Okay, after other things derailed this series temporarily, we're finally getting back into the swing of things and giving you a history of professional sports in Minnesota, based on the greatest players to ever wear a particular uniform number for a Minnesota sports team. Before we got sidetracked, we had gotten numbers 1 through 5 and numbers 6 through 10 knocked out. Just to review, here's who we came up with.
1 - Gump Worsley, Goalie, Minnesota North Stars
2 - Zolio Versailes, Shortstop, Minnesota Twins
3 - Harmon Killebrew, Outfielder, Minnesota Twins
4 - Bob Allison, Outfielder, Minnesota Twins
5 - Michael Cuddyer, Outfielder, Minnesota Twins
6 - Tony Oliva, Outfielder, Minnesota Twins
7 - Joe Mauer, Catcher, Minnesota Twins*
8 - Bill Goldsworthy, Right Wing, Minnesota North Stars
9 - Mikko Koivu, Center, Minnesota Wild
10 - Fran Tarkenton, Quarterback, Minnesota Vikings
Yeah. . .lots and lots of Twins on this list so far. But, then, the other Minnesota sports teams need to get their guys in now, because I have a feeling that when we get up past 50 or so, there are going to be a lot of guys on here wearing either purple and gold or maroon and gold. So, without and further ado, let's make like Casey Kasem and resume counting them down.
11 - Ace Ntsoelengoe, forward/midfielder, Minnesota Kicks
The North American Soccer League existed from 1968 to 1984, with teams from both the United States and Canada taking part in the league. Patrick Pule "Ace" Ntsoelengoe (pronounced net-so-len-ge) was one of the league's more prominent players. He came into the league in 1973 with the Miami Toros, and a couple of years later found his way to the Minnesota Kicks, a team that had relocated from Denver and played their home games in the old Metropolitan Stadium.
Ntsoelengoe is widely regarded as one of the greatest soccer players ever produced by the nation of South Africa. In six seasons with the Kicks, he appeared in 155 games, notching 50 goals and 52 assists. He then went on to play for the Toronto Blizzard before retiring from soccer as an active player in 1984, retiring in eight place on the NASL's all-time goal scoring list with 87. After his playing career, Ntsoelengoe went on to run the very successful Kaizer Chiefs youth soccer program in his native South Africa.
The success he had in his soccer career made him an anti-apartheid icon in his homeland, and he had to attain that status in America because the laws that South America was governed by at the time did not allow him or his fellow black players to participate in events such as the World Cup or the African Cup of Nations. Sadly, Patrick Pule "Ace" Ntsolengoe died on May 8, 2006 of heart failure at the age of 50. If you'd like to learn more about this extraordinary athlete, the BBC did an outstanding story on him leading up to this year's World Cup entitled "The Greatest Player You Never Saw." I highly recommend you take a look at it.
Honorable mention - Daunte Culpepper, quarterback, Minnesota Vikings; Chuck Knoblauch, second baseman, Minnesota Twins
12 - Brian Harper, catcher, Minnesota Twins
A very good bat, a pretty decent glove. . .and, quite possibly, the sweetest mullet perm in baseball history. Yes, that pretty much summarizes former Twins' catcher Brian Harper, and many fans still remember the contributions he made to the last team from the Twin Cities area to win a world championship.
Drafted in 1977 by the California Angels, Harper bounced around the majors for quite a while, landing with five different teams and catching more than 60 games in a season only once (when he caught 61) prior to joining the Twins before the 1988 season. He only caught 60 games his first year with Minnesota, too, but in 1989 he took over as Minnesota's primary catcher, and really started to take off. In his first year as a full-time starter, Harper hit .324, the first of four times in his six-year career with the Twins that he hit .300 or better. Harper had a .306 batting average overall as a member of the Twins.
Harper was also a vital part of the Twins' World Series championship team in 1991. In the seven-game series against the Atlanta Braves, Harper hit .381 and played outstanding defense, most notably hanging on to the ball in a violent home plate collision with Atlanta's Lonnie Smith and catching Jack Morris' masterpiece in Game 7 of that series. . .still, in this writer's opinion, the single greatest baseball game ever played.
Harper left Minnesota after the 1993 season. He then went on to play for the Milwaukee Brewers in 1994, and then played only two games for the Oakland Athletics in 1995 before calling it a career. He is currently employed as the manager of the San Jose Giants, San Francisco's single-A affiliate.
Honorable Mention - Percy Harvin, receiver, Minnesota Vikings; Brian Rolston, forward, Minnesota Wild
13 - Bud Grant, athlete, Minnesota Golden Gophers
Everybody knows that Harold Peter "Bud" Grant, Jr., is one of the NFL's all-time great coaches, but not very many people know what an outstanding athlete he was in his own time. After spending time in the United States Navy during World War II, Bud enrolled at the University of Minnesota. . .and, hey, after growing up in Wisconsin, can you blame him?
As a Gopher athlete, Grant was outstanding at pretty much all of his athletic endeavors. He was a nine-time letterman in three different sports at the University, having starred in football, basketball, and baseball. His greatest level of prowess came on the gridiron, as he was an all-Big Ten defensive end on two different occasions. He wound up being a first round draft choice (14th overall) of the Philadelphia Eagles in the 1950 NFL Draft. That same year, he was also drafted by the Minneapolis Lakers in the fourth round (42nd overall) of the National Basketball Association.
