March is also the traditional month for baseball's Spring Training in Florida.
Top 10 Athletes From Florida
Dishonorable Mention to Baseball Steroid Cheats: Gary Sheffield and Luis Gonzalez of Tampa, Bronson Arroyo of the Tampa suburb of Brooksville; and Jose Canseco, Rafael Palmeiro, and, of course, Alex Rodriguez, of Miami.
Dishonorable Mention to these 2004 Boston Red Sox who, before it was revealed that some of them had cheated, were named Sportspeople of the Year by Sports Illustrated: Arroyo, Tim Wakefield of Melbourne, Mark Bellhorn of the Orlando suburb of Oviedo, Doug Mientkiewicz of Miami, Johnny Damon of Orlando and Jason Varitek of the Orlando suburb of Altamonte Springs. (Of these, only Arroyo has confessed.)
And also to Mike Lowell of South Miami, who didn't get to the Sox until the 2007 tainted title, and won the World Series Most Valuable Player.
Honorable Mention to a trio of Racehorses. Dr. Fager of Tartan Stable in Ocala, outside Florida, was not entered in the 1967 Triple Crown races due to illness, but won several stakes races over the next 2 years, including winning the Washington Park Handicap at Arlington Park outside Chicago. Despite carrying 134 pounds, 8 pounds over the limit for the Triple Crown races, he won the mile race in 1 minutes, 32.4 seconds, which remains the record for a horse race of 1 mile.
Affirmed of Harbor View Farm, also outside Ocala, won the Triple Crown in 1978, the last Triple Crown winner for 37 years. And Winning Colors of Echo Valley Farm, also outside Orlando, became the 3rd and most recent filly to win the Kentucky Derby, in 1988.
Honorable Mention to John Pennel of the Miami suburb of Coral Gables. In 1963, he became the 1st man to pole-vault 17 feet, and received the James M. Sullivan Award as the best American amateur athlete of the year. But a back injury prevented him from medaling at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo. He was also a decent long-jumper, achieving a best of 23 feet, 4 5/8ths inches. Aside from those who specifically train for the decathlon, there haven't been many athletes who can do both of those well.
Honorable Mention to Kurt Thomas of Miami. Having won the 1979 Sullivan Award, he was supposed to do for men's gymnastics what Cathy Rigby, Olga Korbut and Nadia Comaneci did for the women's side of it. But he never achieved Olympic glory, not being ready for Montreal in 1976, being denied by the boycott of Moscow in 1980, and being too old for Los Angeles in 1984, even though the U.S. men won the all-around title anyway.
This Kurt Thomas, white, is not related to the considerably younger black Dallas native of the same name who helped the Knicks reach the 1999 NBA Finals.
Honorable Mention to Ambrose "Rowdy" Gaines of Winter Haven. Like Kurt Thomas, he lost his Olympic chance in Moscow in 1980. Unlike Thomas, he got another chance at Los Angeles in 1984, taking 3 Gold Medals: The 100-meter freestyle, and 2 as part of U.S. relay teams.
Honorable Mention to Nancy Hogshead of Jacksonville. She matched Gaines at Los Angeles, with Gold Medals in the women's 100-meter freestyle and 2 relays, and added a Silver Medal.
Honorable Mention to Doris Hart of the Miami suburb of Coral Gables. She was the 1st tennis player -- there have been only 3, all women -- to have "the Box Set" of Grand Slam titles: Every possible title (singles, doubles and mixed doubles), from all 4 majors: The Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. She achieved this by winning women's singles and mixed doubles at the 1955 U.S. Open. Overall, she won 6 individual majors from 1948 to 1955.
Honorable Mention to Jim Courier of the Tampa suburb of Dade City. (Despite having the same name as Miami's Country, it's in Pasco County, north of Tampa and St. Petersburg.) He won the French Open in 1991, the Australian Open in 1993, and both in 1992. But he was 0-1 in Finals at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.
