- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 3, 2002

Although politics is this city's favorite sport, Washingtonians also have embraced athletes. We have named schools for them, given them cars while they were still playing and treated them with reverence for decades after they last wore their uniforms.
Picking our 10 most beloved athletes was no easy task, but a couple of ground rules helped. Not even a coach as flamboyant as Maryland's Lefty Driesell was included because his accomplishments involved brains rather than brawn.
Also, since the chosen had to have played here for at least five seasons, college and high school performers were out. And athletes from solo sports like Olympic and world champion boxer Sugar Ray Leonard, a native of Palmer Park, were hard-pressed to make the cut since they don't play home games.
Now as to the word "beloved." The dictionary defines it as, "greatly loved, dear to the heart." Joe Theismann holds most Redskins passing records, but he was probably more respected than beloved. So were teammates like Charley Taylor, Larry Brown and Charles Mann; Bullets Elvin Hayes, Jeff Malone and Phil Chenier; Capitals Rod Langway, Dale Hunter and Mike Gartner; and Senators Mickey Vernon, Eddie Yost, and Joe Cronin. None of them is on the list because that special bond between the player and the fans wasn't quite strong enough.
All that said, here are the 10 men who have carved the biggest place in our hearts during the past century, listed alphabetically.

Baseball's Senators, just four years removed from their third World Series in 10 seasons, owned this town when the NFL's Redskins arrived in 1937. But owner George Preston Marshall, D.C.'s laundry king, turned his financial flop of a Boston franchise into Washington's heroes overnight thanks to his newest asset.
A lanky No.1 draft pick from TCU and one of the NFL's first great passers, Baugh led the Redskins to the championship as a rookie. Baugh, who also excelled as a punter and defensive back, won another title in 1942 and directed the Redskins to three more championship games in his first nine seasons. Coaches and teammates came and went, but Baugh was an institution. So Washington didn't wait until Baugh was retired to salute him.
"If I told you how special it was for me to be the Redskins' quarterback all those years, I'd be pushing myself," the 88-year-old Hall of Famer said. "The people in Washington always treated me well, but I was kind of shocked when they gave me the car."
The car was a spanking new Packard station wagon (burgundy, of course) with "Slingin' Sam" painted on the driver's door. The grateful Baugh delivered his finest performance, completing 25 of 33 passes for 355 yards and six touchdowns in an upset of the NFL champions-to-be, the Chicago Cardinals, on Nov.23, 1947.
Unfortunately, Baugh cracked up the Packard just three days later. Maybe that was a signal. The Redskins, who had been .500 or better in each of Baugh's first 10 seasons, had just one more winning season before his retirement in 1952.

Like fellow Texan Baugh, cornerback Green had an immediate impact in Washington, chasing down speedy Cowboys star Tony Dorsett in his 1983 debut. Green never stopped making big plays. He won a 1987 playoff game in frigid Chicago with a punt return for a touchdown despite pulling rib muscles during the runback and preserved an NFC Championship game victory the next week by breaking up a last-second, goal-line pass.
Despite being just 5-foot-8 and maybe 180 pounds, Green started for 17 years before shifting to nickel back in 2000. And he wound up seven of those seasons in the Pro Bowl, the last time just before he turned 38. The ever-upbeat Green is also beloved for his good works.
"Some athletes think the excitement they provide on the field is enough but not me," said the 42-year-old Green, who runs learning centers for underprivileged children while awaiting his record-setting 20th Redskins season. "Life is better in D.C. because I participate in the community. Some people relate to me because I've played into my 40s. Kids relate to me because I'm a little guy. And everyone likes that I play with a certain childlike aspect. I have the ability to laugh and smile, and people appreciate that."

The 6-7, 255-pound gentle giant gave victory-starved Senators fans plenty to smile about after being acquired from the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1965. Hondo averaged a major league-high 43 homers a season from 1967 to 1970. RFK Stadium's upper deck was filled with seats painted differently from the rest to show where Howard's mammoth shots landed. And when the All-Star Game was played here in 1969, Howard naturally homered.
"If I hit as many homers as the fans in D.C. say I did, I'd be in the Hall of Fame," said the self-effacing, 65-year-old Howard. "I can't go anywhere without someone coming up to me and talking about those days. The people here have always been fantastic to me. When I learned that we were moving to Texas [in 1972], it was heartbreaking."

The numbers are as overwhelming as his fastball was: 416 victories, second all-time 3,508 strikeouts, a record that stood for five decades a 2.17 ERA and all this with a team that was lousy more often than not.
In nine of his first 17 seasons, the Senators finished sixth, seventh or last. But unlike such contemporaries as nasty Ty Cobb and cocky Babe Ruth, Johnson was humble about his accomplishments. So it seemed that the entire nation celebrated along with Washington when the 36-year-old Johnson and the Senators won their only World Series in 1924 by beating the New York Giants in a 12-inning seventh game. Johnson was the first American athlete to have a school named for him, was appointed a Montgomery County commissioner and was pushed into running for Congress.
"Walter was basically a warm, friendly person," said Hank Thomas, Johnson's grandson and biographer. "You can see it in the way he smiles in photos. My mother remembers people driving up to their house in Bethesda and, even if he was having dinner, him coming out and chatting a while. But Walter didn't bask in his popularity. He had a real humility to him even though for so many years he was Washington's only claim to major league [sports] status. He was more recognizable in Washington than some presidents."

