This column appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun in October 2004.
Polling the public about the all-time greats
By Ed Odeven
When you least expect it, the following question comes up at barber shops, barbecue joints, bars, ballgames — name a place, and it’s probably been discussed there.
Who is your favorite football player ever?
This is a question I posed to some three dozen people by e-mail in recent days. But I didn’t just want to know why Joe Jock is someone’s favorite player. Having an inquisitive mind, I also wanted to know why a player became someone’s favorite.
Individuals young and old submitted their answers. Here’s a sampling of the best replies.
“My favorite player (is) Johnny Unitas because he was a talented gambler who had an uncanny sense how the defense was playing him and he took advantage of their lapses. Never saw any other QB do it exactly like him,” writes Bill Gallo, a longtime cartoonist/sports columnist for the New York Daily News.
Sean Bennett, a friend who resides in Texas, also chose a quarterback.
“I know this sounds very convenient, but it used to be (Joe) Montana and now it’s Tom Brady,” Bennett writes. “It’s because he exudes (confidence) naturally and will out-effort all the traits I work so hard to master.
“He’s confident, never rattles under pressure, a consistent performer and extremely bright to the point where the coaches all say he’s like having another coach (on the field).
“I want to be Tom Brady.”
Others, like Lori Haro, an Arizonan who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, put ex-Sun Devil/Cardinal/Army solider Pat Tillman at the top of their list.
“I loved to watch him because he played with such great passion and intensity, leading him to surpass most expectations set of him. In football and in life,” Haro decides.
Montana State radio announcer Kris Atteberry selected the late Walter Payton.
“He always seemed to be having so much fun and he played the game the proper way,” Atteberry insists. “(His was) the only jersey of a real player that I ever wore, even as a kid.”
The man whom many considered the greatest lacrosse player of the 20th century, gets the nod from Cormac Gordon, a columnist for the Staten Island (N.Y.) Advance.
“The most astounding football player I ever saw was Jim Brown, who was 20 pounds heavier and three times faster than the best linebacker of his day, and who literally could not be stopped once he got going.”
Dave Ord, a Tucsonan, put his two cents in for a legendary Native American athlete.
“My selection is Jim Thorpe,” Ord writes. “I never watched him play. In fact, he died nine years before I was born. But believe me, he is the one person I would like to have seen play.
“He won a national college title with Carlisle Indian School. He lead the Canton Bulldogs to unofficial titles three times between 1916 and 1919. He was the first president of the precursor to the NFL, the American Professional Football Association, in 1920.
“It wasn’t the titles nor the astronomical numbers that make him my top gridiron great. It’s the stories that were told about the man who was called everything from ‘the greatest athlete in the world’ to ‘America’s greatest football player of the half-century’ to ‘the most outstanding athlete of the 20th century.’
“For instance, I once read he often demonstrated his kicking prowess during halftimes by place-kicking field goals from the 50-yard line, then turning and drop-kicking the ball through the opposite goal post.
“I was equally impressed by the fact that the chronicles of the day talked of him as a ‘gentleman’ or ‘sportsman.’ Thorpe’s Native-American name was Wa-Tho-Huk, which means ‘Bright Path.’ To me, a bright path is what he left for the endless line of athletes who followed and will follow in his footsteps.”
Another old-timer is George Vecsey’s choice as his favorite footballer.
“When I was nine or 10, my father brought home a book by Sid Luckman, the old QB of the Chicago Bears,” reveals Vecsey, a sports columnist for The New York Times. “It was probably a very ordinary biography but I read it and came to love the Bears, although we lived in NYC. He was a Brooklyn guy who went to Columbia — sounded like a lot of people I knew, except he wore No. 42 and played QB for the Bears.
“One year when Luckman was finishing up as the third-string QB behind (Johnny) Lujack and (Bobby) Layne, the Bears played the Yankees in Yankee Stadium, and my father got me a ticket, and late in the first half George Halas put Luckman in for a series, and the old guy threw some passes and the N.Y. crowd cheered him.
“So he’s my favorite player of all time, and I still get a thrill when I see the Bears’ uniforms, although I couldn’t tell you their QB today.”
Though he never won a Super Bowl — he lost four straight, in fact, as the field general of the Buffalo Bills in the 1990s — Jim Kelly is still a favorite to many, including Bill Walsh, who spends lots of time fishing in Mexico.
“Jim Kelly was smart, resourceful, tough and dedicated to the game,” Walsh writes. “But most of all because he gave back to the community more than he took away.”
Wesley Walker, the ex-N.Y. Jet was blind in one eye but that never stopped him from becoming a great wide receiver — he made 438 receptions, two Pro Bowl appearances and 71 career receiving TDs in a distinguished NFL career).
Mike Singletary, the ex-Chicago Bear. The omnipresent middle linebacker made the Pro Bowl in each of the last 10 years of his 12-year career. That’s greatness.