It really comes down to just two.
Name all the great athletes Kansas has produced — certainly more than the 150 The Eagle has highlighted these this summer — and the title of Kansas' Greatest Athlete can go to only one of two men.
There's Wichita's Barry Sanders. Heisman Trophy winner, greatest season by a college running back, Pro Bowler in all 10 of his electrifying NFL seasons, No. 2 career rusher when he chose to retire, first-ballot Hall of Famer.
There's Humboldt's Walter Johnson. No. 2 in major-league victories. First in shutouts. Third in innings. Fifth in complete games. Ninth in strikeouts. Career 2.17 ERA. Charter member of the Baseball Hall of Fame (with Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Christy Mathewson and Honus Wagner).
Never miss a local story.
You can't go wrong either way, but in this case we're going with the guy who shook our heads — and defenders' bodies — with unparalleled moves and a humility that made Kansans proud to call him theirs. Sanders gets the nod.
The rest of the top 50 isn't half-bad, either. Enjoy.
1. Barry SandersFootball, Wichita, 1968-
Anybody who’s in the first breath when reciting the NFL’s greatest running backs is pretty special. Being a humble, homegrown Kansan made Sanders that much more special.
Diminutive but always the shiftiest player on the field, Sanders was a youth-league star in Wichita, often breaking off long touchdown runs. But at North High, he was content growing up in the shadow of older brother Byron, another standout running back. Barry didn’t play on varsity as a sophomore and played wingback and receiver as a junior while Byron was the senior tailback.
He was again at wingback as a senior, yet scored four touchdowns with 156 yards on five carries in the opener. Two weeks later, he was inserted at tailback and ran for a long touchdown that was called back by a penalty.
Sanders never left the tailback spot again. With only six games as the starter, he rushed for 1,417 yards. His moves left high school defenders grasping for air.
Oklahoma State was one of the few schools willing to “take a chance” on the 5-foot-8 Sanders. All he did for the Cowboys was overwhelmingly win the 1988 Heisman Trophy as a junior with one of the game’s greatest seasons _ a Big Eight-record 2,628 rushing yards (239 per game) and an NCAA-record 44 touchdowns.
He was the third pick in the 1989 NFL Draft, behind Troy Aikman and Tony Mandarich, and his first contract with the Detroit Lions included $250,000 of his signing bonus going to his church, Paradise Baptist in Wichita.
Sanders and his electrifying, lateral running style were Lions fixtures for 10 years. His gaudy numbers _ 15,269 career rushing yards, four years leading the league, all 10 seasons with more than 1,100 yards, NFL MVP in 1997 _ were offset by his humility. He wasn’t a talker, and always simply flipped the football to an official after scoring, rather than call attention to himself.
His reserved character is one of the reasons why his 1999 retirement at age 31 _ possibly less than a season away from breaking Walter Payton’s career rushing record _ was so stunning. He gave little reason why he was leaving in his prime, other than to say his “desire to exit the game is greater than my desire to remain in it.”
Sanders entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame on the first ballot in 2004.
2. Walter JohnsonBaseball, Humboldt, 1887-1946
Charter membership in the Baseball Hall of Fame belonged to five men, including a Kansan nicknamed “The Big Train” with an overpowering fastball and 417 career victories. Johnson was voted into the first Hall class in 1936 with Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner and Christy Mathewson.
Johnson played for many mediocre Washington Senators teams from 1907-27, yet in his 21 seasons ,Johnson won six of every 10 decisions (417-279). His 110 shutouts will likely never be topped. His 2.17 ERA over 5,914 1/3 innings is mind-blowing.
He’s second in wins, third in career innings pitched, ninth in strikeouts (3,509) and fifth in complete games (531, meaning he completed 114 games without the win).
None of that was guaranteed when Johnson was born on a farm near Humboldt, two hours east of Wichita. His family, including six children, lived in Kansas until Johnson was 14 and they moved to Olinda, Calif.
Johnson graduated from Fullerton (Calif.) High, then moved to Idaho to pitch with a town team. At 19, he signed a contract with the Senators in July 1907.
Johnson’s sidearm fastball overpowered hitters, especially from the right side. He had 12 20-win seasons, including 33 wins in 1912 and 36 in 1913.
