The 20 Most Influential African-American Athletes Who Changed Sports Forever

Bob Bajek@bobbajekAnalyst IIIFebruary 28, 2012

The 20 Most Influential African-American Athletes Who Changed Sports Forever

0 of 19

    Black History Month has come and almost gone, but this writer wants to pay tribute to the brave men and women who have advanced their race and fellow minorities both athletically and socially through their amazing careers.

    Not so long ago, black athletes were segregated from participating with white athletes due to the Jim Crow Laws established after the Plessy V. Ferguson (1896) Supreme Court case.  

    Black athletes, as were their non-athletic brothers and sisters, were seen as racially inferior and not worthy of socially mixing with whites.

    However, these purely promoted brave athletes slowly but positive social change against the racism and later racial prejudice in this country by their heroic example both in and out of the athletic arena.

    Black athletes hold a special place in American sporting lore, and these 20 athletes were the most influential in changing American sports forever. 

20. Marlin Briscoe

1 of 19

    Before Cam Newton and Robert Griffin III were tearing it up, Marlin Briscoe (1945-present) made the way for them to be successful. 

    Marlin the Magician was the first black starting quarterback in NFL history when the Denver Broncos drafted him in the 14th round of the 1968 NFL Draft.

    A standout in high school and at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, Briscoe was eight in the Broncos' quarterbacking depth chart in training camp. However, injuries to starter Steve Tensi and bad play by back-up Joe DiVito made Broncos coach Lou Saban call Briscoe into the game against the Boston Patriots on Sept. 29, 1968.

    Briscoe's first pass was a 22-yard completion. On the second series, he led an 80-yard touchdown drive as he ran the final 12 yards for the score.

    As a rookie, Briscoe had 14 touchdowns, 13 picks and 1,589 yards. He played eight more seasons in the AFL and the NFL, but he was switched to being a wide receiver, being selected as a 1970 All-Pro. 

    After his playing days, Briscoe became a successful broker dealing with municipal bonds. He struggled with drug abuse, has recovered and now is director of the Boys and Girls Club in Long Beach, Calif.

19. Lisa Leslie

2 of 19

    NBA owners wanted to establish the WNBA as an alternative league to gain female interest in basketball.

    Players like Lisa Leslie (1972-present) were among the pioneers that have made the WNBA a respectable league.

    Leslie is often considered one of the greatest WNBA players of all-time, and she also was one of the league's first major faces who became the first player to dunk during a WNBA game.

    A USC standout with three All-American selections, the 6'5" Leslie was drafted by the Los Angeles Sparks and had a 12-year professional career. Leslie averaged 17.3 points, 9.1 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 2.3 blocks per game throughout her career.

    She was able to win three MVP Awards, have nine All-WNBA selections (six First Team and three Second Team), two Defensive Player of the Year Awards and 15 WNBA Player of the Week selections (a league record).

    Leslie's stellar play helped lead the Sparks to two WNBA titles.

    Besides her WNBA career, she was a four-time gold medalist for the U.S. Women's Basketball Team (1996, 2000, 2004, 2008) and two world championships (1998, 2002). 

    Right now, Leslie is a fashion model and actress.

18. Debi Thomas

3 of 19

    The beautiful Debi Thomas (1967-present) excelled at ice skating, being a dominant force in the sport during the 1980s.

    Thomas decided at a young age she wanted to be an ice skater, even though there were no black skaters for her to look up to.

    This is what Thomas had to say about this to Time Magazine's Tom Callahan in the Feb. 15, 1988 article The Word She Uses Is Invincible:

    "I never felt I had to have a role model . . . I didn't think I had to see a black woman do this to believe it's possible."

    When Thomas was an eighth grader, she didn't do well in the junior ladies' competition that year. She told Callahan in that same Time interview that she and her mother promised themselves not to ever put ice skating over education.

    Thomas entered Stanford University to study pre-med, all the while winning the U.S. Figure Skating National Championship (1986, 1988) and the World Figure Skating Champion (1986). She was the first black woman to win the U.S. championships.

    In the 1998 Winter Olympics, she was the first African-American to win a medal in the Winter Games by grabbing the bronze.

    Upon retirement, Thomas studied to be an orthopedic surgeon. She graduated from Stanford University in 1991 with an engineering degree and from the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in 1997.

17. Bob Gibson

4 of 19

    If pitching is an art, then Bob Gibson (1935-present) was a splendid artist.

