Thursday, May 11, 2017

Top 10 Athletes From Minnesota

May 11, 1858: Minnesota gains admission to the Union as the 32nd State.

Top 10 Athletes from Minnesota

Minnesota's home teams, particularly the University of Minnesota, are very well represented here.

Honorable Mention to Chris Weinke of St. Paul, the Florida State quarterback who, in 2000, became the 2nd man from Minnesota to be awarded the Heisman Trophy. His pro career was a bust, though. That's not quite the case for the other Heisman winner from the State, who had the best possible excuse for not becoming a pro star: His country -- indeed, the world -- called him.

Honorable Mention to Coco Miller of Rochester and

Honorable Mention to Kelly Miller of Rochester. The twins played basketball together at the University of Georgia, and shared the 1999 Sullivan Award as the best amateur athlete in America, the 1st siblings, let alone twins, to receive it. Coco (real name Colleen) played in the WNBA for the Washington Mystics, while Kelly won the league title with the 2007 Phoenix Mercury.

Honorable Mention to Briana Scurry of Anoka, the goalkeeper on the U.S. team that won the 1999 Women's World Cup. With her teammates, Sports Illustrated named her Sportspeople of the Year.

UPDATE: Three months after I posted this, she was elected to the National Soccer Hall of Fame.

10. Bruce Smith of Faribault. No, not Bruce Bernard Smith, the legendary Buffalo Bills defensive end. He will show up when I do this for his home State, which is Virginia. This is Bruce Phillip Smith, a 2-way halfback who starred at the University of Minnesota, leading the Golden Gophers to back-to-back National Championships in 1940 and 1941. In the latter year, he was awarded the Heisman Trophy, the only Golden Gopher so honored.

World War II delayed his entry into the professional game, and he served as a fighter pilot in the U.S. Navy. He played for the Green Bay Packers and the Los Angeles Rams, but he was away from the game for too long: He was already 25 when he played his 1st pro down, and 28 when he played his last. He might have been one of the top NFL players of the 1940s, and possibly one of the best defensive backs ever, but we'll never know.

He died of cancer in 1967, only 47 years old. UM made his Number 54 the 1st they ever retired, in any sport. He was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame.

9. Neal Broten of Roseau. He was 1 of 3 brothers to make the NHL, and all 3 ended up playing for the New Jersey Devils. Neal was a member of the U.S. team that won the 1980 Winter Olympics, shocking the Soviet Union and then beating Finland for the Gold Medal.

He, Mike Ramsey of Minneapolis, Rob McClanahan and Steve Janaszak of St. Paul, Bill Baker and Buzz Schneider of Grand Rapids (Minnesota, not Michigan), Steve Christoff of Richfield, Eric Strobel of Rochester and Phil Verchota of Duluth had all played at the University of Minnesota under Herb Brooks, who also coached the national team. (Mark Pavelich of Eveleth went to the University of Minnesota at Duluth.) In 1980, Sports Illustrated honored them, and their teammates from other States, as the 1st entire team to be named the magazine's Sportsmen of the Year.

In 1981, Broten won the Hobey Baker Award, college hockey's answer to the Heisman Trophy. He scored the goals that clinched the 1979 National Championship for the Golden Gophers and the 1995 Stanley Cup for the Devils. He also helped the Minnesota North Stars reach the Stanley Cup Finals in 1981 and 1991.

The Stars, now in Dallas, retired his Number 7. In 2009, Minnesota Wild fans voted him the greatest player ever to come from Minnesota, "The State of Hockey." He was a 2-time All-Star, and has twice won the Lester Patrick Trophy for lifetime contributions to hockey in America, both as a member of USA 1980 and in his own right. (He and Herb Brooks, who coached him in college and on the U.S. team, are the only 2-time winners.) He is a member of the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, but the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto has yet to honor him.

8. Jack Morris of St. Paul. He is one of the few players to have won the World Series with 3 different teams. His no-hitter early in the 1984 season was the high point of a 35-5 season-opening run that led the Detroit Tigers to a World Championship. In 1991, he did something that will probably never be seen again: He pitched a 10-inning shutout in a World Series game, and in a Game 7, no less, beating the Atlanta Braves and winning the Series for his hometown Minnesota Twins. He was named the Series' MVP. The next year, he went to the Toronto Blue Jays, and won the Series with fellow St. Paul native Dave Winfield.

A 5-time All-Star, he won 254 games, including 163 in the 1980s, leading all pitchers. He has been denied election to the Baseball Hall of Fame thus far. Later this year, he will, for the 1st time, be eligible for election by the Committee on Veterans.