The athlete who has been part of the Washington sports scene the longest originally didn't want to come to town after his 1964 trade. Jurgensen had been happy as the Philadelphia Eagles' quarterback. However, the reception he received from D.C.'s long-suffering fans quickly made the "Redhead" change his mind. No pass was too difficult to attempt and no enemy lead was safe as long as Jurgensen had the ball in his hands.
"Being traded here was the best thing that happened in my career," the 67-year-old Hall of Fame passer said. "We weren't a great team, but the fans appreciated our effort. And we certainly gave them a show. We wouldn't lose 10-6; we would lose 35-31. I was a blue-collar guy and I liked people, and they felt that. I've been retired for 27 years, but because I'm on television and radio, I've remained a part of their lives."

Like an ace pitcher in baseball, a dominant goalie is a hockey team's biggest weapon. But while the pitcher works only every fourth or fifth day, the goalie is between the pipes almost every night. Add that centrality to a crowd-pleasing personality and countless hours working with Children's Hospital and you've got Olie the Goalie.
"I'd love to be one of those guys who plays his whole career in the same town," said Kolzig, 32, who spent seven years in the minors and as a backup before finally making it big in 1997-1998 and leading the Caps to their only Stanley Cup final.
"I've received nothing but first-class treatment in D.C. Part of it comes from my personality. I'm easy to approach. When I was growing up in Toronto, the Maple Leafs' players were always nice to kids. I vowed that if I ever made it to the NHL that I would treat people the same way. We're pretty fortunate as pro athletes. We get paid very well to play games that we love."

No D.C. athlete has faced more pressure than Mitchell. The Redskins had never had a black player before 1962, but because the new D.C. Stadium had been built on federal land, the government demanded that Marshall drop the NFL's last color bar. So Washington traded for Cleveland running back Mitchell. Switched to receiver, he became a Hall of Famer and has been the team's constant community presence for four decades.
"The leaders of the black community made it clear to me that I didn't have a choice about getting involved in community service," said the 67-year-old Mitchell, who has been in the Redskins' front office for 33 years. "I meant too much to too many people. At the same time, there were a lot of [white] people who weren't happy that I was here. Who knows how well I could have played if I hadn't been dragging those burdens on my shoulders? I felt I couldn't make a mistake. Too many people would have been let down, and too many others would have cheered. And I had to always stay under control no matter what happened."
But when the Redskins feted Mitchell after his 1969 retirement, he received a standing ovation from fans of both races who admired his talent, courage and dignity. In his seven electrifying seasons, he had helped bring an often-divided community together.

Painfully shy off the field and steady but not spectacular in his play, Monk might not have been admired in some towns. But in grind-it-out Washington, Monk not flashier fellow receivers Gary Clark and Ricky Sanders became an all-time favorite.
"Being loved by the fans goes beyond your performance on the field," said Monk, 44, who set many NFL marks as a Redskin from 1980 to 1993. "People react to how you conduct yourself on and off the field. They make a place in their hearts for you. A lot of it has to do with being here a while and establishing a relationship with the community."

He held out for a year. He drunkenly insulted Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. He wore fatigues. He was outrageous, but like the boorish relative you defend to outsiders, Riggins now 52 delighted the staid, file-in-triplicate capital.
"John was John Wayne and Superman rolled into one," said former Redskins general manager Charley Casserly. "He went to [coach] Joe Gibbs before the Super Bowl [XVII] and said, 'Just give me the ball.' And then he went out and almost won the game by himself. John was a tough guy. He played to the crowd, and he was colorful. People loved that."
At an age when most running backs are done, the 33-year-old Riggins bulled his way to 610 yards in four playoff games in 1982. After gaining a career-high 185 against Minnesota, he bowed to the roaring RFK crowd. And after ripping off 166 more, including the game-winning 43-yard touchdown on fourth down in the Super Bowl against Miami, Riggins proclaimed, "Ron [Reagan] is the president, but I'm king."

Just 6-foot-7, Unseld fearlessly dueled much taller centers for every rebound thanks to his sheer strength. A virtual human wall, the burly 245-pounder averaged 14 rebounds during his career compared to just 10.8 points. That work ethic was appreciated in a city that values understated excellence rather than watch-me behavior.
"We're a large city with a small-town flavor," Green said. "We like to have fun, but we're not flamboyant. You have to understand that style to become part of this community. Some communities like the Dennis Rodman antics. That's not Washington."
In 1975, their second season after moving to Washington from Baltimore, the Bullets made the NBA Finals as Unseld averaged a league-best 14.8 rebounds. Three years later, the Bullets rallied past Seattle to win their only title. Appropriately, it was Unseld who sank the clinching free throws. When the team was saluted with a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue, Unseld as gentle off the court as he was tough on it received the biggest cheers.
The Bullets/Wizards haven't won often with Unseld now 56 during his 13 years as their coach or GM, but those failures can't tarnish his luster as a true D.C. hero.

So what ultimately makes an athlete beloved in these parts?
It's not just personality. Our top 10 range from the eccentric (Riggins) to the reclusive (Monk). Nor is it success. Mitchell never played for a winner in Washington, and Jurgensen was never a regular for one. Howard's Senators finished over .500 just once. Current popularity isn't decisive either. Only those over 80 remember seeing Johnson pitch, and no under 55 watched Baugh pass this way. Green rarely touches the ball for the Redskins. And Unseld and Kolzig overcame our frequent indifference to their franchises.
Maybe, just maybe, on top of all their achievements and their ability to relate to fans is this: All of our top 10 except Baugh and Riggins have come here and decided to stay. Like so many other non-native Washingtonians, they decided this is home.

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