The SN Rushmore project named four pro athletes from the 13 cities that have had at least four of the following five leagues represented for at least 20 years – NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, and WNBA. While there were no hard-and-fast rules pertaining to the athletes selected, our panel of experts considered individual resumes, team success and legacy within the sports landscape of each city. Multiple players from the same franchise were allowed, and not every franchise needed to be represented. All sports fans have an opinion on this topic. This is ours.
Washington, D.C., is the nation’s capital and centre of government, but it’s also a hub for some of the country’s most passionate sports fan bases. Although football has been a long-running constant, no matter the team name or lack thereof, baseball, basketball and hockey have carved out their own special places.
When The Sporting News decided on the four faces for both the city and the surrounding areas in Maryland and Virginia, the only choice, in the end, was to have equal representation with a delicate balance between present stars and past legends.
There were many great candidates for a classic NFL franchise that dates back 90 years and has the pride of five championships, even though the ring drought has hit a third decade. From quarterbacks, Sammy Baugh and Joe Theismann to running back John Riggins and wide receiver Art Monk, several men had strong cases.
But in the end, one who played the longest with the most enduring stature was deemed as the best-sculpted link to the glory days. Darrell Green ended up as the top pick in burgundy, but the red, white, blue truth is that D.C.’s greatest all-time sport great is from the ice, and not the gridiron, field or court.
Go figure Alexander Ovechkin, hailing from the capital of Russia, would become the ultimate Capital for Washington. While the NHL has faded in star power for many, Ovechkin’s prolific goal-scoring, not tied to winning a Stanley Cup, is a worthy throwback to the league’s big-name heyday.
Old school also helped “Big Train” Walter Johnson, arguably the greatest pitcher in MLB history, make SN’s cut. His dominant success in a much earlier era made it difficult for any future Senators or Nationals to take him off the mount. Apropos of something, Johnson’s illustrious all-D.C. career finished in the same year the real Mount Rushmore was completed, not long after he got his one World Series ring.
Because it’s Washington, there also needs to be an unsung hero: underrated, undersized big man Wes Unseld. The late Bullets rebounder extraordinaire was in the middle of it all when the franchise made its transition from Baltimore to D.C. As a centering all-around force, Unseld, like Ovechkin, came through with a major indoor championship late in his career.
For a local expert on this Mount Rushmore four, The Sporting News turned to prominent D.C. sports journalist and University of Maryland professor Kevin Blackistone, who was born and bred in Washington.
“There should be no real arguments here,” Blackistone said. “It’s pretty cut and clear to me.”
Call him Alex. Call him the Great Eight. Call him Ovi or even Ovie. Just call him one of the greatest pure goal scorers in NHL history and, maybe soon, the best ever.
Like other superstars in his sport, Ovechkin was a can’t-miss prospect when the Capitals jumped on him as the first overall pick when he became officially eligible in 2004. Luckily, the NHL didn’t extend a lockout that might have kept him home in Moscow. He immediately became a Washington dynamo instead as a rookie and hasn’t relented since with his nose for putting the puck in the net.
D.C. has a case to be the most hockey-mad city that isn’t in Canada. Since Ovechkin stepped on the ice, he’s given Caps fans shot and goal after shot and goal to be hockey-glad. His local sports immortality became complete with the long-desired Cup in 2018. From regular season to playoffs, Ovechkin has matched and surpassed what any D.C. athlete had displayed before. At 36, Ovechkin is still writing the story of his career and likely won’t be done until he’s No. 1 in goals, even ahead of The Great One, Wayne Gretzky.
“He’s arguably the greatest goal scorer in the history of hockey, and that will be true even if he doesn’t catch Gretzky,” Blackistone said. “If you look at some of the analytics in what he’s been able to do, he’s basically scoring more goals at a time when it is more difficult to score goals in the NHL.
“For many reasons, Washington D.C. has never witnessed a greater athlete than Alexander Ovechkin.”
For some in Washington, especially in the Ukrainian community, Ovechkin’s Russian nationalism and friendliness with Vladimir Putin have made it difficult to embrace his greatness in his sport.
“They have separated the two. They have compartmentalized his politics and his athletic achievements,” Blackistone said of Caps fans. “Then there are casual fans who have struggled with that.”
Whatever the perception of Ovechkin is off the ice, there’s nothing cold about the reception he will get from Capitals faithful, who were fortunate to see his generational talent wow them from left-wing every game night.
Hail to this cornerback, whose feet were fleetest and whose heart was the biggest. It didn’t matter that Green stood at only 5-9, 194 pounds or came out of a small school then known as Texas A&I. The Houstonian was meant to be a big-time Washingtonian and a pest to the diehard Dallasites who root for the rival Cowboys.
