Sunday, May 6, 2018

Colorado's 10 Greatest Athletes

This weekend, the Mets are playing the Colorado Rockies.

Colorado's 10 Greatest Athletes

Honorable Mention to Denver Broncos in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, who did not otherwise make the Top 10: Willie Brown, Floyd Little and Gary Zimmerman.

Honorable Mention to Denver Nuggets in the Basketball Hall of Fame, who did not otherwise make the Top 10: Dan Issel, Alex English and Dikembe Mutombo.

Honorable Mention to Colorado Avalanche players in the Hockey Hall of Fame, who did not otherwise make the Top 10: Ray Bourque (no matter what he achieved, a year and a half is not enough to qualify) and Rob Blake.

Honorable Mention to the members of the Colorado Rapids Gallery of Honor: Marcelo Balboa, Paul Bravo, Chris Henderson, John Spencer, Pablo Mastroeni and Conor Casey.

10. David Thompson, forward, Denver Nuggets, 1975-82. Before there was Luke of Star Wars, Thompson was such an aerial basketball artist that he was called the Skywalker. He led the North Carolina State team that won the 1974 National Championship, and was National Player of the Year in 1975.

He then went to the Nuggets, leading them to the Finals in the ABA's last season, enough to get him named the league's last Rookie of the Year and to the ABA All-Time Team. They went into the NBA, where he was named a 4-time All-Star. On the last day of the 1978 regular season, he scored 73 points, at the time a record for any player other than Chamberlain.

Injuries and drugs would cut his career short. After getting clean, he got involved in youth programs. He became such a role model that no less than Michael Jordan asked him to give his induction speech at the Basketball Hall of Fame. Thompson was inducted himself in 1996. His Number 44 is the only one retired by N.C. State. Dan Issel was already wearing 44 on the Nuggets, so Thompson wore 33, and the Nuggets retired that number for him.

9. Larry Walker, right field, Colorado Rockies, 1995-2004. He also played for the Montreal Expos and the St. Louis Cardinals. Despite a .313 lifetime batting average, a 140 OPS+, 383 home runs (a lot hit in the thin air of Denver, though), 5 All-Star Games (4 with the Rockies), 7 Gold Gloves (5 with the Rockies), 3 batting titles (all with the Rockies), and the 1997 National League home run crown and Most Valuable Player award, he is not yet in the Baseball Hall of Fame, and he might never make it, except maybe through the Veterans Committee.

8. Peter Forsberg, center, Colorado Avalanche, 1995-2004, with returns in 2008 and 2011. In spite of injuries, including one that forced him to miss the 2001 Stanley Cup run, he made 3 All-Star Teams, won the Calder Memorial Trophy as NHL Rookie of the Year in 1995 (while the Avs were still the Quebec Nordiques), the Hart Memorial Trophy as Most Valuable Player and the Art Ross Trophy as leading scorer in 2003, and helped the Avs win the 1996 Stanley Cup.

The Avs retired his Number 21, and he was named to the Hockey Hall of Fame. In 2017, he was named to the NHL's 100th Anniversary 100 Greatest Players. He also led Sweden to Olympic Gold Medals in 1994 in Lillehammer, Norway; and in 2006 in Turin, Italy.

7. Todd Helton, 1st base, Colorado Rockies, 1997-2013. The 1st player to have his number retired by the Rockies (17), he had a .316 lifetime batting average and a 133 OPS+, and collected 2,519 hits, including 369 home runs. He made 5 All-Star Games, won 3 Gold Gloves, and led the NL in batting average and RBIs in 2000. He led the Rockies to their only Pennant so far, in 2007. He becomes eligible for the Baseball Hall of Fame next year.

6. Shannon Sharpe, tight end, Denver Broncos, 1990-99, with a return in 2002-03. Anyone who saw him on CBS' The NFL Today or with Skip Bayless on Fox Sports 1's Skip and Shannon: Undisputed won't be surprised to know that, even as a player, he was renowned for having a big mouth, trash-talking his way through a 14-season career that also included a Super Bowl win with the Baltimore Ravens. (Broncos and Ravens? Apparently, purple is Shannon's favorite color.)

He caught 815 passes for 10,060 yards and 62 touchdowns. He made 8 Pro Bowl teams, 7 with the Broncos. He hauled in enough passes from John Elway to help the Broncos win Super Bowls XXXII and XXXIII -- and, with the Ravens having won Super Bowl XXXV, he's the only man not either a Dallas Cowboy or a New England Patriot to win 3 Super Bowls in 4 seasons.

He was named to the NFL's 1990s All-Decade Team, the Broncos' Ring of Fame, and the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His brother Sterling Sharpe, despite playing only 7 seasons, all with the Green Bay Packers right before they won another Super Bowl, made 5 Pro Bowls, and caught 595 passes for 8,134 yards and 65 touchdowns.

5. Terrell Davis, running back, Denver Broncos, 1995-2001. Injuries limited him to just 7 seasons in the NFL, all with the Broncos. But he rushed for 7,607 yards, including 60 touchdowns. He made 3 Pro Bowls, and was named the Most Valuable Player of Super Bowl XXXII and the NFL's regular season, both in calendar year 1998. He was the difference between John Elway being a Super Bowl winner and not; the difference between the Broncos having won a Super Bowl prior to February 2016, and not.