    The legendary St. Louis Cardinals pitcher had a filthy slider that was so devastating it helped him have one of the greatest pitching seasons in modern era baseball. In 1968, Gibson had an amazing 1.12 ERA in 304 2/3 innings pitched, which included 13 shutouts. 

    That year, he allowed opposing batters to hit .184,  have an on-base percentage of .233 and achieve a meager slugging percentage of .236.

    These amazing stats helped Gibson win the National League Cy Young and MVP Awards. He is the last NL pitcher to win the MVP.

    Gibson's dominance was part of the reason why baseball lowered the pitcher's mound from 15 inches to 10 inches and narrowed the strike zone's height from the batter's armpits to the jersey letters. These rules limited a slider's effectiveness, and a reduced strike zone gave the batter more of an even playing field.

    Even though 1968 was his greatest season, Gibson, a nine-time All-Star and Gold Glove Award winner and two-time World Series MVP (1964, 1967), forced 3,117 strikeouts and threw a no-hitter in 1971.

    Gibson's No. 45 was retired by the Cardinals as he became the greatest Cardinals pitcher of all-time. He  is a member of Baseball's Hall of Fame and the Major League Baseball All-Century Team. He also was named  the most intimidating pitcher of all time from the Fox Sports Net series The Sports List.

16. Bobo Brazil

5 of 19

    Bobo Brazil (1923-1998) was credited for ending racial segregation in American professional wrestling.

    A former steel mill worker, Brazil began his career facing other black wrestlers like Ernie Ladd and Abdullah the Butcher. However, wrestling fans began clamoring to see Brazil face any opponent.

    He then challenged wrestlers such as Killer Kowalski, Dick the Bruiser, Johnny Valentine and The Sheik.

    Brazil had a special finishing maneuver called the Coco Butt, an intense headbutt that would devastate his foes.

    Bobo made history on Oct. 18, 1962 by besting "Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers for the NWA World Heavyweight Title, becoming the first black to ever win the prestigious title.

    He also was in the first racially-mixed wrestling match in Atlanta, when he and El Mongol defeated Mr. Ito and The Great Ota on Oct. 9, 1970.

    Brazil retired from his illustrious career in 1994 at the age of 71 and was inducted into the WWF Hall of Fame that same year.

14 and 15. Tommie Smith and John Carlos

6 of 19

    America was going through a cultural revolution in the 1960s, and one of the defining moments during that decade was the "Black Power Salute" in the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, Mexico.

    On Oct. 16, 1968, U.S. sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos (both from San Jose State University) placed first and third in the 200-meter sprint, respectively. Australian sprinter Peter Norman finished second.

    When the medal ceremony commenced, all three athletes wore Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) badges, which protested racial segregation in all countries. Both Smith (1944-present) and Carlos (1945-present) were shoeless and wore black to represent black poverty.

    A black scarf adorned Smith's neck to symbolize black pride. Carlos unzipped his tracksuit top to demonstrate unity with all American blue-collar workers and wore a beaded necklace to remember lynched and murdered blacks.

    Smith forgot his black gloves, but Norman suggested that Carlos share his with Smith. Smith raise his left fist while Carlos raised his right fist, a variation of the right-fist Black Power Salute during the national anthem. Watch the video here.

    This action was printed in newspapers around the world and stirred much controversy. The International Olympic Committee president, Avery Brundage (a Nazi sympathizer who allowed Nazi salutes at the 1936 Games), banned Smith and Carlos from the games because he felt their domestic political statement was inappropriate for the Olympics' apolitical stance.

    However, Smith and Carlos' actions eventually helped remove Brundage as the IOC president, achieving one of OPHR's main goals.

    A mural depicting the three protesting athletes stands to this day in Newton, Australia.

13. Magic Johnson

7 of 19

    Magic Johnson (1959-present) is important for two reasons.

    The first reason was because Johnson and Larry Bird helped save the NBA.

    In the 1970s, the NBA was at an all-time low in fan interest after the NBA-ABA merger. According to HBO's Magic & Bird: A Courtship Of Rivals, a big reason for the diminishing interest was because white fans didn't like "the black game" and emerging dominance of black stars. 

    This was described as the individualism displayed both in attitude and athletic moves that black players like George "The Iceman" Gervin espoused. White fans liked "the team-oriented play" of the white players.

