Dec. 25, 2006
Dec. 25, 2006

Table of Contents
Dec. 25, 2006

The Year in Sports 2006
The Best of 2006


In 2006, as in every year, the sports world lost some of its most beloved athletes and superlative characters, from golfing great Byron Nelson and Negro leagues legend Buck O'Neil to pioneering broadcaster Curt Gowdy and Roller Derby queen Ann Calvello

Joe Niekro

This is an article from the Dec. 25, 2006 issue Original Layout

A strugglingfastball and slider pitcher, Niekro found a second life as a knuckleballspecialist in the mid-1970s. He became a 20-game winner for the first time in1979--his 13th year in the majors--and led the Astros to their first postseasonberth the next year. In '87, at age 42, he and his older brother, Phil, passedGaylord and Jim Perry as baseball's winningest brothers. Joe had 221 of their539 victories.

Lamar Hunt

Born into one ofthe nation's richest families, he had a hand in the formation of two soccerleagues, a pro tennis circuit and an NBA team. But it's football he'll be mostremembered for. Snubbed by the NFL in his effort to get a team, Hunt formed theAFL and was the driving force behind the merger with the NFL. He gave the SuperBowl its name after watching kids play with a Super Ball.


The immensity ofhis cranium (he wore a size 83/4 hat) and his willingness to lower it intowould-be tacklers earned Heyward the nickname Ironhead. A star at Pitt--hefinished fifth in the 1987 Heisman voting--Heyward slimmed from 340 pounds to260 and developed into a Pro Bowl, 1,000-yard back for the Falcons in '95.Three years later he was forced to retire after learning that he had a braintumor.


"I never knewanyone who played for Red who didn't like him," Bill Russell once said."Of course, I never knew anyone who played against him who did." It'snot hard to see why Auerbach was beloved by his Celtics; players want to win,and that's what Auerbach did. From 1957 to '86, Boston won nine NBA titles withhim on the bench and seven with him in the front office. And while his victorycigars and Brooklyn brashness infuriated opponents, even Auerbach's criticswould concede that by signing the league's first black player (Charles Cooper)in '50 and by handpicking Russell to be the league's first black coach 16 yearslater, the old redhead left the NBA a whole lot better than he found it.


Definingperformances don't get much more definitive than Puckett's in Game 6 of the1991 World Series. The Twins' centerfielder threw his bowling ball of a bodyoff the Metrodome fence to rob the Braves of a double and a run, which wouldhave stood as the enduring image of the Series had he not hit a walk-off homereight innings later, propelling Minnesota to the championship. Such slickfielding (six Gold Gloves) and clutch hitting (career average: .318) madePuckett an All-Star in each of his last 10 seasons. His inexorable march toward3,000 hits ended 696 short in 1995, when he developed glaucoma and was forcedto retire at 35. At the time of his death--he suffered a stroke inMarch--Puckett was blind in his right eye.


Northwestern hadexperienced gridiron success before Walker arrived, in 2001, but seldomconsistently. In his last three seasons the Wildcats won at least six games,their first such streak in 74 years. Walker, who got his start at Miami (Ohio),where he had more victories than any other coach in school history, includingWoody Hayes, Bo Schembechler and Ara Parseghian, died of a heart attack inJune.

Eric Gregg

The third blackumpire to make the majors, Gregg was one of the most popular and--at nearly 400pounds--imposing men in blue. He lost his job when he resigned in 1999 becauseof a failed union bargaining ploy but remained in the public eye in hishometown of Philadelphia. The gregarious Gregg was an honorary chairman of theWing Bowl eating competition, and he often tended bar at Phillies games.

Johnny Sain

Warren Spahn hadtop billing in the immortal verse "Spahn and Sain and pray for rain,"but Sain was the ace of the Braves' 1948 pennant winner. The crafty righthanderwas 24--15 and beat the Indians' Bob Feller in Game 1 of the World Series witha four-hit shutout (though Cleveland won the title). After going 139--116 over11 seasons, Sain became the Yankees' pitching coach and helped turn Whitey Fordinto a 20-game winner.


After being oneof Roller Derby's good girls for a few years, Calvello "went red shirt"in the 1950s, becoming a baddie. With her dyed hair, heavy makeup and a schnozthat had been broken a dozen times--fans called her Banana Nose--she looked thepart as well as she played it. At the end of the day, though, everyone knew itwas an act. Calvello was beloved by her peers, and a tournament for rollergirls in Texas bears her name.

Boom BoomGeoffrion

Though his claimthat he invented the slap shot as a kid is often questioned, there's no denyingthat few used it as effectively as Bernie Geoffrion. The Canadiens' right wingtwice led the NHL in scoring, and in 1961 he became the second player to net 50goals in a season. Geoffrion died hours before the Habs retired his number5.