The Senators reached the World Series in two of Johnson’s last four seasons. He lost two games in the 1924 Series, but pitched four innings of relief in Game 7 to beat the New York Giants.
Johnson managed the Senators and Indians for seven seasons, ending in 1935. He settled in Maryland and died of a brain tumor in 1946.
3. Jim RyunTrack and field, Wichita, 1947-
Is there any more memorable moment in Kansas high school sports than when Ryun crossed the finish line in the mile at the 1965 state meet?
His 3-minute, 58.3-second effort was the first time a runner had clocked a sub-four mile against only high school competition. It completed a fascinating three years that began when he was a rather ordinary runner as an East High sophomore.
When Ryun was running a 5:38 mile as a 10th-grader, he couldn’t dream he’d someday be the world’s top miler and springboard that to a career in the U.S. House of Representatives.
But perseverance was on Ryun’s side. By the end of that sophomore season, he had knocked 91 seconds off his mile time. A year later, Ryun was in national meets and clocked a 4:01.7 for a schoolboy record. Two weeks later, 3:59.0. He qualified for the 1964 Olympics in the 1500 meters, reaching the semifinal round.
Ryun won five NCAA individual titles at Kansas and in 1966 was Sports Illustrated’s “Sportsman of the Year” after setting the world record in the mile. But he experienced more disappointment in the Olympics. He was second in 1968 to Kenya’s Kip Keino in the 1500 despite running a blazing 3:37.8. Four years later in Munich, he was tripped during a 1500 qualifying heat and didn’t advance.
Still, many of Ryun’s achievements stand out. He set five world records in the 1960s and early ’70s, and many of his schoolboy and American records remain intact. Ryun served in the U.S. House from 1996-2007.
4. Jim BauschTrack and field, Wichita, 1906-1974
He attended three high schools and two colleges, all before becoming the World’s Greatest Athlete in 1932.
Bausch was a big, powerful schoolboy who led Garden Plain to a county basketball title before enrolling at Wichita’s Cathedral High and becoming a standout football player. A year later, he enrolled at Wichita High and won a state shot put title before returning to Cathedral prior to graduation in 1927.
After a year at the University of Wichita, Bausch transferred to Kansas and was a three-sport standout (two-time football All-American) before leaving school and training for the ’32 Olympics in Los Angeles.
Bausch won four of the decathlon’s 10 events and set a world record for points, becoming a national celebrity. He was named the Sullivan Award winner as the nation’s top amateur athlete and played one NFL season (1933).
But just as quickly as Bausch rose to fame, he slipped out of the spotlight. After serving in World War II, he took a job with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and lived in Arkansas the rest of his life, away from most of his family. He died in 1974, 13 years after becoming a charter inductee in the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame. He was also inducted into the college football and U.S. Olympic halls.
5. Lynette WoodardBasketball, Wichita, 1959-
She dribbled like a point guard and had inside moves like a nimble post player. She could shoot from the outside or take you to the basket. There was little Woodard couldn’t do on the court — at North High, Kansas or internationally.
Woodard learned the game in Piatt Park, built after a KC-135 tanker crashed into the neighborhood near 21st Street in January 1965, killing 30 people. She’d play all hours with her brothers, refining her game that took her to two All-State selections as a dominant player at North (1976-77).
She was just as unstoppable at KU, where she was a four-time All-American and averaged 26.3 points and 12.4 rebounds. Her 3,649 points stand as the women’s career record.
But there was no women’s professional league upon graduation. She played overseas for three years, then was co-captain of the gold-winning 1984 Olympic team. (She was also on the ’80 Olympic team that boycotted Moscow.)
Woodard continued as a trailblazer. In 1985, she became the first female member of the Harlem Globetrotters — which helped the Globetrotters and women’s basketball in terms of exposure. She was with the team for two years, then played professionally overseas again.
When the WNBA was created in 1997, Woodard hopped on for two seasons. She was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2004.
6. Jackie StilesBasketball, Claflin, 1978-
The stories of Stiles’ commitment to basketball success are well-known in Kansas: 1,000 shots a day, late nights in the Claflin gym (she had a key), and a desire to be perfect in every game.
