—Christian Clark, Staff Writer—
Sports in the 2000’s. What a decade and a half to be a sports fan! The MLB had three teams overcome a centuries worth of heartbreak and transformed their “cursed” franchises into consistent winners. The Boston Red Sox (86 years), Chicago White Sox (88 years), and Chicago Cubs (108 years) ended their respected championship droughts. Professional and collegiate sports have witnessed some of the greatest dynasties including Nick Saban’s five National Championship titles at Alabama, Geno Auriemma’s UConn Huskies women’s basketball team winning 111 consecutive games, Bill Belichick’s Patriots winning a Super Bowl for every finger, and the San Francisco Giants dominating the even years (2010, 2012, 2014) to win three championships in six years.
We witnessed several teams blow seemingly insurmountable leads with the 2015 Warriors blowing a 3-1 NBA Finals lead to the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Red Sox battling back from a 3-0 series deficit in the ALCS to stun the New York Yankees, and the worst of them all, the 28-3 lead blown by the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI (51). Finally, Carli Lloyd’s hat trick propelled the US Women’s Soccer Team to victory in the 2015 Women’s World Cup. We have seen sports on the rise such as Lacrosse, Ultimate Frisbee, and Soccer in the US. However, who have been the athletes that have fueled this new generation of sports fans? These are not the “world’s” best athletes but the USA’s “most influential ones.” I present my list of the “Top 20 Most Influential Athletes in the US” since the turn of the millennium.
- LeBron James
The king of Cleveland…or Miami. Topping the list is the greatest basketball player of our generation, LeBron James. If you don’t know James, you don’t know sports. Drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers, his best years have come in South Beach in a surprising move. His one flaw would be winning in the big game. Although his 2007 Cavs team wasn’t ready, the 2011 loss to Dallas made people wonder if James’ team would ever win. They didn’t have to wait long. With the “Big 3” of Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh, and James, the Miami Heat won back to back titles in 2012 and 2013. His most important Finals came in 2016. Down three games to one against the historically talented Golden State squad, LeBron turned it into high gear to tie the series at three. Game 7. On the road. KD, Curry, Thompson, and Green. Result? LeBron with another triple-double and a drought-busting win for the Cavs. Haters will say, “LeBron has the most Finals losses.” Well, you still have to make the big game to have that many wins and losses. James may never pass Michael Jordan as the “G.O.A.T.” but King James can take his throne at number one on the list.
- Michael Phelps
Who is the world leader in most Olympic medals? That would be Mr. Michael Phelps. During the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio at the Parade of Nations, Phelps was selected to be the flag bearer. That is all that needs to be said for how much he means to American sports. Phelps’ iconic moment was in the 2016 Olympics. Flashback to 2012, South African rival Chad le Clos finished five one-hundredths of a second over Phelps to stun the world. In 2016, the infamous “Phelps Face” emerged after being motivated by le Clos’ trash talk and his warmup right in front of him. Ultimately, the gold was taken back as Phelps swam away from the competition. Competitor. Hard-worker. American Hero. That’s one special swimmer!
- Tiger Woods
I can’t decide what’s better: Tiger’s career or his video game series. At number 3 is Eldrick “Tiger” Woods. He has inspired countless individuals on the green including established golfers like Bubba Watson. Rising stars like Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth both have said in some shape or form that Tiger’s dominance has changed “their” game and “the” game. Woods is the unquestioned face of professional golf. He has faded in the 2010s but has shown some signs of life. In Woods’ career, he is currently is tied with Jordan Spieth with an 18 under par performance in at the 1997 Masters. He has the second-most Masters titles all time behind Jack Nicklaus. He is also second all time in PGA Tour wins with 76 currently.
- Serena & Venus Williams
The combo package. The amazing Williams’ sisters, Serena and Venus, land at number 4. If you asked a random person to name a famous tennis star, I’d bet that these two studs would be at the top of the list. For Serena, her singles victories in Grand Slam tournaments (US Open, Australian Open, French Open, and the Wimbledon) is 23, only one behind Margaret Court for most all-time. In the 2012 Summer Olympics, she defeated Russian Maria Sharapova for the Singles win in the Olympic finals. Her and Venus have won three Olympic Finals in the Doubles. Venus has seven Grand Slam titles which is still stellar. As for the Serena-Venus head-to-head matchups with her sister, the former leads 17-11, with the most recent victory coming in the 2017 Australian Open. Both athletes deserve credit for bringing in a new era of dominance in women’s tennis and the sport as a whole.
