20 Most Immortalized Sports Icons

Cameron McCauley@@cameronmccauleyContributor IIIFebruary 7, 2012

20 Most Immortalized Sports Icons

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    So many athletes and coaches have created an impact on their sport that no one can rival.  

    Whether it is through work done off the field, or just dominance on it, there are a few things that can make people iconic and be remembered forever.  

    Lets take a look at some of the athletes and coaches we can never forget.  

Pat Tillman

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    It was Tillman's actions off the field that made him an iconic sports figure.  

    In the peak of his NFL career as a safety for the Arizona Cardinals, Tillman chose to instead fight for his country in the wake of the September 11th attacks.  Tillman was killed in action in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom.  

    He only played four seasons for the Cardinals as a seventh-round draft pick, but managed to become an All-Pro in his short NFL career.  Tillman showed his patriotism unlike any athlete ever did by volunteering to fight for his country.  That factor can't be undermined in figuring out the character of a sports icon.  

Michael Phelps

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    Phelps is the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time.  He won an unprecedented eight gold medals at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing and has 14 total Olympic golds, the most ever. He has done it all before his 24th birthday.  

    What makes Phelps so great is his potential for even more, as he is only 26 and expects to compete in the 2012 Summer Olympics.  Phelps' record of 14 golds will be a tough accomplishment to beat, and he has a chance to make it even more unbeatable.  

    Phelps is a true champion in every aspect.  

Wilt Chamberlain

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    The original dominant force in the NBA was Chamberlain.  

    He is the only player to ever score 100 points in a game, and throughout his entire career posted an average of 30.1 points per game and 22.9 rebounds.  

    Chamberlain owns 62 NBA records all to himself.  

Roger Federer

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    Many tennis players are worthy for this spot, but Federer has left a mark on the game that has changed it forever.  He's been on a tear through this century, winning 16 grand slams since 2005.  

    Federer has shown that he is possibly the greatest to ever play the sport.  

    Whether he's on the grass, clay or hard court, Federer always seems to accomplish the impossible and further implement his cause as the best ever.  

    His records may soon be broken by Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic, but Federer is iconic for ushering a new era of tennis superstars, becoming known as the leader of the pack.  

Carl Lewis

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    Lewis competed in a sport and era where the name of the game was to cheat with performance enhancers.  He competed in four different summer Olympics spanning over a decade, and came away with nine Olympic gold medals.  

    He paved the way for track & field today by making it a spectacle at the Summer Olympics.

    The more people were watching Lewis win gold medals, the more the reputation of track & field increased.  

Pete Rose

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    The MLB all time leader in hits with 4,256,  Pete Rose is probably more known now for his lifelong ban from baseball for gambling on the sport.  The irony of one of baseball's greatest players being banned from baseball makes Rose such an iconic player.  

    This may be a controversial pick to some, but Rose's on the field accolades and determination made it hard to root against him.  His terminal ban from baseball may not last forever, and we may someday see Pete Rose's face in the Hall of Fame.  

Pat Summitt

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    Coach Pat Summitt is an iconic figure for what she has done to not only basketball, but women's sports in general.  She has won 1,078 career games (more than any other coach in NCAA history), including eight NCAA championships.  

    Summitt can be credited for making women's basketball relevant.

    She played a big part in the gaining popularity of NCAA women's basketball after the implementing of Title IX, allowing women's sports to be treated equal in numbers.  

    Because of her, Tennessee women's basketball has become a dynasty over the past few decades.  

John Wooden

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    One of the greatest innovators and teachers of the sport of basketball, Wooden was known for his winning days as head coach at UCLA. He won 10 national championships in a 12-year span while coaching legendary players such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton.  

    Wooden grew up in basketball country in Indiana and took his talents out west to coach UCLA from 1948-1975.  He taught his players to succeed in life on and off the court.  

    Wooden was probably the greatest mind in basketball when he was with UCLA.  

Jim Thorpe

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    Thrope original multi-sport athlete.

    He was a decorated Olympian, professional football, basketball and baseball player in his prime.

    He won two golds at the 1912 Olympics and was an all-pro offensive and defensive back.  

    Thorpe is perhaps more known for his successes as one of the first prominent Native American athletes the world has ever seen.  He was open about his heritage, another reason he was a sports icon.  

Jim Brown

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    Arguably the best running back in the history of the game, Brown won the NFL rushing title eight out of the nine years he played from 1957-1965.  He was a punishing back few players could rival in terms of intensity.  

    Brown paved the way for the common NFL back, with size and speed being the most important attributes that teams look for.  He has never been scared to speak out about how he feels about fellow players.  

    Fun fact: he was also a first-team All-American lacrosse player during his tenure at Syracuse.  

