Top 10 Athletes From Kansas
From here on out, "KCK" means "Kansas City, Kansas." Residents of the area use that for the Kansas version, and "KCMO" when they mean "Kansas City, Missouri."
Honorable Mention to Dean Smith of Emporia. As a player, he helped the University of Kansas win the 1952 National Championship, but went right into coaching. He coached the University of North Carolina for 36 years, winning the Atlantic Coast Conference 17 times in the regular season, 13 times in the ACC Tournament, and both 7 times. He reached 11 Final Fours, and won the National Championship in 1982 and 1993, the NIT in 1971, and the Olympic Gold Medal coaching the U.S. team in Montreal in 1976.
He won more games than any college basketball coach before him, 879, and after retiring with another Final Four berth in 1997, Sports Illustrated named him Sportsman of the Year. North Carolina's arena, the Dean E. Smith Student Activities Center (a.k.a. the Dean Dome), was named for him not just while he was still alive, but while he was still coaching. He is in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Somewhat Honorable Mention to Adolph Rupp of Halstead. Like Dean, he learned his basketball from University of Kansas coach Forrest "Phog" Allen (who I made an Honorable Mention for his home State, Missouri). He played on Kansas' 1922 and 1923 National Championship teams, and was just getting warmed up: It was his 876 coaching wins that was the all-time record until Dean surpassed it.
At the University of Kentucky, "the Baron of the Bluegrass" won the Southeastern Conference Championship 28 times in the regular season, 13 times in the SEC Tournament, and all 13 times, he'd also won it in the regular season. He got the Wildcats to 6 Final Fours, and won 4 National Championships: 1948, 1949, 1951 and 1958.
"Somewhat Honorable" because, whether intentionally or not, he became a symbol of the white South's refusal to integrate, as his all-white team faced Texas-El Paso (then Texas Western) with an all-black stating five in the 1966 NCAA Final, and lost. But he did integrate before his mandated (by State law) retirement, and is rightly in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Honorable Mention to Harold E. "Bud" Foster of Newton. He coached the University of Wisconsin to 3 titles in the league now known as the Big Ten, and won the 1941 National Championship. He is in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Honorable Mention to Paul Endacott of Lawrence. The best player on that Kansas team that won the 1922 and 1923 National Championships, his Number 12 was retired, and he's in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Honorable Mention to Ernest Schmidt of Nashville. He is in the Basketball Hall of Fame for starring for what's now named Pittsburg State University in Pittsburg (no H), Kansas in the 1930s, winning 47 straight games.
Honorable Mention to Dean Kelley and Allen Kelley of Dearing. Both guards, the brothers were members of the University of Kansas team that won the 1952 National Championship. Dean was a member of the U.S. team that won the Gold Medal at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, and Allen of the U.S. team that won the Gold Medal at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, and was collectively elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Honorable Mention to Charles Wilbur "Bullet Joe" Rogan of KCK. Negro League records are woefully incomplete, but his pitching helped the Kansas City Monarchs win Negro League Pennants in 1923, 1924, 1925, 1929 and 1937 -- including as player-manager in 1929. He is in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Honorable Mention to Steve Little of Overland Park. In 1977, playing for the University of Arkansas, he kicked a 67-yard field goal, tying the record set just 2 weeks earlier by Russell Erxleben of Texas.
Honorable Mention to Joe Williams of Wichita. In 1978, playing for Wichita State, he kicked a 67-yard field goal to tie the NCAA record. He never played in the NFL, but the other 2 who kicked a 67-yarder should have been so lucky: Both flopped in the NFL, Erxleben is now in prison for securities fraud for the 2nd time, and Little was paralyzed in a 1980 car crash and died in 1999.
Honorable Mention to Jim Bausch of Wichita. At the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, he won the Gold Medal in the decathlon, and received the James E. Sullivan Memorial Award as the nation's outstanding amateur athlete.
