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JSH’s KY: Kentucky’s top 10 sports figures are top-notch – and have amazing stories

You might think every state produces its share of great sports figures, but when you actually examine the statistics it seems our fair Commonwealth of Kentucky has contributed to the wide world of sports on a level that outshines others. I’m talking about not just quantity here, but quality and in terms of people with fascinating stories.

This is my personal and admittedly arbitrary top 10, of course – a complete list of Kentucky’s great athletes, coaches and owners could easily fill a book!

1. Muhammad Ali. Love him or hate him, Louisville’s Muhammad Ali is the greatest boxer of all time in terms of showmanship and razzle-dazzle, having galvanized and revitalized public interest in the sport at a time when it very easily could have withered on the vine. But in terms of actual statistics, Ali is indeed “the greatest,” regardless of what you think about that phantom punch that made Sonny Liston spontaneously collapse. Ali is the first – and only – three-time lineal World Heavyweight Champion. Born under the name Cassius Clay – yes, named after that Cassius Clay – Ali changed his name after joining the Nation of Islam in 1964. (A decade later, he converted to Sunni Islam in 1975, and reportedly in recent years he’s embraced Islam’s more mystical variant, Sufism.) Will Smith did an astounding job of portraying the boxer in the 2001 film Ali, especially considering the transformation he underwent to put on weight for the part.

2. Tyson Gay. Born in Lexington in 1982, Gay in is an American track and field sprint athlete whose 100 m personal best of 9.69 seconds is the current American record – which makes him the second-fastest athlete of all time. In 2008, he ran a 100m in 9.68 – which at that time was the fastest time in history – but was unfortunately disqualified from the world record because of “wind assistance.” That’s pretty silly if you ask me, and I know you didn’t.

3. Jack Roush. The ultimate auto racing guru, Roush has won six championships as a car owner in NASCAR’s top three series, two Sprint Cup titles, three Nationwide Series titles, and a Camping World Truck Series title. Jack has two Daytona 500 victories as a car owner, both with driver Matt Kenseth. Since Jack began competing in NASCAR, his team has racked up 283 wins and 212 poles. Roush was born in Covington, Ky., and earned a mathematics/physics degrees from Berea College. (Roush is almost as famous for his bad luck with planes as he is his good luck with cars – in 2002 his private plane went down in a lake in Alabama and he was underwater and unconscious when rescued in the nick of time, and in 2010 he lost an eye when he crash-landed his Hawker Beechcraft Premier 390 jet in Wisconsin.)

4. Jim Bunning. Say what say what? Yeah. That Jim Bunning, the U.S. senator with a propensity for speaking his mind and delivering freewheeling, off-the-cuff, conspiratorially cranky rants. I prefer to look further back to Mr. Bunning’s illustrious baseball career, which surprisingly many people aren’t aware of. Bunning, who was born and raised in Southgate, Ky., had a quite respectable career in pro baseball, pitching for the Tigers, Phillies, Pirates and Dodgers between 1955 and 1971. He ended up in the Baseball Hall of Fame with a win-loss record of 224-184, an earned run average of 3.27 and 2,855 strikeouts.

5. Pee Wee Reese. One of baseball’s all-time greats, Pee Wee Reese, was born in Ekron, KY (Meade County) in 1918 and was living in Louisville at the time of his death on Aug. 14, 1999. (And curiously enough, just two days later, country music star Pee Wee King, also living in Louisville, also died.) A 10-time All Star, Reese was in seven National League championships with the Dodgers and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1984. Reese was notably also a vocal supporter of Jackie Robinson, the first African-American player in the modern major leagues. After retiring from playing, King went on to a career as a radio/TV play-by-play announcer in the ’60s and ’70s, calling Cincinnati Reds games, among others. In his later years, Reese worked for Hillerich & Bradsby, manufacturers of Louisville Slugger bats.

6. Pete Browning. Those Louisville Slugger bats were in fact, named after Pete “The Louisville Slugger” Browning, possibly the greatest baseball player who ever lived, in my estimation. A three-time batting champion, he finished among the top three hitters in the league in each of his first seven years; only twice in his 11 full seasons did he finish lower than sixth. His .341 lifetime batting average remains one of the highest in major league history, and among the top five by a right-handed batter. Pete managed these impressive achievements from 1882 to 1894 despite being legally deaf, an unrepetant alcoholic, and living with constant excruciating pain from mastoiditis. In the 19th century, there was no effective treatment for mastoiditis, so Pete turned to alcohol to help numb the migraine like headaches. Although he underwent surgery to try to treat his condition, it did little to stop the pain. And somehow, he played pro baseball and played it better than most, even drunk and even in agonizing pain.

7. Jacob Tamme. Tamme, who graduated from Boyle County High School in Danville, Ky., and played college football at the University of Kentucky, is currently a tight end for the Denver Broncos. Tamme’s especially notable to me for being one of the top scholar-athletes in the country, having completed his degree in integrated strategic communications in only three years and earning his MBA before entering the NFL. He was the 2007 recipient of the Bobby Bowden Award, a national honor presented by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

8. Rudell Stitch. Stitch started boxing locally in Louisville in 1956, and by 1959 he was at Madison Square Garden fighting Gaspar “El Indio” Ortega. At the time of his death in 1960, Stitch ranked second in the world in welterweight and was well on his way to becoming champion. Stitch’s heroism outside the ring earned him accolades as well, and ultimately led to his demise. In 1959, he saved a man from drowning in the accursed Ohio River – an act for which he was awarded the Carnegie Hero Fund medal of honor – and the following summer, he died trying, again, to save someone from drowning when a friend fell into the water during a fishing trip. Stitch was posthumously awarded another Carnegie Hero Fund medal, making him one of only four people to have received the honor twice.

9. Rajan Rondo. Rondo was born on Feb. 22, 1986 in Louisville, and played basketball at Eastern High School before committing to UK over his hometown’s U of L for college. There, he set a Kentucky Wildcats record for most steals in single-season, with a total of 87 steals in his freshman year and made at least one steal in every game. He also set a Wildcats record for most rebounds in a game by a guard, with 19 rebounds in a game against Iowa (though the Cats still lost.) Like fellow Wildcat Rex Chapman before him, Rondo went on to an NBA career with the Phoenix Suns. Next he was traded to the Boston Celtics, where he currently plays today. On March 4, 2012, he set yet another record, joining Wilt Chamberlain, Magic Johnson and Jason Kidd as the only players to have at least 15 points, rebounds and assists in the same game.

10. Steve Cauthen. Jockey Steve Cauthen rode his first race on May 12, 1976, at Churchill Downs (he finished last) but ran his first winner just a week later at River Downs. By the following summer he was the nation’s leader in race wins, and by the following Christmas he’d become the first jockey to win $6 million in a single season. In 1977 he was Sports Illustrated magazine’s Sportsman of the Year, Sporting News Sportsman of the Year, Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year and ABC’s Wide World of Sports Athlete of the Year. In 1978 he became the youngest jockey to ever win the U.S. Triple Crown, riding Affirmed. Cauthen continued to have wins throughout his illustrious career, but the amazing meteoric rise during his first three years of horse racing is unparalleled. He was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1994 and currently works with Turfway Park.

(Photos provided by Jeffrey Scott Holland)

Jeffrey Scott Holland is a native Kentuckian, painter, writer, actor, musician, paralegal – and interested in all things. He joins a growing stable of talented, interesting regular columnists for KyForward.com, bringing his gift of a well-turned phrase, quirkiness and humor to entertain and enlighten — and sometimes provoke — our readers. He can always be reached at any time, by anyone on the planet, at jshpaint@gmail.com.

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