Thursday, June 1, 2017

Top 10 Athletes From Tennessee

June 1, 1796: Tennessee is admitted to the Union as the 16th State, 4 years to the day after neighboring Kentucky is admitted as the 15th.

Top 10 Athletes From Tennessee

Honorable Mention to Keenan Reynolds of Antioch. The Naval Academy quarterback scored more rushing touchdowns than any player in FBS (formerly Division I-A) history, had his Number 19 retired by the Academy, and won the 2015 Sullivan Award as America's best amateur athlete.

Honorable Mention to Cindy Parlow of Germantown. A soccer midfielder, she was a member of the U.S. team that won the 1999 Women's World Cup, and won Olympic Gold Medals in Atlanta in 1996 and Athens in 2004. Sports Illustrated included her with her World Cup teammates, naming them their 1999 Sportspeople of the Year.

Honorable Mention to David Weathers of Lawrenceburg, who helped the Yankees win the 1996 World Series.

Honorable Menton to Nera White of Lafayette. There was no professional basketball for women in the 1950s and 1960s, but she starred on the amateur circuit (as, you known an "amateur"), and, along with Lusia Harris, was 1 of the 1st 2 women elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame. She was also an accomplished softball player.

10. Nikki McCray of Collierville. Somebody has to be considered the best of the Lady Vols to have played for coach Pat Summitt at the University of Tennessee. But few of the legitimate candidates for that honor are actually from Tennessee, and thus don't qualify for this list: Daedra Charles is from Michigan, Chamique Holdsclaw from New York, Candace Parker from Illinois, Tamika Catchings from Texas, and Kara Lawson from Virginia. McCray is from Tennessee.

Although she didn't win a National Championship in Knoxville, she may have had the best pro career of any of Summitt's players. A 3-time WNBA All-Star for the Washington Mystics, she won Olympic Gold Medals in Atlanta in 1996 and Sydney in 2000. She is now the head coach at another power in women's college basketball, Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia.

In 2011, Summitt shared Sports Illustrated's Sportsperson of the Year award with Duke men's coach Mike Krzyzewski. In each case, it was earned for the year, but was more of a lifetime achievement award.

9. Ed "Too Tall" Jones of Jackson. At 6-foot-9 and 271 pounds, he was an inch taller and 14 pounds heavier than the guy at Number 3 on this list, and was also recruited to play basketball. He went to Tennessee State University, quit basketball after 2 years to concentrate on football, and led them to the National Championship of historically black college football in 1971 and 1973.

He was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys, and, as a big part (figuratively and literally) of their Doomsday Defense, went to 3 Pro Bowls, 6 NFC Championship Games and 3 Super Bowls, winning Super Bowl XII. He is not yet in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, which is probably why he's also not yet in the Cowboys' Ring of Honor.

8. Steve Spurrier of Johnson City. He is so identified with Florida, and his coaching at the University of Florida messed up UT's dreams so many times, that it's difficult to imagine "The Ol' Ball Coach" being from Tennessee. Equally, he's so ingrained in our memory as a coach that it's difficult to imagine him as a player.

At any rate, while he lived in Tennessee as a boy, UT was only interested in him for basketball, as their football team then ran a Wing-T offense that hardly ever passed. So he went to the University of Florida, and the Volunteers spent the next 40 years paying for overlooking his passing skills.

He led the Florida Gators to the 1965 Sugar Bowl and the 1966 Orange Bowl. In the 1966 season, he won the Heisman Trophy. He is still the only man trained to play football in Tennessee to win it. His pro career was less successful, as he was taken by the San Francisco 49ers, and was a backup to John Brodie for years. He was also the 1st starting quarterback for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who made the mistake of drafting him because he was a home-State legend, and they lost their 1st 26 games. By the time the Bucs won a game, Gary Huff was the quarterback.

Because his pro career, like that of many other Heisman winners, especially quarterbacks, was a bust, I can't rank him any higher. His coaching achievements don't count here: It's Top 10 Athletes, not Top 10 Sports Figures. This is also why Johnny Majors, who starred as a player at Tennessee before coaching them and the University of Pittsburgh, isn't on this list: He only played pro football for 1 season, and that was for the Montreal Alouettes of the CFL.

