There is still a lot of chatter, sparked by Tom Brady winning another Super Bowl, about the GOAT -- you know, the greatest of all time.
A lot of people want to measure that by how many championships a player has won. But I’ve never liked that because, over time, I’ve seen too many great athletes cursed by the teams they’ve landed on. Particularly in the era prior to access to free agency, in the days when a player was pretty much stuck on whatever team he was drafted or signed by and had no ability to switch teams of his own volition. Yes, that happened, kids.
And, too, I believe there is a real divide between greatest “player” and greatest “athlete.”
The latter designation is a much different thing. I would not classify Brady -- no matter how great a football player he has been -- as a world-class athlete.
And that brings us to Jackie Roosevelt Robinson, my personal Black History Month lesson. It’s struck me that a lot of people know Robinson as the man who broke the color barrier in baseball, but have no idea what he was like -- and what he did -- as an athlete and a man.
And there is so much to detail here that I know no other way than to just give you a list of things you may not know about the man I consider among the greatest athletes of all time:
- At UCLA, he won letters in four varsity sports and baseball was most likely his WORST sport. In his one season on the school’s baseball team, he hit .097. Yet, the ballpark at UCLA is named after him.
- Football was probably his best sport. In 1940, he led the Bruins in scoring, rushing and passing yards and led the nation in punt-return yardage average.
- He was also a terrific basketball player. At 5-11, he won the Pacific Coast Conference MVP award.
- He won the 1940 NCAA long-jump championship.
- And I’m sure some of you don’t know that his older brother, Mack, was an NCAA sprint champion at Oregon and is a member of that school’s sports Hall of Fame and the state of Oregon Sports Hall of Fame. He won a silver medal at the 1936 Summer Olympics at Berlin, breaking the Olympic record in the process, but losing the gold to the great Jesse Owens.
- In 1936, Jackie Robinson won the junior boys singles championship in the annual Pacific Coast Negro Tennis Tournament. He lettered in tennis, too, in high school.
- He was drafted into military service in 1942 and later admitted to officers candidate school. He was commissioned a second lieutenant in 1943 and assigned to Fort Hood, Texas.
- His military career was interrupted when he was brought up on court-martial charges for refusing to move to the back of a military bus. He was later acquitted and soon after discharge joined the Negro League Kansas City Monarchs, which began his professional baseball career.
- In his 10-year, big-league career, he was Rookie of the Year, National League Most Valuable Player, NL batting champion and a six-time all-star. He was admitted to baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1962. And he accomplished it all while undergoing all the abuse he faced as the first Black man in major-league baseball.
So, in summary, if you want to talk to me about the greatest athletes of all time, you better not leave Jackie Robinson off your list.
He was unbelievable. A great all-around athlete in the true sense.