- Tom Brady
Who is the best quarterback to ever play the game? Montana? Marino? Manning? I’d have to cast my vote for the G.O.A.T. himself, Tom Brady. His reputation may have took a hit with the “Deflategate” scandal but even his haters can’t deny his success. He turned the New England Patriots into a perennial Super Bowl contender, winning five Super Bowls as of 2016. Not only that but he is famous for turning “nobodies” into legit contributors towards another Lombardi. Julian Edelman, Wes Welker, and David Givens were names that weren’t even on the league radar until Brady helped them shine. The question isn’t “Will Brady get another Super Bowl?” but it is a question of “When will he?…”
- Lionel Messi
Messi has been a superstar on La Liga’s FC Barcelona and the Argentina national team. Some would argue that Cristiano Ronaldo deserves a spot instead of Messi and although Ronaldo may be slightly ahead talent-wise in 2018, the legacy of Messi in the United States outweighs the likes of Neymar and Ronaldo. One of Messi’s finest performances came against Real Madrid in the 2011 UEFA Champions League semi-final where he scored two goals in the final 15 minutes. The second goal was a complete solo effort as he weaved in and out of oncoming defenders and then buried the exquisite finish. If Messi is able to take down a team like Germany, France, or Brazil to win the 2018 FIFA World Cup, he could surpass Diego Maradona as the best Argentine player. Watch out Pele, Messi is coming!
- Kobe Bryant
What if the Charlotte Hornets didn’t trade Kobe to the Los Angeles Lakers? Would they be 5X NBA Champions by now? The world may never know. The Lakers were the “only destination” for Kobe in the 1996 NBA Draft so Charlotte traded him to LA. When he came out of Lower Merion to be the first guard drafted straight out of high school, he instantly became a household name. He brought even more fanatics to Lakers Nation and his 2010 Finals win and MVP over Boston gave him a stamp on the decade between Jordan and LeBron. To have the “Mamba Mentality” means more than attempting a double-team game winning shot from 30 ft away. It means to always believe in the moment and doing whatever it takes to succeed. Kobe joins the likes of Oscar Robinson and Shaq to have two numbers retired. To cap off a stellar career, Bryant splashed in 60 points against the Utah Jazz. Mamba out!
- US Women’s Gymnastics Team
It was too difficult to choose between these great superstars so I included them all on the list. The first iteration of this team, known as the Fierce Five, included Gabby Douglas, Aly Raisman, McKayla Maroney, Kyla Ross, and Jordyn Wieber. Douglas and Raisman returned to the 2016 squad but added Madison Kocian, Laurie Hernandez, and the remarkable Simone Biles. It was tough to match Nastia Liukin in the 2008 Olympic Games but Douglas’ performance in 2012 and Biles in 2016 topped that. Biles is the most decorated American gymnast which has led many to call her the best gymnast in history.
- Usain Bolt
When you think of groundbreaking speed, who do you think of? Maybe Jesse Owens? In this generation, there is no other choice but THE Usain Bolt. It must have been destiny because Bolt has certainly has lived up to his name. Undoubtedly, he is far and away the fastest man on the planet and will go down as perhaps the greatest sprinter that the sport of Track and Field has ever seen. His astronomical 9.58 second time in the 100m at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin is currently the world record. He has inspired millions and helped popularize the event in the 2008, 2012, and 2016 Summer Olympic Games. A fun fact: The Jamaican-born star is capable of speeds exceeding nearly 28mph…INCREDIBLE!
- Peyton Manning
The Sheriff and Papa John’s spokesperson himself grabs a spot in the top 10. The future Hall of Famer will go down as one of the most prolific passers of this generation. Number 18 created his legacy in Indianapolis. His teammates in Indy such as Marvin Harrison, Dallas Clark, and Reggie Wayne helped Manning as he became the NFL’s all-time leader in passing yards. After a neck injury cut his Colts career short, the Broncos took a flyer on Manning. In the 2013 season with Denver, Peyton broke rival Tom Brady’s record for most touchdown passes in a single season with 55. Manning has been to four Super Bowls, winning two and has won the most NFL MVP awards with five to his name.
- Derek Jeter
Coming in at number 11 is Captain Clutch, Derek Jeter. The revolutionary shortstop did more than just deliver five World Series titles to the Yankees. He was a class act on and off the field. As an organization and for a fan base, it’s a great feeling when your star player stays out of trouble and is a low maintenance player. With his knack for delivering jaw-dropping moments, the Yankees were one of the greatest dynasties with No. 2 at the plate. Jeter helped New York defeat their rival Mets in the 2000 World Series, capturing the series MVP. It’s only fitting that his final career at-bat at Yankee Stadium was a walk-off single. Major League Baseball, the New York Yankees, and millions alike have seen greatness but may never see another person with the combination of both Jeter’s persona and talent ever again.
- Tony Hawk
Hawk has been rolling since the 80’s so it may not be right to have him on the list. Even with that said, many have said this list could be taken seriously without the inclusion of Tony Hawk. In 2011, the Birdman was given the title of the second most-influential skater of all time, behind Mark Gonzales. Hawk dominated the early 2000s, inspiring young children and teenagers alike. He is most respected for completing the 900 (degrees) and his entertaining video game series.
