Kovacevic: Top 25 Pittsburgh athletes of all-time


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Man, these lists are everywhere now. Top five this, Mount Rushmore that, quarantine-with-so-and-so this, have-dinner-with-so-and-so that.

They can be frustrating, but they're mostly fun, particularly at a time like this.

So what's below, in the interest of taking those lists to another level, is my own perspective on the 25 greatest athletes to represent Pittsburgh in any sport. The key qualifier: All that counts is their time representing the city, either with a Pittsburgh team or our general region as as an individual. And longevity in that regard absolutely was weighed.

I wrote one originally more than three years ago, and here goes another:

Olympic track, bobsled

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Ladies first?

Well, not intentionally. I'm fortunate to have covered Williams' Olympic run front to finish, from when she was robbed of gold in the 100 meters in Athens in 2004 by a highly suspicious first-time winner from Belarus, and then in 2014 when she narrowly missed gold in the bobsled in Sochi.

She wound up with a gold in the 4x100 relay in London and the aforementioned silvers, but man, it could've been so much more.

Anyway, Williams, a native of Rochester, Beaver County, represents the entirety of the women on this list, but that comes with all due respect to Suzie McConnell Serio, Swin Cash, Amanda Polk, Meghan Klingenberg and others who'll no doubt be part of a separate list here someday.

Pittsburgh Penguins

[caption id="attachment_184618" align="alignnone" width="640"] MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]

There'll be four more Penguins as we go, none of which will surprise. But this is the most decorated defenseman in the franchise's half-century history and, on top of that, it probably isn't appreciated enough that his finest performances came during the two of three Stanley Cup championships for which he was healthy.

Which reminds me: You won't find Barry Bonds on this list. That has nothing to do with his head growing a dozen sizes once he got to San Francisco. It's partially because his best seasons didn't happen in Pittsburgh, partially because he, unlike Letang and so many others on this list, was at his absolute worst when the games mattered most.

Pitt football

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Dorsett's overall body of work, obviously, would earn a much higher spot. But repeating the criteria from above, his body of work in Pittsburgh, both at Hopewell High School and at Pitt, were still good enough to make him the only scholastic player on this list. He played all four seasons for the Panthers, ran for 6,526 yards, scored 63 touchdowns, won the Heisman Trophy and led the way to the school's last NCAA championship in 1976.

Not even Dan Marino, the only other scholastic player considered -- Central Catholic and Pitt -- could claim the latter.

Pittsburgh Steelers

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So here come the Steelers of the 1970s, all of whom represent the hardest thing about a list like this. Because it's difficult to rank those players even among themselves, as evidenced by the admittedly awful omissions of Jack Ham, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Mike Webster and so many more from this list.

Anyway, here's Franco. Four-time champ. One-time Super Bowl MVP. Nine-time Pro Bowl. Author of the most memorable play in football history.

Pittsburgh Pirates

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With 130 years of big-league baseball in our city, it shouldn't surprise that the old national pastime leads the way with seven participants on this list, including six from the Pirates.

In 1920-37, Harold Joseph Traynor, only known as 'Pie,' became one of the most accomplished third basemen ever, with a .320 career average, 2,416 hits, a 1925 World Series ring and a return to the Series two years later. Not until Mike Schmidt and, later, Chipper Jones did anyone at his position challenge his offensive ledger. That's rare air.

Pittsburgh Pirates

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Search hard enough, and you'll find a baseball historian who will seriously debate you that Waner was the greatest right fielder the Pirates ever had. Yeah, ahead of that guy with all the local landmarks named in his honor.

Waner, known as 'Big Poison' to little brother Lloyd's 'Little Poison,' played in Pittsburgh in 1926-40 and wound up with 3,156 hits, as well as being Traynor's teammate on the 1927 pennant winners, the same year he was National League MVP. He appears on most lists of the top 100 baseball players of all time. Even rarer air.

Pittsburgh Steelers

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His body of work might be the most original on this list. He was the ultimate defensive wild card, one so wild even his coordinator couldn't scheme for what he'd do. The formal, first-ballot induction to Canton this summer awaits. He rang up two Super Bowl rings, four All-Pro honors, eight Pro Bowls, 32 interceptions, countless elegantly timed leaps into the backfield, and one very, very bad thing done to the Ravens.

Pittsburgh Steelers

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Great as Troy was, they never had to change a rule for him. Blount was so brutally effective in his coverage that the NFL first began legislating ways to protect wide receivers from his wrath. Not that it worked. From 1970-83, he was as decorated as any corner in the game's history and had 57 picks to show for it.

Olympic track

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With apologies to Williams and Mt. Lebanon's Kurt Angle for his storybook wrestling gold in Atlanta, Kingdom was and remains our region's most accomplished Olympian. Because Kingdom came with a sequel for the ages.

