True Lettermen: The World's Best Athletes by the Alphabet
This is a relatively simple idea.
Going by the first letter of last names (except for some of those crazy one-named soccer players), this is a list of the greatest athletes of all time.
Why am I doing this?
I have no idea.
Will this even come out well?
I have no idea.
So, on that note, let's start with everybody's favorite first letter of the alphabet: A! (round of applause)
A: Muhammad Ali
You'd think the first letter of the alphabet would be chock-full of big names contending for the honor of being the greatest athlete whose name begins with "A."
However, after doing some research, this was an extremely easy and obvious choice.
Muhammad Ali (who could've also qualified for Cassius Clay) is the most famous and dominating boxer of all time.
Ali is a three-time World Heavyweight Champion, with a career record of 56-5-0.
"The Louisville Lip" was voted "Sportsman of the Century" by Sports Illustrated in 1999 and was almost as famous for his quotes and antics outside the ring as he was for his boxing prowess.
Ali is the most legendary fighter of all time and is still one of the most recognizable people in the world.
Other athletes receiving consideration: Hank Aaron, Troy Aikman, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Andre Agassi.
B: Jim Brown
The list for "B" was quite a bit tougher to whittle down than the first letter on this list was.
Several athletes are likely top-five for their respective sports, but in the end, I chose former Browns running back Jim Brown.
Brown, like Ali, has had a very well-publicized life both on and off the playing field.
However, Brown's on-the-field accomplishments are what landed him here.
At the time he retired, when he was just 29, Brown owned a whopping 20 NFL rushing records.
Brown was quite simply the most physically dominating and intimidating runner the sport has ever seen.
His massive frame, combined with his elite athleticism, allowed him to either run around you or flat-out run over you.
Over the course of his career, Brown appeared in nine Pro Bowls and also won an NFL championship in 1964.
He retired right in the middle of the prime of his career. Who knows what more could've been accomplished had he continued to play?
The fact that he owned 20 rushing records over the course of such a short career is stunning.
Other athletes receiving consideration: Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, Kobe Bryant, Barry Bonds*, Jean Beliveau, Tom Brady, Dick Butkus, Usain Bolt, Bjorn Borg.
C: Ty Cobb
I went with Ty Cobb for "C" by a hair over Wilt Chamberlain.
Chamberlain's numbers are ridiculously gaudy.
There's no doubt that Chamberlain was a great, great player, arguably the single most dominating player in the history of basketball.
However, the fact that Chamberlain wasn't exactly going up against guys like Shaquille O'Neal and Hakeem Olajuwon (except for Bill Russell) hurts him here.
Ty Cobb, at the time of his retirement, was credited with having set around 90 Major League Baseball records.
His career batting average was .367, and he finished his career with 4,191 hits.
Only two players, Cobb and Pete Rose, have ever accumulated 4,000 hits in MLB history.
Cobb, like Rose, had a highly intense style of play that some said "bordered on dementia."
There were four instances in Cobb's career in which he hit safely to first, stole second, stole third, and then stole home, all in the same inning.
Other athletes receiving consideration: Wilt Chamberlain, Bob Cousy, Roger Clemens*, Earl Campbell, Jimmy Connors
D: Joe DiMaggio
There weren't too many athletes challenging for this one.
Former Yankee Joe DiMaggio is the choice.
DiMaggio was a 13-time All-Star and a three-time Most Valuable Player.
He finished his career with 361 home runs, which was good for third all-time at the time of his retirement.
"The Yankee Clipper" is perhaps best known nowadays for his 56-game hitting streak in 1941.
This record has not even come close to being touched, with the second-longest hitting streak in baseball history being 45 games.
Other athletes receiving consideration: Tim Duncan, Clyde Drexler, Joe Dumars
E: Julius Erving
Dr. J revolutionized basketball in a major way and helped transform it into the game as it is today.
The Hall of Famer helped put the ABA on the map before it was merged with the NBA.
His high-flying style of play that relied very much on athleticism was a huge change from basketball as it was played before his time.
During his NBA career, Erving averaged 22 points per game, playing with the Philadelphia 76ers.
Erving was also one of the first basketball players to become widely known from a marketing standpoint, most notably for being the first player to have a shoe marketed in his name.
Other athletes receiving consideration: John Elway (very close)
F: Roger Federer
This one wasn't even a contest.
Sorry, Brett Favre.
