Top 100 Oklahoma Athletes

By Berry Tramel
Staff Writer

The mystery starts at No. 2.

In selecting the 100 greatest athletes in Oklahoma’s 100 years, the first pick is the easiest.

Jim Thorpe. The Sac & Fox legend, born in 1888 near Prague, went to an Indian school in Stroud before embarking on the greatest athletic adventure in American history.

At Carlisle Indian School, a college football star the equal of Barry Sanders or Billy Sims.

At Stockholm, Sweden, the 1908 Olympic decathlon gold medalist.

At Canton, Ohio, a pro football star who helped the Canton Bulldogs form the American Professional Football Association, which became the NFL. A larger-than-life statue of Thorpe sits in the rotunda of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton. He is the Hall’s most revered member.

Two through 99 were grueling decisions. No. 1 was not.

See a PDF of The Oklahoman's two-page spread on this list

Listen to Berry Tramel explain his decisions

100 Greatest Athletes

Jim Thorpe

1. Jim Thorpe (Pottawatomie County): In 1999, the Associated Press named Babe Ruth the athlete of the century. Michael Jordan was second. Jim Thorpe was third.

2. Mickey Mantle (Commerce): America’s biggest sports star of the 1950s. In 1956, Mantle was as good a baseball player as God ever made. A lightning fast, 24-year-old centerfielder who hit 52 home runs, scored 132 runs and drove in 130, playing in a pitcher’s park. Mantle won the American League home run title by 20 dingers.

3. Barry Sanders (OSU): The notion that Sanders played on bad Detroit Lions teams is false. The Lions were 78-82 in the regular season during Sanders’ career but made the playoffs in five of Sanders’ 10 seasons.

4. John Smith (Del City, OSU): Through Del City and OSU, John and big brother Lee Roy Jr. were virtually even. Each won two state titles in high school. Lee Roy won one NCAA title, four Big Eight crowns and was a three-time All-American. John won two NCAA titles, three Big Eights and was a three-time All-American. John bolted away internationally. Lee Roy won three silver medals in world competition. John became America’s greatest wrestler, with six world championships, including two Olympic golds.

Shannon Miller

5. Shannon Miller (Edmond): The greatest American gymnast ever. Miller suffered a dislocated elbow in spring 1992. Three months later, in Barcelona, she won the Olympic silver all-around, losing gold by the smallest margin in history, .012 points, to Ukranian Tatiana Gutsu, who had not qualified for the finals but advanced via shenanigans. Miller won the world all-around title the next two years.

6. Lee Roy Selmon (Eufaula, OU): Seventy-two players have been the overall No. 1 selection in the NFL draft. Only 14 went on to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The youngest of Lucious and Jessie Selmon’s nine children is one of the 14.

7. Carl Hubbell (Meeker): Why doesn’t anyone throw a screwball anymore? Jim Mecir, who retired in 2005, might have been the last. Hubbell, the scroogie king, threw a screwball to two National League MVP awards with the Giants. That’s how many the greatest Giant of them all, Willie Mays, won.

8. Steve Largent (Putnam City, Tulsa U.): Everyone always thinks of Largent as a possession receiver. So why did he average 16 yards a catch? Randy Moss has averaged 15.8; Terrell Owens 14.6.

9. Johnny Bench (Binger): The Cincinnati Reds scouting department deserves credit for Bench’s career. Not for finding him. Not for developing him. But for getting the heck out of the way. The Reds drafted Bench in the second round in 1965, then they made him their starting catcher at age 20. By 22, he was the National League MVP.

Troy Aikman

10. Troy Aikman (Henryetta): Remember when Aikman was a wishbone quarterback at OU? Well, even as an NFL rookie, he still could move, rushing for 302 yards in 1989. Of course, soon enough Aikman cut that out and settled down to winning Super Bowls.

11. Jess Willard (Elk City): Heavyweight boxing champ from 1915-1919 was Kansas bred but moved to Oklahoma, where he learned to box at the Oklahoma City Athletic Club. First eight bouts were in Oklahoma.