Honorable Mention to Glen Johnson of Miami. The Jamaica native didn't start boxing until he was 20 years old, but won his 1st 32 fights, before losing to Bernard Hopkins in 1997. In 2004, he became the 3rd fighter to beat Roy Jones Jr., knocking him out. In his next fight, he beat the 2nd man to beat Jones, Antonio Tarver, to become the IBF Light Heavyweight Champion, winning The Ring magazine Fighter of the Year.
He is not related to the Glen Johnson who played right back for English soccer team Liverpool.
Honorable Mention to Danielle Fotopoulos of the Orlando suburb of Altamonte Springs. A forward, she was a member of the U.S. team that won the 1999 Women's World Cup, joining her teammates in being named Sportswomen of the Year by Sports Illustrated.
Honorable Mention to Ashlyn Harris of Satellite Beach. Now the starting goalkeeper for the Orlando Pride, and usually for the U.S. women's team, she was Hope Solo's backup on the 2015 Women's World Cup winners.
Honorable Mention to these players who won World Series with the Yankees: Lou Piniella of Tampa (1977 and 1978), Mickey Rivers of Miami (1977 and 1978), Bucky Dent of the Miami suburb of Hialeah (1977 and 1978), Mike Heath of Tampa (1978), Wade Boggs of Tampa (1996), Kenny Rogers of the Tampa suburb of Dover (1996), Tim Raines of the Orlando suburb of Sanford (1996 and 1998), Dwight Gooden of Tampa (1996 Yankees), Tino Martinez of Tampa (1996, 1998, 1999 and 2000 Yankees),
Honorable Mention to these Baseball Hall-of-Famers who did not otherwise make the Top 10: Boggs; Andre Dawson of Miami; Don Sutton of the Pensacola suburb of Molino; Chipper Jones of the Orlando suburb of Pierson; and, elected as managers, Al Lopez and Tony La Russa, both of Tampa. Fred McGriff of Tampa should be in.
Honorable Mention to Buck O'Neill of Carabelle, the Negro League legend who should be in the Hall of Fame, but isn't. In 2006, shortly before his death, George W. Bush awarded him the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Honorable Mention to these World Series MVPs: Pat Borders of Lake Wales (1992), David Eckstein of the Orlando suburb of Sanford (2006) and Wade Davis of Lake Wales (2015).
Honorable Mention to Dr. Dorothy "Dot" Richardson of Orlando. A shortstop, she led the softball team at UCLA to the 1982 National Championship, and the U.S. team to Olympic Gold Medals in Atlanta in 1996 and Sydney in 2000. She is now an orthopedist, and the head softball coach at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia -- Jerry Falwell's "school."
Honorable Mention to these Heisman Trophy Winners: Danny Wuerffel of the Pensacola suburb of Fort Walton Beach (1996), Tim Tebow of Jacksonville (2007, also won the James M. Sullivan Award for the outstanding American amateur athlete of the year), Derrick Henry of the Jacksonville suburb of Yulee (2015) and Lamar Jackson of the Miami suburb of Boynton Beach (2016).
Steve Spurrier, who won the 1966 Heisman at the University of Florida, and then coached Wuerffel, Tebow, and a few other quarterbacks who came close to winning the Heisman, grew up in Tennessee, and thus qualifies there.
Honorable Mention to these Pro Football Hall-of-Famers who did not otherwise make the Top 10: Pete Pihos of Orlando, Larry Little of Miami, Ted Hendricks of Miami Springs, Jack Youngblood of the Panhandle town of Monticello, Derrick Thomas of Miami, Michael Irvin of the Miami-Fort Lauderdale suburb of Sunrise, Warren Sapp of the Orlando suburb of Apopka, and Derrick Brooks of Pensacola.
In 1999, The Sporting News named their 100 Greatest Football Players. Of the players mentioned above, Hendricks came in 64th and Little 79th. In 2010, the NFL Network named its 100 Greatest Players. Little didn't make it. Nor did Sapp. But Hendricks came in 82nd, Irvin 92nd and Brooks 97th.