Ray Meyer

Harnessing thetalents of a giant from Joliet, Ill., named George Mikan, Meyer built DePaulbasketball into a national power in the 1940s. The Chicago commuter schoolremained a juggernaut despite relying almost solely on local talent; Meyerdidn't leave Illinois to recruit a player until he was 69. The man everyonecalled Coach--including his wife of 46 years, Marge, whom he met when sheplayed for his CYO team--led the Blue Demons for 42 seasons, guiding them totwo Final Fours and a 724--354 record.

Cory Lidle

The righthanderpitched for seven teams in nine years, with a career-best 13--6 mark for theA's in 2001. Four days after the Tigers eliminated his Yankees from theplayoffs, Lidle died when a small plane carrying him and his flight instructorcrashed into a Manhattan high-rise. (An avid flier, Lidle had earned hispilot's license in February.) It has not been determined who was flying theplane.

Willie Pep

Perhaps the bestpound-for-pound boxer of the 1940s, the two-time featherweight champ won 135 ofhis first 137 bouts. Nicknamed Will o' the Wisp because he was nearlyimpossible to hit, the little man (5'6") was a larger-than-life character:He had six wives and an endless supply of one-liners. When meeting an old foe,he'd often say, "Why don't you lie down so I can recognize you."


If he wasn't thebest golfer ever, Lord Byron was certainly the most consistent: His 1945,11-tournament winning streak is considered the sport's untouchable mark. Nelsonretired early, at age 34, to his ranch in Roanoke, Texas, but he remainedvisible. He lent his name to a PGA tournament, worked 20 years as a TV analystand teed off at the Masters until he was 54. His enduring legacy, though, liesin the players he counseled. Tom Watson credits Nelson with teaching him toslow down and breathe between shots, and countless others got tips from a manwhose swing was so pure that the robot the USGA devised to test equipment wasnamed Iron Byron.


He was the firstman to reclaim the undisputed heavyweight championship, a remarkable feat giventhat there was also no disputing Patterson's place as boxing's most gentlemanlycompetitor; he once helped Chester Mieszala's pick his mouthpiece up from thecanvas after knocking it out with a hard blow. Patterson took the title fromArchie Moore in '56, lost it to Ingemar Johansson in '59, then won it back byflooring the Swede the next year. Typically, in retirement Patterson becamefriends with Johansson; though they lived on different continents, they oftenvisited each other.

Steve Howe

The 1980 NLRookie of the Year got the final out for the Dodgers when they won the WorldSeries in '81, but drug use kept the lefthander from reaching his potential.Seven suspensions cost Howe five seasons in his prime, but he still saved 91games before he was released by the Yankees in 1996. He died in a pickup truckaccident in Coachella, Calif.; an undisclosed amount of methamphetamine wasfound in his system.

Curt Gowdy

His first boothwas a couple of orange soapboxes--you take what you can get when you're callingat a six-man high school football game on a frigid Wyoming afternoon in1943--but as his career progressed, Gowdy found himself in press boxes theworld over, providing play-by-play for some of the most memorable sportingevents ever. As the voice of the Red Sox, he described Ted Williams's last atbat. He called Hank Aaron's record-breaking 715th homer for NBC. He was in thebooth for Super Bowl III when the Jets upset the Colts (his most famous game)and for Franco Harris's Immaculate Reception. Gowdy also worked Olympics, FinalFours and Rose Bowls, and for more than 20 years was the host of ABC's TheAmerican Sportsman. He had a direct style, never resorting to gimmicks orcatchphrases, and in '70 became the first sportscaster to win a Peabody Award.Said Gowdy, "I tried to pretend that I was sitting in the stands with abuddy watching the game, poking him in the ribs when something excitinghappened."


A fearsome driverin stock car racing's rough-and-tumble early days, Smith was the first woman tocompete in NASCAR's top series, in 1949. Against the likes of Lee Petty andCurtis Turner, the hard-charging Smith mixed it up on (and, if necessary, off)the track. Smith won 38 races on local short courses and was the first womaninducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame, in 1999.

Rod Dedeaux

Thanks to asuccessful trucking business he started in 1935 with part of his $1,500 majorleague signing bonus, Dedeaux reportedly coached USC for $1 a season when hisbrief career as a shortstop ended. If that's true, his alma mater never strucka better deal. The Trojans won 11 national titles during his 45 years, andDedeaux turned out 59 big leaguers, including Tom Seaver, Fred Lynn, MarkMcGwire and Randy Johnson.