A Pitt graduate and longtime-and-still-today Monroeville resident, he won gold in the 110-meter hurdles in Los Angeles in 1984, then again in 1988 in Seoul. In the latter, he was unbeaten through the entire track season, then won his final Olympic race by a ridiculous 3 meters to become the first human to break the 13-second barrier at 12.98 seconds. The following year, he'd run a 12.92 for another world record, one that held for five years.

Knee surgery in 1991 would prove the one hurdle he couldn't clear.

Pittsburgh Steelers

[caption id="attachment_184619" align="alignnone" width="640"] MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]

Four athletes on this list are still competing, including the current franchise quarterback. (Another wayward wide receiver might've been on this list, too, but he opted for dropping furniture from great heights rather than continuing to achieve them.)

Neither education nor elaboration is needed here. Let's just add that Ben's arrow is still pointed upward, even after the elbow surgery, and he could easily crack the top 10 with a third Super Bowl ring. Because then, he, like another quarterback on this list, would have appeared in four such games.

And with this entry, my friends, we're now officially into the how-could-this-guy-not-be-higher portion of our program.

Pittsburgh Steelers

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One of the most eye-popping all-around athletes we've witnessed, Woodson manned corner for the Steelers for a decade but also returned kicks and, before that, was a track star at Purdue who qualified for the Olympics in -- hey, weren't we just talking about this? -- the 110-meter hurdles. Eleven-time Pro Bowl, six-time All-Pro, NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1993, he did everything but win a Super Bowl ... until he went to the Ravens, but whatever.

I could condense it all to this: 71 career interceptions, 17 touchdowns.

Pittsburgh Pirates

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My dad would've wanted this guy to be No. 1. And I'll bet there are many more raised in the Kiner era who feel the same. Such was the grip he had over our city from 1946-53 that you're just as likely to hear tales of his Herculean home run prowess as of how those fans would refuse to leave Forbes Field, no matter the score, until after his final at-bat.

Get this: His 54 home runs in 1947 marked the highest single-season total in the National League by anyone between the years of 1931-77.

You read that right: 47 years!

To this day, Kiner might represent the most powerful one-man gate attraction we've ever had, with the possible exception of the guy way down there at No. 1.

Pittsburgh Penguins

[caption id="attachment_184621" align="alignnone" width="640"] MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]

Well, all those Duncan-Keith-loving Canadian voters might not have had much use for Malkin in the NHL's top 100, but there's no shortage of respect around here for a three-time Stanley Cup champ, two-time league scoring champ, league MVP, playoff MVP ... and ... and ... wow, how embarrassing. Not for Malkin, but for those voters.

But whatever. Because the way Malkin was flying around this season before the shutdown, you'd better believe he'll rocket up lists like that for years to come, and he'll keep climbing this one, as well. Including skating right by this next guy ...

Pittsburgh Penguins

[caption id="attachment_184629" align="alignnone" width="640"] MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]

Jagr, like Bonds, Woodson and Kiner, didn't stay in Pittsburgh as long as he could have. But even confining the context to his time with the Penguins, he won two Stanley Cups, five scoring titles, a league MVP, and his Olympic gold for the Czech Republic in Nagano.

And he had that knack, as all the true greats do, for delivering at the big time. Some don't believe in clutch, but those are people who never saw how No. 68 would elevate not just himself but his entire team.

It'll be tremendous to see that number in the PPG Paints Arena rafters someday.

Pittsburgh Steelers

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The only negative to Lambert's larger-than-life reputation as the NFL's ultimate intimidator was that it occasionally distracted from what an exceptional football player this was. In addition to the four Super Bowls, he was the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year in 1976 and 1983 -- the last healthy season of his career -- in addition to seven All-Pro and nine Pro Bowl selections.

The only stat you'd need to define his production was that he averaged 146 tackles over 10 seasons, a measure of wear and tear that's borderline incomprehensible.

On the guys he was tackling, I mean.


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Harry who what?

On Madison Square Garden's concourse, they've got these beautiful photos ringing the entire place to commemorate special sporting events, concerts, circuses, everything. And a good many of those images include the long-gone Edward Henry Greb, America's light-heavyweight champ in 1922-23, then world middleweight champ in 1923-26.

I promised myself I'd keep him in mind if one of these discussions ever arose, and that he'd unequivocally be a top-10 candidate. So here he is at No. 10.

Greb, born and raised in the city proper, became known as 'The Pittsburgh Windmill' for his violent-swinging style of attacking. That Windmill rarely stopped churning. He fought a now-unthinkable 298 times over 13 years -- 37 times in 1917 alone! -- lost only 17 times and took 48 of his wins by knockout. And on May 23, 1922, at the Garden -- this was one of the pictures I saw -- he crowned previously undefeated Gene Tunney in what boxing historians still call one of the most savage beatings they'd seen, since poor Tunney withstood 15 rounds of blood and battering.

The famed boxing writer Bert Sugar ranked Greb as the fifth-greatest fighter, pound-for-pound, of all time. Ring Magazine ranks Greb at No. 7. The analytics site has him at No. 8.

Wow, and how many people right now even recognize the name?