Honorable Mention to these Super Bowl Most Valuable Players who did not otherwise make the Top 10: Ottis Anderson of the Miami suburb of West Palm Beach (XXV), Dexter Jackson of the Panhandle town of Quincy (XXXVII) and Santonio Holmes of the Miami-Palm Beach suburb of Belle Glade (XLIII). Anderson should be in the Hall of Fame.
Honorable Mention to these Football stars: Arnold Tucker of Miami (quarterback of Army's 1945 and 1946 National Champions, won the 1946 Sullivan Award), Willie Galimore of St. Augustine (star running back of Chicago Bears' 1963 NFL Champions, then killed in a car crash), Lawrence Tynes of the Pensacola suburb of Milton (kicker on the Giants' Super Bowl XLII and XLVI winners), Anquan Boldin of the Miami/Palm Beach suburb of Pahokee, and Andre Johnson of Miami.
Honorable Mention to Sebastian Janikowski of Daytona Beach. Born in Poland, where he'd played soccer, his family came to America, and that's where he learned our "football." At 6-foot-1 and 265 pounds, he looked more like a defensive tackle than a placekicker, but he's kicked Florida State to the 1993 National Championship and the Oakland Raiders to the 2002 AFC Championship.
His 268 games are the most in Raider history, and he made 98.9 percent of his extra point attempts and 80.4 percent of his field goal attempts, including a 63-yarder against the Denver Broncos on September 12, 2011, which tied what was then the NFL record.
Honorable Mention to Matt Prater of Estero. On December 8, 2013, with the Denver Broncos, he set a new NFL record by kicking a 64-yard field goal, against the Tennessee Titans at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. He also set a new NFL record for extra points in a season, with 75. He now kicks for the Detroit Lions.
Honorable Mention to these Basketball stars: Darryl Dawkins of Orlando, Vernon Maxwell of Gainesville, Jeff Turner of the Tampa suburb of Brandon (Gold Medal in the 1984 Olympics), Mitch Richmond of the Miami/Fort Lauderdale suburb of Lauderdale Lakes, and Tracy McGrady of the Tampa suburb of Bartow.
There have been 10 NHL players born in Florida. Shayne Gostisbehere of the Miami suburb of Pembroke Pines and the Philadelphia Flyers has 129 career points. The other 9, combined, have only 173.
Now, the Top 10:
10. Vince Carter of Daytona Beach. You didn't realize he was still playing, did you? He might never make the Basketball Hall of Fame, because he might never stop playing.
He was Dean Smith's last great recruit for the University of North Carolina, helping them reach the NCAA Final Four in 1997 (Smith's last season) and 1998 (Bill Guthridge's 1st season). He was drafted by the Toronto Raptors, and was named NBA Rookie of the Year in 1999.
His dunks earned him the nicknames "Vinsanity" and, after the airline that owned the naming rights to the Raptors' arena, "Air Canada." In 2001, he led the Raps to their 1st-ever Playoff series win -- unfortunately for people around here, it was over the Knicks.
He helped the New Jersey Nets win the Atlantic Division title in 2006, still the now-Brooklyn franchise's last 1st-place finish. With the Devils having moved to the Prudential Center in 2007, he was the last star athlete at the Meadowlands Arena (by then named the IZOD Center). He helped the Orlando Magic win the 2010 Southeast Division title. And he helped the Memphis Grizzlies win a Playoff series in 2015. But he's never won a title: The closest he's come is getting to the Dallas Mavericks just after their 2011 NBA Championship.
He now plays for the Sacramento Kings, and, at age 41, is still capable of some aerial wizardry. I considered putting Tracy McGrady in this Top 10. He and Carter are distant cousins. To put that in perspective: Tracy is 2 years younger, but last played in the NBA in 2012, and is already in the Hall of Fame.
9. Frank Gore of Miami. He is to the NFL what Eddie Murray was to baseball: You don't realize how great he is until you see his stats, which are too notable to damn him with the faint praise of "a guy who hung around a long time amassing a lot of stats."