Roger Federer may just be the best tennis player that has ever lived.
The owner of 15 Grand Slam singles titles and counting (most all-time), Federer also holds the record for reaching the most consecutive Grand Slam finals, with 10.
He has won Wimbledon six times, the Australian Open three times, the US Open five times, and the French Open once.
Federer won his record 15th Slam in style, ousting American Andy Roddick in an epic fifth-set battle at Wimbledon this past July.
He has won at least two Grand Slam titles in a year five times, and at least three in a year three times.
Federer is the greatest of all-time.
Other athletes receiving consideration: Jimmie Foxx, Brett Favre
G: Wayne Gretzky
This one was another no-brainer.
Wayne Gretzky is the greatest hockey player of all time, period.
Gretzky holds regular season career records for goals scored (894), assists (1,963), points (2,857), and hat tricks (50).
During the 1981-82 season, Gretzky set an NHL record by scoring 92 goals for the Edmonton Oilers.
In all, Gretzky owns 61 NHL records, including 40 regular season, 15 playoffs, and six All-Star Game records.
Gretzky is currently the head coach, head of hockey operations, and part owner of the Phoenix Coyotes.
While his success as an executive hasn't matched his success as a player, it's hardly tainted the legacy of "The Great One".
Other athletes receiving consideration: Otto Graham, Lou Gehrig, Lefty Grove, Steffi Graf, Kevin Garnett, George Gervin.
H: Ben Hogan
Ben Hogan gets the nod at "H" slightly over hockey great Gordie Howe, among others.
Hogan is arguably the third greatest golfer of all time, behind Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.
He won nine major championships during his career, including the U.S. Open four times, the Masters and PGA Championship twice each, and the Open Championship once in 1953.
In all, he won 64 PGA tour events.
His greatest year was in 1948, when he won a whopping 10 tournaments, including the U.S. Open.
Hogan was known as perhaps the greatest ball striker of all time, while his putting was a bit of a chore.
His difficulties with putting were attributed to a 1949 car accident that damaged his left eye.
Other athletes receiving consideration: Gordie Howe, John Havlicek, Walter Hagen, Doug Harvey, Bobby Hull, Rogers Hornsby, Dominik Hasek.
I: Hale Irwin
There weren't too many choices for this one.
Hale Irwin wins it, almost by default.
Irwin won three U.S. Opens, accounting for all of his Major Championship titles.
He was also a member of five Ryder Cup teams, in 1975, 1977, 1979, 1981, and 1991.
In 1992, Irwin was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame.
Irwin is also the greatest player in the history of the Champions (senior) Tour.
He has won seven senior major titles, including four Senior PGA Championships, two U.S. Senior Opens, and one Seniors Players Championship.
In total, Irwin has won 45 Champions Tour events, good for first all-time.
Other athletes receiving consideration: Allen Iverson
J: Michael Jordan
There are many, many athletes deserving of being distinguished with the wonderful honor of "best athlete ever with the last name that starts with the letter 'J'", but Michael Jordan is above them all.
In my opinion, Jordan is the best basketball player to ever live.
Jordan led the NBA in scoring in 10 different seasons (NBA record) and tied Wilt Chamberlain's record of seven consecutive scoring titles.
Perhaps most notably, Jordan led the Chicago Bulls to six championships in the 1990s.
Jordan distinguishes himself from other greats like Magic Johnson in that he won titles without ever having a very notable big man on the roster with him.
Jordan is a five-time NBA MVP, six-time NBA Finals MVP, two-time Olympic gold medalist, 14-time All-Star, three-time All-Star MVP, nine-time All-NBA Defensive First Team selection, 11-time All-NBA First Team selection, NBA Defensive Player of the Year, and NBA Rookie of the Year.
Jordan scored in double digits in all but one (1,109) of his career games with the Chicago Bulls. He scored eight points in a game in 1986 against Cleveland.
In the 1993 NBA Finals against the Phoenix Suns, Jordan averaged a record 41 points per game.
While his stint as a minor league baseball player and his return with the Washington Wizards left some to be desired, Jordan is quite clearly the greatest basketball player of all time.
Other athletes receiving consideration: Magic Johnson, Michael Johnson, Walter Johnson, Randy Johnson, Bo Jackson, Deacon Jones, Bobby Jones, Jack Johnson.
