History’s best has no sneaker or yellow jersey

To begin this week’s column, I’m just going to put it right out there and ask who’s the best athlete, dare I say– ever?

Whenever I think of this question, the image that first comes to mind is that of Michael Jordan, 1998, making that 10 foot jumper over a fumbling, stumbling Bryon Russell with 5.2 seconds left in game 6 against the Utah Jazz. The last few minutes where he stunningly and single-handedly carried, no willed his Chicago Bulls to a sixth NBA championship in eight years. It was a moment where someone who knew nothing about basketball could watch and appreciate it — like a physicist looking at the Mona Lisa — any layman knew they were witnessing pure genius. The look on Jordan’s face in those seconds that defined his career can only be matched by a look from Lance Armstrong.

I actually was fortunate enough to spend part of my summer watching the Tour de France stages in the Alps and saw Lance Armstrong climb the venerable Alp d’Huez in near-record time. It was an amazing sight and I’ll never forget the look of determination on his face (although fortunately his tongue was tucked safely in his mouth during his alp climb, something MJ could learn from).

I mention these two men because when the question of who the best athlete ever is brought up, these two guys immediately pop into my mind. My head always chooses Jordan — cultural icon, dominated an immensely popular sport for so many years — while my heart belongs to the cycling Texan; after all, it takes one hell of an athlete to beat cancer and then go on to do what he’s done within the hallowed sport of cycling.

So, the question remains, between the two of them who really is the best? It’s a clichZd question and one mere week after insinuating that Olympic darling Marion Jones is on some form of steroids, it’s a question I probably shouldn’t tackle — so, I won’t. Instead, I’m going to write about an athlete whose feats come to mind whenever the NFL season starts. I’m talking about an athlete who has as of recently been left out of ESPN “best athlete ever” polls, embarrassed by the Olympic committee and through it all retained his dignity. I’m talking about Jim Thorpe.

When I think of Thorpe, so many things come to mind all at once, that I’m immediately humbled by his grandeur. For me it’s clear that had this guy ever taken on the NFL, he would have gone down as the best player — and yes, I dare say — EVER! This guy was larger than life on the football field at his Indian Carlisle School in Carlisle, Penn. In 1912 he led them to the National Collegiate Championship in a sport where people of his race barely mustered enough respect to be taken into account when topics like discrimination came up. By the way, he also happened to score 25 touchdowns and 198 points in that game — talk about willing your team to a championship.

Sure, with how the sport’s evolved, comparing football in 1912 to the NFL as we currently know it is about as constructive a use of time as comparing oranges and apples but really, there are certain stats you just can’t help but be bowled over by. Let’s not forget that he did play professional football until the not-so-ripe age of 41; how does that compare to standing on a mound, Clemens? People are always talking about how Rich Gannon is past his prime at 38 and he’s a QB — how many running backs are still running around past 35?

Still not convinced? Well we all saw how Jordan’s stint in the MLB turned out, so I ask, how many professional athletes do you know who can not only play another sport but be dominate at it. Granted Thorpe was no Babe Ruth or even close, but he did bat .327 in his last season with the Boston Braves in 1919 — oh yes, and all this was after winning the decathlon and pentathlon at the 1912 Olympics.

This is where I think Thorpe’s legacy becomes tarnished and somewhat fuzzy in the minds of sports enthusiasts — and unfairly so I might add. Thorpe’s gold medals were taken away shortly following the games when it was discovered that the naive athlete played baseball in North Carolina for two summers for between a mere $15-$25 a week, which of course compromised his amateur status. Yes, in 1982 the Olympic committee did restore Thorpe’s honor to his family by reinstating him as an amateur and giving them replicas of his gold medals but I can’t see how that would make up for why one of the greatest athletes and most skilled person to ever play the sport of football ended up dying poor and depressed. After all, this is a guy who single-handedly ended future President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s football career, tearing up the 34th President’s knee simply because Ike thought he was good enough to tackle the football machine that was Thorpe.

Maybe it was the absence of TV or the lack of radios around when Thorpe was in his prime, but the prejudices and conflicts Thorpe dealt with as a phenomenal Native American athlete have certainly allowed his record to be lost. With the NFL season starting and the media bombarding us with players kvetching about how they’ll ever manage to feed their family with a seven figure paycheck, it’s sobering to realize that you may not have even known the name of the greatest player ever.

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