    Before Magic came to the NBA, he and his Michigan State Spartans beat Bird's Indiana State Sycamores in the 1979 NCAA National Title Game, which was the highest-rated in college history at the time.

    When Magic Johnson came to the NBA, he was an immediate sensation. At 6'9", he could play any position but was naturally a really tall point guard. He could execute beautiful no-look passes or zip a laser through a defensive zone for easy points.

    Magic played with a swagger knowing he could beat his opponents by executing the coolest of moves.

    Johnson's rivalry with Bird, the NBA's other 1980s superstar, was legendary. The two squared off in three NBA Finals, with Magic winning two of them. This rivalry sparked renewed interest in the NBA.

    Career-wise, Johnson is widely considered the greatest point guard of all-time. He has three MVP and Finals MVP Awards, nine All-NBA First Team selections, was a 12-time All-Star and a member of the 1992 Olympic Dream Team. 

    Another significant contribution Johnson made was for AIDS awareness. Johnson contracted the HIV virus in 1991 and abruptly retired from basketball. However, he wanted to have one last go-around on the court and decided to play in the 1992 All-Star Game.

    Some players were nervous they would contract the HIV virus from playing with Johnson or touching him, as public knowledge of the disease was not what it is now.

    Johnson, along with NBA Commissioner David Stern, went about to educate the league and public about HIV and how people infected with the virus are just like anyone else.

    He went on to win the All-Star MVP Award by scoring 25 points, dishing out nine assists and grabbing five rebounds. After his playing career, Magic was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

    Johnson is currently a businessman, philanthropist and an ESPN NBA analyst.

12. Tiger Woods

8 of 19

    Golf is traditionally a high-class white man's game where blacks were not welcome on the course. However, a black man is clearly the best golfer on the PGA Tour, and perhaps the greatest ever.

    Tiger Woods (1975-present) owned the golfing and sporting world from 1996-2009 like no other.

    Woods, who has won 14 majors titles, is second all-time only to the great Jack Nicklaus (18), and his 71 PGA wins are third all-time behind Nicklaus (73) and Samuel Snead (82). He also won 16 World Golf Championships.

    Tiger was the youngest golfer (24) to ever win the Grand Slam (the four major golfing tournaments, the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship in the same year) and has achieved that distinction an amazing three times.

    Woods also has been named PGA Player of the Year for a record 10 times, including four consecutive times. He was such an accurate and powerful driver that he revolutionized golf, with golf course designers trying to "Tiger-proof" their courses by adding extra yardage.

    Tiger's stardom increased the public's interest in golf, where he has his own video game franchise, wrote a best-selling instructional book How I Play Golf (2001) and a column for Golf Digest magazine from 1997-2011.

    The Associated Press named Tiger the top athlete of the 2000s decade, ahead of Lance Armstrong and  Roger Federer. He is also named one of the 100 Greatest African-Americans by scholar Molefi Kete Asante.

    Even though Tiger is struggling right now to win golfing events, expect the living legend to bounce back.

11. Jack Johnson

9 of 19

    Sports are defined by individuals, and there was no one as unique as boxing legend Jack Johnson (1878-1946).

    The native Texan nicknamed the Galveston Giant went on to be the first black world heavyweight boxing champion from 1908-15 after defeating Canadian pugilist Tommy Burns in a 15-round bout where he won by technical knockout

    Johnson had an unconventional fighting style where he would begin a match cautiously, then build up in aggression as the fight continued.

    After Johnson won the title, racist and former heavyweight champion boxer James J. Jeffries (19-1-2, 14 KOs) decided to finally challenge Johnson (79-8-12, 46 KOs) after refusing to face him after he won the World Colored Heavyweight Championship in 1903.

    Dubbed "The Fight of the Century," the undefeated Jeffries came out of retirement and had this to say about Johnson and the 1910 fight in Reno, Nev.:

    I feel obligated to the sporting public at least to make an effort to reclaim the heavyweight championship for the white race. . . I should step into the ring again and demonstrate that a white man is king of them all.

    When the fight commenced, Johnson went on to annihilate Jeffries in 14 rounds, where he could've knocked him out. He decided to punish Jeffries instead with the fight and filming being stopped by police before he could be knocked out. Johnson won again by technical knockout.

    Johnson eventually lost his heavyweight title after being knocked out by Jess Willard in an epic 26-round battle on April 5, 1915. He boxed until he was 60, losing seven of his last nine matches.