K: Jackie Joyner-Kersee
I know, technically her last name starts with "J," but there are really no choices for "K," so let's neglect "Joyner" and its accompanying hyphen for now.
Jackie Joyner-Kersee is perhaps the greatest female athlete of all time.
She excelled in the women's heptathlon and long jump.
In her Olympic career, she won three gold, one silver, and two bronze medals in those two events.
She was inspired to compete in more than one sport by a made-for-TV movie about the life of Babe Didrikson-Zaharias in 1975 (more on her later).
In college at UCLA, she competed in women's track and field and basketball.
In 2000, Sports Illustrated for Women voted Joyner-Kersee the "Greatest Female Athlete of the 20th Century," barely edging out Didrikson-Zaharias.
Other athletes receiving consideration: Billie Jean King
L: Rod Laver
Rod Laver, for all you chaps that aren't familiar with him, is a former No. 1-ranked tennis player from Australia.
In fact, Laver was ranked No. 1 in the world for seven consecutive years, from 1964-1970.
Laver is often grouped with Roger Federer, Pete Sampras, and Bjorn Borg as the greatest men's tennis players of all-time.
He is still the only men's professional tennis player in the history of the Open Era (began in 1968, allowed both amateurs and professionals to compete in all tournaments) to win all four Grand Slam singles titles in the same calendar year (1969).
In 1962, Laver also won all four Grand Slam singles titles, this time as an amateur.
In all, Laver won 11 Grand Slam singles titles over the course of his career.
His career singles record is 392-99, and he earned $1,564,213 in prize money throughout his career.
Other athletes receiving consideration: Mario Lemieux, Guy Lafleur, Bob Lilly, Carl Lewis.
M: Joe Montana
Joe Montana beat out a couple of other all-time great quarterbacks, Dan Marino and Peyton Manning, to be the greatest athlete starting with the letter "M."
A former member of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, Montana is probably the most prolific quarterback to ever play in the NFL.
Montana won four Super Bowls as a member of the San Francisco 49ers (1982, 1985, 1989, 1990).
Montana totaled over 40,000 yards passing for his career, with 273 touchdowns and 139 interceptions.
Montana was an eight-time Pro Bowl selection, three-time All-Pro selection, three-time Second Team All-Pro selection, three-time Super Bowl MVP, and two-time NFL MVP.
Other athletes receiving consideration: Dan Marino, Peyton Manning, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Stan Musial, Christy Mathewson, Mark Messier, Anthony Munoz, John McEnroe, Karl Malone, Moses Malone, George Mikan.
N: Jack Nicklaus
Jack Nicklaus is the greatest champion golf has ever seen.
Therefore, he represents the letter "N."
"The Golden Bear" won 18 Major Championships in all, including The Masters six times, the PGA Championship five times, the U.S. Open four times, and the Open Championship three times.
Until Tiger Woods wins at least 18 majors himself, many will still consider Nicklaus the greatest golfer who ever lived.
Nicklaus totaled 73 tournament wins during his PGA tour career.
Nicklaus' likeness even appeared on a commemorative version of the five-pound note issued by the Royal Bank of Scotland.
Nicklaus was the first person outside the Royal Family to appear on a British banknote.
He won his last PGA major title in 1986, at The Masters.
Other athletes receiving consideration: Rafael Nadal, Byron Nelson, Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash.
O: Jesse Owens
Jesse Owens locks up the "O" spot over guys like Shaquille O'Neal and Hakeem Olajuwon not only for his athletic prowess, but for all he did off the track as well.
Owens was a pioneer in that he was one of the first African-American athletes to gain worldwide prominence.
Amazingly, while in college at Ohio State University, Owens set three world records and tied a fourth in a span of 45 minutes at a meet in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
He set world records in the long jump, 220-yard sprint, and the 220-yard low hurdles, while tying the record for the 100-yard sprint.
Owens won four gold medals at the 1936 Summer Olympic Games in Berlin.
He won the 100-meter sprint, 200-meter sprint, 4 x 100 men's relay, and the long jump.
Before the games began, Owens was approached by Adi Dassler, founder of Adidas.
He asked Owens to use Adidas shoes, and it was the first-ever sponsorship of an African-American athlete.
Despite Owens' success at the games, he received no recognition from President Franklin Roosevelt.
In fact, he wasn't formally honored until Dwight Eisenhower was President.
Other athletes receiving consideration: Shaquille O'Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon, Mel Ott, Bobby Orr.