Honorable Mention to Glenn Cunningham of Elkhart. He won the 1933 Sullivan Award. In 1934, he set a world record in the mile run: 4 minutes, 6.8 seconds, helping to popularize the idea that it could be done in under 4 minutes. Although his record stood for 2 years, it would not be until 1954 that the 1st sub-4 mile would be achieved. His only Olympic Medal was Silver, in the 1,500 meters in Berlin in 1936.
Honorable Mention to Jackie Stiles of KCK. In the 2000-01 season, playing at the school now known as Missouri State University, she became the 1st women's college basketball player to score over 1,000 points in a season. She was thus awarded the Honda-Broderick Cup as the outstanding female collegiate athlete of the schoolyear.
She was a WNBA All-Star as a rookie with the 2001 Portland Fire, and is now back at Missouri State, as head coach.
Honorable Mention to Yankee World Series Winners from Kansas: Ralph Houk of Lawrence (backup catcher 1947, 1952 and 1953; coach 1958; manager 1961 and 1962), Mike Torrez of Topeka (1977) and Paul Lindblad of Chanute (1978, also won with the 1973 Oakland Athletics).
Now, the Top 10:
10. Joe Tinker of KCK. The shortstop is one of the most dubious elections to the Baseball Hall of Fame, elected with his double-play partners, 2nd baseman Johnny Evers and 1st baseman Frank Chance, in the only multiple entry in Cooperstown history.
However, he did succeed Honus Wagner as the best shortstop in baseball, helping win 5 Pennants for Chicago: The National League with the Cubs in 1906, 1907, 1908 and 1910; and the Federal League with the Whales in 1915.
9. Jim Ryun of Wichita. In 1966, he set the world record for the mile run: 3 minutes, 51.3 seconds. That year, he won the James E. Sullivan Memorial Award as the outstanding amateur athlete in America, and Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year award. A year later, he lowered the record to 3:51.1, and continued to hold the record until 1975. He also held the world record for 1,500 meters from 1967 to 1974. However, his only Olympic Medal was a Silver in the 1,500 at Mexico City in 1968.
8. Jess Willard of St. Clere. He was 6-foot-6 1/2 and about 270 pounds. Certainly, a heavyweight. Had he fought Jack Johnson before April 5, 1915, he surely would not have beaten him to become Heavyweight Champion of the World. But, by that point, Johnson was 37, and tired of running from American law, and ready to give up, and "The Pottawatomie Giant" fulfilled the dream of American racists, becoming "The Great White Hope."
World War I meant that he had only 1 official title defense before Jack Dempsey destroyed him in Toledo on the 4th of July 1919. And he probably wouldn't have been able to handle any of the great heavyweights who followed Dempsey, either. Nevertheless, he was the Heavyweight Champ for 4 years, and was elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
7. William Roy "Link" Lyman of McDonald. A 2-way tackle, standing 6-foot-2 and weighing 233 pounds, he was a huge University of Nebraska lineman long before that was cool. To put it another way: He was about the same size as Bronko Nagurski, but reached the NFL a few years earlier.
A 5-time All-Pro, he helped the Canton Bulldogs win 3 straight NFL Championships, in 1922, 1923 and 1924. He also played for the Chicago Bears, along with Nagurski and Red Grange, and won another Championship in 1933.
At the time of his retirement, his 286 games played was a record -- and he played nearly every minute of all of those games. He later served as an assistant coach at Nebraska, and was an early inductee into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
6. Maurice Greene of KCK. At the 1999 World Championships of Track & Field, he set a new record for the 100 meters: 9.79 seconds, cleanly matching the drug-aided time of Ben Johnson at the 1988 Olympics. At the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, he won Gold Medals in the 100 meters (making him the unofficial "Fastest Man Alive" and anchoring the 4x100-meter relay. He won a Silver Medal in the relay and a Bronze Medal in the 100 at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. For 20 years now, he has held the world record in the 60-meter dash.
