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It’s an exaggeration, but only a slight one, to describe Red Grange as the “Babe Ruth of College Football.” Grange played only three varsity seasons at the University of Illinois, in the nation’s heartland, while Ruth was a larger-than-life presence on New York’s Yankees for nearly two decades. He’s credited with rescuing baseball from the throes of a gambling scandal, and there’s no doubt Ruth transformed how the game was played through his unprecedented and prodigious slugging.
Sometimes it’s right there in front of you. Struggling to find the right word to describe freshman Earvin Johnson’s play in a 36-point, 18-rebound performance for Lansing Everett High School, Lansing State Journal sportswriter Fred Stabley Jr. settled on “Magic.” The choice could not have been more appropriate. Over the next 20 years, Earvin “Magic” Johnson would become one of the most celebrated and accomplished basketball players in the world, first at Michigan State University, then for the Los Angeles Lakers. “Magic” — the one-word handle became as distinctive as “Pele” or “Ali,” applicable to one man only and a metaphor for both an infectious style of play and unfailingly positive results. Magic Johnson had a unique gift for making the players around him better, leaving championships in his wake wherever he competed.
Thousands of athletes have distinguished themselves and earned acclaim for their schools in the storied 114-year history of the Big Ten Conference, but no individual’s accomplishments cast a larger shadow than those of Jesse Owens. In 1936, three years before the world went back to war, his fleet feet and indomitable spirit struck a telling blow against Adolph Hitler’s plans for worldwide Nazi domination.
It stands to reason that running backs would be distinguished citizens at Ohio State University, where “three yards and a cloud of dust” was the unquestioned football mantra through the storied Woody Hayes Era and for at least a few years on either side of it. Archie Griffin is the most distinguished of those citizens.
Tom Harmon transcends the overused term “football hero.” He was a hero in most every sense of the word. Seventy years after he last performed as a single-wing tailback for the University of Michigan, “Old 98” is still remembered as perhaps the most talented player in Wolverines history, a true triple threat on offense and a standout on defense. He was also the punter and the place-kicker. He probably would have taped ankles and passed out the orange slices at halftime had he been asked.
In the history of sport, it’s doubtful there has ever been a more ideal melding of game, player and position than football, Dick Butkus and middle linebacker. It’s as if he were born to play the position, or the position were invented with Butkus in mind.
Truth, we are told, can be stranger than fiction. In Nile Kinnick’s case it was also more impressive. The spellbinding exploits of Frank Merriwell and Jack Armstrong and other fictional sports heroes of the early 20th century had nothing on the real-life accomplishments of Kinnick, who with his fellow Ironmen pretty much rescued University of Iowa football during a magical 1939 season that still stirs the imagination 71 years after it took place. There’s a reason the Hawkeyes’ home field bears Kinnick’s name.
In an era of no Internet, very limited television and no recruiting services to turn teenage athletes into national celebrities, how does a kid from small-town Middle America become the most famous high school basketball player in the nation? By being as talented and as well-rounded as Jerry Lucas. Before there was Bill Bradley, before there was Larry Bird, there was Jerry Lucas.
Sinatra had his voice, Hendrix had his guitar, and Rick Mount had his jump shot. Sinatra’s smooth-as-velvet singing and Hendrix’s pyrotechnic playing likely generated more worldwide fame and fortune, but it’s doubtful either man had more mastery of his instrument than Mount did any time he had a basketball in his hands, anywhere in a gym. He averaged 32.3 points per game and shot nearly 50 percent from the floor over his three varsity seasons at Purdue from 1967-70. If there was a layup among his 910 career buckets, no one readily remembers. And this was before the advent of the three-point line.
Isiah Thomas was one of the most heavily recruited basketball players the Chicago area has ever produced. Bob Knight landed him by winning over the person who exerted the strongest influence in Thomas’ life: his mother. Mary Thomas was an incredibly strong-willed woman who raised her own nine children and helped with scores of neighborhood kids in the notoriously tough “K-Town” area of the city’s West Side. Once she decided Indiana was the best place for her youngest, the battle was over.
Mark Spitz swam as if something was chasing him. In a sense, something was, even and perhaps most notably during a four-year period of world domination. Just 18 when he qualified for the Mexico City Olympics in 1968, Spitz was already one of swimming’s most accomplished performers, his resume packed with age-group world records, AAU titles and Pan-American and Maccabiah Games medals. He was perceived as a bit boastful, but not totally unrealistic when he suggested he just might leave Mexico with six gold medals.
John Wooden cast such a giant shadow as a college basketball coach that his comparably impressive achievements as a player are easily overlooked. Indeed, when Wooden died at age 99 earlier this year, his incomparable run of 10 national championships over a 12-year stretch at UCLA led the tributes. Seven of those titles came in succession as the Bruins became the gold standard in the college game. The period also featured an 88-game winning streak, four undefeated seasons, a 38-game NCAA tournament winning streak and a 140-2 record at Pauley Pavilion, UCLA’s home court.
An opponent once said playing defense against Ron Dayne was “like trying to tackle a Coke machine.” Or maybe like trying to interrupt a landslide. At 5-foot-10 and 260 pounds, Dayne left a trail of bodies in his wake whenever he carried the football for the Wisconsin Badgers, which was often: a Big Ten-record 1,220 times in four seasons. Combining body-builder bulk with sprinter’s speed, he was the most prolific rusher in NCAA history, piling up 6,397 yards. The total grows to 7,125 yards if bowl games are included, and they ought to be — Dayne ran for 246 yards and scored four touchdowns against UCLA and accumulated 200 yards against Stanford in Wisconsin’s back-to-back Rose Bowl victories in 1999-2000. He was voted MVP of both games, the only two-time Rose Bowl MVP in Big Ten history.
Lynn “Pappy” Waldorf obviously had his Northwestern football team in mind when he spotted a strong-armed freshman throwing feathery-soft spirals in an NU fraternity football league in the fall of 1940. Waldorf suggested the youngster might want to give the Wildcat varsity a try the following season. He did, and football’s gain was something of a loss for basketball, baseball and music. Otto Everett Graham Jr. was Waldorf’s discovery. Few athletes have ever been as accomplished, not to mention as versatile. Graham would win eight varsity letters in three sports at Northwestern and make All-America in football and basketball. He won a total of eight championships in the two sports as a professional and is a member of the College and Pro Football halls of fame.
Dave Winfield had never played a down of college football at the University of Minnesota, but the Minnesota Vikings thought they knew an athlete when they saw one. They drafted Winfield in 1973, envisioning a pass-catching, stretch-the-field tight end. They also knew that signing Winfield might involve outbidding the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks and the Utah Stars of the rival ABA, who had seen enough of him on the basketball court to believe Winfield had a future at forward in the pro game. Winfield was a complementary player for the Gophers’ 1972 Big Ten champions, but Bill Musselman, his coach at Minnesota, called him “the best 6-6 rebounder I’ve ever had.”