Where is the Professional Mormon Athlete?

I was a pretty big sports fan during my high school and college days. As I look back at that time (the ’80s), it may have been the high point of the Mormon professional athlete. In baseball you had Dale Murphy, in football there was Steve Young, and basketball had Danny Ainge. Where are today’s Mormon professional sports heroes?

Dale Murphy played most of his career with the Atlanta Braves. This was back in the days that the Braves pretty much stunk most of the time. But in spite of this he was the Most Valuable Player in the National League two years in a row. He was a seven time All-Star, a 5 time gold glove winner, a 30-30 man, among other accomplishments. His career was one that has made him a borderline candidate for the Hall of Fame, without ever being on a championship team. He was also well enough thought of within the church to serve as a mission president.

Steve Young was one of the most recognizable Mormon athletes ever. He won two Most Valuable Player awards and Super Bowl Championships. He went to seven pro bowls. Statistically he had one of the best career quarterback ratings in the history of football, and was recently inducted into the football Hall of Fame.

Danny Ainge may be one of the most underrated Mormon Athletes ever. He played professionally in both baseball and basketball. I understand he is also a scratch golfer. While he did not win any Most Valuable Player awards, he was an important starter on the Boston Celtics championship teams. To back up my underrated athlete comment, look what I found on a Yahoo search. This apparently is from some archive thing at espn.

Here’s one I’d never heard. I was hanging out on the set with my friend and mentor, Ron Shelton (director of “White Men Can’t Jump”). It went something like this: Someone said, “Michael Jordan is the greatest athlete in the world.”
Ron immediately fired up. “That’s bulls$%&!!!,” he growled. (With Shelton, it isn’t worth discussing if you can’t growl about it.) “Michael Jordan is an amazing physical specimen who advanced one game to its highest level. But no way he’s the best athlete in the world.”
“Who is, then?” someone asked.
“Why not Danny Ainge?”
“Danny Ainge? Danny Ainge!!???”
“You mean Danny Ainge the whiner?”
“That Danny Ainge?”
“Yeah,” said Ron. “For starters, Danny Ainge has two NBA rings as a member of the Celtics. He shot almost 50 percent from the floor.”
“What’d Jordan shoot?”
“About the same,” said Ron.
“So you’re sayin’ Ainge was good as Michael?” someone foolishly inquired.
“Did I say that!? I didn’t say that!” yelled Ron.
“Bob Cousy only shot 37 percent,” I threw in to deflect the heat.
“And they say players today can’t shoot,” someone added.
“Look,” said Ron. “We’re talking greatest athlete, not basketball player. Athlete. And before the Celtics, Danny Ainge actually played Major League Baseball. Three years with the Blue Jays. Something Jordan didn’t come close to.”
“Yeah, but Ainge couldn’t hit, either.”
“It’s a matter of degree,” barked Ron. “Ainge was 10 times the baseball player that Michael Jordan was. And last — he’s a scratch golfer. Do you know how tough that is?”
I didn’t know (having sworn off golf years earlier as just one more unnecessary pursuit that was bound to make me crazy), but I knew we were gonna find out. Shelton, you’ll remember, directed “Tin Cup” and is a fine golfer, himself.
“How tough?” someone asked.
“Ask Michael Jordan,” answered Ron.

I did not fully appreciate what a special time that was for a young Mormon sports fan. Significant star players in each of the major team sports. I had my pick of sports heroes from my own faith.

I do not follow sports as closely as I used to, but it does not appear to me that there are any significant Mormon professional athletes in any of the major sports, and has not been for some time. Sure there are a few offensive lineman, and a tight end or two in the NFL. I would guess there is a major league baseball player or two that I am not aware of. And unless Shawn Bradley is sitting at the end of someone’s bench I am not sure of any Mormon NBA players. Have I missed someone obvious?

What happened to the professional Mormon athlete? Will there be a time in the foreseeable future when there will be MVP and significant starting level Mormon players in each of the major sports?

28 Responses to “Where is the Professional Mormon Athlete?”

  1. 1 Eric May 22, 2006 at 6:45 pm

    I tried about 18 times to get a picture to upload for this and it didn’t work. I tried other pictures as well. I’ll try again later.

  2. 2 Wade May 22, 2006 at 9:14 pm

    Interesting point Eric! Do you think it has anything to do with recruiters intentionally avoiding Mormons? The structure of recruiting seems to be down to a science these days. Just a thought–probably way off though.

