By Steve Cheesman
Published March 4, 2021 in The Burg
With the automobile accident that Tiger Wood's was in this week, it has got me thinking about those athlete's that we call iconic. In the news coverage of this event, we saw information about
much of his life, his accomplishments and the challenges that he has faced. As a sports fan, I knew many of these, but I had not thought about them for a long time and I certainly had not thought about them in the way that this accident had made me think about them. The first thing that struck me as I watched all this coverage unfold, is that Tiger Woods, as a person of sport and celebrity, has accomplished as much as anyone in those fields mentioned. He has done this flamboyantly, uniquely and certainly done this overcoming many obstacles. There is not enough time to list and explain all that he has done, how he has done it and all that he has overcome, but it is suffice to say that it is one of those most interesting and unique stories of success and excellence that one could ever dream of. This leads me to talk about what determines when someone is considered an iconic figure. The term is tossed around a lot and there are numerous descriptions of it. I think these qualities determine whether you are iconic (at least as far as sports goes). They are: excellence in your field and accomplishments that are of the highest nature (one of the best to do it), the things that you have done or are known for are very unique and that have been done in a way that reflects flair (as we often say, they transcend their sport) and finally, you are known or recognized by a large part of the population and a key here, you are recognized by those that don't really have an interest or a knowledge of what you have done athletically. I would also state that a sports icon is often known globally and the knowledge people have about them withstands the test of time; i.e., they are remembered long after their playing days are finished. I am going to create three categories of iconic sports figures here, with each category being a little be more "iconic" then the next. These categories are the bronze, silver and gold categories (just getting you warmed up for the Olympics). The numerical listing of these athletes is not in order of importance
1. Serena Williams
2. Mickey Mantle
3. Tom Brady
4. Wayne Gretzky
5. Vince Lombardi
The Bronze names are an interesting bunch. They cut across genders, include who I believe is the most famous coach in history and this group features a variety of sports being represented. All these people meet the above criteria, with certainly three of them being considered as the GOATS of their respective sports. Mickey Mantle was somewhat of a tragic figure, coming from a small town in Oklahoma and making it big in the biggest city and most famous team in sports, yet never becoming the GOAT, mostly because of terrible leg injuries and the propensity to be the life of the party.
1. Lou Gehrig
2. Joe DiMaggio
3. Billie Jean King
4. Wilt Chamberlain
5. Jackie Robinson
All five of these athletes are without question, iconic! You have the Iron Horse (Lou Gehrig) setting a record that stood for dependability and then died of a disease that is named for him. Joe DiMaggio played with unbelievable grace, was married to Marilyn Monroe and was the memorable spokesman for a famous coffee maker. Billie Jean King certainly was one of the greatest tennis players ever to live, but it was her defeat of Bobby Riggs in the "Battle of the Sexes" tennis match that brought the much needed attention for the need to treat female athletes with the same opportunities as their male counterparts. Wilt Chamberlain was maybe (along with Wayne Gretzky) the most dominant athlete of all time and he certainly was the most gifted, physical specimen. He also holds one of the most iconic records in sports (100 points in a NBA game). Finally, there is not enough that can be said for Jackie Robinson. He is probably the greatest all-around athlete of all-time and certainly did the most important thing in athletic history (all with the utmost class and dignity!). Jackie could certainly be in the Gold category and you would get no argument from me!
1. Babe Ruth
2. Muhammad Ali
3. Michael Jordan
5. Arnold Palmer
The athletes meet every one of the descriptions of an icon. In fact, they all are considered American History icons. Each goes way beyond their sport and each does so in a variety of ways. Babe Ruth is certainly the first big athlete in US history and played with a flair like no other and set records that were off the charts crazy (he had more home runs in a single season then 15 other teams did in 1920). Everyone still knows him and he has not played for almost 80 years. Ali is probably the most well-known athlete in sports history. No one displayed more style and did so in such a bombastic way. Michael Jordan is the GOAT and created a lifestyle that is much jet-set as anyone to play sports. He is the true rock star of sports. See Michael Jordan's comments and you can say the same for Tiger. Tiger is a global brand and has a style that is unmatched. Everyone wants to watch him to see what he will do next. We have watched him grow up and seen all the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. Arnold Palmer pretty much created the path for Tiger and Jordan to excel outside of their playing life. Palmer is the icon of endorsements and was the leading athlete in endorsement money for over a quarter century and he oozed class and style. Charisma is a hard thing to identify in someone, but if you ever got to see Arnold Palmer in person you would say that is it! He even has a drink named for him.
Back to Tiger for a moment. I pray and hope that he heals completely and that he can do the things that wants for the remainder of his life. Finally, these names are no way the final and unquestioned list of iconic athletes. Make your list and see what you come up with. Some other names that I tossed around, but were excluded include: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Joe Namath, Jim Brown, Magic Johnson, Jack Nicklaus and Babe Didrickson Zaharias. All iconic athletes. They just didn't make this list. The weather is getting better outside. Bunker Links is scheduled to open March 1st (weather permitting!). I can't wait.
(Steve Cheesman's Sideline Talk runs twice a month in The Burg. He has coached 40 years - 30 in basketball, 14 years for legion baseball and 15 in golf). He is on the IHSA Golf Advisory Board and is a member of the Galesburg City Golf Commission. He's presently the Director of the Gale Scholars Program. He left his mark on the Silver Streaks golf program with five state appearances.)