Vince Lombardi

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    Perhaps the greatest football coach known to man, Lombardi was the original dominant NFL coach.  There is a reason the Super Bowl trophy is named after him.  He won the first two Super Bowls in existence, and finished with five total NFL championships.  

    Like Wooden, Lomabardi was the ultimate motivator and always got the most out of his players.  He never had a losing season during his tenure as an NFL coach.  

Babe Ruth

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    The Great Bambino made baseball what it is today, making the home run the most exciting play in baseball.  

    Even though "The Babe" retired almost eighty years ago, Ruth's 714 home runs are still third-best on the all-time list.  

    Ruth was also a cultural icon during his playing days, as his name was synonymous with the "Roaring Twenties" that were going on outside of the stadium.  He ended up winning seven World Series, but will be forever known for far more than his list of accomplishments.  

Walter Payton

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    "Sweetness" as he was called,  Walter Payton was among the greatest football players to ever play the game.  He played his entire career with the Chicago Bears, and was the NFL's all-time leading rusher until Emmitt Smith topped him.  He only missed one game in his entire career.  

    Payton made just as big of an impact off the field as well with the Walter & Connie Payton Foundation.  

    There is a reason the NFL calls it the "Walter Payton Man of the Year" award.  


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    Pele has been a global icon since he first stepped foot on the professional pitch in 1956.  

    He played 20 years in the professional ranks and became an American star during his time with the New York Cosmos in the 1970's.  

    He has also gained recognition for his efforts off the field as well, becoming an activist in his native Brazil for underprivileged children.

    No one has made an impression on the sport of soccer quite like Pele has.  

Joe Paterno

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    Paterno may have had his reputation slightly tarnished because of recent allegations, but you can't take that away from what he has done to college football.  "JoePa" has more wins than any coach in Football Bowl Subdivision history while coaching for over 50 years at Penn State.  

    He was the face of college football for quite some time, and it is very saddening to know that his time at Penn State ended so badly.  

    Still, "JoePa" is an iconic American sports figure.  

Wayne Gretzky

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    Gretzky was known as "The Great One" by hockey fans, but I like to call him "The Jordan of the NHL." He wasn't known for his great athletic ability or stature, but his knowledge of the sport was unmeasurable.  

    His No. 99 jersey has been retired by every team in the NHL.  That alone makes him an iconic figure in the sport. He was the opposite of a hooligan in a sport that was sometimes known for them.  

    Winning four Stanley Cups certainly doesn't hurt his case either.  

Jackie Robinson

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    Jackie Robinson was iconic on many levels.  The first African American to break the color barrier in baseball, Robinson was also one of the greatest baseball players to ever take the field.  His athletic ability was off the charts at the time, but his impact on the game was more than just on the field.  

    Robinson could have played any sport if he wanted to, so baseball was lucky to have him amongst its ranks.  His No.42 is now retired by Major League Baseball, and the league celebrates his accomplishments with Jackie Robinson Day on April 15.  

    No one made a bigger impact on what baseball is today than Robinson.  

Tiger Woods

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    The most decorated golfer of his era, Tiger's intensity and motivation on the course has been the key to his successes.  He is always in the spotlight, so the amount of pressure is there like a monkey on his back.  

    His 14 major championships (including four Masters) are good for the second-most ever, only behind Jack Nicklaus. 

    Tiger has been trying to get his career back on track as of late, but having such a decorated one already is enough to make him a sports icon.  Tiger has made golf relevant among African Americans, a sport that previously had hardly any history of diversity.  

Muhammad Ali

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    Ali was self-proclaimed as "The World's Greatest" during his long lived boxing career.

     He was a dominant force inside the ring, and whenever he was outside it, the man formerly known as Cassius Clay caused quite a stir.  

    Ali wore his emotions on his sleeve, whether it was protesting the Vietnam War or converting to Islam and changing his name.

    Many legendary fights featured Ali, including heavyweight bouts against Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Sunny Liston.  

    He fought in times where boxing was the main attraction, and because of him it continued to be just that.  It may be safe to say that no athlete has had quite the cultural impact that Ali has had.     

Michael Jordan

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    The nickname "His Airness" has been justified on many different levels.  Basketball royalty is a good way to describe Jordan and his ability to produce highlight-reel jams.  Out of all the great athletes and coaches on this list, it may be safe to say that none of them matched Michael Jordan when it came to competitiveness. 

    He won six NBA championships, five MVP titles, and dominated the league all through the 1990s.  

    His cultural impact stemming from his "Air Jordans" shoes are what put Nike on the map.  

    What Michael Jordan did for the NBA cannot go unrecognized.  

    His dominance and eagerness to win have made him the most iconic athlete of our generation.  


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