In one way or another I have been involved with athletics for over six decades.
I played various sports during my lifetime, coached, and have worked as an umpire – something I still toil at. Additionally, I worked as a sports writer, sports columnist, sports editor, sports photographer, sports (radio) broadcaster, and sports author. I was one of the founders of the Saginaw County Sports Hall of Fame, where I am the past president emeritus after serving 19 years, and I currently serve on the Harry Hawkins Award Committee and the Saginaw Valley State University Cardinal Athletics Hall of Fame.
Over those 60-plus years, I have witnessed incredible athletic performances of both men and women on the local, state, and national levels - both amateur and professional.
While growing up my favorite athlete of all-time was Mickey Mantle. During his prime the Yankee slugger could seemingly do it all – run, hit with both power and average, field, and throw. And he had a great and recognizable name! However, after reading Jim Bouton’s tell-all book “Ball Four,” I realized my idol had flaws . . . many flaws.
In determining my favorite all-time athlete, I took into consideration their overall body of work both on and off the field of play. Did they set any records? Were they a good teammate? Did they possess integrity? How was their interaction with fans?
So, later in life my favorite athlete off all-time shifted from Mantle to Cal Ripken Jr. Ripken, of course, broke Lou Gehrig’s Major League Baseball record for consecutive games played with 2,632, having surpassed Gehrig’s streak that had stood for 56 years and many deemed unbreakable. Ripken, who, voluntarily ended his 17-year streak, played an astounding 8,264 consecutive innings. For his career he compiled 3,184 hits, 431 home runs, and 1,695 runs batted in. Ripken was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. Considered one of the best shortstops in baseball history the 6-foot-4 Ripken pioneered the way for the success of taller, larger shortstops. He holds the record for most home runs hit as a shortstop (353), breaking the record previously held by Ernie Banks.
The humble Ripken never squabbled with the front office regarding his contracts and contributed his time and money to numerous charitable organizations. Following the signing of his new contract in 1984, Ripken announced he would distribute 1,984 tickets to underprivileged children in Hartford County. The Cal Ripken Jr. Lifelong Learning Center is dedicated to teaching adults to read.
I thought it might be interesting to learn the favorite athletes of some of our local dignitaries from throughout the Saginaw County region. And, more importantly, why. I am thrilled that they wanted to participate by sharing their thoughts (and memories), as many were extremely candid.
Delta College President Dr. Michael H. Gavin went the old-school baseball route when he selected Josh Gibson. “It is estimated that Gibson hit over 800 home runs in the Negro Leagues, with a lifetime average of at least .350,” noted Gavin. “His stature in American nostalgia and history, however, does not loom as many white baseball players of the same era. These numbers make him the best hitter of all time. His lifetime and positioning in American history are one that reveals the intersection of race, memory, and history, through the lens of sports, but also can be applied in institutions beyond athletics in the present moment.”
Two individuals with ties to local hockey each chose a professional golfer as their favorite athlete. Craig Goslin, the president and managing partner of the Saginaw Spirit hockey team, selected PGA Champions Tour all-time wins leader Bernhard Langer. “The reason is his ability to win 44 Champions Tour events,” said Goslin. “The latest one, at the age of 65, was the TimberTech Championship. He is blazing new trails for all of us over 60 in whatever we do in life. Bernhard Langer’s faith in Christ, his conditioning (both mental and physical), his perseverance and commitment to excellence in all he does, makes him an easy choice as my all- time favorite athlete.”
“My all-time favorite is Arnold Palmer,” said WSGW talk show host Art Lewis, who also provides public address duties at the Saginaw Spirit home games. “Not only was he a great golfer, but Mr. Palmer was a great humanitarian. He led a positive life as a devoted husband and father. It is more about life off the course than it is life in the game of golf. Although, he excelled in both.”
Saginaw Valley State University President Dr. George Grant Jr. also selected a golfer – Lee Elder. “He was a professional golfer and the first black man to compete in the Masters golf tournament,” said Grant. “Elder faced much racism throughout his journey as a professional golfer. Despite receiving multiple death threats and fearing for his safety before competing, he endured and participated in the Masters Tournament in 1975. He played in the Masters several more times, became the first black man to qualify for the Ryder Cup and later joined the Senior PGA Tour. Elder's courage, determination, and resilience helped to end racial intolerance in golf and have inspired generations of people, young and old alike.”
