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Farewell
MARK BECHTEL
December 25, 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
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December 25, 2006

Farewell

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

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Joe Niekro
61

A struggling fastball and slider pitcher, Niekro found a second life as a knuckleball specialist in the mid-1970s. He became a 20-game winner for the first time in 1979--his 13th year in the majors--and led the Astros to their first postseason berth the next year. In '87, at age 42, he and his older brother, Phil, passed Gaylord and Jim Perry as baseball's winningest brothers. Joe had 221 of their 539 victories.

Lamar Hunt
74

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

Craig Heyward
39

The immensity of his cranium (he wore a size 83/4 hat) and his willingness to lower it into would-be tacklers earned Heyward the nickname Ironhead. A star at Pitt--he finished fifth in the 1987 Heisman voting-- Heyward slimmed from 340 pounds to 260 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 brain tumor.

Red Auerbach
89

"I never knew anyone 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's not 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 with him on the bench and seven with him in the front office. And while his victory cigars and Brooklyn brashness infuriated opponents, even Auerbach's critics would 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 years later, the old redhead left the NBA a whole lot better than he found it.

Kirby Puckett
45

Defining performances don't get much more definitive than Puckett's in Game 6 of the 1991 World Series. The Twins' centerfielder threw his bowling ball of a body off the Metrodome fence to rob the Braves of a double and a run, which would have stood as the enduring image of the Series had he not hit a walk-off homer eight innings later, propelling Minnesota to the championship. Such slick fielding (six Gold Gloves) and clutch hitting (career average: .318) made Puckett an All-Star in each of his last 10 seasons. His inexorable march toward 3,000 hits ended 696 short in 1995, when he developed glaucoma and was forced to retire at 35. At the time of his death--he suffered a stroke in March-- Puckett was blind in his right eye.

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