The Topeka Capital-Journal took on a monstrous task when the sports department chose to name the 100 best athletes in the history of Shawnee County. Their June master list of over 450 names was staggering to view and filled with remarkable athletes. Researching the athletic exploits of so many men and women and making final decisions seems a sure march to madness.
This Sunday, the paper reveals the first installment of the final 100 after allowing readers to vote on a list of 15 from which the winner is likely to come. As with any ranking, rancor will accompany the various selections. Without thinking about each person, the names of over 200 athletes were easily checked off my list as greats I have photographed over my many years behind a camera. There were many more I have seen compete and others I, sadly, missed in action. Trying to pick my top five was not easy, but here are my choices. There is a little personal tie to each of them.
1. Mike Torrez – A great high school athlete who went on to stardom pitching for seven major league teams. A 20-game winner with Baltimore, Torrez won 15 games or more in six consecutive seasons. Torrez won two games in the 1977 World Series for the New York Yankees. Even better, after signing with the hated Boston Red Sox in 1978, Torrez gave up the three-run home run to New York’s Bucky “F–king” Dent in the one-game season-ending playoff game. (This Yankee fan thanks you.)
2. Steve Tilford– Honestly, the highly honored Tilford might well be the best athlete this county has never seen. The problem is that he competes in a sport that during his greatest years was so far out on the fringe of interest in the city of Topeka that no one knew he even existed. The other problem is that almost everyone can ride a bicycle. (It is the same now that inexpensive digital and phone cameras have made everyone a photographer or videographer.) People think “how tough can that be?” Mighty tough. No one wins four National Cyclocross titles, five world championships in mountain biking and rides for the United States in three World Road Championships and not be truly gifted. Tilford is that even at 51 and deserves greater recognition. (Way back when I photographed Tilford shaving his legs in his bathroom tub it was one of the more controversial photographs I made during my time at Capital-Journal. Editors had such a hard time with a guy shaving his legs. Getting that photograph into a long SportsPlus story on Tilford was a surprisingly hard fight, but one won.)
3. Melvin Douglas – The winner of four Olympic and World Championship medals, Wrestling USA ranked Douglas as one of the top wrestlers of all-time. Douglas distinguished himself wrestling for Oklahoma by winning six NCAA championship-round matches tying him for the all-time best. (While working on a story for the Topeka paper with the great writer Rick Dean in Norman, the 177 lb. Douglas proved to us how great a wrestler he was for Oklahoma as well as being a great guy. With Dean and Douglas, I could never ask for better company.)
4. Lon Kruger – From grade school on, Kruger was a champion. Legendary in his hometown of Silver Lake in many sports, Kruger went on to greatness at Kansas State in basketball. A truly amazing player, his game sense made him a coach on the court. (As an eighth grader playing very little as a backup basketball guard for the Topeka Lutheran School Wildcats, we took on Silver Lake at their gym. During the game, one of our starting guards, Rich Schlicher, set up and took a charge from Kruger. Schlicher hit his head on the hard tile floor knocking him out. Guess who had the fun of trying to guard Kruger, already a star as a seventh-grader, for most of that game? Not a pretty sight as anyone that has seen me on a basketball court knows.)
5. Joel Hoffman – Call this my most prejudiced pick if you like. A tennis player from Topeka belongs in the top five. There were so many great ones in the 60’s and 70’s. Hoffman was the youngest and the best of the bunch. After a stellar career on the powerful University of Houston tennis team, Hoffman took his game to the professional ranks for many years. (An accident broke my femur and pelvis in 1977, forcing 50 days in hospital traction. Hoffman would often come to the hospital late in the evening. Tennis balls thrown into the room always announced his arrival. Conversations with Hoffman went a long way to helping me get through some difficult times. Thanks again, Joel.)
What I disliked about the selection process was the newspaper’s reader’s poll. Such polls seem frivolous since they are easily tilted in one direction or towards one person. KU proved that when earnest workers in the athletic department mounted a task force to flood a Time Magazine web poll helping name Lew Perkins the top sports executive. Looking back now, one can ask, “Really?”