5. Lynette Woodard of Wichita. The all-time leading scorer in the history of women's college basketball, she was the 1st female basketball player at the University of Kansas to get her number retired, 31. She won the 1980-81 Honda-Broderick Cup.
She had no WNBA at that point in her career, and the U.S. boycotted the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. But she was a member of the team that won the 1984 Gold Medal in Los Angeles. Still with no U.S. league to play in, she played in Italy, until nepotism worked in her favor: A cousin of their former star Geese Ausbie, in 1986 she became the 1st woman to play for the Harlem Globetrotters.
She played for them until 1993, then began playing in Japan. When the WNBA was founded in 1997, despite being nearly 38 years old, she signed with the Cleveland Rockers, and played for the Detroit Shock in 1998. She is now a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame and the head coach of the women's basketball team at Winthrop University in the Charlotte suburb of Rock Hill, South Carolina.
4. Mike McCormack of KCK. An 8-time All-Pro, he won NFL Championships with the Cleveland Browns in 1954 and 1955. His coach, Paul Brown, said, "I consider McCormack the finest offensive tackle who ever played pro football." He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the Browns Ring of Honor.
He went into coaching, and although he failed as a head coach in Philadelphia in Baltimore, he helped the Washington Redskins win the 1972 NFC Championship. He was named the 1st general manager of the Carolina Panthers, and in just 5 years of work -- 2 seasons on the field -- he got the expansion team into the NFC Championship Game. He lived long enough to see a statue of him dedicated outside the Panthers' Bank of America Stadium.
3. John Riggins of Centralia. He wasn't pretty. He wasn't graceful. He wasn't tactful. He was just a great fullback. He helped the University of Kansas win the 1968 Big Eight Championship, then played 5 seasons for the Jets, and 4 for the Washington Redskins.
Then he held out for the entire 1980 season, and returned, saying, "I'm bored, I'm broke, and I'm back." Good thing he did, because, 2 years later, he was named Most Valuable Player of Super Bowl XVII, the Redskins' 1st NFL Championship in 40 years.
He only played in 1 Pro Bowl, in 1975, but in 1983, he set an NFL record with 24 rushing touchdowns, and won the Bert Bell Award as NFL MVP, helping the Redskins get into Super Bowl XVIII, although they lost. He rushed for 11,352 yards and 104 touchdowns. He was named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the Redskins Ring of Fame, and the NFL's 1980s All-Decade Team.
But he's not the best running back from Kansas. This guy might've been the best running back from anywhere:
2. Barry Sanders of Wichita. Red Grange played his last game in 1934, Elroy "Crazylegs" Hirsch his in 1957, Frank Gifford in 1964, and Gale Sayers in 1971. I can watch film of these twisting, turning, seemingly impossible-to-catch running backs, and marvel at their feats, but I was not contemporary to their feats.
In contrast, I saw Barry Sanders' entire career as it unfolded, and I'm not sure he was human. What Bill Cosby -- back when we still liked and admired him -- said of Sayers, I say of Sanders: He seemed to be an amoeba, splitting in two when a tackler went after him, and coming back together to finish his run.
He was only 5-foot-8, but he won the 1988 Heisman Trophy at Oklahoma State University. In 2008, ESPN named ranked him 2nd only to Grange on their list of the Top 25 College Football Players of All Time. He played 10 seasons with the Detroit Lions, and made the Pro Bowl in all of them. He was NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year in 1989, and MVP in 1991 and 1997. He rushed for 15,269 yards and 99 touchdowns, and added 352 receptions for 2,921 yards and 10 touchdowns.
And then, in 1999, just 1,457 yards short of Walter Payton's all-time record, and about to turn 31 so he was in his prime and could've broken the record that year, he retired. Maybe it was the right decision: We've seen so many players suffer from arthritis due to the constant pounding their bodies took, and from dementia from blows to the head, including the aforementioned Sayers.