    Besides boxing, Johnson was a great celebrity who endorsed many products and even opened his own nightclub in Harlem, New York. He also caused controversy for marrying white women and having them as consorts.

10. Althea Gibson

10 of 19

    Before the Williams sisters ruled the tennis court, Althea Gibson (1927-2003) routinely destroyed opponents with potent serves.

    Gibson played tennis at Florida A&M University and then went on to have a great amateur career, as there was no professional tour for women at the time.

    Her claim to fame was becoming the first black woman to ever win the tennis Grand Slam (winning the Australian Open Doubles, French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open Singles from 1956-57). She also won five more doubles titles, with three in Wimbledon (1956-58).

    Not only did Gibson dominate at the Grand Slam events from 1956-58, she earned the No. 1 ranking in the world from 1957-58 for her efforts.

    Retiring from tennis in 1958, Gibson penned an autobiography and recorded an album called Althea Gibson Sings (1959). She also appeared in the film The Horse Soldiers (1959).

    Gibson became the first black woman to play in the LPGA Tour in 1964, but she wasn't successful and competed for a few years.

    The International Tennis Hall of Fame inducted Gibson in 1971, and the Sports Hall of Fame of New Jersey (1994) and New Jersey Hall of Fame (2009) shortly followed.

9. Hank Aaron

11 of 19

    Arguably one of the Top 5 baseball players of all-time, Hank Aaron (1934-present) broke the "unbreakable" career home run record held by Babe Ruth.

    Aaron began his baseball career with in the Negro League with the Indianapolis Clowns and quickly caught the eye the Boston Braves, who then inked him to a minor-league deal.

    After a couple years in the minors, Aaron made his Major League debut in 1954, when the Braves moved to Milwaukee. He was one of the first five black players in baseball history. He had to endure the racist attitudes of the Jim Crow South like fellow legend Jackie Robinson did.

    Racism and racial prejudice didn't stop Aaron from excelling on the diamond. He was a 25-time All-Star, three-time Gold Glove Award winner, four-time National League home run champion and two-time NL batting champion.

    Aaron won the 1957 NL MVP Award while leading the Braves to a 1957 World Series championship.

    Gaudy career totals piled up for Aaron. He had 755 home runs, 2,297 RBIs (an MLB record) and 3,771 hits (third all-time) with a .305 batting average.

    Hammerin' Hank's greatest baseball accomplishment was surpassing Ruth's 714 career homers. Numerous baseball fans sent Aaron death threats and hate mail for attempting to beat Ruth's record.

    Sports Illustrated writer William Leggett had this to say about Aaron's hateful treatment in A Tortured Road to 715:

    Is this to be the year in which Aaron, at the age of thirty-nine, takes a moon walk above one of the most hallowed individual records in American sport...? Or will it be remembered as the season in which Aaron, the most dignified of athletes, was besieged with hate mail and trapped by the cobwebs and goblins that lurk in baseball's attic?

    On April 8, 1974, Aaron blasted No. 715 over Los Angeles Dodger Bill Buckner's reach, as this film shows.

    Bad Henry was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, named to the MLB All-Century Team and had his No. 44 retired by the Atlanta Braves and the Milwaukee Brewers. He is also named one of the 100 Greatest African Americans by scholar Molefi Kete Asante.

8. Wilma Rudolph

12 of 19

    If any athlete deserves to have a movie made about his or her life, that honor should 110 percent go to U.S. Olympic great Wilma Rudolph (1940-1994).

    Rudolph grew up in poverty with 21 brothers and sisters. She was born prematurely and suffered from infantile paralysis brought on by polio. Rundolph had to wear a brace on her left leg and foot, which had become twisted from the virus.

    She wore a brace for years until her leg was corrected when she turned 12.

    Rudolph became a high school and college track star, becoming one of the famous Tigerbelles from the Tennessee East University.

    She competed in the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games and won a bronze medal in the 4 x 100-meter relay.

    The Tornado made her mark in the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, Italy. She became the first American woman to win three gold medals in track during a single Olympic Games. The events she won were the 100- and 200-meter sprints and the 4 x 100-m with fellow Tigerbelles Martha Hudson, Lucinda Williams and Barbara Jones.

    As this was the first internationally telecast Olympic Games, Rudolph catapulted into superstardom as she became known as the fastest women in the world for setting an Olympic record in the 200 m and a world one the 4 x 100 m. The Italians called her La Gazzella Negra (The Black Gazell); to the French, she was La Perle Noire (The Black Pearl).

