Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Top 10 Athletes From Oregon

February 14, 1859: Oregon is admitted to the Union as the 33rd State.

Top 10 Athletes From Oregon

Honorable Mention to these Yankee World Champions from Oregon: Joe Gordon of Portland, the 1942 American League Most Valuable Player, who won 3 World Series with the Yankees (1938, '39 and '41) and another with the Cleveland Indians (1948), eventually elected to the Hall of Fame; Bill Bevens of Hubbard, who came within 1 out of pitching the 1st no-hitter in World Series history only to lose Game 4 of the 1947 World Series, but came back to pitch scoreless relief in Game 7 and help the Yankees win the title; Scott Brosius of McMinnville, whose MVP performance in the 1998 World Series was the 1st of 4 straight Pennants and 3 straight Series he won as the Yankees' 3rd baseman; and Brian Bruney, a pitcher who helped win the 2009 World Series, and the 1st Yankee to wear Number 99, now held by Aaron Judge.

Honorable Mention to these other Baseball Players: Johnny Pesky of Portland, the shortstop known as Mr. Red Sox; Larry Jansen of Verboort, a 2-time All-Star whose pitching helped the New York Giants win the 1951 National League Pennant, including the clincher won by Bobby Thomson's home run, and the 1954 World Series; Mickey Lolich of Portland, the longtime Detroit Tigers lefthander whose 3 wins, including Game 7 on 2 days' rest, made him the 1968 World Series MVP, and whose 2,832 strikeouts made him the career leader among lefthanders when he retired; Dave Kingman, a one-dimensional player, but whose 442 career home runs made him Oregon's all-time leader, and some of them were of tremendous distance; and Wally Backman of Hillsboro and the 1986 Mets.

Honorable Mention to these Football Players: Arnie Weinmeister of Portland, a defensive tackle for the Giants; Dave Wilcox of Vale, a 7-time Pro Bowl linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers; Jerry Smith of Eugene, a 2-time Pro Bowl tight end who made the Washington Redskins' Ring of Fame, but was a closeted gay man who, in 1986, became the 1st professional athlete to die of AIDS; Ahmad Rashad of Portland, a 4-time Pro Bowl receiver named to the Minnesota Vikings Ring of Honor, now better known as a basketball announcer; and Todd Christensen of Eugene, a 5-time Pro Bowl tight end who won 2 Super Bowls with the Raiders, XV in Oakland and XVIII in Los Angeles.

Weinmeister and Wilcox are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and good cases can be made for each of the others.

Honorable Mention to Danny Ainge of Eugene. The most recent man to play in both Major League Baseball and the NBA, he was considerably better in the latter. A good-field-no-hit infielder, he played for the Toronto Blue Jays in the 1979, '80 and '81 seasons, and his lifetime batting average was .220.

He joined the Boston Celtics just after their 1981 NBA Championship season, and had a hard time under coach Bill Fitch. Fitch's replacement, K.C. Jones, got the most out of him, including 2 NBA titles in 1984 and 1986, and an All-Star season in 1988. He also reached the Finals with the Celtics in 1985 and 1987, the Portland Trail Blazers in 1992, and the Phoenix Suns in 1993 -- 6 Finals, 2 titles. He later coached the Suns, and since 2003 has been the Celtics' general manager, building the team that won the 2008 NBA Championship -- their only title since the retirement of Red Auerbach.

Brigham Young University has retired his Number 22, but the Celtics have not yet retired his Number 44. It is likely that he will be elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame as a "Contributor," as he wasn't quite good enough as a player and certainly not as a coach, but he'd have to retire from operating the Celtics first. About to turn 59 and having successfully rebuilt the team to contending status, that doesn't seem likely to happen anytime soon.

Honorable Mention to A.C. Green of Portland. The initials don't stand for anything: He was born A.C. Green Jr. He was the 1984 Pac-10 Conference basketball Player of the Year, and has been named to the Pac-12 Hall of Honor. Oregon State has retired his Number 45.

He also wore that number with the Los Angeles Lakers, whom he helped win NBA Championships in 1987 and 1988. He was a 1990 NBA All-Star. After moving on to Phoenix and Dallas, he returned to the Lakers and won another title in 2000.

He missed 3 games in his 1st season, 1986-87. He played for the Lakers on November 19, 1986, and closed out the regular season on April 18, 2001, for the Miami Heat. He never missed a game in between, an NBA record 1,192 straight games. He remains the only NBA player to play in 1,000 consecutive games.

Honorable Mention to Jere Gillis of Bend. He scored 78 goals, mostly with the Vancouver Canucks, from 1977 to 1987. The other 4 Oregon natives to make the NHL, combined? 5.