A 5-time Pro Bowler, his 14,026 rushing yards and counting ranks him 5th all-time. The NFL has been around for almost 100 years now, and the only men who have more rushing yards than Frank Gore are Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton, Barry Sanders and Curtis Martin -- and Gore's 4.3 yards per carry are better than Smith's 4.2 and Martin's 4.0, and not far behind Payton's 4.4. (Sanders had 5.0, 2nd only to Jim Brown's 5.2)
He has also caught 443 passes for 3,672 yards. In rushing and receiving combined, he has scored 94 touchdowns. He helped the San Francisco 49ers win the 2012 NFC Championship, and now plays for the Indianapolis Colts. He'll be 35 when the next season starts, and shows no sign of slowing down.
8. Roy Jones Jr. of Pensacola. George Foreman said, "He hits like a heavyweight and moves like a lightweight." He first won a title in 1993, the IBF Middleweight Championship. He last held a title in 2004, the WBC Light Heavyweight Championship. The Ring named him Fighter of the Year for 1994.
He won his 1st 34 fights before losing to Montell Griffin, and won the subsequent rematch. His victims also included Virgil Hill, Lou Del Valle and John Ruiz. He was 49-1, having just beat the aforementioned Antonio Tarver, before losing 3 straight fights, to Tarver, the aforementioned Glen Johnson, and Tarver again.
7. Bob Hayes of Jacksonville. The winner of the Olympic Gold Medal in the 100-meter dash is unofficially referred to as "The World's Fastest Human." In 1964, in Tokyo, that Medal was won by "Bullet Bob." He also anchored the U.S. team that won the Gold in the 4x100-meter relay.
The Dallas Cowboys took a chance on him and his speed, and it paid off, as he twice led the NFL in receiving touchdowns, and made 3 Pro Bowls. He helped them reach the NFL Championship Game in 1966 and 1967, and Super Bowl V after the 1970 season, but they lost them all. Finally, he was a part of their team that won Super Bowl VI. He caught 371 passes for 7,414 yards and 71 touchdowns. He also inspired several other teams to take chances on world-class sprinters, but none of them could catch passes as well as he could.
Unfortunately, he was one of many 1970s Cowboys who ran into trouble due to drug use, and it probably weakened his organs to the point that he died shortly before turning 60. It took another few years, but, finally, the Cowboys named him to their Ring of Honor, and he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The Cowboys do not retire numbers, but his Number 22 is no longer given out -- but that's not because of him. It's because of the man at Number 1 on this list.
6. Chris Evert of the Miami-Palm Beach suburb of Boca Raton. She began her career as a rival of Billie Jean King. She ended it as a rival of Martina Navratilova. She was briefly engaged to Jimmy Connors, and has married and divorced British tennis player John Lloyd, American ski racer Andy Mill, and Australian golf legend Greg Norman.
Put all that aside, and remember her in her own right. From 1974 to 1986, she won the French Open 7 times, the U.S. Open 6, Wimbledon 3 and the French Open 2, for a total of 18 majors. Sports Illustrated named her its 1976 Sportswoman of the Year -- making her the 1st woman they'd put ahead of all athletes of both genders. (Sort of: They'd honored Billie Jean in 1972, and, even then, they made her share the honor with a coach, John Wooden.)
5. Ray Lewis of the Tampa suburb of Lakeland. I don't know what happened that night in Atlanta, so I don't know what he did. He should still be presumed innocent until proven guilty, and all we know for sure what he is guilty of is trying to protect his friends from criminal prosecution. This assessment is about on-field performance.
Some performance. The linebacker made 13 Pro Bowls. He was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2000 and 2003. He helped the Baltimore Ravens win Super Bowls XXXV and XLVII, winning the game's Most Valuable Player award in the former and retiring a World Champion after the latter.
