Top 10 Athletes from Wisconsin
All-Star. Milestone. Number retired. Hall of Fame.
Honorable Mention to Harry "Bud" Grant of Superior. We know him as a great football coach, but he was a fantastic athlete, too: He is the only man ever to play regular-season games in both the NFL and the NBA -- and he actually achieved more as a player in basketball, winning a title with the 1950 Minneapolis Lakers. He lettered in those sports and in baseball at the University of Minnesota, a 3-sport star there a quarter of a century before Dave Winfield was.
He was a receiver with the Philadelphia Eagles, then moved to the Canadian Football League's Winnipeg Blue Bombers. He became their head coach, and led them to 4 Grey Cups, followed by 4 NFL/NFC Championships (but no Super Bowl wins) with the Minnesota Vikings. It is as a coach that he is in the Pro Football and Canadian Football Halls of Fame.
Honorable Mention to Mark Johnson and Bob Suter, both of Madison. As members of the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team that won the Gold Medal in Lake Placid, New York, Sports Illustrated
included them in their 1st entire team to be named their Sportsmen of the Year.
Both played at the University of Wisconsin for Johnson's father, Bob Johnson, who later coached the Pittsburgh Penguins to their 1st Stanley Cup in 1991. "Badger Bob" doesn't make this list, because he was from Minnesota, and his own playing career wouldn't have qualified him anyway. Mark, a center, now coaches the Wisconsin women's team. Unfortunately, Suter, a defenseman, was the 1st member of that 1980 team to die.
Honorable Mention to Gary Suter of Madison. Bob's younger brother, a defenseman, never won an Olympic medal, but he won 2 things Bob didn't: The Stanley Cup, with the 1989 Calgary Flames; and the World Cup of Hockey (formerly the Canada Cup), with the U.S. team in 1996.
Honorable Mention to Judi Brown of Milwaukee. She won a Silver Medal as a hurdler at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. In 1987, for her work with abused children, Sports Illustrated named her 1 of 8 "Athletes Who Care" as their Sportspeople of the Year.
Honorable Mention to Paul Hamm of Waukesha. In 2004, the gymnast won a Gold Medal and 2 Silver Medals at the Olympics in Athens, Greece, and the James E. Sullivan Award, annually given by the Amateur Athletic Union to the nation's outstanding amateur athlete for that year.
Honorable Mention to Suzy Favor of Stevens Point. The 1500-meter runner from the University of Wisconsin won the Honda-Broderick Cup for America's best female college athlete for the 1989-90 schoolyear.
Honorable Mention to Kevin Dean of Madison, who helped the New Jersey Devils win the 1995 Stanley Cup.
Honorable Mention to Eric Hinske of Menasha, 1 of only 3 players since the 1920s -- Ramiro Mendoza and Johnny Damon are the others -- to have won the World Series while playing for the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees.
Now, the Top 10:
10. Helene Madison of Madison. After breaking the world record in every event open to female swimmers in 1930 and '31, she swam to 3 Gold Medals at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. There, she met Johnny Weissmuller, fellow Gold Medal swimmer, and then the movies' Tarzan. He got her what then appeared to be a big break, and she swam in 2 movies.
But the International Olympic Committee declared that, as she was now swimming for money, she was a "professional," and declared her ineligible for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. The IOC has frequently been unfair, and sometimes even hypocritical.
9. Alan Ameche of Kenosha. Although Ron Dayne also played at the University of Wisconsin, set a still-standing NCAA record for career rushing yards, and won the Heisman Trophy in 1999, he is from New Jersey. Ameche, a cousin of actors Don and Jim, is the only Wisconsin native to have won the Trophy, playing for UW in 1954. The Badgers retired his Number 35.
With the Baltimore Colts, he was a 4-time Pro Bowler, the 1955 NFL rushing yards leader and Rookie of the Year, and a member of the 1958 and 1959 NFL Champions. He scored the overtime touchdown that won the 1958 NFL Championship Game, frequently called "The Greatest Game Ever Played," a 23-17 Colt win over the Giants at Yankee Stadium. Until James White of the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LI this past February, it was the latest-scored touchdown in any NFL game.
An Achilles injury ended his career in 1960, leaving him short of statistics that would have gotten him into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But he is a member of the College Football and Wisconsin Athletic Halls of Fame, and was named to the NFL's 1950s All-Decade Team. He also co-founded 2 fast food chains: Gino's with his Colt teammate Gino Marchetti (founded 1957, folded 1982, revived 2010), and Ameche's Drive-In (also a burger chain, peaking at 6 in the Baltimore area).
8. Jim Otto of Wausau. He was the Oakland Raiders' starting center from their 1960 inception through the 1974 season, including the 1967 AFL Championship. Between the AFL All-Star Team before the 1970 merger and the NFL's Pro Bowl after it, he was an all-star in the 1st 13 of his 15 seasons.