The third man inone of the most famous photos in sports--U.S. sprinters Tommie Smith and JohnCarlos's raising their gloved fists on the 200-meter medal stand at the 1968Mexico City Olympics--played a key role in its origin. Carlos had forgotten hispair of gloves; Norman, an Australian who won the silver, suggested he wear oneof Smith's. Norman, whose Olympic time (20.06) still stands as the record DownUnder, supported their Black Power statement by wearing a badge during themedal ceremony, and the three men remained close. Carlos and Smith traveled toAustralia to serve as pallbearers at Norman's funeral.


The defensiveplayers in the Cowboys' Ring of Honor have one thing in common: They were allcoached by Stautner. For 16 years he was Tom Landry's defensive coordinator;before that, he was one of the toughest players in NFL history. A nine-time ProBowl defensive lineman with the Steelers, the 230-pound Stautner was elected tothe Hall of Fame in 1969, his first year of eligibility.


In a too-briefstint as the women's basketball coach at Army--she was hired 11 days before thestart of the 2005--06 season--Dixon led the Black Knights to the Patriot Leaguetitle and their first NCAA tournament berth. Less than a month after beingcarried off court by jubilant cadets celebrating the conference championship,she was buried at West Point, the victim of an enlarged heart.


His repertoire,he claimed, was fastball, slider and sneezing powder. A cagey righthander (asan Orioles reliever he struck out 11 Dodgers in Game 1 of the 1966 WorldSeries--all swinging), Drabowsky was also a prankster nonpareil. In theclubhouse after helping Baltimore to another championship in '70, the Prince ofPranks pulled out his favorite ploy, the hot foot. His victim that time:commissioner Bowie Kuhn.


With the mantra"skate and destroy," Vitello helped reinvent skateboarding as an outlawsport. An immigrant from Argentina who learned English by listening to SanFrancisco Giants radio broadcasts, he was cofounder of the seminal Thrashermagazine and owner of the gear manufacturer Independent Trucks Company. Vitelloinfluenced a generation of skaters, including Dogtown and Z-Boys director StacyPeralta.


Schembechlerlearned his trade--pound the ball straight ahead and don't get fancy--fromWoody Hayes when he was an assistant at Ohio State. In 1969, Schembechler'sfirst season in Ann Arbor, his Wolverines won the Big Ten title by upsettingHayes's top-ranked Buckeyes, earning a trip to Pasadena. An intense man in thecalmest of times, Schembechler suffered a heart attack on the eve of the RoseBowl. But he was back on the sideline the following fall and for the 20 fallsafter that. He retired with a dozen more conference championships, 17 bowlappearances and a 5-4-1 record against Hayes in what became known as theTen-Year War.

Bob Mathias

In the spring of1948, a 17-year-old Mathias competed in his first decathlon; four months laterhe took gold in the event at the London Olympics. At the 1952 Games in Helsinkihe became the first decathlete to win back-to-back gold medals. The triumphssandwiched a football career at Stanford that was impressive enough to attractthe attention of the Redskins, who drafted him. Mathias passed up theopportunity to play--instead he went to Hollywood and starred in The BobMathias Story--but made it to Washington as a California congressman 14 yearslater.


After readingabout the first Iditarod, Butcher, whose two loves were animals and solitude,moved from Fort Collins, Colo., to Anchorage, in 1975. She won the 1,157-miledogsled race 13 years later; by '90 she had four victories, more than all butone musher. After her career Butcher, who died of leukemia, lived in anabandoned gold mining camp in Eureka, Alaska, with her husband, two daughtersand 150 dogs.


A New Jerseymiddle school teacher and solid family man, the Miz was the rare pool playerwho didn't hustle--which was a good thing for other players. The peerless shotmaker won four U.S. Open pocket billiards championships in the early 1970s.Later in the decade he became as recognizable to casual sports fans as he wasin the billiards world when he appeared in a Miller Lite commercial.

Earl Woods

Although he brokethe color line in the old Big Seven conference as a catcher at Kansas State,Woods didn't turn heads until 40 years later, when he claimed that his son,Tiger, would, like Gandhi, "impact nations." It was brash, and led someto see him as another pushy stage dad. He wasn't. Earl never forced the game onhis son, never made him practice. He just recognized greatness, and helpedcultivate it.

John Vaught

In 1935, afterone unsatisfying season as a high school assistant, he was ready to give upcoaching. But then his former coach at TCU offered him a job as a NorthCarolina assistant, and Vaught was back on track to a Hall of Fame career. In1947 he took over at Ole Miss, where he stayed 24 years. His Rebels won six SECtitles, and the '60 team, with Archie Manning at quarterback, claimed a shareof the national title.