7. Arild Verner Agerskov "Vern" Mikkelsen of Askov. The NBA's 1st great power forward, he appeared in 6 of the 1st 7 All-Star Games (1951-53 and 1955-57), and won 4 Championships with his home-State Minneapolis Lakers: 1950, 1952, 1953 and 1954.

He is a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame. Although his 19 would now be considered an unusual number for a basketball player, it has not been retired by the Lakers, who moved to Los Angeles in 1960. But he and the other Minneapolis players in the Hall -- George Mikan, Slater Martin, Jim Pollard, Clyde Lovellette and coach John Kundla -- were honored at halftime of a game between the Lakers and the new Twin Cities team, the Minnesota Timberwolves, with a banner that hangs in the Staples Center. The Lakers also gave them championship rings, which they didn't get when they won their titles.

(All but Pollard lived to attend the ceremony. Incredibly, the only one still alive is the coach, Kundla, now 100 years old.)

6. Phil Housley of St. Paul. Until surpassed by Mike Modano, he was the NHL's leading point-scorer among American-born players, despite being a defenseman. He was also the leader in games played by an American, until surpassed by Chris Chelios.

He was a 7-time All-Star, and was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame. He helped the U.S. win the 1996 World Cup of Hockey, and the Silver Medal at the 2002 Winter Olympics. Unfortunately, he never won a Stanley Cup, reaching the Finals only once, with the 1998 Washington Capitals. But there's hope: He is now an assistant coach with the Nashville Predators, who have reached this season'se Western Conference Finals.

5. Charles Albert "Chief" Bender of Brainerd. A member of the Chippewa nation, fans would yell "Indian war whoops" at him from the stands, at a time when a larger portion of Americans than ever before was foreign-born. He would turn and yell, "You lousy foreigners! Why don't you go back where you came from?"

He preceded Jim Thorpe, who will come up when I do this for Oklahoma, as a graduate of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. He had a pitch he called a "nickel curve," and some cite this to credit him with the invention of the slider. Despite Native Americans, like many other minorities, being treated by white people as stupid, Ty Cobb called him "the most intelligent pitcher I ever faced."

There was no All-Star Game in Bender's day, but he surely would have made it several times. He won 212 games, and won 5 Pennants with the Philadelphia Athletics, in 1905, 1910, 1911, 1913 and 1914, winning the World Series in 1910, 1911 and 1913.

He is in the Baseball Hall of Fame, and was named to the Philadelphia Baseball Wall of Fame. In 1981, baseball historians Lawrence Ritter and Donald Honig included him in their book The 100 Greatest Baseball Players of All Time.

4. Paul Molitor of St. Paul. Because he played most of his career in the small market of Milwaukee, and in the shadow of their biggest star, Robin Yount, he was one of the most underappreciated great players ever, despite having one of the best nicknames ever, "The Ignitor."

A 7-time All-Star, he got the Milwaukee Brewers to their 1st 2 postseason appearances, the 1981 American League Division Series and the 1982 World Series. He finally won a World Series with the 1993 Toronto Blue Jays, and was its MVP. He closed his career with the Twins, and is now their manager.

The Brewers retired his Number 4, and named him to their All-Time Team. The Sporting News named him to their 100 Greatest Baseball Players in 1999. He is a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame and the 3,000 Hit Club. Indeed, until he was surpassed by Derek Jeter, he had more career hits than anyone born after 1941.

3. Kevin McHale of Hibbing. Hibbing was also the hometown of Robert Zimmerman, a.k.a. Bob Dylan, but, while he wrote songs about baseball pitcher Catfish Hunter and boxer-turned-prisoner-turned-cause-celebre Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, he was not an athlete himself. Hibbing was also the birthplace of Roger Maris, but the family moved to North Dakota when he was 8, and he thus qualifies for that State, when I do this list for them.

Another University of Minnesota star, he was a 7-time NBA All-Star, winning the 1981, 1984 and 1986 NBA Championships with the Boston Celtics. UM retired his Number 44, the Celtics retired his Number 32, and he was named to the Basketball Hall of Fame and the NBA's 50th Anniversary 50 Greatest Players.

2. Bronislau "Bronko" Nagurski of International Falls. At 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, he wouldn't be considered all that big today. But in the 1930s, he was considered huge, and was the prototype for the big bruising fullback, the progenitor of Marion Motley, Jim Brown, Larry Csonka, John Riggins, Jerome Bettis, etc.