Spurrier went into coaching, and with the Tampa Bay Bandits, built the most exciting team in the United State Football League. He restored Duke to respectability, built a legend at Florida, flopped with the Washington Redskins, and did all right at South Carolina. This year, as he became eligible to be elected as a coach, he became only the 4th man to be elected to the College Football Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach.

7. Claude Humphrey of Memphis. There's something about the State of Tennessee and defensive ends: Humphrey is the 1st of 3 on this list.

In 1980, when Inside Sports was establishing itself as a monthly competitor to the weekly Sports Illustrated (IS they soon lost that competition to SI), I saw an article titled "Claude Humphrey On Being Mean and Nasty." It featured Humphrey at Philadelphia Eagles training camp, wearing only shorts, socks and sneakers, running toward the camera, 6-foot-4 and 252 pounds of black All-Pro physique, gritting his teeth, and looking, indeed, rather mean and nasty to a 10-year-old white boy from the Jersey suburbs. In real life, he's considered a nice guy.

After starring for Tennessee State University, he made 6 Pro Bowls for the Atlanta Falcons' Grits Blitz defense, then went to the Eagles and helped them reach Super Bowl XV. He can be seen on the NFL Films production of the 1980 NFC Championship Game, yelling, "We're goin' to New Orleans!" And head coach Dick Vermiel says, "I'll tell you where you're goin': You're goin' to the Super Bowl!" and turns to an assistant and says, "He's goin' to the Super Bowl! That's where he's goin'!" Alas, they lost it to the Oakland Raiders.

Neverthless, the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio was also where he was goin'. His number was retired by Tennessee State, and he's been elected to the Sports Halls of Fame of both Tennessee and Georgia, and to the Falcons' Ring of Honor.

6. Bailey Howell of Middleton. Despite playing for only 3 seasons, and without the shot clock or the 3-point line, he still holds most of Mississippi State University's basketball records, including points in a game and average points per game in a career. They retired his Number 52.

He starred for the Detroit Pistons, the Baltimore Bullets and the Boston Celtics, making 6 NBA All-Star teams, and helping the Celtics win the 1968 and '69 NBA Championships. He is in the Basketball Hall of Fame.

5. Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway of Memphis. As far as I can tell, he is not related to fellow basketball legend Tim Hardaway and his son Tim Jr. His first love was football, but his grandmother, who raised him, thought it was too dangerous. For talent alone, he might have been the best basketball player the Volunteer State has ever produced. It's easy to forget how great, and how ubiquitous, this guy was, with those Nike commercials of the 1990s, featuring him and "Lil Penny," a claymation Hardaway voiced by Chris Rock.

He starred for Treadwell High School, and Parade magazine named him national high school player of the year for 1990. His knowledge of sports was so well-respected at the time that he was asked to referee youth sports at the Memphis YMCA.

He was recruited by Memphis State University, now the University of Memphis, but had to sit out his freshman year due to academic ineligibility. This motivated him, and in 1993, he was named not only to the national All-American team, but to the Dean's List. The school retired his Number 25.

He was drafted by the Orlando Magic, and they became a powerhouse with Hardaway, Shaquille O'Neal, Scott Skiles and Horace Grant, winning the NBA Eastern Conference in 1995 (but they got swept by the Houston Rockets in the NBA Finals) and reaching the Conference Finals again in 1996 (where they got beat by the returning Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls). A 4-time All-Star, Hardaway was named to the 1996 U.S. Olympic Team, and won a Gold Medal in Atlanta.

So what happened? For starters, Shaq's ego was as big as he was, and he left the small market of Orlando for the big market of Los Angeles for the 1996-97 season. A year later, Hardaway suffered a devastating knee injury that caused him to miss most of the season. He was traded to the Phoenix Suns, and further injuries made him little more than a role player, though he did stick around until 2007.

He could have done so much more had he stayed healthy, and had Shaq just stayed. He may yet turn out to be lucky that the Basketball Hall of Fame includes amateur and pro contributions together, but, so far, no election.

He now focuses his efforts on helping inner-city youth in Memphis. Unlike many athletes who came up from nothing and made too much money too fast, he seems to have invested wisely: As late as 2012, he had enough to be part of a group that tried to buy the Memphis Grizzlies, along with Peyton Manning and Justin Timberlake. They were turned down.

4. Tracy Caulkins of Nashville. Randy Reese, Hall of Fame coach of the University of Florida and U.S. Olympic swimming teams in the 1970s and '80s, said, "She's the greatest swimmer that has ever been so far, men or women." This was before Janet Evans, let alone Michael Phelps; but after Johnny Weissmuller, Esther Williams, Don Schollander, Dawn Fraser and Mark Spitz.