Saginaw County Sheriff William L. Federspiel, WJRT TV-12 anchor/reporter Terry Camp, and Saginaw County Public Works Commissioner Brian J. Wendling were all on the same page when they chose former Detroit Lion running back Barry Sanders as their favorite athlete.
“His talent was unmatched during his tenure with the Lions, and his humility on and off the field was very inspirational,” said Federspiel. “At a time when I had moved nearly 1,400 miles from home to pursue lifelong career dreams, watching Barry Sanders and the Detroit Lions kept me attached to my home state in a way that I never would have imagined. Thanks, Barry, for your example of professional excellence wrapped in an aura of great humility.”
“Barry Sanders was one of the most exciting athletes to watch whenever he had the ball in his hands, including three-yard losses,” explained Camp. “But the real reason he was my favorite is the way he was so matter-of-fact whenever he ran into the end zone, just flipping the ball to the ref, no spiking, never a celebration. I don't think his sportsmanship and style has been matched in any sport.”
Wendling echoed Camp’s comments: “Clearly, he was a joy to watch run the football and an absolute nightmare for opposing defenses. Although small in stature, his ability to sneak through even the smallest of openings and the unexplainable side to side moves made him arguably the best ever and propelled him to Hall of Fame status. My appreciation for Barry, however, goes well beyond his physical abilities. Barry was one of the softest-spoken individuals to ever play the game. After a score I don’t think I ever saw the man spike the ball and never saw any dancing or crazy celebrations. He simply handed the ball to the referee and headed back to the sideline. I don’t question for a second that he loved the game and his team, but it was business to him. He wasn’t there for the accolades or the fame as was made very clear when he decided to retire and was within sight of the all-time rushing record while in his prime. He was simply there to do the job he was hired and paid to do……but also loved to do.”
Another Detroit Lion player was selected by Dr. Annette M. Rummel, president/CEO of the Great Lakes Bay Regional Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, albeit for different reasons. “Detroit Lion kicker Jason Hanson achieved ultimate peak performance through scenario planning strategies and training sessions deployed during practice times and actualized this during games played throughout his NFL career.”
Rummel’s sister, JoAnn Crary, chose a coach rather than an athlete. “My favorite athlete is actually a coach - Tom Izzo,” said Crary, president of Saginaw Future, Inc. “While he played guard at Northern Michigan University, he is best known as the longest-tenured basketball coach in the Big10, Hall of Fame recipient, and holds the current record of 25 consecutive appearances in the NCAA D-1 Men’s Basketball Tournament. He has had so many offers and opportunities to go elsewhere, but in 2022, signed a contract which in effect makes him a Spartan for life. While MSU has had some unimaginable tragedies most recently, the fatal shooting spree, Covid 19 pandemic, and child rapist Larry Nassar, MSU looked to Tom Izzo to lead them out of the darkness with hope, encouragement and tears. He is one of the most down to earth, accessible and transparent leaders that I have ever met. He wears his heart on his sleeve and loves his university and all of its students. One of the tell-tail signs that he is a great mentor and friend is the large number of former players who stay in close contact with coach Izzo.”
While nobody selected Detroit Tiger Hall of Famer Al Kaline, John Kacynski did choose Kaline’s close friend and teammate. “My favorite athlete of all time is Willie Horton,” said Kacynski, executive director of Governmental and Community Affairs at Saginaw Valley State University. “There are multiple reasons I like him. When I grew up, I always heard stories about the 1968 Tigers and Al Kaline and Willie Horton. I thought of them as the older brothers of two Tigers I grew up loving, Alan Trammel and Lou Whittaker. I met him (Horton) in the late 90s while working at Dow Corning as an intern and he was the most down to earth individual I had ever met. He was working in a sales job for a company who was selling to DC. However, it wasn't until about 10-years ago that I was reading about the 1967 summer in Detroit and the week in which there were riots in the city. I gained a whole new respect for Horton because he went to the place where he had a newspaper route (12th and Clairmont) and tried to get the people to stop rioting in the city. He stayed around that night and talked with people trying to get them to stop. He was 24-years old and was trying to make positive change. He was a great ball player. One of the best the Tigers have ever had. But it was how he lived his life off the field as a person is why he is my favorite athlete. His life since the Tigers has been dedicated to similar issues in Detroit through his Horton Foundation. Many athletes continue to have that same passion off the field, but it was Horton who at 24-years old, led from the front.”