    The Black Gazell won United Press Athlete of the Year 1960 and Associated Press Woman Athlete of the Year for 1960 and 1961.

    Rudolph completed her college career and retired from track after winning two races at a U.S.–Soviet meet in 1962.

    Despite her relatively short career, Rudolph was inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame (1974), the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame (1983) and the National Women's Hall of Fame (1994)

    After her retirement, Rudolph was a high school teacher and track coach who did sports commentary on national television.

7. Ernie Davis

13 of 19

    Ernie Davis (1939-1963) achieved so much in such a short time.

    Davis was an explosive running back out of Syracuse University who dominated college football for three years. He led the Orange to the NCAA Division I-A national football championship by dispatching the University of Texas, 23-14, in the Cotton Bowl Classic.

    The next two seasons, Davis propelled his stardom further, as he was voted Most Valuable Player of the 1960 Cotton Bowl Classic and the 1961 Liberty Bowl.

    Davis' claim to fame was being the first black athlete to win perhaps the nation's most revered individual award, the Heisman Trophy. Davis rushed for 823 yards and 15 touchdowns in 10 games.

    He was selected an All-American twice (1960-61) and finished his Syracuse career with 2,386 rushing yards, 35 touchdowns and 220 points scored.  

    The Washington Redskins drafted Davis with the first pick of the 1962 NFL draft, and he was then traded to the Cleveland Browns. However, Davis never played in the NFL, as he was diagnosed with leukemia in 1962 and died shortly after.

    The College Football Hall of Fame inducted Davis in 1979, and Syracuse (No. 44) and the Browns (No. 45) retired his number. 

    The movie The Express (2008) was based off Robert C. Gallagher's biographical book, Ernie Davis: The Elmira Express (1999). 

6. Michael Jordan

14 of 19

    While Magic Johnson helped save the NBA, Michael Jordan (1963-present) made the NBA internationally known.

    His Airness brought a dogged determination to be great not only offensively, but also defensively. 

    Jordan was a star at the University North Carolina who led the Tar Heels to an NCAA Championship. MJ then had the most amazing 15-year NBA career ever, logging 13 with the Chicago Bulls.

    Jordan had 10 All-NBA First Team selections, nine All-NBA Defensive First Team selections, was a 10-time scoring champion, captured five NBA MVP Awards and won six NBA titles, along with six NBA Finals MVP Awards.

    He brought life back to the NBA Slam Dunk Competition, winning twice in the 1980s with spectacular high-flying jams, including one from the free-throw line. He was a flashy scorer who learned how to become a lock-down defender, claiming the NBA Defensive Player of the Year Award in 1988.

    In the NBA Finals, Jordan cemented his claim of being the greatest basketball player ever by beating and outplaying Hall of Famers Magic Johnson, James Worthy, Clyde Drexler, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone and John Stockton without ever losing a championship series.

    When Jordan came back from his first retirement, he had to adjust his game from a primary driver to a primary jump-shooter. He developed a deadly fadeaway jumper that Kobe Bryant has since copied.

    MJ was also a member of the 1992 Olympic Dream Team, is a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and has his No. 23 retired by the Bulls.

    Outside of basketball, Jordan made the NBA well-know throughout the world, where it expanded in Europe and China. He helped Nike become a dynamic business with his Air Jordan shoes, making athletic shoes a fashion-must. Even though Jordan hasn't played in nine years, his signature sneakers still outsell any other athletic shoes by a long shot.

    Ad campaigns had kids saying "I wanna be like Mike!", and children of every color from around America and abroad really did.

    Right now, Jordan is majority owner of the Charlotte Bobcats.

5. Bill Russell

15 of 19

    Being a black player in Boston during the 1950s-1960s wasn't an easy thing. Just ask Celtics legend Bill Russell (1934-present).

    Classically defined as a highly racist city, South Boston civilians threw rocks and tomatoes at buses of black students during forced public school integration in the 1970s, while the Red Sox were the last Major League Baseball team to integrate.

    Russell was a standout college player at University of San Francisco, leading his squad to NCAA National Championships in 1955 and 1956. After helping the U.S. Olympic Team win the 1956 gold medal, Russell began his NBA career with the Celtics.