Dishonorable Mention to Steve Prefontaine of Coos Bay. One of the many track & field legends at the University of Oregon, he ran a few sub-4-minute miles, and on May 29, 1975, he held every American outdoor track record between 2,000 and 10,000 meters. But the closest he came to international success was a Gold Medal in the 5,000 meters at the 1971 Pan American Games. His best Olympic finish was 4th in that event in Munich in 1972.

So what's the big deal? Why were 2 movies (Prefontaine, starring Jared Leto, in 1997; and Without Limits, starring Billy Crudup, the next year) made about this guy who really didn't achieve all that much? Because he died young, in a drunken-driving crash, only 24 years old, 14 months before the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, where he would have challenged 1972 Gold Medalist Lasse Viren of Finland in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters. (Instead, Viren won both again.)

Along with Pelle Lindbergh, he is the best-known athlete to die from drunk driving in North America. His fame is helped, although his reputation is not, by the fact that he was the 1st athlete to endorse Nike sporting goods.

Now, the Top 10:

10. Bill Johnson of Brightwood. Born in Los Angeles (which isn't exactly a Winter sports center), grew up in Boise (which is), but learned to ski in Oregon, so this is where I've listed him. For all the fuss made over Phil and Steve, the Mahre twins, at the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia (now in Bosnia), it was Johnson who won the feature event of the Winter Games, the downhill race.

But life would not be kind to him. He battled depression, and became a disciplinary problem to the U.S. Ski Team. A son died, his marriage broke up, and he went bankrupt. He felt he had little choice but to make a comeback, but a race crash in 2001 left him with terrible injuries including brain damage. A stroke in 2010 made things worse, and he finally died in 2016, 55, but his life was effectively over at 41. He was the Tony Conigliaro of Winter sports.

9. Dick Fosbury of Portland. Most of the track & field legends from the Beaver State come from the University of Oregon, the Ducks. He came from Oregon State, the Beavers. He's not the greatest athlete on this list, but he is the most influential -- much more so than Prefontaine.

Up until the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, high-jumpers used what was known as the scissors kick, throwing a front leg over the bar, and then the rest of the body. This was the most advisable way to do it, as, like long-jumpers, they landed in a pit of sand. He couldn't clear 5 feet, the minimum standard in Oregon high school track at the time, using the scissors kick.

But the advent of foam-rubber landing surfaces made it possible for Dick to invent "the Fosbury Flop": Just before reaching the bar, he would turn his back to the bar, push up with both legs, go over, and land head and shoulders first, which would have been deadly with the sand pits. At the 1968 Olympics, he won the Gold Medal with a jump of 7 feet, 4 1/4 inches, an Olympic record.

He was just 21 1/2 years old, but he had changed the sports world: For half a century, everyone has done the Flop. He remains involved in track & field, and in 2014 ran for the Idaho State House as a Democrat, but lost.

8. Terry Baker of Portland. A 3-sport athlete, he led Jefferson High School to a City Championship in basketball, a State Championship in baseball, and a 23-0 record and 2 State Championships in football.

Lots of great athletes peak in high school. He didn't. A lefthander, rare for a quarterback in those days (and not especially common now), he led Oregon State to a 7-2 regular-season record. He was awarded the Heisman Trophy. In the 1962 Liberty Bowl, he became the 1st college football player known to have run 99 yards for a touchdown, a record that can be tied, but never broken.

Sports Illustrated named him Sportsman of the Year in 1962, making him the only Heisman winner to also win that. Oregon State retired his Number 11, and he was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame.

He then led the Beavers' basketball team to the Semifinal of the 1963 NCAA Tournament, making him, to this day, the only man to both win the Heisman Trophy and play in the NCAA Final Four. He then quarterbacked the graduated collegians to a 20-17 victory over the Green Bay Packers in the Chicago College All-Star Game at Soldier Field, This turned out to be the last time the college side beat the defending NFL Champions. (The game was canceled after the 1976 edition.)

He was the top pick in the 1963 NFL Draft, by the Los Angeles Rams. But that made no sense, as the Rams already had the veteran Zeke Bratkowski and the young, exciting Roman Gabriel. He played 3 seasons with the Rams, throwing 4 interceptions and no touchdown passes. After another season with the Edmonton Eskimos, he quit, having gotten his law degree at USC while (not) playing for the Rams, and became one of the top lawyers in Oregon.

7. Tiffeny Milbrett of Hillsboro. A forward, she was a member of the U.S. women's soccer team that won the Gold Medal at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, and the 1999 Women's World Cup. Sports Illustrated awarded her and her teammates Sportswomen of the Year by  in 1999.

