When it comes to legendary sports figures, Texas boasts more than a few.
A monstrous task was handed down to me for our recent July issue: Come up with the top five Texas athletes of all time. We were highlighting the history, personalities, tall tales, music, food, and adventures of Texas in epic fashion — something of an annual tradition in which we spotlight one of the great states out West each year.
I thought, There’s no way. But I’ll put forward a list, and pray that it represents the spirit of sport in this state.
The trouble is, lists come to an end. And in Texas, there’s no end in sight to our vastly rich talent pool, past and present. So I set some parameters. First, one person per sport (because football). Second, gotta be born in Texas — sincerest apologies to Emmitt, Dirk, Hakeem, and countless other ambassadors of our state. Finally, singularity. What separates them from the pack? In some cases, sheer stats. In others, iconic moments. Some, long-revered legends. Others, under-appreciated phenoms. To what extent did their contributions influence the field, court, arena, course, ring, or track?
Still, I couldn’t limit it to just five (my editors mercifully condensed it for me in the print edition).
Therefore, this isn't a ranking, but a small sampling. Here, some of the most dominant, adept, skilled, and influential competitors to come out of the Lone Star State. Who tops your list?
Michael Johnson | Track & Field
Born September 13, 1967, in Dallas
Gold spikes will court attention. Wearing gold spikes while becoming the first man to win both the 200- and 400-meter sprints in the same Olympics, as Michael Johnson did in Atlanta in 1996, will court glory. Johnson’s world-record performance in the 200 led many to deem him the fastest man alive. Historically, that title has gone to the record-holder of the 100-meter dash — not this time.
Sheryl Swoopes | Basketball
Born March 25, 1971, in Brownfield
To start, she bested Bill Walton’s record — for the most points scored in a collegiate championship game — when she helped Texas Tech beat Ohio State in 1993. With her 47 points (a record that still stands today), she netted her university its first-ever national championship in any sport, earned comparisons to Michael Jordan, and went on to become the first player drafted to the WNBA.
Video: Courtesy Classic Basketball
George Foreman | Boxing
Born January 10, 1949, in Marshall
The Texas grill master claims a spot in two of the biggest boxing matches of the last century: the Sunshine Showdown against Joe Frazier and the Rumble in the Jungle against Muhammed Ali. Despite those memorable events, Foreman’s legacy is his longevity. His career spanned nearly three decades and a couple of comebacks, bookended by winning a gold medal in 1968 at the Mexico City Olympics at the age of 19 and winning the heavyweight title in 1994 at the age of 45 — becoming the oldest person ever to do so.
Photography: Courtesy Texas Sports Hall of Fame
Trevor Brazile | Rodeo
Born November 16, 1976, in Amarillo
Trevor Brazile is widely considered the greatest cowboy in rodeo history. While the rowdy nature of events like calf-roping and steer-wrestling caters to some of the most celebrated characters in the arena, Brazile quite simply holds more rodeo titles than any of those folks by a long shot. He has toppled the record books with 24 world champion titles from the National Finals Rodeo and 14 all-around titles — winning the last of each in 2018 after announcing his impending retirement from full-time competition.
Photography: Andy Watson/courtesy Bull Stock Media
A.J. Foyt | Auto Racing
Born January 16, 1935, in Houston
A.J. Foyt could win a race in his pickup truck if he had to. His versatility unimaginable in racing today, Foyt reached the finish line first in open-wheel cars, midget cars, sprint cars, and stock cars. He is the only driver to win the Indianapolis 500 (which he won four times), the Daytona 500, the 24 Hours of Daytona, and the 24 Hours of Le Mans. He’s also the only person to have won the Indy 500 in both front and rear-engine cars. He holds the record for the most wins under the U.S. Auto Club, and in 1999, the Associated Press named him (along with Mario Andretti) the Co-Driver of the Century.
Photography: Courtesy Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Earl Campbell | Football
Born March 29, 1955, in Tyler
Naming just one great football player from Texas is a thankless task. However, the Tyler Rose sets himself apart because he showcased excellence at every stage of his career, from high school to the pros — all within the Lone Star State. He led John Tyler High School to the state championship and was named the national high school player of the year. He won the Heisman Trophy as a senior at the University of Texas at Austin. The Houston Oilers selected him as the No. 1 NFL draft pick. He was a five-time Pro Bowler, led the league in rushing his first three years, and was twice named the league MVP, including in his rookie season. What Texans and football fans might remember most about Campbell, though, is the bruising, all-out physical dominance that made him the toughest running back to ever grace the gridiron.