    The biggest contribution Russell gave basketball strategy-wise was on the defensive end. Forwards and center during that time were defined by their offensive output, not their defense. Russell was a great one-on-one defender who also could block shots like no other. 

    As the NBA's first star black athlete, Russell would outplay basketball great and offensive monster Wilt Chamberlain with smothering defense.

    Having perhaps the most successful career in NBA history, Russell went on to win five MVP Awards, 12 All-Star selections, 11 All-NBA selections (three First Team and eight Second Team) and was an 11-time NBA champion.

    During 1966-69, Russell served as the Celtics player-coach and won two titles. He was the first black coach in the NBA.

    For his merits, Russell was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, and President Barack Obama gave him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011 for his part in the Civil Rights Movement on and off the court

4. Jim Brown

16 of 19

    Jim Brown (1936-present) means a lot to Syracuse University, the Cleveland Browns, the NFL and the black community.

    First off, Brown had a legendary career at Syracuse. The fast and super strong Brown excelled at football, basketball, track and especially lacrosse. He was the Orange's second-leading scorer as a sophomore. In lacrosse, he was named was named a second-team and first-team All-American his junior and senior years, respectively. 

    But football stood out over all the rest. Brown was an effective back who was a unanimous First Team All-American as a senior, finishing fifth in Heisman voting. He ran for 986 yards (6.2 yards per carry) in only eight games (third most in the country) and scored 14 total touchdowns.

    Brown's impressive senior season propelled him to become the No. 6 pick of the Cleveland Browns in the 1957 NFL draft. At Cleveland, Brown put together perhaps the most impressive professional football career ever.

    In just nine seasons, Brown left as the record-holder in single-season rushing (1,863 yards in 1963), career rushing (12,312 yards), rushing touchdowns (106), total touchdowns (126) and all-purpose yards (15,549). All those records have since been eclipsed, but he still remains in the Top 10 in many categories.

    First Down Brown still holds the yards per game (104.3 yards) and carry (5.2) career marks That's more than other rushing greats Barry Sanders (99.8 yards-per-game, 5.0 yards-per-carry), Walter Payton (88 yards-per- game, 4.4 yards-per-carry) and Emmitt Smith (81.2 yards-per-game, 4.2 yards-per-carry).

    What's more telling about Brown's accomplishments in 118 games and never missed a contest during his nine-year career. He was an eight-time First-Team All-Pro selection, an eight-time NFL rushing champion, a nine-time NFL All-Star, a three-time NFL MVP (1957-58, 1965) and was named to the NFL 1960s All-Decade Team. 

    Brown was the first player in NFL history to win both the Rookie of the Year Award and an MVP in the same season (1957).

    He was inducted in the College Football (1995), Pro Football (1971) and Lacrosse (1983) Hall of Fames. His No. 32 was retired by the Browns, while The Sporting News and rank him the No. 1 and No. 2 greatest NFL player of all-time, respectively.

    After his playing career, Brown starred in over 30 films, including popular flicks like The Dirty Dozen (1967) and Ice Station Zebra (1968). Biographer Mike Freeman said  Brown was “the first black action star” in Jim Brown: The Fierce Life Of An American Hero (2007).

    Brown has since founded the Black Economic Union and established Amer-I-Can, an organization dedicated to supporting at-risk youth in Cleveland and Los Angeles, with Colin Powell.

3. Jesse Owens

17 of 19

    Many people today would love to give German dictator Adolph Hitler the middle finger, but they have to be content with the metaphorical one that American sprinter and long jumper Jesse Owens (1913-1980) gave the Führer.

    Owens, a track star at Ohio State University who won an NCAA record eight individual national titles in 1935-36, was on the U.S. Olympic Team that went to the 1936 Games that were held in Berlin, Germany.

    Hilter was slowly gaining power in Europe and hoped that his racist Aryan ideals (that the Germanic are superior to everyone) would be promoted. In fact, the Nazi Party propaganda depicted ethnic Africans as racially inferior.

    Owens then had one of the greatest Olympic performances of all-time. He won gold medals in the 100-meter and 200-meter sprints, the 4 x 100-meter relay and the long jump. When Owens won the 100 m, Hitler only acknowledged the German medalists with a handshake and deliberately ignored Owens.

    When the Olympic Committee wanted Hitler to acknowledge everyone or no one, Hitler decided not to recognize anyone.