Caulkins starred for Reese at UF, winning 48 National Championship races and winning several World Championship and Pan American Games medals. She won the 1978 James E. Sullivan Award for the nation's best amateur athlete, regardless of gender. In 1981-82, and again in 1983-84, she won the Honda-Broderick Cup as America's best female collegiate athlete.

Because of the 1980 U.S. boycott, it took her until the 1984 Games in Los Angeles to compete in the Olympics, winning 3 Gold Medals. She is a member of the International Swimming Hall of Fame, and the Sports Halls of Fame of both Tennessee and Florida.

3. Doug Atkins of Humboldt. Until the guy at Number 1 on this list, he might have been the best defensive end in NFL history. At 6-foot-8 and 257 pounds, he was recruited by the University of Tennessee as a basketball center. But their football coach, General Bob Neyland, had other ideas, and converted him to football, making him one of the biggest players in the sport's history to that point.

He helped Tennessee win the 1951 National Championship, and was named the Southeastern Conference's Player of the Quarter-Century for 1950 to 1974. He was drafted by the Cleveland Browns, and was a member of their NFL Championship team in 1954, but did something to anger coach Paul Brown, and was traded to the Chicago Bears.

Big mistake: He went to 8 Pro Bowls, and led the Bears defense in their 1963 NFL Championship season. He closed his career with the expansion New Orleans Saints, his last play being a sack to preserve a Saints win in their 1969 season finale.

He was named to the NFL's 1960s All-Decade Team. UT retired his Number 91, and the Saints his Number 81. Oddly, the Bears have not retired 81 for him. He is in the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame.

2. Wilma Rudolph of Clarksville. Ed Temple was the track & field coach at Tennessee State University. His team was not the Tigers, but the Tigerbelles. And Wonderful Wilma was his greatest achievement. She won 2 individual Gold Medals at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, and anchored a relay team of Tigerbelles that won another.

UPI named her International Athlete of the Year, the AP named her Woman Athlete of the Year (and did so again the next year), and in 1961 she won the Sullivan Award. She was elected to the National Track and Field Hall of Fame and the National Women's Hall of Fame -- encompassing all walks of life. In 1984, the Women's Sports Foundation named her 1 of the 5 greatest female athletes in American history; in 1996, 2 years after her death from cancer, it founded the Wilma Rudolph Courage Award.

Perhaps, for peak value, she should be Number 1. But she retired from competition in 1961, even though she would have been only 24 at the time of the 1964 Olympics and 28 in 1968. (For comparison's sake, Jackie Joyner-Kersee was 34 when she won her last Olympic medal and 30 when she won her last Gold.) So, for an entire body of work, I can't honestly put her at Number 1.

1. Reggie White of Chattanooga. Put aside all the whacked-out statements made by the Reverend Reggie White in the name of faith and politics, and remember the man who, like the Rev. Mike Singletary before him, was known as the Minister of Defense.

After starring at the University of Tennessee, he became perhaps the greatest defensive end in pro football history, starting with his home-State Memphis Showboats of the USFL. He went to the Philadelphia Eagles, and thrived (or should that be "throve"?) under head coach Buddy Ryan.

But he wanted more money, and said, "God will tell me where to go." Green Bay Packers head coach Paul Holmgren left a message on his answering machine: "Reggie, this is God. Go to Green Bay." It was a dirty trick, piggybacking on a cynical move. But it worked: With Reggie leading the defense, and Brett Favre the offense, the Pack won Super Bowl XXXI.
Reggie was named 1983 Southeastern Conference Player of the Year, to 13 Pro Bowls, the NFL's 1980s and 1990s All-Decades Teams, the NFL's 75th Anniversasry Team, the NFL Network's 2010 poll of the 100 Greatest Players, and the College and Pro Football Hall of Fame. His Number 92 was retired by UT, the Eagles and the Packers.

In spite of his evangelical statements, he used his position as a minister famous in another field to do a lot of good, particularly after black churches were burned in Tennessee in the 1990s. But, unknown to most people, he suffered from sarcoidosis and sleep apnea, and, in 2004, 4 years after playing his last game -- and before he could become Hall of Fame eligible -- he died, just 43 years old. He had more to do.

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