I'm one of those people who always likes to go back in time. Throughout my life, I've been blessed to have watched some of the greatest athletes on the face of this earth. While most of them went on to have great professional careers, some didn't even quite make it to the pro level. But that's OK, because I remember them all and the impact they've had on me as a sports fan. No matter what, they all have a special place in my heart. So let's go through them!
1. Tiger Woods — This is the easiest answer ever from yours truly. In my elementary and middle school days in the late 1990s, the golf phenom was only getting started in what's turned out to be an incredible career on the course.
In the spring of 1997, I watched a guy — just 21 years old at the time — completely destroy the field in arguably the most dominating Masters performance of all time. Watching it I thought, 'Is this guy going to be the best ever? Will he live up to the hype? What will he do after this?' It's not easy for people to completely live up to it all, but Tiger — despite many mistakes he's made in his personal life — changed the sport forever. When I think back to Tiger's greatest accomplishments, the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach is the first thing that comes to mind. On a course that difficult, against a really strong field, Tiger won the event by 15 strokes! Nobody other than Tiger finished at even-par. On the final round Sunday, which was basically a victory lap, Tiger shot a four-under 67. Looking back at the event on my TV a few nights ago, it was hilarious watching Woods get upset about a bad shot even when he led the field by 13 strokes! Tiger, along with Michael Jordan, are without a doubt the two greatest sports competitors in my lifetime. The will to win from those two is unmatched. Fifteen majors, 82 PGA Tour victories ... just astonishing. Who knows if Tiger (now 44) will be able to top Jack Nicklaus' 18-major record, but it's been one hell of a ride watching Tiger, whom I consider the most exciting athlete of all time. No matter what's happened in the past, his performance on the course has always been an inspiration to me. He's my GOAT (Greatest of All Time) and will be for all of eternity.
2. Charles Woodson — As much as I love Tiger, the 1997 Heisman Trophy winner is right up there with him as one of the most inspiring athletes.
Heading into the 1997 college football season, I had no idea what to expect from Michigan, which came into it ranked 14th in the country. When you're only 11 years old, you're still learning things as a Michigan fan and sports fan. But during that season — even at a young age — the cornerback for the Wolverines was unlike anything I've seen in the sport. In addition to being a shutdown defensive back, Woodson also played wide receiver and returned punts. And in one season, Woodson captivated me unlike any other college athlete I've watched. As for the memories, where do I begin? The one-handed interception at Spartan Stadium, check. Griese's touchdown pass to him at Penn State, check. The punt return at home against Ohio State, check. The interception in the end zone in the Rose Bowl against Washington State, check. I've never been a fan of award shows, but on one Saturday night in December, I jumped up and down for what felt like three hours after Woodson won the Heisman over other greats in Peyton Manning and Randy Moss. When you're a child, you're just so happy to have moments like that. Still to this day, Woodson is the only defensive player to ever win the Heisman — and hopefully it stays that way. Like Tiger Woods, 1997 introduced me to the great Charles Woodson. It's been over 20 years, but I'll still remember this legend forever. He was extraordinary.
3. Eric Devendorf — I'm sure many of my readers don't even recognize this name, but in my high school days, this smooth shooter from Bay City was someone I looked forward to watching every night.
Up here, the likes of Pellston's Chris Hass and Blake Cassidy were must-see every single night I covered them. In the early-2000s, Devendorf, who went to my alma mater (Bay City Central), was must-see for me in high school. As somebody who grew up friends with Devendorf, he was a lot of fun to be around. He was fun to play basketball with (even though he always won), he was entertaining, and he worked as hard on his game as just about any athlete I've ever seen. During my first three years at BCC, Devendorf was an amazing watch on the court, helping the Wolves — a longtime struggling program — become relevant. When it came to the big games, the Central star delivered in just about all of them, scoring 41 points on the road at Class A basketball powerhouse Saginaw High, and pouring in 53 points on the road at Midland Dow, which also had a great player in Scott MacDonald. But none of those compared to one night in the BCC gymnasium against another power in Saginaw Arthur Hill. All day long, my classmates and I couldn't wait for this Friday night matchup. This game was so huge that the entire gym was packed before halftime of the junior varsity game! While my beloved Wolves didn't come out on top that night, it really showed just the type of impact Devendorf had on basketball in Bay City in that time period. A year later, he broke my heart by transferring to Oak Hill Academy before eventually having a solid career at Syracuse. Of all the athletes on this list, he's the one I could probably talk about for days. And he's the one I miss watching the most.
4. Barry Sanders — While Woodson's the best college football player I've ever watched, No. 20 for the Detroit Lions is, to me, the greatest running back of all time. Just getting into the sport of football, Barry was one of the first players I ever had the chance of watching. And, boy, did he make an impact right off the bat. It seemed like every game I watched he'd break off a huge run and find himself in the end zone. Even in games where he was struggling to get yards, he'd eventually snap out of it and find himself changing a game instantly. He's had great games against NFC divisional rivals, he's provided Thanksgiving Day memories for all fans in the state of Michigan, and he's humiliated opposing teams' defense with his jukes, spins and speed. Of all the memories I've had watching Barry, the home game against the Jets in 1997 was the best. To watch Barry break 2,000 yards in front of one of the loudest NFL crowds was just a special experience. You know when you're watching greatness, and that was one of those moments. As awesome as Barry was, it's a terrible shame that the Lions organization has been so inept for so long. A player like Barry deserved a championship, but never really got close other than reaching the NFC title game in 1991. Either way, he was another one of those "must-see" athletes you always reminisce about even when you're older. He was that special — and we haven't really seen anything like him in the NFL ever since.
5. Sergei Fedorov — While most Red Wing fans will probably say Steve Yzerman is their favorite, the top player in the "Russian Five" is my choice here.
A great skater, scorer and two-way hockey player, Fedorov was a thrill to watch every single night on TV. Like previous athletes I've mentioned, he was super clutch. During the 1990s and early 2000s, the Russian superstar was instrumental in the Red Wings winning three Stanley Cups and finishing runner-up in another. However, there's also plenty of Red Wings fans out there who are still a little salty about Fedorov leaving for Anaheim in the 2003 offseason. It's never bothered me. When you help one of my favorite teams win three championships, you're immortal in my book. To this day, I don't think I've ever enjoyed a hockey player skate the way Sergei did. It was almost like he was floating at times. It was even cooler as a young fan. There's been so many Red Wings — Yzerman, Shanahan, Konstantinov, Larionov, Vernon — I've loved over the years, but none of them were quite like Sergei. He was the player who made me love the game. I'll be forever thankful I had a chance to watch him during the prime of his career.
Honorable Mentions: Tom Brady, Ed Reed, Randy Moss, Paul O'Neill, Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera, Michael Jordan, Rasheed Wallace, Kawhi Leonard, Steph Curry, Steve Yzerman