Another day without sports, another Dave Carney’s top everything.
Today, it’s my Top 5 all-time greatest pro athletes from the state of Wisconsin.
This list is by no means an all-inclusive list. My love of sports skews heavily toward basketball, football and baseball. That said, I know there are HUNDREDS of worthy candidates, but these five have made the most lasting impressions, and have had the greatest impact on me as a sports fan.
5. Terry Porter (Milwaukee)
The University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point graduate makes this list for several reasons.
First, and probably foremost to me, Porter was a part of an awesome Portland Trailblazers team when I was a kid.
The Blazers were, to me (as a young LA Lakers fan), one of the most feared enemies I could imagine. They were strong, fast, smart and led by Porter, one of the most efficient point guards in the NBA at that time.
As a young hooper wanting to learn the point guard position, watching the new 56-year-old was like studying a master carpenter. Steady, sure, confident and always looking to put everything (in Porter’s case everyone) in its right place.
Coming out of UW-SP — where he is now fifth in all-time scoring — Porter was a first-round pick by the Blazers (No. 24 overall) and made an impact right away. In just over 15 minutes per game as a rookie, Porter averaged over 7 points, 2.5 assists. By his second year, Porter was the starting point guard for the Blazers and averaged 13 points, 9 assists. In his third campaign, that assist average jumped to a career high 10.1.
In his 10 seasons with the Blazers, Porter was a two-time All-Star and averaged 15 points, 7 assists. For his career, which spanned a total of 17 NBA seasons, Porter hung impressive stats finishing with averages of 12.2 points and 5.6 assists.
4. Caron Butler (Racine)
Butler was fantastic. In college, the UConn star was one of the most exciting players on one of the most exciting teams at the time. The Huskies were just two seasons removed from a National Championship when he arrived. Even though Butler didn’t win a title, himself in college, he was a Big East Player of the Year and a Top 10 draft pick of the Heat when he came out.
The main reason the now 40-year-old makes this list for me, however, was his role in the Shaquille O’neal-to-the-Heat trade that followed, in the aftermath of the blowup for the Lakers between Shaq and Kobe Bryant. When Lakers GM Jerry Buss made the decision to send O’neal out and keep Bryant, Butler was a central part of the package the Lakers got back, along with Lamar Odom and Brian Grant. Picking up a theme aren’t you? I was a BIG Laker fan as a kid..
Butler’s one and only season with the Lakers didn’t result in a winning one. Phil Jackson left, Rudy Tomjonavich took over and was doing well before retiring midseason, due to health concerns. On top of that, Bryant got hurt.
All that drama didn’t deter Butler, though, as he quickly became one of my favorite players on the team thanks to his hustle, drive and athletic ability. That year, Butler averaged 15.5 points, 6 rebounds. This established what he would build on in Washington, where, in five seasons with the Wizards, he averaged 19 points, 6.6 boards and was twice an All-Star.
When it was all said and done, Butler would play for nine teams in 13 years but would walk away with robust career averages of 14 points, 5 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game.
3. Tony Romo (Burlington — born on San Diego Naval Base)
Oh boy, I have to admit, I’m not much of a Tony Romo fan when it comes to him playing quarterback. I fully appreciate his skills and talent on the field, from a physical standpoint, but he always seemed to come up short when it mattered most. That’s why, as a quarterback, he was not my favorite. That Dak Prescott has already won more playoff games than Romo should say enough.
Where Romo really makes up for it in my eyes, though, is in the broadcast booth. During his first season, some of his over-exuberance did wear on me a little, but overall, his smooth conversational demeanor, the way he enlightened even Jim Nantz with his incredibly deep and vast knowledge of the game, was something to behold.
That Romo can go from being one of my least favorite NFL quarterbacks to one of my most favorite NFL broadcasters, for me, is incredible. I’d be willing to go out on a limb that many Green Bay Packers fans, who learned to despise the 39-year-old simply for playing for the hated Cowboys, has won back a large contingent of Wisconsin supporters.
Now that Romo is quite possibly the most well known NFL broadcaster, and most assuredly, it’s most well paid with his new 10-year, $180-million contract, I think it’s fitting I show some bleepin’ respect and put him in at No. 3.
2. Joe Thomas (Brookfield)
Poor, poor Joe Thomas. What a waste of what could have been a career filled with at least one Super Bowl had he been on a team with any sense of direction or capability. In retrospect, it almost seems criminal that the 35-year-old had to spend his whole career with the Cleveland Browns. But, you know what? He wanted it. He always chose to stay. It was his team, and he did every single thing he could in his power to make it a winner. Unfortunately, it mostly never worked and Joe finished with a career record of 48-128.
When Thomas committed to the University of Wisconsin, it wasn’t a shock. This was a Wisconsin kid with a Wisconsin offensive lineman body, who was going to THE school that develops the best offensive linemen in the NFL — a perfect fit. Once Thomas started playing for the Badgers, it was everything they and he could have hoped for and, save for a fairly serious injury his junior year, his career was near perfect. Thomas became a unanimous two-time member of the All-Big Ten team (2005-2006) and a unanimous All-American in (2006).
Drafted third overall by the Browns Thomas started all sixteen games, every season he played until his last in 2017, when he admitted to experiencing some memory concerns that held him to seven starts, and ultimately, retirement.
In his 11 seasons as the Browns left tackle, Thomas made 10 Pro Bowls, was a seven-time first-team All-Pro and a two-time second-team All-Pro. Thomas will be eligible for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2023, and undoubtedly, will be a first ballot selection.
1. J.J. Watt (Waukesha)
And then there was one — Mr. Walter Payton Award winning, NFL Defensive Player of the Year getting, Hurricane Harvey savior J.J. (S)Watt!!!!!!!
Watt, who transferred from Central Michigan to the University of Wisconsin and made the team as a walk-on, went on to become both a collegiate and NFL star. Watt’s pro career started about as good as any defensive player in NFL history, as he earned three Defensive Player of the Year awards in his first five seasons, including two in a row (2014 and 2015). Watt’s impact on the Houston Texans organization has been massive on the field with his earning five Pro Bowl selections, becoming the first player in NFL history to record consecutive 20-plus sack seasons, and making his way to the All-Pro list five times.
In recent seasons, however, the 31-year-old has been hit with all sorts of injuries, limiting him to just 32 games the past five seasons. In those five seasons, while Watt’s impact may not have been felt on the field to a great degree, something else was happening.
Watt was quietly becoming one of Houston’s most beloved charitable figures and, when devastation occurred in 2017 at the hands of Hurricane Harvey, it was the defensive end who led a charge to rebuild the city and keep hope alive.
As of August 2019, the J.J. Watt Foundation had raised in excess of $37 million in relief for victims of Hurricane Harvey. That money was spent to rebuild over 1,183 homes in the Houston area, more than 971 child care centers servicing over 100,000 children, and distributing over 239 million meals to people affected by the disaster.
I don’t know if Watt will ever win a Super Bowl. I don’t know if he’s a for sure a Hall of Famer. But, I do know this, if everybody had a little bit of Watt’s courage and charity in their hearts, we’d all be a little better off.
Honorable mentions: Melvin Gordon (Kenosha), Colin Kaepernick (Milwaukee), Travis Fredrick (Sharon), Jim Otto (Wausau).