12. Bob Kurland (OSU): In 1946, a better college player than Greg Oden in 2007, and just as good a pro prospect.

13. Don McNeill (Oklahoma City): A ballboy at the old Oklahoma City Tennis Club, McNeill was a state tennis champion at Classen. He wanted to go to OU or Texas but said neither wanted him. So in 1936 he went to Kenyon College in Ohio and in 1940 won the U.S. Open, beating Bobby Riggs. McNeill also won the 1939 French Open, one of only seven Americans to do so.

14. Will Shields (Lawton): Just retired from the NFL. Will be in the Hall of Fame by 2014.

Bullet Joe Rogan

15. Bullet Joe Rogan (Oklahoma City): 151 wins most in Negro League history.

16. Tommy McDonald (OU): Of NFL’s top 15 touchdown-catch leaders, only Don Hutson, Don Maynard and McDonald started careers before 1962.

17. Paul Waner (Harrah): Most comparable modern ballplayer to Waner is Tony Gwynn.

18. Mark Price (Enid): First team all-NBA in 1993, joining Barkley, Olajuwon, Malone and Jordan.

19. Jim Shoulders (Henryetta): Only cowboy in the Madison Square Garden Hall of Fame.

Nancy Lopez

20. Nancy Lopez (Tulsa U.): LPGA’s Sam Snead. Big winner, but never won U.S. Open.

21. Marques Haynes (Sand Springs, Langston): In 1953, turned down $35,000 a year from NBA Warriors, which would have made him league’s No. 2-paid player.

22. Thurman Thomas (OSU): No. 8 in NFL history in yards from scrimmage (rushing & receiving combined). Tony Dorsett is ninth.

23. Yojiro Uetake (OSU): Uetake came from Japan and wrestled like Oklahomans never had before seen. He went 58-0 as a collegian, with three NCAA titles and two most outstanding wrestler awards in the national tournament. Also won two Olympic gold medals.

24. Allie Reynolds (Oklahoma City, OSU): SuperChief’s World Series record: 6-0 with a 2.79 ERA.

Sean O'Grady

25. Sean O’Grady (Oklahoma City): O’Grady never fought past the age of 22, yet his pro boxing record was 81-5.

26. Susie Maxwell Berning (Oklahoma City, OCU): Three-time U.S. Open golf winner; four of her 11 LPGA Tour wins were in majors.

27. Alvan Adams (Oklahoma City, OU): Monster NBA rookie year — 19.0 points, 9.1 rebounds, 5.6 assists.

28. Wayman Tisdale (Tulsa, OU): Underrated as a pro; averaged 15.3 points over 12 NBA seasons.

29. Mark Schultz (OU): Three-time NCAA champ, three-time Olympic or world gold medalist.

Billy Sims

30. Billy Sims (OU): Through 41/2 NFL seasons, until a knee injury ended his career, Sims had 5,106 yards on 1,131 carries. Numbers better than Marshall Faulk’s first 41/2 years.

31. Kenny Monday (Tulsa, OSU): Never lost in wrestling between sixth grade and college, rarely after that. Olympic gold and silver medalist.

32. Spec Sanders (Temple): A backup at Texas, then a star Athens Navy Pre-Flight during the war. In 1947, for the New York Yankees of the NFL rival AAFC, Sanders scored 19 touchdowns and rushed for 1,432 yards. He was fourth in the league in rushing in 1948 and led the NFL in interceptions with 13 in 1950.

33. Crystal Robinson (Atoka, Southeastern State): ABL rookie of the year in 1996, then jumped to the WNBA in 1999 and helped lead the New York Liberty to five playoff berths.

34. Charles Coe (Ardmore, OU): Two-time U.S. Amateur golf winner chose to never turn pro.

35. Geese Ausbie (Crescent): Once scored 186 points in a three-game high school tournament; went to the Globetrotters in 1962 because it was more lucrative than the NBA.