P: Michael Phelps/Pele
24-year-old Michael Phelps is widely considered to be the greatest swimmer of all time.
This past summer, at the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, Phelps broke Mark Spitz's world record of seven gold medals in one Olympics, winning eight.
In his career, Phelps has won a whopping 14 Olympic gold medals.
He also holds 37 world records for swimming.
Despite recent controversy in his personal life, Phelps continues to dominate the world of swimming.
He earned the World Swimmer of the Year award in 2003, 2004, 2006, 2007, and 2008.
He won the American Swimmer of the Year award in 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2006, 2007, and 2008.
In 2008, Phelps was named Sports Illustrated's "Sportsman of the Year."
While he won neither "Swimmer of the Year" award in 2005, Phelps still won five gold medals and a silver at the 2005 World Championships.
Former Brazilian soccer player Pele was named the IOC's "Athlete of the Century."
Time magazine listed Pele as one of the "100 most important people of the 20th century."
Pele is the only soccer player in history to have been a part of three World Cup championship teams (Brazil).
His game was extremely well rounded, as he excelled in every facet of the game.
In fact, in 92 appearances with the Brazilian national team, Pele scored 77 goals.
For Santos, the Brazilian club he played for from 1956-1974, Pele scored 1,024 goals in 952 games.
He is regarded as perhaps the greatest soccer player of all time and is a true global icon.
Other athletes receiving consideration: Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Bob Pettit, Albert Pujols, Jacques Plante.
Q: Brady Quinn
Do you think Brady Quinn belongs on this list amongst all of these other phenomenal, historical athletic icons?
However, he fits the criteria.
There were no real worthy candidates for this obscure letter.
Quinn, current quarterback with the Cleveland Browns, is notable mostly for his college career at Notre Dame.
Quinn set a total of 36 records as the quarterback of the Fighting Irish, which is very impressive considering some of the names that have passed through South Bend.
In 2006, he won the Maxwell Award as the best player in the nation.
He was also a Heisman Trophy finalist in 2006, where he finished third behind Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith and Arkansas running back Darren McFadden.
Quinn hasn't seen the field much in the NFL yet, but he certainly has the talent to further set himself apart for "Q."
Other athletes receiving consideration: None.
R: Jerry Rice/Babe Ruth
Jerry Rice is arguably the greatest football player of all time.
Babe Ruth is arguably the greatest baseball player of all time.
It's only fair that these two tie atop the list of athletes for the letter "R."
If he isn't the greatest football player of all time, there's no doubt at all that Jerry Rice is at least the greatest wide receiver ever.
He is the all-time NFL leader in touchdowns with 208 and was named to 13 Pro Bowls in his 20 NFL seasons with the San Francisco 49ers, Oakland Raiders, Seattle Seahawks, and Denver Broncos.
Rice was a 12-time All-Pro selection and a three-time Super Bowl champion, all as a member of the 49ers.
Rice attended Mississippi Valley State University, where he went on to set several NCAA records, including most passes caught in a single game, with 24 against Southern University in 1983.
In Super Bowl XXIX against the San Diego Chargers, Rice caught 10 passes for 149 yards and three touchdowns, one of the greatest performances of his brilliant career.
Babe Ruth is possibly still the most famous baseball player in history.
Ruth finished his career with 714 home runs, which was the most in history until Hank Aaron passed him in 1974.
Ruth played from 1914-1935, and his career statistics are staggering.
His career batting average was .342, and he totaled 2,873 runs batted in for the Red Sox, Yankees, and Boston Braves.
He won seven World Series championships and was named Most Valuable Player in 1923.
He is possibly still the greatest hitter of all time.
He ranks 10th in career batting average, third in home runs, second in RBI, first in slugging percentage, second in on-base percentage, and third in walks.
Rice and Ruth are two of a kind.
Other athletes receiving consideration: Jackie Robinson, Frank Robinson, Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, Maurice Richard, Ronaldo, Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, David Robinson.
S: Pete Sampras
Pete Sampras is probably the second-best men's tennis player of all-time.
His record of 14 men's singles Grand Slam tournament wins was just surpassed by Roger Federer this past July when Federer won Wimbledon.
His career record in Grand Slam singles matches was 203-38.
In his last top-level tournament as a professional in 2002, Sampras defeated rival Andre Agassi to win the US Open.
Over the course of his career, Sampras earned over $43 million in winnings.