Homestead Grays, Pittsburgh Crawfords

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Historians will argue he was the greatest catcher who ever lived, Negro Leagues or otherwise. Some called him "the black Babe Ruth" for his prodigious power, while those in the African-American community would snap back by calling Ruth "the white Josh Gibson." But merely being mentioned with the most dominant performer in the history of team sports speaks volumes.

Gibson played from 1930-46, mostly for Homestead, but segregation kept him from ever making it to Major League Baseball. Sadder still, he died a year later at age 35, shortly before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in the National League.

Larry Doby, who later broke that barrier in the American League, once spoke this: "One of the things that was disappointing and disheartening to a lot of the black players at the time was that Jackie was not the best player. The best was Josh Gibson. I think that's one of the reasons why Josh died so early. He was heartbroken."

The Sporting News ranked Gibson as the 18th-greatest baseball player of all time, highest among anyone from the Negro Leagues.


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There'll always be only one Arnie, Latrobe's own and one of golf's all-time giants. In addition to his excellence on the course -- four green jackets at the Masters, PGA Player of the Year in 1960 and 1962 -- he represented Western Pennsylvania with unparalleled grace for decades beyond.

Pittsburgh Steelers

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He might not grasp the difference between a cheerleader and a successful NFL head coach, but he was one spectacular, swashbuckling quarterback well before that was a thing.

The Steelers' defense had its ferocity, the offense had its grind-it-out running game, and yet it still took this take-no-guff Louisiana loudmouth to crank up the volume in the biggest games to deliver the biggest plays. Which is why, for all the accolades he doesn't get for statistics, he more than compensates with four Super Bowl rings and MVP honors in two of those.

As our region was devastated by the mass closing of mills, we needed someone to stand up with an attitude, a snarl compacted into a smile. This was the right hero at the right time.

Pittsburgh Pirates

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Vin Scully would only call him 'Wilver,' his given name. Our city and his teammates knew him as 'Pops,' for the fatherlike figure he cast over all of us, but especially the 1979 Fam-a-lee that he carried to the Pirates' last World Series with a home run late in Game 7.

Transcending his sport in every way, he was so beloved that, even in opposing stadiums, they'd place Stargell stars on the upper-deck seats where his most majestic home runs would land. In Philadelphia, they left the star at Veterans Stadium until his death in 2001, then painted it black, then left it there until the Vet was torn down. In Montreal, the last place that held a star, Olympic Stadium, they sent the seat to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame once the Expos left town in 2004.

What, you need stats with this one?

Pittsburgh Pirates

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There are no words. There will never be words.

Pittsburgh Penguins

[caption id="attachment_184644" align="alignnone" width="640"] MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]

Only in Pittsburgh could an athlete this special not crack the top three, huh?

Not yet, anyway.

The biggest mistake any of us makes regarding Crosby is to underestimate him. And this surge, this second tidal wave to his career after it was threatened by concussions, only lends credence to the notion that the best really could be yet to come.

Pittsburgh Steelers

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It says more about the Steelers than about Greene that he's the greatest player on the NFL's greatest franchise ... and people still have to think a minute or two before branding him as such.

Well, don't think too hard: Chuck Noll's drafting of Greene in 1969 brought about all that followed, and yet he's so much more than that or even the 'Mean' moniker that helped establish the Steel Curtain's menacing identity. He pushed through 1-13 in that first season to individually win NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, then when help arrived, tolled four Super Bowls, six first-team All-Pro designations, 10 Pro Bowls and NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1972 and 1974.

Of all these players since that day Greene was drafted, of all these champions and superstars and Hall of Famers, the only number retired has been 75.

Pittsburgh Pirates

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Baseball has changed plenty over a century and a half. But excellence within an era, measured against one's peers, never changes.

Johannes Peter Wagner, 'The Flying Dutchman,' born in Carnegie to German immigrants, played 18 seasons in Pittsburgh -- or Pittsburg, as it was legally called for part of that time -- and won eight National League batting titles. Only Tony Gwynn would ever win that many. Wagner also led the league five times each in RBIs and steals. And from the team standpoint, he took the Pirates to the first World Series ever played in 1903, a loss to Boston, then to their first championship in 1909, a triumph over the Tigers and his only real contemporary great, Ty Cobb.

Bill James, the analytics pioneer, called Wagner's 1908 season -- .354, 109 RBIs -- the greatest by any player in recorded history. He reached that conclusion by weighing those figures within a dead-ball era that saw most players half as productive. As James wrote, "If you had a Gold Glove shortstop, like Wagner, who essentially drove in 218 runs, what would he be worth today?"

Wagner's 21-year slash line: .328/.391/.467.

Between that and his underappreciated defense -- Ruth himself once described Wagner's work as "just head and shoulders above anyone else in that position" -- he was an easy choice to join Ruth, Cobb, Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson in the Hall of Fame's inaugural class in 1936.

Even all this time later, it's absurd he could ever have been topped. But he most assuredly was ...

Pittsburgh Penguins

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Simply the best. To ever play his sport.

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