- Colin Kaepernick
Kaepernick’s inclusion on this list may be controversial as his actions may have had a bigger off-the-field impact than actually on the field. He is relatively new on the national sports map so it will be tough to predict if he will have a lasting impact in our society after falling out of professional football. Having being the first documented player to protest the United States national anthem in the form of kneeling during the performance, he has gotten mixed reviews from the entire nation. The former 49ers quarterback has had some success in the NFL as his best seasons came in 2012 where he appeared in Super Bowl XLVII and an NFC Championship Game in the 2013 NFL Season.
- Cam Newton
Look at me dab! Carolina’s first superstar comes in at number 14. While Newton is still establishing his legacy as one of the all time greats, he has transformed the NFL as we know it. Many people had no idea who the Carolina Panthers were until the 2010 Heisman Trophy winner came to Charlotte. Since 2011, the 6’5, 250 lb quarterback has revolutionized the quarterback position by popularizing iconic celebrations such as the “superman” and Migos “Dab” dance. He has already broken the record for most rushing TD’s as a QB and has broken several stereotypes of the prototypical QB. In addition, he was the 2015 NFL Most Valuable Player and was Carolina’s starting quarterback in Super Bowl 50 against the Denver Broncos.
- Sidney Crosby
I’ll be honest. Unless you are a big hockey fan, it’s tough to name many iconic hockey players of the 2000s. Patrick Kane was great for the Blackhawks dynasty but he was a great player on a great team but didn’t really revolutionize the game. Sidney Crosby did. Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin could replace Crosby here but I have one factor that puts “Sid the Kid” over the top: winning. Crosby’s Penguins have shown resilience in big moments and stay consistent year after year. The face of hockey in the 21st Century deserves a spot of this list.
- Shaun White
We’re shredding in the snow at number 16 with Shaun White. Snowboarding isn’t covered as much as it should but one person who definealy did his best to make it relevant is this man. White currently holds the record for most X-Games gold medals. He is a rare breed with success coming in multiple sports, snowboarding and skateboarding. White may be able to improve his spot on this list with a strong showing at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
- Danica Patrick
No Dale Earnhardt or Jeff Gordon? Patrick beats them both out for a spot on the list. She erased all doubts during her third place finish at the 2009 Indy 50, the highest ever finish by a woman. She has inspired young men and women, breaking the “typical” racer mold. Danica and her NASCAR career will be in the memories of all for years to come.
- Tim Tebow
IT’S TEBOW TIME! The 2007 Heisman Trophy winner comes in at number 18. Tebow has played for four NFL teams including the Jets, Patriots, and Eagles. However, his biggest impact came with the team that drafted him, the Denver Broncos. In the 2011 NFL Season when the Broncos fell to 1-3, Tebow replaced Kyle Orton as the starting quarterback. Despite his struggles as a passer, Tebow led the Broncos to six fourth quarter comebacks that year to get the Broncos into the playoffs where they upset the heavily favored Pittsburgh Steelers in the Wild Card round. That season, “Tebowing” was the celebration of choice as he got on one knee and placed his fist on his forehead praying to God. Tebow currently plays for the MLB’s New York Mets farm team, the St. Lucie Mets.
- Floyd Mayweather
50-0. Pure dominance. Floyd “Money” Mayweather’s boxing strategy hasn’t been about a melee attacking show. Instead, he is regarded as one of the world’s top defensive boxers as he takes advantage of counter-attack opportunities to defeat his opponents. Recently, his fight against Manny Pacquiao, at the time was anticipated as the “Fight of the Century.” The Pay-per-view buys shattered the Oscar de la Hoya vs Mayweather fight in 2007 (2.4 million) with a historic 4.6 million buys in 2015. It ended up with a no-doubt, decisive win for Mayweather and another legacy cementing win for one of the highly decorated boxers of this generation.
- Katie Ledecky
At just 20 years of age and the youngest individual performer on this list, the stellar swimmer Katie Ledecky arrives in at number 20. She is a 14-time world champion and a five-time Olympic gold medalist which currently holds as the most in history for a female swimmer. She shocked the world at the 2012 London Olympic Games by winning her first gold medal in the 800m freestyle at age 15. Her true coming out party came four years later in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio where she earned four more gold medals, crushing two world records.
Honorable Mention: Diana Taurasi
Highly regarded as the best WNBA player of all time, Taurasi enters the list at number 20. While not a “household name” to some, her accomplishments are nothing short of amazing. Drafted as the first overall pick in the 2004 WNBA Draft to the Phoenix Mercury, she immediately made an impact, winning the Rookie of the Year award that season. Taurasi has been at the top of the totem pole three times as her Mercury have won it all in 2007, 2009, and 2014. She won the league MVP in 2009 and has helped the US Women’s Basketball team bring home the gold in four consecutive Olympic Games from 2004-2016.
Others considered: Allen Iverson, Alex Ovechkin, Stephen Curry, Cristiano Ronaldo, Alex Morgan, Barry Bonds, Jeff Gordon, Lance Armstrong, Roger Federer