They're the best of the best, exemplifying all the courage and nobility and genius and hard work and modesty and ambition and humility and grace that can be displayed in modern American sports. They're the ones we really want to be like when the going gets tough, they're the ones we want to show our sons and daughters and say, "See? See?" They all had flaws, we know -- they were, despite some signs to the contrary, human. And they're Page 2's greatest sports heroes of all time.
1. Jackie Robinson
It wasn't what Jackie did as much as the way Jackie did it -- bearing up under the pressure of breaking baseball's color barrier with dignity and class and some damn great ballplaying. And, like few others before or since, he became bigger than the game itself, an American treasure in his own right. Said AL President Gene Budig in 1997, "He led America by example. He reminded our people of what was right and he reminded them of what was wrong. I think it can be safely said today that Jackie Robinson made the United States a better nation."
2. Babe Ruth
Babe was, quite simply the American sports icon of The American Century, a mythic hero who would have had to be invented had he not been flesh and blood. Out of the mouth of Pete Rose, in 1992, came the truth: "If Babe Ruth had been a soccer player, soccer would be our national pastime."
3. Vince Lombardi
Lombardi was voted the greatest coach of all time by ESPN's SportsCentury panel, but he was so much more. During the turbulent 1960s, he became a symbol of all that was right with the old-fashioned, "square" ways. A tough guy, an emotional man, one who inspired great loyalty among his players. Quite simply, the best boss there ever was.
4. Muhammad Ali
Ali was "The Greatest" during his boxing career, but it was after his boxing days were done that he secured his legend as a great American man. Was there ever a more moving moment in sports than when he lit the flame to open the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta? Ailing with Parkinson's, Ali has faced his long physical decline with the kind of courage and grace and humor that have made him not just admired, but truly beloved. Said Pres. Bill Clinton to Ali after the torch-lighting ceremony, "They didn't tell me who would light the flame, but when I saw it was you, I cried.'"
5. Johnny Unitas
A great quarterback, we all know. The greatest ever, probably. But more simply, an admirable man who honored the sports world by being part of it. "He was the kind of man," said Cardinal William H. Keeler at Unitas' funeral, "who would shake the hand of a homeless person and say to that person it was an honor to shake his hand."
6. Nile Kinnick
We're reminded of the legacy of a young man who died too young at the start of every Big 10 football game. The coin that's tossed bears Kinnick's likeness, and it's only one of many tributes to the great Iowa football star and war hero that are scattered around his home state. When he won the Heisman in 1939, he said, famously, "I thank God I was warring on the gridirons of the Midwest and not on the battlefields of Europe." A few years later, Kinnick was killed on a training flight, serving his country in that same war. He had turned down a lucrative pro contract from the NFL's Brooklyn Dodgers to attend law school, and many expected him to eventually become president.
"This country is O.K. as long as it produces Nile Kinnicks," wrote Bill Cunningham in the Boston Globe, shortly after Kinnick took home the Heisman. "The football part is incidental."
7. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird
These men made their pro basketball homes on opposite coasts -- one in glamorous L.A., the other in old, work-a-day Beantown, but the 3,000 miles didn't separate them in our minds. Take your pick -- Magic's infectious good humor and enthusiasm and, when it all came crashing down, courage. Larry's hard-scrabble, Midwest, get-it-done can-do everyman attitude. It's impossible. They're heroes bound together by time, and by a sport, and by exhibiting complementary qualities that added up to greatness both on and off the court.
8. Joe DiMaggio
"Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio, our nation turns its lonely eyes to you … " Would any other player, in any sport, have worked in that great line from Simon and Garfunkel's "Mrs. Robinson"? No way. Even though lots of ugly things about Joe's life have come out lately, his fame and heroic stature may be equaled, but never topped. DiMaggio, wrote Page 2's David Halberstam in "Summer of '49, " was "the perfect Hemingway hero, for Hemingway in his novels romanticized the man who exhibited grace under pressure, who withheld any emotion lest it soil the purer statement of his deeds."
9. Billie Jean King
She was the best tennis player of her time, and one of the all-time greats. She fought for equal prize money -- and got it. She created an entirely new format for tennis competition -- World Team Tennis -- and it worked. And she creamed Bobby Riggs in the "Battle of the Sexes," a more important event than the circus-like atmosphere surrounding it foretold. Wrote Neil Amdur of the New York Times after King defeated Riggs, "Most important perhaps for women everywhere, she convinced skeptics that a female athlete can survive pressure-filled situations."
10. 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team
At a time when things looked pretty bleak for the U.S. -- mind-boggling inflation, hostages in Iran, a seemingly endless "energy crisis," and a president who spoke of a "national malaise" -- this team made everything look brighter, at least for a while. By beating the Soviets in the "Miracle on Ice" and going on to win the Gold Medal against the longest odds, the young team of amateurs reminded lots of folks what the best of America was all about.
"It made you want to pick up your television set and take it to bed with you," wrote E.M. Swift in SI, of the team's medal run. "It really made you feel good."