Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Sports "Mount Rushmores"


Yesterday was the 3rd Monday in February, Presidents' Day.

Or, as it used to be known, "Washington's Birthday Observed."

When I was a kid, we got Abraham Lincoln's birthday, February 12 (1809), off from school, no matter what day of the week it was. If it fell on a Saturday or Sunday, we got the following Monday, the 13th or 14th, off. Then, we got the 3rd Monday off, even if it wasn't actually George Washington's birthday (February 22, 1732).

Jarrett Payton, a radio talk-show host and former NFL player, and son of the legendary Walter Payton, asked a question on the Facebook page dedicated to his father: "Who are your top 4 NFL players of all-time? Who would be on your Mt. Rushmore?"

This is a very good question, and, considering that the NFL is closing in on its Centennial (September 17, 2020), and considering the variance of the different positions that a football player can play, it requires a lot of serious thought.

Here's how I handle it: Not by determining who are the 4 greatest players in NFL history, but by looking at the roles of the 4 Presidents whose faces are on the original Mount Rushmore, near Rapid City, South Dakota, and determining which NFL figures match their, pardon the unintentional pun, profiles.

George Washington: First President. Father of Our Country. General who, as much as anyone else, liberated us. Statesman who, more than anyone else, united us. Set the precedents for all who follow.

There's only 1 person in NFL history who matches, and his name was also George, and he also had a "father" nickname: Papa Bear, George Halas. Co-founder of the NFL. Founder of the team that became the Chicago Bears. Quality player by the standards of his time. Coach who led them to 8 NFL Championships between 1921 and 1963. Owner of the team from 1920 to his death in 1983.

Even in 1977, when NFL Films released a documentary titled Their Deeds and Dogged Faith, footage was included of Halas at Bears' training camp in Lake Forest, Illinois. The announcer, John Facenda, said that seeing George Halas running Bears' training camp is like going to Mount Vernon, and seeing George Washington still in residence.

But if we're only including players, then we need to decide which one was enough of a pioneer. So that disqualifies Halas. But it doesn't leave him out of the discussion.

You see, in 1925, the NFL was in trouble. Professional football was popular in mid-size cities like Rochester, New York; Canton, Ohio; Muncie, Indiana; Rock Island, Illinois (part of the "Quad Cities" area with Moline and the Iowa cities of Davenport and Bettendorf); and Duluth, Minnesota. The only one of these that survived the Great Depression was Green Bay, Wisconsin.

But teams in the bigger cities had failed: Boston, Washington, Cleveland, Detroit, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Minneapolis. The only big cities whose teams were doing well as Calvin Coolidge started his one full term as President were Philadelphia and Chicago. (And even the Philadelphia team of the time, the Frankford Yellow Jackets, didn't survive the Depression. And one of the two Chicago teams, the Cardinals, would eventually have to move.)

Certainly, New York wasn't doing well: Already, a New York Giants and a New York Yankees had failed in the NFL. The 1925 season was the first one for the New York Giants team founded by Tim Mara, and attendance at the Polo Grounds was pathetic.

Enter Halas, who signed the greatest player in college football, and put him in a Bears uniform just 5 days after his last college game (that was legal at the time), on Thanksgiving Day against the Bears' arch-rivals, the Chicago Cardinals: Red Grange.

The Bears went east to face the Giants, and the Harlem Horseshoe was packed to the gills: It seated about 56,000, but it's said that 75,000 squeezed in to see the University of Illinois star known as "the Galloping Ghost." The gate receipts saved the NFL's New York franchise, and maybe the league as a whole. Twenty years later, when the days of early financial struggle, the Depression and World War II were over, the Giants were still standing, and still are today, winners of 8 NFL Championships including 4 Super Bowls.

And it's thanks to Papa Bear and the Galloping Ghost: They saved the game, and they united the game, just like Washington did for the country.

If there were an NFL Mount Rushmore, and you confined it to players, not coaches or executives, Red Grange would be on it.

Thomas Jefferson: Author of the Declaration of Independence, 3rd President, the man behind the Louisiana Purchase which began westward expansion (the last being the real reason that sculptor Gutzon Borghlum put him on the mountain).

In 1937, by leading the Washington Redskins to the Championship with the passing game -- and he is still the only rookie to quarterback a team to the NFL title -- Sammy Baugh, for all intents and purposes, invented the glamor position of the NFL, the quarterback. This gave pro football its true independence from the college game, thus making him the league's equivalent to Jefferson.

Abraham Lincoln: The 16th President, the man who fought a Civil War to save the Union, the man who freed the slaves.

Admittedly, finding a man who had the equivalent impact in the NFL is a ludicrous maneuver. Lincoln is right up there with Washington when you're looking for the greatest man America has ever produced.

Sam Huff, linebacker for the Giants in the late 1950s and early 1960s, was the first man to make defense glamorous, thus giving all men who played the game an equal chance to get famous. This doesn't really make him equivalent to Abe Lincoln. On the other hand, if it wasn't for Sam, no one would have cared about Gino Marchetti, Big Daddy Lipscomb, Dick Butkus, Mean Joe Greene, Ronnie Lott, Lawrence Taylor, Ray Lewis or Richard Sherman. And Howie Long would not be sitting next to Terry Bradshaw on Fox NFL Sunday -- nor Deion Sanders next to Dan Marino on The NFL Today.

