Wichita should never be embarrassed to toot its horn.
Humility is a wonderful thing. But when you’ve got it, there are times when you need to flaunt it.
And when it comes to sports legends – I’m talking about potentially the best to ever play their respective sport – Wichita’s got it.
Does the name Barry Sanders ring a bell? Lynette Woodard? Jim Ryun?
They all grew up in Wichita. They graduated form high school here – Ryun from East in 1964 and Woodard and Sanders from North in 1979 and 1985.
Yes, that’s a long time ago. And there are probably people who do need to have their memories refreshed or lack much knowledge of these three at all.
That’s a shame. And we need to do something about it, something to honor them in a way that will keep their faces and accomplishments fresh.
Get this: I can make a solid argument that Ryun is the finest middle-distance runner in American history.
He was the first high school runner to break the four-minute mile mark in 1964. He later set the world record in the mile at 3:51.3 and is the last American to hold that mark. Ryun competed in the 1964 Olympics, when he was still in high school, and won a silver medal in the 1500-meter run at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968.
In 2003, ESPN.com named Ryun the greatest high school athlete in history. No. 2 was Tiger Woods, No. 3 was LeBron James.
You with me so far?
Now get this: I would be willing to make the case for Woodard as the greatest women’s basketball player in history.
Woodard, who once blitzed me in a game of one-on-one when she was a high school senior, was a four-time All-American at Kansas and is still the all-time leading scorer in women’s college basketball with 3,649 points and helped the U.S. to an Olympic gold medal in 1984.
Woodard was the first female to take a roster spot for the Harlem Globetrotters, in 1985. By the time the WNBA was formed, Woodard was far past her prime. But she still joined the Cleveland Rockers at 38.
Finally, here’s something else: For my money, Sanders is the finest football player ever. And I’d be willing to stand in front of Jim Brown, Joe Montana, Lawrence Taylor and Tom Brady to make my case.
Catch Sanders if you can. But you can’t.
In 1988, his first season as a starter at Oklahoma State after backing up Thurman Thomas for two years, Sanders won a Heisman Trophy. Here’s why: He rushed for 2,850 yards and 42 touchdowns in 12 games.
He set about a zillion college football records that season and in games against Kansas State and Kansas he rushed for 632 yards and eight touchdowns.
I’ve been searching the past 30 years for a K-State or KU defender who tackled him in those games and I’ve got nothing. If you know of someone, have them call me.
Sanders went on to average more than 1,500 yards per season during 10 seasons with the Detroit Lions, who never put much of a team around him and whose offensive linemen were most-often atrocious.
It was shocking, still, when Sanders announced he was retiring after the 1998 season, after rushing for 1,491 yards and less than two years after becoming the second NFL back in history with more than 2,000 yards (2,053) in a season.
The quiet Sanders never really offered much of an explanation for his decision, simply saying it was something he wanted to do. The rest of us wanted him to go on to break the career rushing mark, especially since he needed only 1,457 yards to do so.
These are historical figures in American sports history. And they’re native Wichitans.
We should do more to honor them.
It’s nice that Woodard has a recreation center named after here in the neighborhood where she grew up. But is it enough? I don’t think so.
I’m told there’s a nice tribute to Ryun in the trophy case at East High. And that’s wonderful. But there should be lots more.
Barry Sanders Field is the most visible of any tribute to these three amazing athletes. People drive by it every day on 13th Street, just west of I-135. But they drive by without noticing much because there’s not much to notice. Just a field with some old bleachers and a frazzled scoreboard.
I realize money is tight. I know we can’t just go off on some willy-nilly spending spree for extraneous stuff.
But wouldn’t a group of statues to honor these three be worthwhile? How about sprucing up Barry Sanders Field? Maybe put a track around it with Ryun’s name. And do something more for Woodard.
These things would all cost money. Significant money. But the bang for the buck would be great. And the history such tributes represent would live on forever.
Wichita has a lot to be proud of. Ryun, Woodard and Sanders are people we should beat our chests over. Let’s do it. It would be money well spent.