    This is what Owens had to say about Hitler to the Pittsburgh Press:

    Hitler had a certain time to come to the stadium and a certain time to leave. It happened he had to leave before the victory ceremony after the 100 meters.

    While battling international racism, Owens had to deal with racism at home. In Jeremy Schaap's Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler's Olympics (2007), Owens said he felt Franklin D. Roosevelt really snubbed him for "not even sending a telegram."

    FDR and Harry S. Truman never invited him to the White House, but Dwight Eisenhower finally named him "Ambassador of Sports" in 1955. He is also named one of the 100 Greatest African Americans by scholar Molefi Kete Asante.

    For Owens' accomplishments, Ohio State dedicated their track and field facility Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium for track and field events. USA Track and Field also issued an important honor called the Jesse Owens Award, which is the highest award for the year's best track and field athlete.

2. Muhammad Ali

18 of 19

    Muhammad Ali (1942-present) always said he was the greatest, and he promptly proved it every darn time he could.

    Born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr., Ali first made his name during an outstanding amateur career (100-5). He won six Kentucky Golden Gloves titles, two national Golden Gloves titles, an Amateur Athletic Union National Title and the Light Heavyweight gold medal in the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, Italy. 

    The Rome Games made Clay an instant star, as he defeated three-time European champion Zbigniew Pietrzykowski, propelling him to bigger and better things during his professional career.

    The Greatest (56-5, 37 KOs) fought in several historic boxing matches; among them, three against rival Joe Frazier and one with George Foreman, where he reclaimed his title. The legendary pugilist also fought champions Sonny Liston, Floyd Patterson and Ken Norton numerous times.

    Ali eventually became the first and only three-time lineal World Heavyweight Champion in boxing history.

    The Greatest contributed to boxing strategy with the Ali Shuffle and the rope-a-dope. He also was one of the first black boxers embraced by whites.

    One area close to Ali's heart was the Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King, Jr. looked up to him, and Ali followed Malcolm X and his Nation of Islam movement.

    Ali was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame and defeated seven other Hall of Fame pugilists. The Louisville Lip was named "Sportsman of the Year" by Sports Illustrated, one of three boxers to receive the honor. SI also named The People's Champion "Sportsman of the Century."

    He is also named one of the 100 Greatest African Americans by scholar Molefi Kete Asante.

1. Jackie Robinson

19 of 19

    Perhaps the greatest African-American athlete of all-time is Jackie Robinson (1919-72) of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

    Robinson was the first professional black baseball player in Jim Crow America. Major League Baseball had black athletes until 1880, when the National League decided to segregate. Black ballplayers were relegated to the Negro Leagues for over six decades before Robinson came.

    At UCLA, Robinson was the first athlete of any color to win varsity letters in four sports (baseball, basketball, football and track). Following his successful collegiate career, Robinson served during WWII and played semi-professional football and in the Negro Leagues.

    Robinson's play caught the eye of Dodgers president/general manager Branch Rickey, who wanted to integrate baseball. After playing in the minor leagues for a year, Robinson was called up in 1947 and played his first MLB game on April 15.

    Opposing fans and ballplayers hurdled racial epitaphs, insults and death threats at Robinson, including unnecessary physical play by the St. Louis Cardinals and Philadelphia Phillies. The Cards, who threatened to strike rather than play against Robinson, gave Jackie a seven-inch gash in his left leg. 

    Even Robinson's teammates threatened to not play for the Dodgers, until manager Leo Durocher stood up for the speedy Robinson and said he would trade any dissenters. 

    Robinson amazingly never fought back, instead letting his play on the field speak for itself. He won the MLB Rookie of the Year Award (1947), the National League MVP Award (1949) and was a six-time All-Star. Robinson's celebrity was so great that in 1950, he starred as himself in the Jackie Robinson Story.

    He was inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962, was named to the MLB All-Century Team and his No. 42 is retired throughout pro baseball. He is also named one of the 100 Greatest African Americans by scholar Molefi Kete Asante.

    Not only did Robinson break the color barrier, but he was a great catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement that took off in the 1950s-1960s. Robinson was at Martin Luther King, Jr.'s March on Washington in 1963 with his son.

    He had many business ventures to help advance his fellow blacks in commerce and industry. One notable company was the Jackie Robinson Construction Company to build housing for low-income families. 

    Without Robinson's pioneering ways, American would be a different place.

    Bob Bajek is a featured columnist. He is also a freelance reporter and can be followed on and Twitter.


The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.