before it was so easy to be a professional women's tennis player, King was fighting for equality. Every tennis player should send her money every month.

15. Cal Ripkin Jr.: The guy woke up, went to the park and went to work. Always. He played in 2.632 straight games and was good enough to make 19 all-star games.

16. LeBron James: No, he's not Michael. But he's a force, and he plays hard.

18. Wilt Chamberlain: It's become fashionable to dump on Wilt, who played an outdated, center-oriented brand of basketball. And it's true he never had the surrounding cast of Bill Russell. But in head-to-head meetings, Chamberlain dominated.

19. Hank Aaron: At a time it was difficult to be an African-American player in the South, Aaron hit more home runs than anyone of his generation.

20. Tom Brady.:Brady edges out Joe Montana for the final spot because he has won more Super Bowl rings. Both had great coaching, and both were tough in the clutch.

Honorable mention: Joe Montana, Dick Butkus, Jerry Rice, Ken Griffey Jr., Mariano Rivera, Don Shula, Derek Jeter, Arthur Ashe, J.J. Watt, Johnny Unitas, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird.

And five personal favorites:

  1. Warrick Dunn: The guy gives away houses, okay? Truly, an athlete to admire.

2. Lee Roy Selmon: I spent a lot of time with Lee Roy, including playing golf. I never heard him utter a syllable of frustration. That was for the rest of us.

3. Derrick Brooks: He was quiet, compared to many of his teammates. But. a fire burned in Brooks.

4. Dan Marino: Marino was cursed by joining a very good team that would soon be ruined by age and injury. He always struck me as the same guy he would have been playing third base in a local slow-pitch softball league.Goodness, could he throw the football.

5. Tony Dungy: Nowhere does it say that a man has to win more than one Super Bowl to get into the Hall...or to have an impact on the game. Tony was the most gracious man I've ever covered, but every now and then, he liked to get his digs in. He once said that his team won a tough game because of criticism from the media. I laughed and said "then I should have gotten a game ball." He shook his head, grinned and said "you got some votes."

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