Saginaw County District 3 Commissioner Rich Spitzer and Saginaw County Register of Deeds Director Katie Albosta Kelly were very succinct when revealing their favorite athlete. “I lean towards the disruptors, i.e., Pele with the bicycle kick, and Olga Korbut with the banned “Dead Loop” uneven parallel bars move,” viewed Spitzer. Kelly, meanwhile, said: “I love sports and the athletes that compete are simply amazing. I can only pick one? I would have to go with Simone Biles. Watching her compete is truly amazing, but seeing her prioritize her health over a medal is why she is the GOAT and why I’m proud my daughter looks up to her too.”
Saginaw Valley State University head football coach Ryan Brady, a state and national champion quarterback at Chesaning High School and Grand Valley State University, respectively, went with a fellow signal caller. “My single favorite athlete of all-time is Dan Marino. He was a fiery competitor and leader on the field. He demanded much of others but gave much of himself. He had a lightning-fast release and played for 17 years in an era where NFL quarterbacks were physically punished. He set the standard for QB play and broke all the major records.”
Kochville Township Supervisor Alan Malesky also chose a gridiron hero. “That is such a hard question. How can I not say Pat Tillman?” said Malesky. “Anyone who gives up a successful NFL career to join the military and ended up making the supreme sacrifice deserves my upmost respect. If I was to coach any team today, I would want a player like Brandon Inge. When he played for the Tigers, he was my favorite by far. A great attitude and he would play any position the skipper would ask him to play. An all-around team player."
Four individuals, Saginaw County Prosecutor John McColgan Jr., the Honorable Saginaw County Probate Judge Patrick J. McGraw, the Honorable District Court Judge Terry L. Clark, and 94th District State Representative Amos O’Neal selected relatives - and rightfully so.
“My favorite athlete is John McColgan III,” said McColgan, whose son John was a three-sport standout at Nouvel Catholic Central High School. “The reason he is my favorite athlete is because he had a dream of playing football for the University of Michigan and through dedication, discipline, perseverance, and sacrifice, he earned his way onto the field and made his dream come true.”
Judge Clark zeroed in on his niece, Regina Clark Faulkerson, a standout basketball player at Buena Vista High School. “Regina was one of the first female athletes from Buena Vista to receive a four-year scholarship to play at a Division I school. She played and graduated from the University of Tennessee. While at Tennessee, she played for legendary women’s basketball coach Pat Head Summitt. And, Regina was a part of two teams at Tennessee which won NCAA national championships. Tennessee has won a total of eight NCAA national championships.”
“My favorite athlete of all time is really both of my sons!” noted Judge McGraw. “I will start with Brandon McGraw who played baseball and football at Nouvel Catholic Central where he was a standout player in both sports. He went on to play football at Northern Michigan University, winning the Scout Award and still has his name on the trophy in the Dome! Ryan McGraw also was a standout baseball and football player at Nouvel Catholic Central. He won two state titles in baseball and was runner-up another year. He was also a two-year All Stater and played on the Michigan Dream Team at Tiger Stadium. In football, he was All-Area and All-Region. He then went on to play at Coastal Carolina University, where as a freshman he saw action in every game and set freshman records for stolen bases. During the next three years, he was selected as a Louisville Slugger All-American, Atlanta Regional All-Tournament team, Big South All-Tournament team, Pre-Season First Team All-American by Collegiate Baseball, voted best baserunner, fastest runner, and best defensive outfielder in the Big South by Baseball America.”
O’Neal, meanwhile, selected his older brother Calvin O’Neal. “My brother Calvin is my favorite athlete. He was the example I saw growing up of hard work and dedication. He was the example for all the O’Neal brothers. From his junior high and high school days at Arthur Eddy and Saginaw High, to the University of Michigan, and then playing professionally in the NFL.”