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Top Five: Minnesota Golden Gophers Athletes

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The University of Minnesota was established in 1851, and they've been playing various sports at the U of M for a very long time. As a result, there have been many athletes that got their start as Golden Gophers that went on to bigger and better things after their college days were over. Today's Top Five is going to make an attempt to narrow that list down to the five best to ever wear the maroon and gold of the University of Minnesota. I'm sure there will be debate on this one, as with such a long and illustrious list, it's very hard to narrow it down to five. But, without any further ado, here is our attempt to do so anyway.

5) Brock Lesnar

As many people saw Saturday night, Brock Lesnar currently holds the title of the baddest man on the planet. He took a beating at the hands of Shane Carwin early in their heavyweight championship fight, but stormed back for a victory after Carwin had worn himself out before the end of the first round. Prior to that, he was a standout performer for World Wrestling Entertainment ... and while we all know that wrestling isn't a "sport," per se, it undoubtedly requires a great deal of athletic ability, something that Lesnar possesses in spades.


Yeah, that's a man who weighs nearly 300 pounds.

But Lesnar got his start as a Golden Gopher, finishing second in the NCAA heavyweight wrestling tournament in 1999, and then winning the entire thing in 2000. He was a two-time NCAA All-American, a two-time Big Ten champion, and compiled a record of 106-5 in four years of college, including his time at Bismarck Junior College in North Dakota.

4) Kevin McHale

Long before he began the process of turning the Minnesota Timberwolves into a disaster, Kevin McHale was a hero in Minnesota. He played power forward at the Barn from 1976 to 1980, and is still ranked second-place in school history in both scoring (1,704 points) and rebounding (950). In conjunction with the 100th anniversary of Minnesota's basketball program, McHale was named its greatest player of all-time in 1995. He was named to the All-Big Ten team as a junior and a senior.

Upon leaving the University, he was drafted by the Boston Celtics, and he would go on to win three NBA Championships as a member of the team. He was also on the list of the NBA's 50 greatest players, and his dizzying array of moves made him one of the best low-post scorers the game has ever seen. After he retired from playing, he became the general manager of the Minnesota Timberwolves. While things went well on that front for a while. . .after all, he was responsible for bringing Kevin Garnett to Minnesota and building the team that should have gone to the NBA Finals in 2004 ... it got ugly towards the end. But none of that diminishes what he did in his college days in Minneapolis.

3) Bronko Nagurski

There's a legend about how Bronislau Nagurski came to play football at the University of Minnesota. According to that legend, Clarence "Fats" Spears, then the team's coach, had gotten lost near Nagurski's home town of International Falls and was looking for directions to the nearest town. Bronislau was out plowing his family's fields. . .without a horse. When Spears asked which way the nearest town was, Nagurski picked up his plow and used it to point out the directing Spears needed to go. He was signed to a full-ride football scholarship on the spot.

(Is that true?  Who knows. You want to argue with the Nagurski family about it?  Be my guest.)

Nagurski played both fullback and defensive tackle for the Gophers from 1927 to 1929. The Golden Gophers went 18-4-2 during the time he was a member of the team, winning the Big Ten championship in 1927. His most memorable game was probably a clash with Wisconsin in 1928. While wearing a corset to protect cracked vertebrae ... cracked vertebrae, for crying out loud ... Nagurski recovered a fumble deep in Wisconsin territory, and then carried the ball six straight time for the go-ahead touchdown. He also sealed the victory for the Gophers with an interception later on. In 1993, the Football Writers of America established the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, given annually to college football's best defensive player.

2) Neal Broten

Of all of the great hockey players that the state of Minnesota has produced, Neal Broten is probably its best. He has clearly experienced the most success of any player the state has produced. As it stands today, the eldest of the Broten brothers is the only player to be part of teams that have won an NCAA hockey championship (which he did with the Gophers in 1979), an Olympic gold medal (as part of the Miracle on Ice team in 1980), and the NHL's Stanley Cup (with the New Jersey Devils in 1995).

In addition to leading the Gophers to that 1979 championship, Broten also won the initial Hobey Baker Award, given to college hockey's best player, in 1981. Coach Herb Brooks, who also coached him in the 1980 Olympics, called Broten the best freshman to ever play for the University of Minnesota ... which, given Minnesota's upstanding hockey tradition, is no small thing. In his freshman campaign, Broten tallied 71 points in 40 games played. Neal Broten is probably the best hockey player to ever wear the colors of the U of M, and one of the finest Gopher athletes ever.

Oh, and although it didn't happen while he was a Gopher, Broten was one of the few to ever pick a fight with Wayne Gretzky. Just putting it out there, that's all.

But there was a great story too. I love this story, about Neal Broten and Gretzky getting in that fight. And you know, they were both lightweights so they let them go. But Neal said he was in the penalty box and ten guys skated by and looked at him and scowled and said 'You're dead!' And he looked up and realized that half of those guys were his own teammates.

Because now they realized that they were going to have to face Semenko and McSorley and all these other tough guys from Edmonton . Because that's how it worked – you touched Gretzky and there was hell to pay.

1) Dave Winfield

Getting drafted in one sport is pretty cool ... lots of guys do that. Getting drafted in two sports is pretty special ... not many guys can say they've done that. But the list of guys that can say that they were drafted in three different sports is significantly shorter. In fact, there are only two names on that list. One of those names is that of Dave Winfield.

Winfield was a standout athlete for the Gophers in both basketball and baseball. On the basketball court, he helped to lead the team to its first Big Ten championship in 53 years. Winfield's coach, Bill Musselman, called Winfield the best rebounder that he ever coached. But, as we all know, Winfield made his biggest mark on the baseball diamond. He led the Gophers to the College World Series in 1973, and was named the MVP of that World Series. . .for his pitching performance. (Hey, would you want to step into the batter's box against that guy?) Winfield could have been successful at pretty much any athletic endeavor he wanted coming out of the U of M, but he decided that baseball is where he wanted to be.

Of course, he did have his choice. He was drafted by four different teams in three different sports. The San Diego Padres selected him fourth overall in the Major League Baseball draft ... again, as a pitcher. He was also drafted by two different professional basketball teams, the Atlanta Hawks of the NBA and the Utah Stars of the ABA. And, even though he never played a single down of college football, the Minnesota Vikings used a 17th round pick in the NFL Draft to acquire his rights. Obviously, he never played for the Beloved Purple ... but he could have.

Photographs by Micah Taylor, clairity, and Fibonacci Blue used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.