He was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2007.
Other athletes receiving consideration: Sam Snead, Barry Sanders, Warren Spahn, Terry Sawchuk, Emmitt Smith, Deion Sanders, Dolph Schayes.
T: Lawrence Taylor
Lawrence Taylor has been called the greatest defensive player in the history of football.
Taylor, selected second overall in the 1981 NFL Draft out of North Carolina by the New York Giants, had an amazing career as a linebacker.
Taylor was a 10-time Pro Bowl selection, nine-time first-team All-Pro selection, one-time second-team All-Pro selection, three-time Defensive Player of the Year, 1986 NFL MVP, and two-time Super Bowl champion.
Taylor did not even play organized football until he was a junior in high school and was not highly recruited.
In all, Taylor recorded 1,088 tackles, 142 sacks, nine interceptions, two touchdowns, 33 forced fumbles, and 11 fumble recoveries during his NFL career.
Other athletes receiving consideration: Jim Thorpe, Bill Tilden, Isiah Thomas, Mike Tyson.
U: Johnny Unitas
Johnny Unitas stands alone for "U".
"Johnny U." was a record-setting quarterback who spent most of his career with the Baltimore Colts.
His record of 47 consecutive games with a touchdown pass thrown has yet to be broken and has stood since 1960.
He was a three-time Most Valuable Player, two-time NFL Champion, and one-time Super Bowl Champion.
Unitas was also named to 10 Pro Bowls.
When the NFL celebrated its 50-year anniversary, Unitas was voted its best player of all time.
He was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the ninth round of the 1955 NFL Draft, only to be released by the team before the season began.
Other athletes receiving consideration: Wes Unseld.
V: Various Coaches
Due to the fact that the greatest athlete whose last name starts with the letter "V" would be Guillermo Vilas, I've decided to use this spot to name some of the greatest coaches ever.
Owner of 10 NBA championship rings as a coach.
10-time NCAA basketball champion as coach of UCLA.
Winner of nine Stanley Cup championships with the Canucks, Red Wings, and Penguins.
Most wins by a manager in MLB history (3,731).
2009 will be Paterno's 60th season as a member of Penn State football's coaching staff.
Won seven NCAA football national championships.
Winningest coach in NFL history; led 1972 Dolphins to the only undefeated season in league history. His teams reached the playoffs in 20 of the 33 years he coached.
W: Tiger Woods
What is there to be said about Tiger Woods that everybody already doesn't know?
He's currently the world's No. 1 golfer.
He was the world's highest-paid athlete in 2008, earning about $110 million from winnings and endorsements.
At just 33, he already has won 14 Majors, good for second all-time on the PGA.
He has won 70 PGA events, good for third all-time.
He's also won 37 events on the European Tour, which is third all-time as well.
Tiger has been playing golf since he was about three, and the rest is history.
Before it's all said and done, it's very likely that Woods will be all alone way ahead of everybody else in golf history in terms of achievement.
He has won The Masters four times, the Open Championship, the PGA Championship, and the U.S. Open three times each.
Woods has won the PGA Player of the Year award nine times, already a record.
Other athletes receiving consideration: Ted Williams, Honus Wagner, Reggie White, Tom Watson, Jerry West.
X: Extra Athletes
Since there is nobody worthy to go here at "X", here's a list of some of the athletes that didn't earn a top spot due to the fact that miraculously there was someone just a little bit better.
Y. Steve Young
Steve Young is the second former San Francisco 49ers quarterback to make this list.
Young is the best left-handed quarterback ever to play in the NFL, and he led the Niners to a Super Bowl title in 1994 (although he won two as Joe Montana's backup).
Young was also a two-time MVP and was named to seven consecutive Pro Bowls.
He also won the 1983 Davey O'Brien Award at BYU (Young is also a descendant of the university's namesake, Brigham Young).
Other athletes receiving consideration: Yao Ming
Z: Babe Didrikson-Zaharias
Since there aren't many "Z"s, let's just go with Babe.
Babe Didrikson-Zaharias is one of the greatest female athletes of all time, and she excelled in golf, basketball, and track and field.
At the 1932 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles, she won gold medals in the 80-meter hurdles and the javelin throw, and a silver medal in the high jump.
She also won 41 tournaments while a member of the LPGA tour, including 10 Major championships.
Other athletes receiving consideration: Zinedine Zidane.