In the 1st season of the now-defunct Women's United Soccer Association (2001), she played for the Long Island-based New York Power and won the league's Most Valuable Player award.

6. Dale Murphy of Portland. He started out as a catcher, but he couldn't make it there, so he was moved to center field. Good move: He became a 7-time All-Star, and a 5-time Gold Glove winner. But it's his hitting that he's best known for. He led the National League in RBIs in 1982 and 1983, winning the Most Valuable Player both seasons. He led the NL in home runs in 1984 and 1985.

He was also known for his charitable image. In 1987, Sports Illustrated named him as 1 of 8 "Athletes Who Care" that shared their Sportspeople of the Year award. With the Philadelphia Phillies in 1991, he posed in a spotless uniform next to a dirt-spotted Lenny Dykstra in an ad for the Phillies' team charities, labeled, "Dr. Dirt and Mr. Clean."

He had bad luck as far as the postseason goes, though, only reaching it once, with the 1982 Atlanta Braves. The Braves just missed another NL Western Division title in 1983. In 1990, he was traded, and the Braves started winning in 1991. They had traded him to the Phillies, who lost him in the 1993 expansion draft -- and then won the Pennant without him. After a season as an original 1993 Colorado Rockie, he retired.

He hit 398 home runs, more than such renowned sluggers as Joe DiMaggio, Frank Howard, Jim Rice and Joe Carter, and 1 less than Al Kaline. His 1,266 RBIs are the most of any Oregon-born or -trained player. The Braves retired his Number 3. But he has not been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Maybe if the Phillies had hung onto him, he could have gone out a World Champion, or at least a Pennant winner, and that would have made the difference.

5. Mel Renfro of Portland. The University of Oregon star made 10 Pro Bowls as a cornerback for the Dallas Cowboys. He had 52 career interceptions, and led the NFL in 1969. He appeared in 8 NFL or NFC Championship Games, and won Super Bowls VI and XII, the latter, in 1978, his last game.

The Cowboys don't retire numbers, so his Number 20 remains in circulation. But they elected him to their Ring of Honor, and he is a member of the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame.

4. Don Schollander of Lake Oswego. The Oregon State University star won 4 Gold Medals, setting 3 world records, at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo. That year he was awarded the Sullivan Award. He later went into coaching, writing books about swimming, and real estate.

3. Aaron Rodgers of Beaverton. Although born in California, and returning there for high school, Oregon was where his sports career began. The quarterback for the Green Bay Packers is a 6-time Pro Bowler, and was named NFL MVP in 2011 and 2014.

Although still active, so these records could be lost, he currently holds the records for highest passer rating in a career, 104.0; and highest touchdown-to-interception ratio in a career: 313 to 78, or 4.13 to 1. In 2011, he set the single-season record for passer rating: 122.5. More importantly, in the 2010 season, he led the Packers to win Super Bowl XLV, in which he was named MVP.

He's 34 years old, so he could have a few good seasons left. If he retired today, he would already be a lock for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. If he helps the Packers win another title, and I do these lists again in 5 years, he would be Number 1 for Oregon.

2. Ashton Eaton of Bend. There are 3 men who've won the Olympic decathlon twice: Bob Mathias of the U.S. in 1948 and 1952, Daley Thompson of Britain in 1980 and 1984, and Eaton. He won the event in London in 2012, and in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. He remains the world recordholder in the event.

But the man at Number 1 is so identified with Texas, having been born there, and having played there both collegiately and professionally, that it's hard to imagine him coming from any other State:

1. Bob Lilly of Pendleton. The family had to leave Texas due to a severe drought, and Oregon was where he learned how to play football. He went back to Texas to play at Texas Christian University (TCU) in Fort Worth, where he was an All-American defensive tackle in 1960.

The new Dallas Cowboys drafted him, and he made 11 Pro Bowls. He put the Cowboys' original "Doomsday Defense" on his back, and got them into 6 NFL or NFL Championship Games, losing Super Bowl V and winning Super Bowl VI.
Like the aforementioned Mel Renfro, "Mr. Cowboy" was named to the Cowboys Ring of Honor, the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame, and the NFL's 1960s and 1970s All-Decade Team and its 75th Anniversary Team. The Cowboys do not retire numbers, but no other Cowboy has worn his Number 74.

In 1999, The Sporting News listed him 10th on their list of the 100 Greatest Football Players, the highest-ranking defensive lineman, and behind only Dick Butkus and Lawrence Taylor among all defensive players. In 2010, the NFL Network ranked him 26th on their list of the 100 Greatest Players.

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