  3. 3 Eric May 23, 2006 at 5:41 am

    Thanks Wade.

    No, I do not think it has anything to do with recruiters. I think it has everything to do with Mormon athletes not being very good. If there were MVP calibre Mormon athletes available they would be drafted and paid handsomely. There just have not been any recently.

  4. 4 Ryan May 23, 2006 at 8:14 am

    I can’t say as I believe that it is linked to either recruiting or a lack of talented Mormon athletes, I think that when you look at the population proportion of mormons to non-mormons and then compare to the percentage of the population that actually makes it to professional athlete status, those are some pretty thin odds.

    Some other professional Mormon athletes of mediocre fame:
    -Wally Joyner (Baseball)
    -Sean Salisbury (Football and now sports commentator)
    -Rulon Gardener (Olympic wrestling)
    – Ty Detmer (Great quarterback, but has yet to come alive in the NFL)
    – Koy Detmer (Ty’s Brother also a quarterback)

  5. 5 Eric May 23, 2006 at 8:39 am

    Sean Salisbury is a Mormon? I had no idea.

    I also did not think Ty Detmer was a Mormon. Perhaps I am wrong here, but just because somebody goes to BYU doesn’t make them LDS.

    • 6 SD August 25, 2011 at 2:43 am

      You are correct, Ty was not. I have no idea about now, but they made a big deal back then about how he wasn’t LDS and going to the Y.

  6. 7 Wade May 23, 2006 at 8:41 am

    Okay, I’ll jump on the wagon; I can’t resist naming Johnny Miller as a great Mormon sports hero.

    Although it was quite a bit before my time, I’ve come to know Miller because he is now a golf commentator on NBC. Miller was a famous golfer who won not one, but two major championships! He won 25 victories as a PGA player and was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in ’96.

    “Where have you gone [mormon sports hero]?”

  7. 8 Eric May 23, 2006 at 8:45 am

    I found a site that has a good list of famous Mormons in various area including sports. Sure enough Ty Detmet is.

    The link is here.

  8. 9 Kaimi May 23, 2006 at 9:40 am

    Good post; good questions.

    I can think of a few off the top of my head — Jeff Kent and Todd Heap and Rulon Gardner. Oh, and Andy Reid — there was an SI article a few years ago that mentioned that; and a NYT piece mentioning it too (as a side note, when the Eagles drafted a Mormon player, who was also a waiter at a restaurant — it was a fun human-interest-y story).

    I thought Casey Jacobsen would do better in the NBA, too, though he hasn’t lived up to his potential.

    The link, though, covers a whole lot more people.

  9. 10 Tigersue May 23, 2006 at 11:10 am

    Ty Detmer joined while at BYU, I don’t think his brother is a member.

    In the era of Danny Aige you must remember that Greg Kite, Fred Roberts also played pro ball, and I think there is one other from that team that played. I know the celtics had 3 or 4 BYU players on their teams.

  10. 11 Anonymous May 23, 2006 at 7:51 pm

    I can’t believe there would be a post on great mormon athletes and no one even mentioned OREL HERSCHEISER. hello.

    Oh, and as for right now there is also Mark Madson, who got two rings with the Lakers (making a significant contribution of the bench) and is now on the Timberwolves.

    Jeff Kent is an All-star in baseball, and has been for many years. Hes on the Dodgers and having a great season.

    There is also the quarterback for UCLA who had a great season last year and will likely enter the draft after grad. Who knows, maybe he will blossom into a MVP caliber player.

    Danny Ainge is and always has been horribly over rated.

    Dale Murphey, on the other hand…

  11. 12 Wade May 23, 2006 at 8:12 pm

    Danny Ainge is and always has been horribly over rated.

    Interesting, I never thought he was an “outstanding” player but I don’t ever recall him being hyped as you suggest.

  12. 13 My Dominion May 23, 2006 at 9:07 pm

    I grew up in El Segundo (location of the Raiders training camp while in Los Angeles) I went to church with Todd Christensen and Marc Wilson. Todd Christensens kids were the same age as my brother and I we used to play together growing up. Nice guy. He used to get out there with us and play football. That is pretty impressive to the other kids growing up that you played football with a guy that won the Superbowl twice.

  13. 14 Mark B. May 24, 2006 at 5:47 am

    Maybe nobody mentioned Orel Hersheiser because he isn’t a Mormon.

  14. 15 Eric May 24, 2006 at 7:54 am


    Thanks. You bring up some other good names. That site (www.famousmormons.net) brough a few surprises to me. Seems like a good source.