So, faced with the choice, Bud put off his professional football debut for a couple of years to pursue his dreams on the hardwood. Some of that might have been influenced by the fact that his good friend was the general manager of the Lakers at the time. . .a gentleman by the name of Sid Hartman, who has been a Minnesota sports icon in his own right for half a century. Grant averaged only 2.6 points per game with the Lakers in a reserve role, but was a member of the Lakers' 1950 NBA Championship team.
Grant then reported to the Eagles in 1952, and his football statistics are really something to behold. In his first season for the Eagles, he played defensive end and led the team in sacks (which was an unofficial statistic at the time). Then, in his second season in Philadelphia, the team switched him over to wide receiver. . .and all he did was rank second in the NFL in receiving yardage, hauling in 56 passes for 997 yards and seven touchdowns. Grant left the Eagles after that season, as the Eagles weren't willing to pay him what he thought he was worth, and moved on to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the Canadian Football League. In a 1953 playoff game against the Saskatchewan Roughriders, Grant intercepted five passes. Yes, the man had five interceptions in one game, a record that still stands.
After taking the Blue Bombers over and leading them to four Grey Cup championships, Bud moved on to be the second head coach of the Minnesota Vikings, succeeding Norm van Brocklin, and the rest is Minnesota sports history. But before he was a great coach, Bud Grant was a great athlete, and one of Minnesota's finest at that as well.
Honorable Mention - Well, nobody else was really mentioned for this one. For good reason, obviously.
14 - Kent Hrbek, first baseman, Minnesota Twins
Herbie! Herbie! One of the most charismatic and recognizable players in Minnesota Twins history, Kent Hrbek is one of Minnesota's native sons, having been born in Minneapolis and growing up playing at Kennedy High School in Bloomington. Drafted by the Twins in the 17th round of the 1978 draft, Hrbek made his major league debut at Yankee Stadium on August 24, 1981, and got things started with a bang by hitting a game-winning home run in the 12th inning of play.
Hrbek's official rookie year was 1982, and he got things started by hitting the first ever home run in the history of the Metrodome in an exhibition game against the Philadelphia Phillies. He had an outstanding rookie year, hitting .301 with 23 home runs and 92 runs batted in. His performance wasn't quite good enough to get him the Rookie of the Year award, however, as he finished in second place in the voting behind some nobody named Cal Ripken, Jr.
Hrbek was an instrumental part of both of Minnesota's World Series teams. In 1987, he hit a career-best 34 home runs in leading the Twins to the American League West division pennant, and hit a grand slam off of St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Ken Dayley to blow open what had been a close Game Six in the World Series to force a Game Seven and an eventual Minnesota series victories. In what can only be termed as a classic Hrbek move, he got up extremely early before the decisive game seven. . .not because he was nervous, mind you, but because he wanted to go duck hunting.
He was also involved in some controversy in Minnesota's 1991 series victory over the Atlanta Braves, particularly due to a play in Game Two where he appeared to interfere with Braves outfielder Ron Gant's ability to get back to first base after he made too big a turn on a single. He also made what was one of the key defensive plays of the series in Game Seven, working with Brian Harper on a rare 3-2-3 double play in the eighth inning to end Atlanta's last scoring threat.
Today, you can still find Herbie around Minnesota, most notably as the host of Kent Hrbek Outdoors on Fox 9.
Honorable Mention - Brad Johnson, quarterback, Minnesota Vikings; Fred Cox, kicker, Minnesota Vikings
15 - Sandy Stephens, quarterback, Minnesota Golden Gophers
Sanford Emory Stephens II traveled all the way from the Pittsburgh-area town of Uniontown, Pennsylvania, to play football at the University of Minnesota. Part of the reason behind that was because the Gophers were actually willing to let him play quarterback. Sure, it doesn't sound like a huge deal today or anything, given the climate, but Stephens played for the Gophers back in the 1960s, when the black quarterback was nearly unheard of.
Still, Stephens could quite easily make a claim to the title of the greatest quarterback in Gophers history. He was the first African-American quarterback in the history of the University of Minnesota. . .and he became the first African-American quarterback to be named an All-American. To this day, he's the only quarterback to take the Minnesota Golden Gophers to the Rose Bowl, and he did it twice back in 1960 and 1961. In 1960, Stephens led the Gophers not only to the Rose Bowl, but to the national championship, the last one in Minnesota history.
Stephens also finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy balloting in 1960, the year he earned his distinction as an All-American. In 1961, he was named the Most Valuable Player of the Big Ten Conference, earning the prestigious Chicago Tribune Silver Football. After his college career, he was a second-round draft choice of the NFL's Cleveland Browns, and the fifth overall selection in the AFL draft by the New York Titans. . .and, indicative of the era, both of those teams said they didn't want a damn thing to do with him as a quarterback, wanting instead to convert him to another position. He never played a down in either league, instead opting to play for the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League in 1962 and 1963, where they welcomed him as a quarterback.
Stephens, one of the true pioneers in the world of college football, passed away on June 6, 2000 at the age of 59.
Honorable Mention - Andrew Brunette, forward, Minnesota Wild; Bobby Smith, forward, Minnesota North Stars