The University of Minnesota didn't win anything while he was there, but, in the same backfield as Red Grange, he helped the Chicago Bears win the NFL Championship in 1932 and 1933. He played in the NFL from 1930 to 1937, and was a professional wrestler in the off-season, because, at the time, it made him more money. He was the Heavyweight Champion of the World. And while pro wrestling was always a bit theatrical, it was not like today's WWE. He would have made mincemeat out of Hulk Hogan in the 1980s, Stone Cold Steve Austin in the 1990s, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson (also a college football star) in the 2000s and John Cena today. And he would never have done Vince McMahon's bidding. In 1943, due to the wartime manpower shortage, the Bears asked him to return, and he did, and helped them win another title.

"Who would you pick to win a football game?" asked the great sportswriter Grantland Rice. "11 Jim Thorpes? 11 Glenn Davises? 11 Red Granges? Or 11 Bronko Nagurskis? The 11 Nagurskis would be a mop-up. It would be something close to murder and massacre. For the Bronk could star at any position on the field, with 216 pounds of authority to back him up."

Try 230, Mr. Rice. Otherwise, you're right. One year, Nagurski hurt his back, and, instead of sitting out and healing, accepted a switch to offensive tackle, and was great at it. He played defensive tackle. Oh yeah, he could also pass, pretty well by the standards of the time. Imagine Bettis throwing an option pass, and having it result in a touchdown: Nagurski did it. In an interview late in life, he said he'd probably be a linebacker, admitting he wouldn't be carrying the ball 30 times a game. I have no doubt that, with his speed, he would have excelled.

The University of Minnesota retired its Number 72 for him and named its football facility the Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex. The Chicago Bears retired Number 3 for him. He was a charter inductee into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963. The Sporting News named him to their 100 Greatest Football Players in 1999. He was named to the NFL's 50th Anniversary Team in 1969, its 75th Anniversary Team in 1994, and the NFL Network's 100 Greatest Players in 2010. I have no doubt that, in 2019, despite it having been 76 years since he last played a down, he will be named to the NFL's 100th Anniversary Team.

But as great as Nagurski was, Number 1 is no doubt, and I was lucky enough to have him on my home team.

1. Dave Winfield of St. Paul. He may have been the greatest athlete to have played baseball in the last 50 years. He was born on October 3, 1951, the same day that Bobby Thomson hit the most famous home run of all time, so perhaps he was born to make baseball history himself.
Or maybe not: He also played basketball at the University of Minnesota, helping them win the Big Ten title in 1972. He didn't play football there, but he played it in high school. In 1973, he was named Most Valuable Player of the College World Series, as both an outfielder and a pitcher, although Minnesota lost in the Semifinal on a tremendous comeback by USC.

He was then drafted by 4 teams in 4 leagues in 3 sports: The San Diego Padres in MLB, the Minnesota Vikings in the NFL, the Atlanta Hawks in the NBA and the Utah Stars in the ABA. He could have been a teammate of Alan Page and the rest of the Purple People Eaters, and could have made the difference in Super Bowls VIII, IX and XI. Or he could have been a teammate of Pistol Pete Maravich in Atlanta, or of Moses Malone in Utah.

Instead, he became a teammate of Ozzie Smith, Randy Jones, Rollie Fingers and Gaylord Perry, leaving before Tony Gwynn arrived. He signed what was then the richest contract in baseball history, and became a teammate of Reggie Jackson, Goose Gossage, Don Mattingly and Rickey Henderson.

A 12-time All-Star, a 7-time Gold Glove, he is a member of the 3,000 Hit Club. He won a Pennant with the Yankees in 1981 and the World Series with the Toronto Blue Jays in 1992. Like Morris and Molitor, won a World Series withe the Jays late in his career, and also returned to his hometown Twins to polish off his Hall of Fame credentials.

The Padres retired his Number 31, and elected him to their team Hall of Fame. The Yankees have not retired his number or given him a Plaque in Monument Park, despite his less accomplished teammate Mattingly having been so honored. He did, at least get a Dave Winfield Day from the Yankees, following his induction to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2001. The Sporting News named him to their 100 Greatest Baseball Players in 1999.

By a weird coincidence, there were also English soccer players named Dave Winfield (a centreback, best known for his time at Hampshire club Aldershot Town, now with Kent club Ebbsfleet United) and Kevin McHale (a midfielder for Yorkshire club Huddersfield Town in the 1960s).

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