    Thanks for clearing things up about Detmer. I remember reading about him in college, and it must have been before he converted. Also you bring up some good names of other good basketball players in that same era. I still believe that was a great era in Mormon sports.


    Geat call on Jonny Miller. Pretty much the same era too.


    I was not aware of Jeff Kent. Maybe we ought to keep that one quiet. He is a good player, but does not have a great reputation as a teamate. I think you are wrong about Hersheiser. Isn’t he a pretty well know born-again type?
    I can not imagine Ainge being over-rated. You have to be rated to be over-rated. Dale Murphy is a good question. Why he does not get much more support for the Hall of Fame is a mystery to me. I agree he is borderline, but he ought to get good consideration at least!!!!

    My Dominion:

    Good call on another couple of very good players from that same great era.

  15. 16 Anonymous May 28, 2006 at 7:32 pm

    Instead of prominent Mormon athletes, it seems as if there are a number of prominent Mormon politicians, even Democrats!

  16. 17 Eric May 29, 2006 at 11:48 am

    If that is the case, we have slid downhill significantly. 🙂

  17. 18 acfawcett January 23, 2009 at 9:59 pm

    One of the most overlooked Pro Mormon baseball players is Clyde Wright, who still holds the record for most wins by a left handed pitcher in a season in Angels history with 22 wins in 1970, was 2nd in Cy Young voting that year, pitched a no hitter, and had a lifetime ERA of 3.50. He and his family are active members in Anaheim, CA. My son receives pitching lessons from him and we often discuss the church

    His son Jaret was pretty good too early in his career with Cleveland before arm problems slowed him down, and later had another good stint with Atlanta before signing with the Yankees and succumbing to arm problems again. If you take people in their prime, they have to be on any list

  18. 20 Collin Campbell March 23, 2009 at 3:04 pm

    Interesting comment about this topic. Most Mormon young men are involved in sports one way or another at some point in time. I found it interesting making the transition from High School sports to College. I knew LDS guys who had scholarships to college who chose to Serve Missions instead of taking the Athletic scholarship. So, it is my opinion that given the values and up bringing in LDS families, that playing professional sports is not of the highest priority. (Most LDS families I know enphasis serving the Lord, getting an education and then creating a family.) Also, with the importance of Sunday and going to church, almost EVERY professional sport plays on Sunday. (Some almost exclusively.)

    With that said, I know of a few interesting athletes:

    Todd Heap who is a Pro Bowl Tight End is Mormon.
    Steve Young (MVP) is Mormon.
    Tom Chambers (NBA)
    Shawn Bradley (NBA)
    Scott Pollard (NBA)
    Andy Reid (NFL Coach)
    Eric Weddle (NFL Chargers)
    Harmon Killebrew (MLB) 573 career home runs and more than 40 home runs during a single season on eight separate occasions.
    Phil Michelson’s wife, Amy, was raised Mormon. (I know he’s thought about joining the Church.)

    Just wanted to put in my 2 cents.

  19. 21 Eric Nielson March 23, 2009 at 5:03 pm

    Thanks Collin. How could you leave out Dale Murphy?

    But excellent comment about priorities. I am sure that is a factor.

  20. 22 Isaac N October 6, 2009 at 3:38 pm

    How about Roy Halladay! Maybe the best pitcher in the AL in the 2000s.

    How about Kevin Curtis, returned missionary who had 77 catches for over 1100 yards last season as a wide receiver for the Eagles?

    And I know he’s not really a pro in anything, but Cael Sanderson is the most accomplished collegiate wrestler in NCAA history. Never lost a match 159-0, 4 year NCAA champion, and finished his career with a gold medal at the 2004 Olympics.

  21. 23 Eric Nielson October 6, 2009 at 4:58 pm

    I did not know Roy Halladay was a Mormon. Great observations Isaac!

  22. 24 Bob April 20, 2010 at 5:25 pm

    I can’t believe no one has mentioned Danny White in all of this. I watched him play at Westwood High in Mesa Arizona growing up.

  23. 25 Eric Nielson April 20, 2010 at 8:44 pm

    Danny White was great, good call.

  24. 26 joshua scott May 2, 2014 at 2:34 am

    what about Jimmer???

  25. 27 Dylan April 29, 2017 at 12:13 pm

    Jabari Parker, Bryce Harper, Daniel Sorensen…Any others?

  1. 1 2010 in review « Small and Simple Trackback on January 12, 2011 at 8:14 am

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