He is a new inductee into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, was named to the NFL's 2000s All-Decade Team, and came in 18th on the NFL Network's 100 Greatest Players. The Ravens do not officially retire numbers, but have not given his Number 52 back out since he retired. Inside M&T Bank Stadium, they have placed him on their Ring of Honor; outside it, along with Johnny Unitas of the city's previous team, the Colts, they dedicated a statue of him. A section of Baltimore's North Avenue has been named Ray Lewis Way.
4. Steve Carlton of Miami. It's a little odd that the greatest athlete from the Miami area isn't a football player. Here's something even odder: In 1981, it was joked, "The two best lefthanded pitchers in the National League don't speak English: Fernando Valenzuela and Steve Carlton." Fernando was a native of Mexico, was raised speaking only Spanish, and struggled with English. Carlton famously did not like talking to the media.
But his statistics do the talking for him. With the disclaimer that I am not old enough to have watched Rube Waddell, Lefty Grove, Warren Spahn or Sandy Koufax pitch, I can tell you that Steve Carlton is the best lefthanded pitcher I have ever seen. I take him ahead of Vida Blue, Ron Guidry, Tom Glavine, Randy Johnson, Andy Pettitte, CC Sabathia, Johan Santana and Clayton Kershaw.
He was a 10-time All-Star, and the 1st man to win the Cy Young Award at least 4 times: 1972, 1977, 1980 and 1982. He helped the St. Louis Cardinals win the 1967 World Series and the 1968 National League Pennant. In 1969, he struck out 19 Mets in a game, setting a new NL record and tying what was then the major league record -- but gave up 2 home runs to Ron Swoboda and lost 4-3. (It was that kind of year for the Mets.)
In 1972, the Cardinals traded him to the Philadelphia Phillies for Rick Wise. It might have been a good trade had the Cards kept Wise, but that's a story for another day. The Phillies stunk: In that 1972 season, he went 27-10, a 162-game pace for 118 wins; otherwise, they went 32-87, a pace for 117 losses. On days when he was scheduled to pitch, he told his teammates, "It's Win Day."
By 1976, the Phils had a lot more Win Days. He helped them begin a string of 8 seasons with 6 Playoff berths, and was the starting and winning pitcher in Game 6 of the 1980 World Series, the 1st title the Fightin' Phils ever won -- their ultimate Win Day. The 13 years between Series wins for Carlton remains a major league record.
In 1983, he and Nolan Ryan approached Walter Johnson's career record of 3,508 strikeouts. Ryan got there first, but, for a while, he and Ryan alternated as the all-time leader. Ryan finally pulled ahead, but Carlton finished with 4,136, which was a record for lefties until Randy Johnson surpassed it. He won 329 games, and Spahn is the only lefthander who has won more. He also picked 144 runners off base, and, as far as anyone can tell, that is a major league record. He bounced around a bit after the Phillies released him but managed to catch on with the Minnesota Twins in 1987, winning a 3rd World Series ring. His final record was 329-244.
He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in his 1st year of eligibility. The Phillies retired his Number 32, named him to the Philadelphia Baseball Wall of Fame, and dedicated a statue of him outside the left field corner at Citizens Bank Park. In 1999, The Sporting News listed him 30th on their list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players.
3. Deion Sanders of North Fort Myers. Only 1 human being who has ever lived has played in both a World Series and a Super Bowl. That is Deion Luywnn Sanders Sr. In 10 seasons in Major League Baseball, he was not exactly a great Yankee (playing for them in the 1989 and 1990 seasons), but made the postseason with the Atlanta Braves in 1991, '92 and '93. In 1992, he led the National League in triples and played in the World Series, although the Braves lost it. His lifetime batting average was .263, and he had 39 home runs and 186 stolen bases.
Suffice it to say that, despite the occasional flash of brilliance in baseball, he was better in football. Few men have ever been better in football. He was a good receiver and a really good kick returner, and there are people who think he was the greatest cornerback who ever lived, making 8 Pro Bowls.
He helped the Atlanta Falcons reach the 1991 NFC Playoffs, then signed with the San Francisco 49ers, won the NFL's 1994 Defensive Player of the Year, and helped them win Super Bowl XXIX. But it was just a 1-year deal, and he went to the Dallas Cowboys, winning Super Bowl XXX, becoming one of the few players to win Super Bowls in back-to-back years with different teams.
