I grew up during a golden era for the big three professional sports leagues. My childhood coincided with the primes of Michael Jordan, Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, Lawrence Taylor, Barry Sanders, and others, so naturally none of these people were among my favorite players. Why would I want to celebrate a once-in-a-generation athlete like Bo Jackson when I could cheer for Cleveland Browns slot receiver Brian Brennan? Why should I celebrate the creative artistry of Michael Jordan as he breaks the hearts of the Cleveland Cavaliers every year when I could instead cheer for those that were broken? I was a weird kid, so I had weird heroes. Here were a few of them.
As I mentioned early in this website’s lifespan, I watched the crap out of Light Moments in Sports 1986. As a direct result I became a Mets fan for a few years. On a team featuring electrifying superstars like Dwight Gooden and Daryl Strawberry, I decided my favorite player was Kevin McReynolds (McReynolds wasn’t on the ’86 World Series team but he was on the ’88 NLCS one). I have no idea why, and no memory of what I liked about him. What I can tell you is that I owned his Starting Lineup figure as well as a poster of him. The poster tells you all you need to know about McReynolds the person; it was a Costacos brothers one (something I will definitely cover in the future), and its legend said, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” It tells you a lot about an athlete’s personality or lack thereof when their signature Costacos brothers poster, posters that blared about outsized personality traits, advertised McReynolds as “quiet.” Dude was the anti-Strawberry. I also spent a month diligently planning to send McReynolds a baseball trophy celebrating him being a good player. I’m sure the only reason that didn’t happen was because my parents weren’t willing to pay to have it made.
Another Costacos brothers poster! This one was much cooler than the McReynolds one. It said “Boston Dee Party” and featured Dee Brown at a birthday party. I got into Dee the same time everybody else who got into him did, when he capped off the 1991 NBA Slam Dunk contest with a one-handed, no look dunk to win it all. I wanted Reebok Pumps because of Dee, and I eventually got a pair. I also bought a pair of Dee Brown Pumps on eBay four or five years ago when I joined an adult basketball league, and was extremely dismayed when I discovered the pumps on them no longer worked. I also briefly became a nominal Celtics fan because of my Brown fandom. Given that the Celtics are one of the three most celebrated NBA franchises of all time, featuring dozens of hall of famers on their rosters, Dee wouldn’t rise to the top of too many people’s all-time Celtics lists. That said, I think from the above you can conclude that Dee is probably the greatest Celtic of the last, oh I don’t know, 40 years?
Brutus “the Barber” Beefcake
Wrestling is a sport, and when I was a Brutus fan it called itself one, prior to Vince McMahon changing his tune in order to avoid regulation. The WWF of the mid-to-late 1980s had an abundance of larger than life athletes to admire, like Andre the Giant, Hulk Hogan, Macho Man Randy Savage, The Junkyard Dog, and Rowdy Roddy Piper. So of course my favorite one was the guy who carried gardening shears to the ring and looked like the third member of the Rockers (who incidentally were my other favorite wrestlers of this era). Apparently Brutus the Barber was butt as a wrestler, but at my young age I wasn’t able to pick up on details like that. Except for Hulk Hogan, of course. My grandmother never consciously watched a moment of wrestling, but even she probably saw enough to realize that Hulk Hogan was the most butt when it came to wrestling ability. It turned out that he was also butt as a person, but I didn’t know about that yet, either. As for Brutus, Brutus had a barbershop, Brutus had garden shears, Brutus wore colorful ring apparel, and I ate it all up. Apologies to the more deserving heroes.
We’ve reached the niche Cleveland athletes portion of the article. Hanford Dixon was an integral part of a very fun and successful run of Cleveland Browns playoff teams in the 1980s, and along with Frank Minnifield, made up one of the best cornerback tandems in NFL history. In addition, he and Minnifield helped popularize the Dawg Pound and subsequent Dawgs mascot for the famously logo free Browns. All of that is great, but I especially liked him for two reasons: 1) My dad built a deck next door to his house and he raved about what a nice guy Dixon was, and 2) He was part owner of the North Olmstead Tony Roma’s, probably my favorite childhood special occasion restaurant. Love the fried onion loaf, and love Hanford Dixon.
The Cleveland Cavaliers have been one of the most successful NBA teams of the last decade, so when I decided it was time to buy the jersey of a Cavs player on a team that was still led by GOAT LeBron James at the time, I obviously went with borderline starter Larry Nance, Jr. My reason for choosing Nance was straightforward: his dad is my favorite Cav of all time. It’s the same reason I wanted the Cavs to draft Nance Jr. out of Wyoming and I was so excited that Cleveland later picked him up from the Lakers.
Larry can dunk as well as his dad, and in the 80s Larry Nance was a criminally underappreciated slam dunk master. Like the 80s Browns discussed above, the late 80s and early 90s Cavs were stacked with likable players, most of whom were borderline all stars. I dug them all, but Larry was always my favorite. Maybe it’s because by the time he joined the Cavs he’d already been in the NBA for 7 years, and while in reality he was only 29 he looked old, so he was fun to root for. Whatever the reason, now I want a Nance on the Cavs for every stage of my life. Larry III better make the team before I hit my 60s.
Looking back on it, it feels like Brett Butler played for the Cleveland Indians forever, so I was very surprised to find out that it was only from 1984-1987. Considering I only became old enough to care about baseball in 1987, he should have barely been a blip on my radar. With Brett, it also comes down to two things: 1) Prematurely looking old, like Larry above, and 2) his 1987 Topps baseball card. I covered the old thing already, and let’s just chalk it up to my subconscious awarding you more respect if you look ancient in your 20s and move on. The 1987 Topps thing is important, though. If you spent any time at all collecting sports cards in the last 40 years, you for certain remember 1987 Topps, because they were the ones with the borders designed to look like wood paneling. They were the station wagon of trading cards, and my entree into a world of feverishly collecting, caring about, and putting time into something that in the end turned out to be worthless, the best metaphor for life. I had so many 1987 Topps, and so many 1987 Brett Butler cards, and while I know all of the names, like Jacoby, Tabler, Bando, Carter, and Swindell, he’s come to represent those late 1980s Cleveland teams for me. Also his specialty was bunting, which felt like he was getting away with something. That was cool.
Which unconventional athletes were among your sports heroes? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter.
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