36. Carl Mays (Kingfisher): His pitch killed Ray Chapman, but a terrific pitcher, 207-126 for his career.

37. Doll Harris (Cement): Led Durant’s Presbyterian College to 1932 AAU women’s basketball national title.

38. Chris Paul (Hornets): Oklahoma’s first major-league superstar.

39. Ace Gutowsky (Kingfisher, OCU): 1930s Detroit star, retired as NFL career rushing leader with 3,279 yards.

40. Ira Davenport (Tonkawa): Broke 800-meter world record in 1912 Olympics while winning bronze medal.

Mat Hoffman

41. Mat Hoffman (Edmond): Trick bicyclist revolutionized his sport.

42. Bobby Boyd (OU): Retired 40 years but ex-Sooner QB still 10th all-time in NFL interceptions, with 57.

43. Jack McCracken (Oklahoma City): 1930s hoops star named to all-time AAU Tournament team.

44. Roy Williams (OU): Safety’s stock will only rise under Wade Phillips in Dallas.

45. Lloyd Waner (Harrah): First three years with Pirates, scored 388 runs.

46. Dennis Rodman (Southeastern State): Before he became a cartoon character, Rodman was a player. The No. 12 rebounder (per game) in NBA history.

47. Clendon Thomas (Oklahoma City, OU): NFL’s highest-paid defensive back in 1963, $35,000.

48. Danny Hodge (Perry, OU): Anyone who ever shakes hands with Danny Hodge won’t forget it. It’s quite a grip. A grip strong enough to service Hodge through a 46-0 wrestling career at OU, an Olympic silver medal and a Golden Gloves boxing title, to boot.

49. Leslie O’Neal (OSU): Tied for seventh on NFL’s career sacks list.

50. Greg Pruitt (OU): Three straight 1,000-yard seasons for Browns.

51. Joe Dial (Marlow, OSU): Set world indoor record for pole vault.

52. Joe Washington (OU): 1,634 scrimmage yards in 1979; Little Joe would have been even better in today’s wide-open NFL.

53. Dave Schultz (OSU, OU): Olympic wrestling champion revered world wide as a tactician.

54. Jon Kolb (Owasso, OSU): Here are the starters on all four Steeler Super Bowl winners from 1974-80: Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Rocky Bleier, L.C. Greenwood, Joe Greene, Jack Ham, Jack Lambert, Mel Blount and the blocker supreme, Jon Kolb.

Bobby Murcer

55. Bobby Murcer (Oklahoma City, OU): In 1972 led AL in runs, extra-base hits and total bases.

56. Easy Jet (Sayre): 1969 All-American Futurity winner and record-setting sire of quarterhorses.

57. Joe Carter (Oklahoma City): 1986 AL RBI champ.

58. Jim Barnes (Stillwater): First overall pick in 1964 NBA draft, averaged 15.5 points as a Knick rookie.

59. Pepper Martin (Temple): Three-time NL stolen-base champ.

60. Ralph Neely (OU): NFL’s all-decade in 1960s with the Cowboys.

61. Michelle Smith (OSU): Two-time Olympic softball gold medalist is a celebrity in Japan, where she played 14 seasons in the Japanese Pro League. Screaming fans clamor for her autograph; maybe it’s the hair. Time Magazine voted Smith “best hair” of the Atlanta Olympics.

62. Desmond Mason (OSU): Played more games as an Oklahoma City Hornet (145) than as an OSU Cowboy (129).

63. Kendall Cross (Mustang, OSU): Rare — never won NCAA, but won Olympic wrestling gold.

64. Mookie Blaylock (OU): Billy Tubbs taught him well; Blaylock 11th in NBA career steals.

65. Keith Jackson (OU): 12th-leading receiving tight end in NFL history, 441 catches.

66. Stacey Dales (OU): Past WNBA all-star, returned to league in 2006 but still a college broadcaster.

67. Walt Garrison (OSU): Sixth in NFL rushing in 1969, 818 yards, as a fullback

68. Steve Owens (Miami, OU): Fourth in the NFL in 1971 rushing.

69. Roy Duvall (Checotah): Three-time PRCA steer wrestling champion, one of five bulldogging champs from Checotah.

70. Bart Conner (OU): Three-time Olympian, only American male gymnast to win gold at every level of competition.

71. Jerry Sherk (OSU): 691/2 career sacks for the Browns.

72 Gil Morgan (Wewoka, East Central U.): Seven-time winner on PGA Tour.

Billy Vessels

73. Billy Vessels (Cleveland, OU): Picked Canada over the NFL and was the CFL player of the year as a 1953 rookie.

74. Arnold Short (Weatherford, OCU): Before Abe Lemons’ high-scoring, run-and-gun basketball lit up the Southwest, Short was a sharpshooter in OKC. He averaged 27.8 points a game as a senior in 1953, then was a two-time first-team all-star with the Phillips 66ers in the National Industrial Basketball League.