He was named to the AFL All-Time Team and the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The Raiders do not retire numbers, but, in a way, his is the only one they have retired: He wore 00, because it could be read as the pronunciation of his name: "Aught-oh." The NFL no longer permits that number to be worn.
But he's not the best football player from Wausau: That's the man at #7. And he's not the best University of Wisconsin center to have played in the NFL in the 1970s: That's the man at #6.
7. Elroy Hirsch of Wausau. "Crazy Legs" was the best receiver of the 1940s and the early 1950s (essentially, the Harry Truman Presidency), getting his Number 40 retired by the University of Wisconsin. He starred for the Chicago Rockets of the All-America Football Conference, which got him noticed by the Los Angeles Rams, for whom he played in 4 NFL Championship Games, winning in 1951.
He was a 3-time Pro Bowler, and when he retired in 1957, he was 2nd to Don Hutson on the NFL's list for most career receiving yards, 7,029. He was named to the NFL's 1950s All-Decade Team and the College and Pro Football Hall of Fame. He served as the Rams' general manager in the 1960s, and as UW's athletic director in the 1970s and '80s. He may be the most popular athlete in Badger history.
6. Mike Webster of Rhinelander. Often called the best center in NFL history, he snapped for Terry Bradshaw and blocked for the Pittsburgh Steelers offense for 4 Super Bowl wins in the 1970s, making 9 Pro Bowls.
He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and to the NFL's 1970s and 1980s All-Decade Teams and to the Steelers' 75th Anniversary Team. While the Steelers usually don't retire numbers, his Number 52 has never been given back out.
5. Dan Jansen of the Milwaukee suburb of West Allis. He was probably the best speed skater in the world at the time of both the 1988 and 1992 Winter Olympics, but his struggles in those Games have become legend. By 1994, in Lillehamer, Norway, he had been surpassed by homeland hero Johan Olav Koss, but he finally got a Gold Medal, in the 1,000 meters. He was thus given the 1994 Sullivan Award.
Had the Winter Olympics stayed on the same schedule as the Summer Games, and he had to wait until 1996, he might not even have competed. But he finally got his just reward.
4. Eric Heiden of Madison. At the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York, this speed skater not only won Gold Medals in all 5 of his races, but set world records in each. He wasn't even seriously challenged in any of them. He won the Sullivan Award in 1980. His sister Beth Heiden was also world-class in speed skating, and in cycling, too.
As great as this achievement was, I can't rank him any higher, since he was only a superstar for 2 weeks.
3. Adrian "Addie" Joss of Woodland. He has the lowest WHIP (walks plus hits, divided by innings pitched) in baseball history: 0.968. He has the 2nd-lowest ERA: 1.88. He pitched 2 no-hitters, 1 of them a perfect game in 1908.
He had a 160-97 career record, all for the Cleveland Naps (forerunners of the Indians), before his 32nd birthday. But just 2 days after that birthday, on April 14, 1911, he died of meningitis. There were no antibiotics in those days. Had he appeared in so much as 1 game in the dawning 1911 season, he would have appeared in a 10th major league season, and thus qualified for the Baseball Hall of Fame. In 1978, the Hall waived this requirement due to his special circumstances, and he was elected.
2. Al Simmons of Milwaukee. Changing his Polish name of Aloisius Harry Szymanski, the great left fielder for the Philadelphia Athletics batted .334 lifetime, collected 2,927 hits (he couldn't quite make it to 3,000, or else he'd be a lot better-remembered), helped the A's win 3 straight Pennants (1929-31) and back-to-back World Series (1929-30), and played in the 1st 3 All-Star Games (1933-35).
The A's, now in Oakland, do not retire numbers from their Philadelphia years, so his Number 7 remains available. But the Phillies honored him with election to the Philadelphia Baseball Wall of Fame. He died at 54 of heart trouble, but lived long enough to see his election to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
1. Ernie Nevers of Superior. He didn't get a movie made about him like Jim Thorpe and George Gipp. Unlike Red Grange and Bronko Nagurski, his teams no longer exist in their present form. But Ernie deserves to be celebrated as an early pro football star, just as those men rightly are.
In 1924, he led the Stanford football team to an undefeated regular season, before losing to Notre Dame and their Four Horsemen in the Rose Bowl. Had there been a Heisman Trophy in 1925, he would have won it. In 2008, ESPN named ranked him 25th on their list of the Top 25 College Football Players of All Time.
He was an All-Pro 5 times: In 1926 and '27 with the Duluth Eskimos, and in 1929, '30 and '31 with the Chicago Cardinals. What happened in 1928? He sat out the season, and returned to Stanford, serving as an assistant coach to his mentor, Pop Warner. Yes, the man for whom the legendary youth football program was named.
Stanford retired his Number 1. The NFL Cardinals -- not named for Stanford's teams, as they were the Indians until 1972 -- now play in Arizona, and have not retired his Number 4. He was named to the NFL's 1920s All-Decade Team, and to the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame. He also pitched for the St. Louis Browns from 1926 to 1928.