By Thomas Sellers Jr.
The year 2020 maybe hit the sporting world the hardest.
Legends, icons, rising stars and behind-the-scenes figures all bid us farewell throughout the calendar year. As a man approaching 40 years old, I’m at that place in life where many of my childhood sporting role models are dying. And those athletes I read about in books are finally going home to rest.
And sadly I am old enough to see the news about an athlete in his prime passing thinking, “Oh my God that’s too young.”
This week’s marks the final look back for The Best Sellers’ List on those important figures who passed away in 2020. It’s time to pay tribute to those from the sporting life that brought us so many memories. My honorable mentions are Diego Maradona, Joe Morgan, Tom Seaver, Curly Neal, Cliff Robinson, “Mr. Tiger” Al Kaline, Pat Dye, Tarvaris Jackson, Wes Unseld, Sam Wyche, Thomas “Tiny” Lester, Kevin Greene, Tom Dempsey, Jerry Sloan and Joe Bugel.
- Packer Greats
Willie Davis- July 24, 1934- April 15, 2020
Paul Hornung- December 23, 1935- November 13, 2020
Those great Green Bay Packers teams of the 1960s had a starting point. Under legendary coach Vince Lombardi, the Packers used a foundation set by players like Paul Hornung to pass the torch to dominate forces like Willie Davis.
Hornung and Davis came from two different worlds but had the green and gold in common by the time they left this earth in 2020. “The Golden Boy” Hornung was humbled by the NFL. Known for his good play on the field and off it, Hornung stood 6-foot-2 with blonde hair. Paul Hornung was an all-around gridiron star winning the Heisman Trophy at Notre Dame. He became a pitch man for all kinds of products and was living the good life. But Lombardi and injuries rocked the world of the running back. The NFL MVP and playboy has the negative mark on his resume’ of being suspend alongside fellow NFL standout Alex Karras for the 1963 NFL season for betting on games. Hornung would go on to win induction into the hall of fames for college and pro football.
Right beside him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame is Davis. Davis is a black college football icon playing under Eddie Robinson at Grambling State. Once the Tiger graduated to the NFL, Davis was a vital part of the Packers defensive line. The defensive end had a hall of fame career and guided the Packers to wins in Super Bowls I and II.
But Davis’ biggest contribution to football was his sharp mind for the game, proving a black man could led a defense on and off the field. And he paved the way for more Historic Black Colleges and Universities players to reach the zenith of the NFL.
- Phyllis George
June 25, 1949- May 14, 2020
Speaking of pioneers, Phyllis George is one of the main reasons you see a variety women on ESPN, FS1, your local news and other sporting programs throughout the world. The former Miss America made her legacy and mark when she joined the CBS NFL pregame show coverage in 1974. She was one of the signature faces on “The NFL Today.”
George was the first woman sportscaster on any major TV network. “If I hadn’t made that work, women eventually would have come into sportscasting,” she said in a 1999 interview, “but it would have taken them longer.”
George passed away at the age of 70. I’m glad she got a chance to see qualified women doing the job she pushed down several barriers making it a little easier for them. She also left a blueprint of how to do the job. George was knowledgeable, thoughtful, caring, sharp, willing to poke fun at herself and witty.
- Chris Doleman
October 16, 1961- January 28, 2020
Two things come to my mind when I hear the name Chris Doleman — the No. 56 and he looks my dad. My pops and Doleman were both born in 1961. Both men were strong figures and examples of strength in my life. And thanks to Doleman, I thought once a black man put on the No. 56, he had magical powers to destroy quarterbacks. Doleman and New York Giants great Lawrence Taylor made that number a nightmare for NFL quarterbacks throughout the 80s and 90s.
Doleman was a defensive end from Pitt. With the Minnesota Vikings, he carved out a Pro Football Hall of Fame career. He played the majority of his 15-year NFL career with the Vikings. He had 150.5 careers sacks with 21 in the 1989 alone.
- “Road Warrior Animal” Joe Laurinaitis
September 12, 1960- September 22, 2020
Throughout the 1980s, Saturday nights in my home were spent watching “World Championship Wrestling” on TBS. And two large men would appear on the TV often with spiked shoulder pads, face paint and an attitude. The tag team of the Road Warriors Animal and Hawk had muscles to back up any problem they wanted to solve.
Hawk left us years ago and he can finally reunite with his longtime partner Animal after the passing of Joe Laurinaitis this fall. The combination of Laurinaitis and Michael “Hawk” Hegstrand came to be from the icy streets of Minnesota. They heated up in the Georgia territory and became worldwide legends winning the world tag teams titles in the NWA, WCW, WWF and AWA.
They were simply the best tag team to do it because they created the template for others to follow. Animal was the silent and deadly type and used his compact frame to ram opponents. He was the huge shoulders in which the opposition set on top of for the “Doomsday Device.” Hawk would fly through the air delivering a clothesline detaching the man from the hold of Animal.
- Gale Sayers
May 30, 1943- September 23, 2020
One day after Road Warrior Animal’s passing, the NFL world was rocked by the death of the “Kansas Comet” Gale Sayers. The man who only needed 18-inches of daylight for running room, went to the light Sept. 23 at the age of 77.
Sayers’ legend started in the plains of Kansas earning him his nickname at the University of Kansas from 1962-64. Then it was onto the NFL for a brief career. For Chicago Bears, Sayers was a passing comet only playing 68 games.
But his time on the field was quality earning him a Pro Football Hall of Fame induction.
Sayers’ charm and good looks also made him a pop-culture hall of famer. He’ll always be a partner to the gridiron friendship that was the basis for Brian’s Song, the moving story of Sayers and his cancer-stricken Bears teammate, Brian Piccolo.
