Monday, July 3, 2017

Top 10 Athletes From Idaho

July 3, 1890: Idaho is admitted to the Union as the 43rd State.

Top 10 Athletes from Idaho

10. Sarah Heath of Sandpoint. Okay, this women's basketball star has spent most of her life in Alaska, didn't play the sport beyond high school, is now more identified with hockey, and goes by her married name of Sarah Palin...

Just checking to see if you were paying attention. Although Sandpoint isn't all that far from the Canadian border, so maybe she shouldn't have questioned President Barack Obama's American birth.

Now, let's get serious.

10. Luke Ridnour of Coeur d'Alene. When I did a list of the greatest basketball players from each State, Ridnour turned out to be the best of a weak bunch from Idaho. And he just barely qualifies, as he went to Washington State to play high school ball, as his father was his coach.

But he was named Pac-10 Player of the Year in 2003, almost getting the University of Oregon into the Final Four. He starred as a guard for the Seattle SuperSonics (including their last season, 2007-08, but getting traded before they could complete the move), the Milwuakee Bucks and the Minnesota Timberwolves.

9. Merril Hoge of Pocatello. Idaho has never produced a Heisman Trophy winner, but it's produced a few really good football players. A star running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers, he has become better known for having sustained concussions, and his activism in promoting their prevention and treatment.

He is also a renowned studio analyst, and has a son now playing at Brigham Young, and another at Notre Dame.

8. Wayne Walker of Boise. The Detroit Lions have their share of legends, but not many living ones, and they just lost another this past May 19. Walker (no relation to earlier Lion legend Doak) was a linebacker and placekicker for 15 seasons, making 3 Pro Bowls. He later served as a broadcaster for the San Francisco 49ers and the Oakland Athletics.

7. Jake Plummer of Smiley Creek. His real name is Jason Steven Plummer, but he adopted the nickname "Jake the Snake" after pro wrestler Aurelian Smith Jr., a.k.a. Jake "The Snake" Roberts, who took his nickname from an earlier quarterback, Ken Stabler.

He was named Pac-10 Conference Player of the Year as a quarterback at Arizona State in 1996. He starred for the Arizona Cardinals, getting them into the Playoffs in 1998 (their only berth between 1982 and 2008) and getting them a win away to the Dallas Cowboys (their only postseason win between 1947 and 2008). In 2005, with the Denver Broncos, he was named to the Pro Bowl.

6. Vernon Law of Meridian. He won 162 games as a major league pitcher, all with the Pittsburgh Pirates. In 1960, he went 20-9, made the All-Star Team, won the World Series, and was named the winner of the Cy Young Award, then given to the best pitcher in both leagues.

A Mormon deacon, and the father of former MLB infielder Vance Law, he is believed to be the originator of 2 well-known quotes. One is, "A winner never quits, and a quitter never wins." The other is, "Experience is a hard teacher, because she gives the test first, the lesson afterwards."

5. Gary Stevens of Boise. Winner of over 5,000 horse races, he won the Kentucky Derby aboard the aptly-named filly Winning Colors in 1988, Thunder Gulch in 1995 and Silver Charm in 1997. He's also won 4 Preakness Stakes, 3 Belmont Stakes, and 11 races in Breeders' Cup play, including the 2013 Classic aboard Mucho Macho Man -- the horse was 5, the jockey 50.

He is a member of the U.S. Racing Hall of Fame, and is still active. (Active jockeys are eligible.) He also played George Woolf, one of the title horse's jockeys, in the film version of Seabiscuit.

4. Jerry Kramer of Sandpoint. He might be the best guard in football history, and yet, in 2008, NFL Films named him the Number 1 player not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

He was a 6-time Pro Bowler with the Green Bay Packers, winning 5 NFL Championships, including the 1st 2 Super Bowls in the 1966-67 and 1967-68 seasons. He is best known for his block that allowed Bart Starr's quarterback sneak to win the 1967 NFL Championship Game, a.k.a. the Ice Bowl.

His diary of that 1967 season, Instant Replay, preceded Jim Bouton's Ball Four by 2 years, although it wasn't nearly as controversial. His recollection of the Packers' Super Bowl I winners, Distant Replay, is football's answer to Roger Kahn's The Boys of Summer.

He was named to the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame and the NFL's 1960s All-Decade Team. But he's still not in Canton. He's 81 years old. What are the voters waiting for?

UPDATE: Seven months later, on the eve of Super Bowl LII, Jerry Kramer, still alive, was finally elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He had been eligible for 44 years.