Photography: Courtesy Pro Football Hall of Fame
Nolan Ryan | Baseball
Born January 31, 1947, in Refugio
It’s inconceivable that any pitcher will eclipse Nolan Ryan’s Major League Baseball strikeout record of 5,714. As it is, he’s the only one to surpass the 5,000 mark. The same could be said for his number of no-hitters, the seventh and final of which came at the age of 44 in 1991, making him the oldest pitcher to ever throw one. Not a single active pitcher currently has more than two. While no one could ever forget the notorious Robin Ventura headlock of 1993 (it was not just Texans who loved seeing the 46-year-old Ryan Express put a 26-year-old in his place), Ryan’s true greatness could be summed up by another fact. He is the only player outside of Jackie Robinson (whose number is retired universally across the league) to have his jersey retired by at least three major league teams — the Angels, the Astros, and the Rangers — two of which call Texas home.
Video: Courtesy MLB
Ben Hogan | Golf
Born August 13, 1912, in Dublin, Texas (Died July 25, 1997, in Fort Worth)
In 1953, Ben Hogan did something no other golfer had ever done: won three major professional championships within the year — a triple crown. Only Tiger Woods has done it again since then.
In addition to his masterful swing, what endears Hogan to legions of golfers and fans is that he paused his career to serve as a lieutenant in the army during World War II and survived a near-fatal head-on collision with a Greyhound bus in 1949.
He won six of his nine majors after the car crash and is one of only five players to have won all four majors, including the Open, which he played just once. In 1958, Augusta National Golf Club named a bridge on the course after him to commemorate his record score during his second win at The Masters. Ben’s bridge (officially the Hogan Bridge) is one of the most revered sights in all of sports.
Photography: Courtesy USGA
Babe Didrikson Zaharias | Golf, Basketball, Track & Field
Born June 26, 1911, in Port Arthur (Died September 27, 1956, in Galveston)
In 1954, Babe Didrikson Zaharias won her 10th and final major golf tournament, the U.S. Open. The year before, she had been diagnosed with colon cancer and undergone a colostomy. She still won that U.S. Open by 12 strokes. Unfortunately, the cancer returned, and she passed away a couple of years later at the age of 45, prompting a public salute from President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Zaharias had been one of the most famous athletes in the world. She catapulted to fame as a track star after winning two gold medals and a silver at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. Though Zaharias qualified for five events, as a woman, she was only allowed to compete in three. In her quest to qualify for those Olympics, she won an amateur track meet singlehandedly — the second-place team fielded 22 athletes.
Zaharias played basketball in the Amateur Athletic Union league right out of high school, earning All-American titles three years in a row. She even pitched innings during Major League Baseball spring training games for the Philadelphia Athletics, the St. Louis Cardinals, and the New Orleans Pelicans. On top of all this, she was the first woman to play in a PGA tournament and is one of the 13 founding members of the LPGA.
In 1950 and 1999, the Associated Press voted Zaharias the greatest female athlete of the half-century and century. Grantland Rice, the famed sportswriter, summed her up this way: “She is beyond all belief until you see her perform. Then you finally understand that you are looking at the most flawless section of muscle harmony, of complete mental and physical coordination, the world of sport has ever seen.”
Photography: Courtesy Babe Didrikson Zaharias Museum
Assault | Horse Racing
Foaled March 26, 1943, at King Ranch in Kingsville (died September 1, 1971, at King Ranch)
In 1946, Assault won the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes to become the seventh horse to win the Triple Crown. Of the 13 Triple Crown winners, Assault remains the only one born and bred in Texas.
Photography: Courtesy King Ranch
They weren’t born in Texas, but they got here as fast as they could:
Mia Hamm | Soccer
Moved to Wichita Falls, Texas, at the age of 5
When Pelé unveiled his list of the greatest living soccer players in the world, no American man made the list. Mia Hamm did. She held the international record for most goals scored — by a male or female — until 2013. Thanks in part to her leadership during an astonishing World Cup career, she is hailed as an icon of the sport and rightly credited for its popularity in the United States.
Photography: Courtesy The Mia Hamm Foundation
Simone Biles | Gymnastics
Moved to Spring, Texas, at the age of 3
Simone Biles won four gold medals and a bronze at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016. At that point, she had already collected serious hardware from the gymnastics World Championships, and her routines for the vault and floor exercise had been named the most difficult of all time. She has won a total of 25 Olympic and World Championship medals, making her the most decorated American gymnast, and third most decorated female gymnast of all time.
Photography: Courtesy Fernando Frazão/Agência Brasil
Cover Photography: Nolan Ryan on shoulders of teammates/Courtesy Fort Worth Star-Telegram Collection, University of Texas at Arlington Libraries,(1991)