- A Pair of Cards
Lou Brock- June 18, 1939- September 6, 2020
Bob Gibson- November 9, 1935- October 2, 2020
Green Bay loves its football and Packers. They mourned the departure of a pair of legends. St. Louis, Mo., loves its baseball and Cardinals. That city had to say goodbye to a dynamite duo as well in 2020.
Hall of Fame teammates Lou Brock and Bob Gibson died during the baseball season.
Brock was first to pass away. He retired from the MLB as the all-time leader in steals. He also stole the hearts of St. Louis with his play on the field. Brock would rack up more than 900 stolen bases and 3,000 hits in a 19-year MLB career primarily spent with the Cards. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame and was immortalized in a statue that was unveiled outside the Cardinals’ Busch Stadium in 1999.
His teammate Bob Gibson earned more press during the 1960s for being the most dominate pitcher in the game. Gibson rewrote the record books in 1968. That historic season featured numbers like him just allowing 38 earned runs in 304.2 innings. He was so good that Major League Baseball ordered mounds to be lowered by five inches. The Hall of Famer won 251 games, two World Series rings, two Cy Young awards and a National League MVP trophy in a 17-year career for the St. Louis Cardinals.
- Final Four Greats
Eddie Sutton- March 12, 1936- May 23, 2020
Lute Olson- September 22, 1934- August 27, 2020
John Thompson- September 2, 1941- August 30, 2020
Billy Tubbs- March 5, 1935- November 1, 2020
Do great college basketball coaches always do things in fours? It’s fitting four icons of the industry had their final days walking this earth in 2020. These names would make a fantastic NCAA Final Four any year: Billy Tubbs, Lute Olson, Eddie Sutton and John Thompson.
Billy Tubbs made Oklahoma a basketball power with his “Billy Ball.” It was fast-paced offense and pressure defense. The scoreboard loved Tubbs’ style of basketball. He guided the Sooners to the Final Four championship game in 1988.
Eddie Sutton was a college basketball nomad. Wherever he went, Coach Sutton won. He scored more than 800 victories for Oklahoma State, Arkansas and other schools in his coaching career that spanned five decades. He guided OSU and the Razorbacks to the Final Four.
Lute Olson won it all with the Arizona Wildcats in 1997. Olson did have some talent in the dessert with future NBA stars Steve Kerr, Damon Stoudamire, Mike Bibby and few others. During his 24-year run at the school, his squads advanced to the NCAA tournament 23 times.
Big John Thompson, the towering figure on the sidelines of Georgetown for several years, won the NCAA title in 1984. The 6-foot-10 Thompson became known as the head coach of big men like Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo. But Thompson was good with little guys like Allen Iverson too.
Thompson made his program a national power and he was the first black coach to lead a team to the NCAA title.
- Johnny Majors
May 21, 1935- June 3, 2020
My childhood college football coach was Johnny Majors. While developing my fandom for the Tennessee Vols in the early 1990s, the man in the shirt and tie was my leader. When Majors guided the “Miracle at South Bend” I was in love with his team and an official member of Vol Nation.
Majors earned his spot in the College Football Hall of Fame from his stellar record with the Tennessee Volunteers from 1977-1992. He also coached at Iowa State and had a couple of stops at Pittsburgh. But UT was his alma mater and Majors’ football home. Thanks to Majors and the late Pat Summitt, I developed pride in my home state from the bluffs of Memphis to the tops of the Smokey Mountains. And in between those is the beloved Tennessee River of Majors.
- David Stern
September 22, 1942- January 1, 2020
My favorite sports league as a child was the NFL. By the time I graduated high school in 1999, I knew the NBA was fantastic. The vision of one man helped me and others across the world fall in love with the National Basketball Association. David Stern was an American lawyer and business executive who was the commissioner of the NBA from 1984 to 2014.
Stern oversaw the growth of the league through daring leadership and taking timely risks. Some of his genius moves were the 1992 Olympic Dream Team, primetime NBA Draft viewing and marketing individual players to the world.
Stern found a way to make Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Shaq and Kobe Bryant household names. The man behind-the-scenes is finally getting credit as one of the best commissioners to ever do it. I appreciate Stern’s dedication, gambles and decisions that helped make the NBA the Juggernaut it is today.
- Kobe Bryant
August 23, 1978- January 26, 2020
The world stopped January 26. It seemed unreal when the news came down the wire that NBA champion and legend Kobe Bryant was dead at the tender age of 41. It’s still hard to process. Was it the helicopter crash? Was it the other names that perished that day alongside Bryant? Or maybe it is so unreal because his precious 13-year-old baby Gianna was with him. Basically all those factors ripped my heart out that Sunday.
I cried and tried to grip the reality of the moment. I reached out to my Goddaughter Taliyah and text her “I love you.” Because you don’t know how long we got on this earth. Just reaching your teens and you’re gone already is unbelievable and seems so unfair.
A man reaching a new chapter in his life at the age of 41 and he’s gone. Also unfair on the surface. God gives us all so much and gifts to share with the world. The time allowed to do that varies.
Kobe did a lot with his gifts and times. He won 5 titles with the Los Angeles Lakers. He scored 60 points in his final NBA game in 2016.
He also tallied 81 points in a contest, second most all time for one game. His 20 seasons in the league will not be his ultimate legacy. Kobe’s love for his wife and children after retirement defined the man he grew to be. He grew from his mistakes and youthful ignorance. He left this world a legend of the game and a hashtag as #girldad.
THOMAS SELLERS JR. is the editor of The Millington Star and both the sports editor and a weekly personal columnist for West 10 Media/Magic Valley Publishing. Contact him by phone at (901) 433-9138, by fax to (901) 529-7687 and by email to email@example.com.