He had his unpleasant moments. His ego got on the nerves of people ranging from Carlton Fisk to myself. He brought Florida State's War Chant and Tomahawk Chop gesture to the Braves, which still annoys people to this day. He seemed to be one of the guys who believed Andre Agassi's motto "Image Is Everything." Fortunately, like Agassi, he figured out that it isn't everything -- and definitely not the only thing. (Certainly, he dresses better now.)
Florida State retired his Number 2. Although the Number 21 he wore for most of his career remains in circulation at all his teams, the Falcons elected him to their Ring of Honor. (The Cowboys, as yet, have not.) He was named to the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame, and the NFL's 1990s All-Decade Team. While still active, in 1999, The Sporting News listed him at 37th on their list of the 100 Greatest Football Players. In 2010, the NFL Network ranked him 34th on their 100 Greatest Players.
2. David "Deacon" Jones of the Orlando-area farm community of Eatonville. In 1958, he was playing football at South Carolina State University, a historically black school, when he and some of his teammates participated in a civil rights protest. Their scholarships were revoked. One of the assistant coaches was named head coach at Mississippi Vocational College, and took Deacon and the other students in.
Deacon is the only one of them we remember today, but no one will ever forget him. He was drafted by the Los Angeles Rams, forming the "Fearsome Foursome" defensive line with Merlin Olsen, Rosey Grier and Lamar Lundy. "The Secretary of Defense" made 8 Pro Bowls. In 1967 and 1968, he was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
He changed the game in 3 different ways. Because of him, at 6-foot-5 and 265 pounds, defensive ends were expected to be both big and fast. He was the original Reggie White. Because of him, the headslap -- slapping your hand on the earhole on an opponent's helmet -- was banned, and, given what we now know about head injuries, this was a good thing.
Most of all, he changed the terminology of the sport. He thought that defensive players needed a statistic. Until Deacon, tackling the quarterback behind the line of scrimmage was called nothing more than that: A tackle behind the line of scrimmage. He thought of tossing a burlap sack over the quarterback, and created the term "sack" for the action.
Although the NFL did not officially keep record of sacks until 1982, examination of game films suggests he had 173 1/2 for his career, which would have made him the all-time leader, although he would since have been surpassed by White and Bruce Smith.
He was named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the NFL's 1960s All-Decade and 75th Anniversary All-Time Teams. The Rams retired his Number 75. In 1999, The Sporting News ranked him 13th on their list of the 100 Greatest Football Players. In 2010, the NFL Network listed him 15th on their 100 Greatest Players. He lived long enough to see all these distinctions. When he died in 2013, the NFL instituted the Deacon Jones Award, given to the League leader in sacks.
1. Emmitt Smith of Pensacola. He rushed for 8,804 yards at that city's Escambia High School. At the time, it was the 2nd-most rushing yards of any high school football player, anywhere in the country. In 1989, he was the Southeastern Conference's Player of the Year at the University of Florida.
Is he the Gators' greatest player ever? If so, then it is with some irony that the return of a previous contender for that title, the man who became their greatest coach, Steve Spurrier, led Emmitt to consider how a pass-happy offense might change his pro prospects, so he forewent his senior year to enter the NFL Draft.
He was named NFL Rookie of the Year in 1990. He made 8 Pro Bowls. Before the 1992 season, no player had ever led the NFL in rushing and won the Super Bowl in the same season. With the Dallas Cowboys, Emmitt did it 3 times, winning Super Bowls XXVII, XXVIII and XXX, being named MVP in XXVIII. In the 1993 season, became the 1st, and remains the only, player ever to win the rushing title, the Bert Bell Award as regular-season MVP, and the Super Bowl MVP in the same season.
Neither UF nor the Cowboys officially retire numbers. While his Number 22 remains in circulation in Gainesville, the Cowboys have not given it out since he retired.