Topeka sports editor Tim Bisel noted in a story Sunday that Tilford has used his blog to rally friends to lead him to the top of the poll. Certainly Tilford deserves his due, but I also know Tilford has friends throughout the United States that likely voted. Those friends have no history on any of the other athletes which is too biased.
Of course, what such polls provide are “hits” on the Capital-Journal’s web site. As the newspaper’s circulation dwindles, those “hits” drive everything. As every media outlet in the world tries to generate advertising income from web sites, “hits” are the selling point. Nothing like a poll or some bawdy photo gallery to generate “hits.”
While Tilford will likely not run away with the final results as he did in the web poll, the Capital-Journal should never complain about Tilford’s friends coming to the web site. The same applies to the write-in campaign for Topekan David Proctor. His friends made Proctor the top write-in candidate with their “hits.”
Topeka High coaching legend Willie Nicklin loved Proctor’s ability to anchor the will-wilting, full-court press the Trojan’s used to win a state basketball championship in 1986. Basketball was not even Proctor’s best sport. His pitching arm made him a top pick by the New Mets. (He also proved that he had good taste in women too, having married one of my former girlfriends.) Nevertheless, Proctor’s brief minor league career cannot compare to Torrez, Ken Berry or even Aaron Crow in any way other than the fact that he has loyal friends.
As I await the first pronouncements from the Capital-Journal let me close with these final personal notes.
No women in my top five? I know. That was hard. I only saw Billie Moore play softball once in my youth, but even then, she stood out. Fred Ohse was a member of my father’s church, a family friend and a true champion of women’s sports. The Ohse Meats Company sponsored powerful teams in softball and basketball where Moore planted her Shawnee County roots. The rules of the poll are that coaching careers should not count in these rankings. While I agree, in Moore’s case it is hard to overlook her national championships at Cal-State Fullerton and UCLA or her coaching of the United States team in the 1976 Olympics. Moore was a pioneer as an athlete and a coach. Moore’s talent was the foundation upon which so many other outstanding women from Shawnee County built their reputations. Because of that heritage, Moore would be my pick over the others.
The fact that tennis great Tim Clark is not on the master list in incomprehensible to me. His career at Topeka High, Arkansas and then as a long-time tennis professional cannot be overlooked. Clark seemed such a lock for the list, no one must have nominated him. The fact he was not is a disgrace, and I am very disappointed in myself for not making that nomination.
Mark Nordstrom did receive a nomination from me. I know no one as talented as Nordstrom. God blessed Nordstrom with everything but the size needed for real greatness. However, his tennis skills were remarkable, especially in doubles. There is not much Nordstrom cannot do well, and as my great friend, I surely do hope he will make the top 100.
Raymond Johnson’s nomination delighted me. Johnson’s basketball career at Topeka High was a good one, but there were many others as distinguished. What matters to me came from sitting in the Topeka High gym as a sophomore on the first day of my three years at Topeka High. Next to me in alphabetical order in gym class was Raymond Johnson. He looked just as uncertain and nervous as I was at that time.
We struck up a conversation that led to a high school-long friendship. Given that we were about to enter a period of complete upheaval regarding race relations, having Johnson as a friend was certainly one of the great blessings I received during my high school years. Johnson had the longest arms I have ever seen for his body size. He put those long limbs to good use on the basketball court, and I delighted in every moment.
Finally, I have asked myself if there is anyone on that list really better than John Johnson? Over many years at Seaman and Washburn University as well as golf courses and softball fields, I doubt there was a finer athlete. A bum knee will doom Johnson to a spot in the final 100 far too low for his talent. Here is an example. The 36-hole trips Johnson made around Custer Hill Golf Course at Fort Riley with me and Mike Van Dyke once a summer always revealed Johnson’s skills. Playing with ancient wood drivers and irons, Johnson still managed to hang just a little over par even though those rounds were Johnson’s only golf outing of the summer.
The time has come for me to stop. There are so many names and stories. What fun awaits as Shawnee County’s greatest reveal themselves.