The Lions retired his Number 20 (a joint ceremony with Lem Barney and Barry's fellow Heisman Trophy winner, Billy Sims of arch-rival Oklahoma). He was named to the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame -- making him the shortest player in Canton -- and the NFL's 1990s All-Decade Team. In 1999, The Sporting News listed him 12th on their list of the 100 Greatest Football Players. In 2010, the NFL Network ranked him 17th on their list of the 100 Greatest Players.
1. Walter Johnson of Humboldt. Although he went to high school in Fullerton, Orange County, California, the family was 14 when it left Kansas, so, clearly, he learned to play baseball in that State on the Great Plains. And he's on the short list for the title of Greatest Pitcher Who Ever Lived.
This photo has been colorized. As far as I know,
no originally-color photo of the Big Train exists.
As Lawrence Ritter and Donald Honig put it in their 1981 book The 100 Greatest Players In Baseball History, "He had only one pitch, a fastball -- but what a fastball!" He used it to build statistics that simply don't look real, and to build a reputation such that, in a 1916 game, Ray Chapman of the Cleveland Indians, doomed to become the only MLB player to die as a result of an on-field injury, walked away from an at-bat. The umpire told him he had 1 strike left, and he said, "Take it. I don't want it."
"The Big Train" debuted in 1907, and won 417 games, 2nd-most behind Cy Young, and the most in American League history. And he did this for the Washington Senators, who, even in his day, were known as "First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League." He had a 2.17 career ERA, a 147 ERA+ -- so his greatness wasn't just a result of the Dead Ball Era -- and a 1.061 WHIP.
He had 3,508 strikeouts. Not only did that stand as a record from 1921, when he surpassed the 2,803 of Cy Young, until 1983, when Nolan Ryan surpassed him, but, from July 22, 1923, when he surpassed the 3,000-strikeout barrier, until July 17, 1974, when Bob Gibson also did, he was the only member of the 3,000 Strikeouts Club. While his strikeout record has now been surpassed by 8 pitchers, his record of 110 shutouts has never been approached. (Grover Cleveland Alexander is next-best with 90.)
He led the AL in wins 6 times, ERA 5 times, and strikeouts 12 times. He led the League in all 3 -- the Pitching Triple Crown -- in 1913, 1918 and 1924. In 1913, he went 36-7, with a 1.14 ERA -- an ERA+ of 259, meaning he was 159 percent better at preventing earned runs than the average pitcher that season. He pitched a no-hitter in 1920. It took until 1924 for the Senators to win a Pennant, and, after losing 2 games in the Series, he came on in relief in Game 7 and was the winning pitcher. He won another Pennant with the Senators in 1925.
His last game was on September 30, 1927. It was the game in which Babe Ruth set a new record with his 60th home run of the season. Oddly, Johnson came on as a pinch-hitter. He was a decent hitter by pitchers' standards, batting .235 with 24 home runs and 255 RBIs in 21 seasons.
In 1936, he was 1 of the 1st 5 players elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Sadly, his wife Hazel died of heatstroke in 1930, and he died of a brain tumor in 1946, only 59 years old. A monument to him was erected outside the Senators' Griffith Stadium, and moved to Walter Johnson High School when it was established in 1956 in the suburb of Bethesda, Maryland, where Johnson lived. A statue of him stands outside Nationals Park in Washington.
In 1999, The Sporting News ranked him 4th on their list of the 100 Greatest Players, 1st among pitchers, and trailing only Babe Ruth, Willie Mays and Ty Cobb among all players. That same year, 82 years after he threw his last professional pitch, he was still familiar enough to fans for them to vote him onto the Major League Baseball All-Century Team.
Washington Post baseball columnist Thomas Boswell said it best: "We live in a disposable society. But we don't dispose of Babe Ruth. We don't dispose of Walter Johnson. We view these men as friends, and as contemporaries though they are dead."