In spite of the relative brevity of his career, he was named to the NFL's 1990s All-Decade Team, the Broncos' Ring of Fame, and the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

4. Peyton Manning, quarterback, Denver Broncos, 2012-15. He was only a Bronco for 4 seasons, and we'll remember him more as an Indianapolis Colt. But he made 3 Pro Bowls as Bronco signal-caller, and in 2013 was named NFL MVP and the Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year.

No quarterback has won more games, or thrown for more yards in a season or in a career, or has thrown more touchdown passes in a season or in a career. He went to 4 Super Bowls, and is 1 of only 2 quarterbacks to lead 2 different teams to an NFL Championship: The 2006 Indianapolis Colts (and he was named the Super Bowl XLI MVP) and the 2015 Denver Broncos. (The other is Norm Van Brocklin of the 1951 Los Angeles Rams and the 1960 Philadelphia Eagles.)

He was only in his 2nd season when The Sporting News named their 100 Greatest Football Players in 1999, but was named to the NFL's 2000s All-Decade Team. Barring an epic calamity, he will be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2021. He was ranked 8th on the NFL Network's 100 Greatest Players in 2010.

3. Patrick Roy, goaltender, Colorado Avalanche, 1995-2003. His career is draped in irony. A native of Quebec City, he grew up rooting for the Quebec Nordiques, yet starred for their arch-rivals, the Montreal Canadiens. Controversy cast him out of Montreal, leading to his being traded to the team the Nordiques had just become, the Avalanche, where he kept going for 8 seasons. Had he spent his entire career in Denver, he might be Number 1 on this list.

Any list of the greatest goalies in hockey history has got to include Roy near, and maybe at, the top. He broke Terry Sawhcuk's record of 447 career wins, before being surpassed himself by Martin Brodeur. No goalie has more Playoff appearances or wins. He was the 1st NHL goalie to play in 1,000 regular season games, and has since been surpassed only by Brodeur. He won 4 Stanley Cups, 2 with Montreal (1986 and 1993) and 2 with Colorado (1996 and 2001), and is the only man with 3 Conn Smythe Trophies as Playoff MVP (including 2001 with the Avs, outplaying Brodeur and beating the Devils).

He made 11 All-Star Games (5 with the Avs), and won 3 Vezina Trophies as the NHL's top goalie (all with the Habs). In 1998, while still laying, The Hockey News ranked him 22nd on their list of the 100 Greatest Hockey Players. Naturally, he was included in the NHL's 100th Anniversary 100 Greatest Players in 2017. That same year, THN ranked him 5th among all players in the post-1967 Expansion Era, ahead of all goalies. He was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame, and both the Canadiens and the Avalanche have retired Number 33 for him.

2. Joe Sakic, center, Colorado Avalanche, 1995-2009, plus 1988-95 before that with the franchise as the Quebec Nordiques. The Nordiques played 14 years -- well, 13 seasons, since 2004-05 was canceled -- before they played a single game without Sakic as Captain.

He made 13 All-Star Games (8 with Colorado), and scored 626 goals (392 in Colorado). He led the Avs to the 1996 Stanley Cup, winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as Playoff MVP. In 2001, he won the Hart Memorial Trophy as regular season MVP, the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy as "most gentlemanly player," and another Cup.

The Avs retired his Number 19, and he was named to the Hockey Hall of Fame and, in 2017, to the NHL's 100th Anniversary 100 Greatest Players. He also won an Olympic Gold Medal with Canada in 2002, switching to Number 91 and refusing the captaincy in deference to Steve Yzerman.

1. John Elway, quarterback, Denver Broncos, 1983-98. Along with Alex Rodriguez and LeBron James, no athlete better illustrates the difference in perception between being a great athlete who's never won the big one and becoming one who has.

From 1983 to 1996, he helped the Denver Broncos reach the Playoffs 8 times, win 6 AFC Western Division titles, and win the AFC Championship for the 1986, 1987 and 1989 seasons. Along the way, he won more regular-season NFL games than any quarterback before him, was named NFL MVP in 1987, and NFL Man of the Year in 1992.

But the defeats were glaring. They lost Super Bowls XXI, XXII and XXIV -- in each case, to a great team, but they defeats got progressively worse. They blew a 10-9 halftime lead over the Giants and lost 39-20; blew a 10-0 2nd quarter lead over the Washington Redskins and lost 42-10; and got slaughtered by the San Francisco 49ers 55-10, still the 2nd-largest margin in the history of NFL Championship Games (and the largest since they began calling it the Super Bowl). They lost the 1991 AFC Championship Game to the Buffalo Bills, and then in 1996 lost a Playoff game at home to the Jacksonville Jaguars, a 2nd-year expansion team.

Maybe it was the uniforms: Under the old ones, with the blue helmets with the orange D's, the Broncos were 0-4 in Super Bowls; with the new ones, purple with the horse's head, they're 3-1. With Davis behind him, Elway led the Broncos to back-to-back titles, winning Super Bowls XXXII and XXXIII, and closing his career in 1999 as a Super Bowl MVP and a 9-time Pro Bowler.

Stanford and the Broncos both retired his Number 7. He was named to the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame, the NFL's 1990s All-Decade Team, the Broncos Ring of Fame, The Sporting News' 1999 list of the 100 Greatest Football Players (16th), and the NFL Network's 2010 list of the 100 Greatest Players (23rd).

He is now the Broncos' general manager, building the team that lost Super Bowl XLVIII and won Super Bowl 50. He is the only man ever to win the Super Bowl as both a player and a general manager.

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