Paul Arizin

He wasn't goodenough to play at Philadelphia's LaSalle High or during his freshman year atVillanova, so Arizin suited up in church-league games, which were often held onslick dance floors. In adapting to the conditions, he developed a jumpshot--rare for the 1940s--that became lethal and caught the eye of 'Nova coachAl Severance. Arizin played three years for the Wildcats and was thePhiladelphia Warriors' top pick in '50. A 6'4" forward, Pitchin' Paul madethe All-Star team in each of his 10 seasons, retired as the NBA's third-leadingcareer scorer and, in '96, was named one of the league's 50 greatestplayers.

Patty Berg

When a WesternOpen win in 1941 netted her a $100 war bond, Berg and a dozen other womenbanded together to improve purses. A few years later they formed the LPGA, andBerg--a tomboy who played on a sandlot football team with Bud Wilkinson whenthey were kids in Minneapolis--was elected its first president. She retiredfrom the tour in '62 with 60 victories, including a record 15 major titles.

Paul Dana

A graduate ofNorthwestern with a degree in journalism, Dana discovered his love of racingwhen he wrote about it. So he changed careers, reaching the pinnacle of thesport in March, when the IRL team owned by Bobby Rahal and David Letterman gavehim a ride. But in the warmup for his first race with the team (his fourthoverall), he collided with a car that had stalled on the track and waskilled.

Jack Snow

After languishingon the bench as an out-of-position fullback, Snow was moved to receiver by newNotre Dame coach Ara Parseghian before his senior season. The switch paidimmediate dividends. Snow had nine catches in his first game, an upset ofWisconsin. He finished the year with 60 receptions (then a school record) andwas drafted by the Rams, for whom he later became a broadcaster. During an11-year career that included one Pro Bowl appearance (1967), Snow frequentlytook his young son, J.T., into the Los Angeles locker room. After his fatherdied, J.T., a Gold Glove first baseman who was lucky enough to inherit hisdad's hands, changed his Red Sox jersey to number 84 as a tribute.

Buck O'Neil

Inexplicablyoverlooked by Hall of Fame voters in a special election for Negro leaguers lastFebruary, the upbeat O'Neil took it in stride. (The former first baseman wentto Cooperstown and spoke at the induction ceremony anyway.) A two-time battingchamp, .288 hitter and longtime major league scout--he signed ErnieBanks--O'Neil was never far from the game. He devoted himself to getting theNegro Leagues Baseball Museum built in Kansas City, Mo., and last July he madetwo plate appearances in the Northern League All-Star Game. Two months after hedied, the White House awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, thenation's highest civilian honor.


Legend has itthat in 1956, Jayne Mansfield saw the reigning Mr. Universe in Mae West'snightclub act. When her waiter asked her what she wanted, she said, "Asteak and the man on the left." Hargitay and Mansfield married and starredtogether in several movies before divorcing in '63. When Mansfield's story wasmade into a TV movie in '80, Hargitay, a Hungarian by birth, was played byArnold Schwarzenegger.

Erk Russell

After buildingthe Junkyard Dawgs defense that helped Georgia win the 1980 nationalchampionship, Russell gave up his job as defensive coordinator to take over atGeorgia Southern, which had not fielded a football team since '41. Four yearslater the master motivator--he got his players fired up by head-butting themwith his bald pate--led the Eagles to the first of their three Division I-AAtitles.


The last man tofight Muhammad Ali (he won a decision in 1981), Berbick earned the heavyweightbelt in '86. After Mike Tyson flattened him in his first defense (he was one oftwo men to fight both Ali and Tyson) Berbick's career--and life--began adownward spiral. He was convicted of several crimes, including rape and theft,and served 15 months in prison. In November he was murdered in his nativeJamaica, allegedly in a family dispute over land.


Martin F.Dardis

As aninvestigator for Florida's Dade County state attorney in 1972, Dardis linkedthe Watergate burglars to President Nixon's reelection committee. At SI, hecontributed to many investigative stories, including lineman Don Reese's '82account of NFL cocaine use, Pete Rose's betting and a '97 examination ofgambling in the NBA.

Tony Triolo

Always quick witha joke or a story, Triolo photographed just about every sport for SI, and morethan 50 of his shots appeared on the cover. Among his most enduring images:Roger Maris's 61st home run, skater Dorothy Hamill at the 1976 Olympics andCowboys tight end Jackie Smith dropping a sure touchdown in Super BowlXIII.


He is consideredthe best skateboarding photographer ever, but Bolster's surfing shots got himinto the pages of SI. The former beach bum was among the first to mount camerasunderwater and on boards, and he wasn't afraid of colliding with his subjects."Unless I can get really close," he said, "it's not interesting forme."