75. Don Butler (Tulsa): One of bass fishing’s original stars, won second Bassmasters Classic, in 1972.

76. Glenn Dobbs (Frederick, Tulsa U.): 1946 MVP of the AAFC, the NFL’s rival league.

77. Lindy McDaniel (Hollis, OU): One of only nine pitchers ever with at least 100 wins and 100 saves.

78. Scott Verplank (OSU): First American to make a hole-in-one in Ryder Cup competition.

79. Bryant Reeves (Gans, OSU): Wasn’t bad early in his NBA career; first three scoring averages: 13.3, 16.2, 16.3.

80. Jason White (Tuttle, OU): Great debate: Would White have made the NFL with two good knees?

81. Robert Ussery (Vian): Hall of Fame jockey rode 3,611 winners, including Proud Clarion to the 1967 Kentucky Derby.

82. Bob Fenimore (Woodward, OSU): Injured as a senior in 1946, but the Bears still made him the No. 1 overall pick in the ’47 NFL draft. Scouting wasn’t what it is now.

83. Jack Mildren (OU): Innovative pro coaches today would make good use of Mildren’s QB talents.

84. Courtney Paris (OU): Let’s assume she’ll keep moving up the list.

85. Drew Pearson (Tulsa U.): Undrafted, Pearson was second in the NFL in receiving in his second season with Dallas.

86. Kelly Garrison (Altus, OU): 1988 Olympian placed 16th in gymnastics all-around.

87. Jerry Tubbs (OU): A Dallas Cowboy as long as Tom Landry; for seven years his linebacker, for 22 years his assistant coach.

88. Billy Caskey (Tulsa Roughnecks): An Irish soccer legend, Caskey came to the Tulsa Roughnecks of the North American Soccer League in 1978. He returned to the Roughnecks in 1980 and remained a mainstay with the franchise until it dissolved in 1984. He played in 162 Roughneck games, scored 37 goals and in 1983 Tulsa won the Soccer Bowl, in a league that included the famed New York Cosmos. You can find blogs where Tulsa soccer fans still write, “Bring back Billy Caskey!”

89. John Starks (Tulsa, OSU): Averaged 19.0 points a game in 1993-94 for NBA finalist Knickerbockers.

90. Tony Casillas (Tulsa, OU): All-pro with the Falcons, then a two-time Super Bowl champ with Dallas.

91. Jeff Bennett (Vinita, Oklahoma Christian): Placed fourth in 1972 Olympic decathlon.

Jamal Williams

92. Jamal Williams (OSU): Still a great nose tackle; No. 1 cause of 1997 OSU revival.

93. Tom Churchill (Oklahoma City, OU): A four-sport OU letterman while also placing fifth in 1928 Olympic decathlon.

94. Wes Welker (Oklahoma City): Historian Ray Soldan has been watching Oklahoma high school football for 60 years and says Welker is the best player he’s seen.

95. Cindy Yan Fang (OCU): During her prime, greatest softball second baseman in the world.

96. Jerry Shipp (Blue, Southeastern State): The 1964 U.S. Olympic basketball team included Bill Bradley, Joe Caldwell, Larry Brown, Walt Hazzard and Jeff Mullins. Its leading scorer was Jerry Shipp, at 12.4 points a game. Shipp was a veteran of international basketball; he played for the Phillips 66ers instead of going to the NBA.

97. Robin Ventura (OSU): Good hitter, better fielder; six-time Gold Glove winner.

98. Byron Houston (Oklahoma City, OSU): Leading scorer in OSU hoops history.

99. Wayne Wells (Oklahoma City, OU): In 1972, graduated law school, passed the bar and won Olympic wrestling gold.

100. Virgil Franklin (Riverside): National Golden Gloves and AAU featherweight champion in 1945.