Theodore Roosevelt: The 26th President, who, in a lot of ways, moved both the office and the country into not just the 20th Century, but the modern world. Borghlum put him on the mountain because, although the only President (so far) born in New York City, TR (who didn't mind the initials but hated being called "Teddy") had spent a good deal of time in the West, and no President has done more to promote the image of the American West, due to his environmentalism and his championing, and expansion, of the National Park System.

Picking an NFL player analogue to him is a bit tougher. NFL stadiums aren't exactly National Parks, the NFL's foreign-based games aren't really Panama Canals, and football isn't exactly good for the environment.

I could say Vince Lombardi, because, like TR, he was a short, pugnacious New York native who refused to accept anything less than the best of himself, his line of work, and his country, and he helped move the game into the modern era.

But I'm looking for players, not coaches. Considering how he dragged the NFL into the modern era, in some ways against its will, it could be Joe Namath. Like TR, Broadway Joe is a New York icon. And, like TR, he was, and remains, more powerful as a symbol than he was as, as TR would say, "the man in the arena."

So, my Mount Rushmore of the NFL is Red Grange, Sammy Baugh, Sam Huff and Joe Namath.

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The Yankees have been defined by 4 players: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle. As great as they were, as iconic as they have been, even such legends as Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Thurman Munson, Reggie Jackson, Don Mattingly, Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera can't match those 4. So that's the Yankees' "Mount Rushmore."

The Mets? Uh... Tom Seaver, Gary Carter, Mike Piazza and... uh... David Wright? That doesn't even stand up to a 1969-to-present Yankee Mount Rushmore of Reggie, Donnie, Derek and Mo. And that's when you figure in that Mattingly never won a Pennant, because, so far, neither has Wright (who did, to be fair, come a round closer in 2006 than Mattingly came in 1995, easily the closest that either man came).

But a Mount Rushmore for the entire game? Who the "inventor of baseball" is has been debated for over a century, and it still isn't exactly settled. But Harry Wright, player and manager for the first professional team, the 1869-70 Cincinnati Red Stockings, is the closest thing baseball has to a "George Washington."

It doesn't make sense to let a black man stand in for Thomas Jefferson, who owned slaves; yet Jackie Robinson was black players' declaration of independence from both the color line and the Negro Leagues -- which, as long as they existed, were an excuse for the color line: "They have their own leagues, let them play there."

The closest thing we have to an "Abe Lincoln" is Curt Flood, who sacrificed his career, if not his life, to set the players free.

Theodore Roosevelt? Now, the chronology gets messed up, but who else but Babe Ruth? Aside from Wright, Robinson and Flood, is there any other man about whom it can be said, "After he did what he did, the game was never the same, and for the better"?

So, my Mount Rushmore of Baseball is Harry Wright, Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson and Curt Flood.

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The NBA? The Boston Celtics could be said to have a Mount Rushmore: Bob Cousy, Bill Russell, John Havlicek and Larry Bird. No, Paul Pierce doesn't make it, any more than Franklin Roosevelt or Jack Kennedy or, God forbid, Ronald Reagan gets onto the original.

The Los Angeles Lakers could also have one, not including George Mikan of the Minneapolis Lakers: Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson. Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant have this in common: Neither one displaces one of those four.

For the whole league? Mikan is the George Washington, since he was the pro game's first superstar. Russell is the Thomas Jefferson, since, despite his dedication to Red Auerbach, he showed that players could have an independent streak. Michael Jordan is the Abe Lincoln, since he, more than any player before or since, embraced endorsement culture, and set players free from their mere multi-million-dollar contracts. And, again, the chronology gets out of whack, since there could be no one who more aptly fits TR's "speak softly and carry a big stick" mantra than Wilt Chamberlain.

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The NHL? The Montreal Canadiens, despite being in Canada rather than America, have won: Howie Morenz, Maurice Richard, Jean Beliveau and Guy Lafleur. Patrick Roy doesn't make it. Nor, despite having the trophy for best goaltender of the year named in his memory, does Georges Vezina.

For the whole league? That's tough. The first NHL superstar was Phantom Joe Malone, the greatest player of the 1910s and early '20s, who won Stanley Cups with his hometown Quebec Bulldogs in 1912 and '13, had the best goals-per-game average ever when he scored 44 in the league's 20-game first season in 1917-18 (the same pace in today's 82 games would be 180 goals, nearly double Wayne Gretzky's record of 92), becoming the first and still only NHL player to score 7 goals in a game in 1920, and wrapping up his career by winning another Cup with the Canadiens in 1924, as a teammate of Morenz and Vezina. So he's the NHL's "George Washington."

Richard would be the Jefferson, since the Rocket was a revolutionary figure for both players at large and for French Canadians.

Hard to say who the Lincoln would be, although Gretzky's impact on the game was an "emancipation proclamation" for players (in that they could have some say in where they could go) and for the game itself (in that it emerged from a "civil war" between those who were holding it back and those who wanted to push it forward).

TR? Would it be Gordie Howe, thus messing up the chronology again? Would it have to be the greatest American player? If so, who is that? Jeremy Roenick? Brian Leetch? Mike Modano? Chris Chelios? No, let's make it Howe, who is still the greatest player ever, and who definitely spoke softly and carried a big stick. No hockey player ever more "crowded hours," to use another term TR loved. 

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