Stiles scored 3,603 points for Claflin from 1993-97 — more than any other Kansas boys or girls prep player — and averaged 35.7 points in a three-time All-State career (46.4 as a senior).
She chose to play at Southwest Missouri State and became a Bears phenom. She set the NCAA career scoring record during her senior year (Lynette Woodard’s points were under the AIAW umbrella) and led SMSU’s improbable run through the NCAA Tournament to the 2001 Final Four.
Stiles was named the Wade Trophy winner for outstanding player and became the first player to score 1,000 points in a season (3,393 for the career). She was WNBA Rookie of the Year in 2001, but injuries cut her career short after two seasons.
Stiles was also the most decorated female athlete in Kansas high school track and field. She entered 16 Class 1A events at the state meet from 1994-97 and won 14, finishing second in the other two.
7. Maurice GreeneTrack and field, Kansas City, 1974-
Greene gave a preview of his international stardom while at Schlagle High, winning seven individual state track and field titles, plus a hand-timed 10.2-second 100 meters in 1993.
Four years later, Greene became a star with his win in the 100 at the World Championships (he also won in 1999 and 2001). In ’99, Greene became the first to win the 100 and 200 at the World Championships.
Also in Athens, Greene set the 100 world record at 9.79 seconds, which stood for more than three years _ or six years once Tim Montgomery’s 9.78 was disallowed because of his use of performance-enhancing drugs. In all, Greene ran 53 100s in less than 10 seconds.
In Sydney at the 2000 Olympics, Greene won two Olympic golds in the 100 and 400 relay. At Athens in 2004, he won bronze in the 100 and silver in the 400 relay.
8. John RigginsFootball, Centralia, 1949-
Riggins led Centralia to a 1966 state championship while also winning two springs in the state indoor meet. But Riggins was just getting started.
He became an All-America running back at Kansas, rushing for 2,659 career yards and was part of a backfield with QB Bobby Douglass that led the Jayhawks to the Big Eight crown and 1969 Orange Bowl.
The Jets drafted him No. 1 in 1971 and over 14 seasons rushed for 11,352 yards, which at that time was among the top 10 in career rushing yards. He got better as he got older, too.
He was the 1978 Comeback Player of the Year, then the 1983 Super Bowl MVP when his fourth-down run for a touchdown helped Washington past Miami. In 1983, at age 34, he had an NFL Player of the Year season with a career-best 1,347 yards and a career- and league-best 24 touchdowns. He made the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1992, his second year of eligibility.
9. Lynn DickeyFootball, Osawatomie, 1949-
The Associated Press’ greatest quarterback in Big Eight history wasn’t a Sooner or Husker. It was K-State’s Dickey, who had a 15-16 three-year record — a testament to his accomplishments from 1968-70.
Dickey arrived in Manhattan off a state championship and All-State selection at Osawatomie High and, once eligible, immediately turned the Wildcats’ fortunes. A one-win season in his redshirt year, 1967, turned to four wins in 1968 and five in 1969 — including OU’s worst loss, a 59-21 defeat in which Dickey threw for 380 yards.
Dickey was a two-time all-conference QB and MVP of the Senior Bowl before being drafted by Houston in the 1971 NFL Draft. He was mostly an Oilers backup for four seasons — he lost one year to a hip injury — then became a starter with the Packers.
In nine Green Bay seasons, Dickey threw for more than 21,000 yards (15 300-yard games) and led the league in 1983 with 4,458 yards. He was inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame in 1992.
10. Glenn CunninghamTrack and field, Elkhart, 1909-1988
World records in the 800 meters and mile, and two appearances in the Olympics, aren’t even the most interesting aspects of Cunningham’s legendary track career.
In 1916 at age 7, Cunningham was badly injured in a schoolhouse fire that killed his brother. Doctors wanted to amputate both of his legs, but he fought through pain and learned to walk again after a year. A decade later, he was one of America’s greatest track stars.
Cunningham, who won two NCAA titles for KU, finished fourth in the 1932 Olympic 1500 meters and won the Sullivan Award (nation’s top amateur athlete) the next year. He returned to the Olympics in 1936 and won silver in the 1500 _ he was a national champ five times in the event.
He was inducted into the USA Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1974, 14 years before his death, and was also named the top track performer during the 100-year anniversary of New York’s Madison Square Garden.