3. Picabo Street of Sun Valley. She won a Silver Medal at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, in the women's downhill. In 1995, she won the downhill at skiing's World Cup, becoming the 1st American of either gender ever to win a speed event at the World Cup. A nasty injury in a 1996 training accident put her 1998 Olympic chances in jeopardy, but she won the Gold Medal in the Super-G at Nagano, Japan anyway.

2. Larry Wilson of Rigby. Like 1920s football star George Wilson, to whom he appears not to have been related, he was nicknamed Wildcat, but the earlier Wilson is not the reason. When he was drafted by the Chicago Cardinals in 1960 -- they moved to St. Louis before the season -- their defensive coordinator, Chuck Drulis, created a play he code-named "Wildcat," inventing the safety blitz. The Cards drafted Larry specifically to take advantage of this, as his play at the University of Utah showed him to be both really fast and hard-hitting.

Larry Wilson was so tough! (How tough was he?) He was so tough, he once played a game with both hands taped over, including his fingers, because he had broken both wrists -- and still intercepted a pass. It was 1 of 52 he picked off in his career, for 800 yards, including 5 touchdowns.

The aforementioned Jerry Kramer called him "the finest football player in the NFL." It seems a crime that he never appeared in a Playoff game in his 13 seasons, but Kramer's Packers dominated the NFL Western Division at the time, so the closest the Cardinals came was finishing 2nd in 1964, making the subsequent Bert Bell Benefit Bowl (a.k.a. the Playoff Bowl).

It's not that they weren't good: They were 9-5 in 1963, 9-3-2 in 1964, 8-5-1 in 1966, 9-4-1 in 1968, and 8-5-1 in 1970. We're not talking about a one-man team here. Had he hung on just a little longer, he could have been a part of the Cardinals' 1974 and '75 NFC Eastern Division Champions.

He made 8 Pro Bowls, and was named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the NFL 1960s and 1970s All-Decade Teams (even though he retired in 1972, and the only other man named to both teams was Dick Butkus), the NFL 75th Anniversary All-Time Team, and The Sporting News' 100 Greatest Football Players.

It is a crime that he was not named to the NFL Network's 100 Greatest Players in 2010, especially since he was still alive and available for an interview (and still is now). Along with Ronnie Lott, Paul Krause, Ken Houston and Emlen Tunnell, he is probably still 1 of the top 5 safeties in football history.

The Cardinals retired his Number 8 well before they moved to Arizona. Even though he never played for Arizona (though he was a Cardinals executive both before and after the move, serving as scouting director, personnel director, general manager and vice president, retiring from an active role in 2002), he is in their Ring of Honor at University of Phoenix Stadium. Although he never played for the Rams, they (before moving back to Los Angeles) named him to the St. Louis Football Ring of Fame at the Edwards Jones Dome.

1. Harmon Killebrew of Payette. Due to his name, they called him "The Killer." Fortunately, like his contemporary, Frank "The Monster" Howard, he was a nice guy in real life.
He was a one-dimensional player. He couldn't field, and was tried in the outfield and 3rd base before being moved to 1st base, until the American League finally brought in the designated hitter. He couldn't run, and indeed was nicknamed "The Fat Kid" by his fellow players. And he couldn't hit for average: Among players elected mainly as non-pitchers, only one member of the Baseball Hall of Fame has a lower lifetime batting average: Ray Schalk, elected for his defensive prowess as a catcher.

Yes, Killebrew was a one-dimensional player. But that one dimension! He hit 573 home runs, which is still more than any righthanded hitter in AL history. He led the AL in home runs 6 times, they weren't cheap home runs, either: He won the 1st of those crowns while playing for the Washington Senators, playing home games in Griffith Stadium with its faraway fences, before the team moved to become the Minnesota Twins with its hitter-friendly Metropolitan Stadium, where he hit the longest home run in both stadium and franchise history.

He led the AL in RBIs 3 times, won the Most Valuable Player award in 1969, made 13 All-Star Teams, and got the Twins to the 1965 Pennant and the 1969 and '70 AL Western Division titles.

He is in the Hall of Fame, and The Sporting News named him to their 100 Greatest Baseball Players in 1999. The Twins named him to their team Hall of Fame, retired his Number 3, and named a street outside the old Met Stadium (the street is still there, at the Mall of America, though the stadium is not) and a gate at their new home, Target Field, after him.

He is also believed to be the inspiration for the Major League Baseball logo, as Jerry West is for the NBA logo. He also broadcast for the Twins, and also for the A's, alongside the aforementioned fellow Idahoan Wayne Walker.

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