For two decades, Green would run past everyone and make plays on the ball and do it with a smile that could light up the whole field. He was the ultimate defensive representative of Joe Gibbs’ well-rounded championship teams, winning two Super Bowls under the venerable coach.
Green started making his key interceptions as a rookie and didn’t let up. He started his career fresh-faced at 23 in 1983 and didn’t seem to age, all the way through playing at 42 in 2002. Green was a consummate professional and consistent playmaker, often saving his best for critical moments in the regular season and playoffs.
“He had signature moments. One of my favourites happened in Chicago during the 1987 playoffs,” Blackistone said. “He was inserted at a desperate time to return punts — which he had done throughout his career when needed. He took it all the way back (52 yards) for a touchdown, tearing his ribcage muscle and cutting across the field holding his side.
“Another one was chasing down Tony Dorsett the length of the field on a long run, saving a touchdown. Another one came in the 1988 playoffs when he made a game-saving breakup.”
It’s one thing to have Green’s rare longevity in such a physical sport. It’s another to back that up with liveliness to entertain and inspire a community. Green also is one of the drama-free good guys, further helping to make him an enduring multigenerational player
Washington football has been around for close to a century. Many legends have passed through the team, including a sweet 16 Hall of Fame players. Green’s biggest competition to get on his city’s Mount Rushmore came from his contemporaries, a true testament to the Gibbs era which only further validates Green’s place in the top four of the big four.
“His leadership, his playing the game with joy with nothing controversial — he is the face of this franchise, without question — and he played with some great players,” Blackistone said.
* First all-time
Unseld, like Johnny Unitas coming out of Louisville before him, also broke into his league in Baltimore. Unseld was easy for the Bullets to take as the No. 2 overall pick in 1968 and he rewarded the franchise right away by winning rookie of the year and MVP in the same season, something done previously only by Wilt Chamberlain. Unseld wasted no time as a big fixture in the middle for a long time and earned respect from fans in the Beltway by doing all the little things.
While other stars, such as Elvin Hayes, came and went, Unseld stayed in the middle of the action, power-lifting the Bullets through their full-time move to Washington. Unseld was a prime example of grinding toward glory as his team and the individual reward was winning the 1978 championship for the new home city.
Unseld captivated Bullets fans with his tenacious work on the boards balanced by poetic ballhandling. It was physical meets finesse in one sturdy, steadfast package.
“His signature play on the court was his outlet passing on fast breaks,” Blackistone said. “He anchored the Bullets in the 1970s when they were almost always in the championship hunt.
“The reason he was underrated as an NBA player is that there was no panache to his game. He was playing against guys who were three inches taller than him. But he played against guys such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, held his own and excelled.”
After he was done playing three years after getting the ring, Unseld made a natural career change to the front office and coaching to keep him with the Bullets through their nickname change to the Wizards. The Unselds’ bond with Washington remains represented with his son, Wes Jr., now coaching his former team.
Wes Sr. and his wife Connie, an educator, gave plenty back to the community, too, including establishing the Unselds School to better elementary education in Baltimore. Despite the relocation and name change, the respect for the Unselds’ part of Washington sports history grows.
“He left his indelible mark in Washington as a player and a great guy. Before there was this chatter about social justice and athlete activism, there was Wes Unseld and his wife,” Blackistone said.
It was a big loss when the older Unseld died two years ago. Since then, there has been a worthy growing appreciation of his contributions to Washington sports, on and off the court and beyond the city.
Recency bias sides with the Nationals, who broke through for their first World Series win in 2019, but it wasn’t enough to derail the place of the “Big Train” on Washington’s Mount Rushmore. From the present and past of Washington’s current MLB team, Ryan Zimmerman, Stephen Strasburg, Juan Soto, Max Scherzer and even Bryce Harper had a basic case for consideration. From the last days of the Senators, slugger Frank Howard also was well on Washington’s baseball map.
All it took was digging deeper into the city’s original MLB team to discover that Johnson’s time as a dominant gentle giant on the mound confirmed that he was the only choice to be the diamond face of the Washington mount.
Although Johnson pitched in a much different, pre-integrated era as a right-handed workhorse who racked up the related numbers, he did so while Babe Ruth started to bloom and go boom for two more successful AL rivals of the time, the Red Sox and Yankees. Fitting of D.C.’s love of power players, Johnson was the ideal power pitcher for his time.
Blackistone’s father grew up in Le Droit Park, a D.C. neighbourhood near Howard University and the former home of Griffith Park, where Johnson’s Senators used to play. Although Blackistone suggests Johnson should get somewhat of an asterisk for not facing all the best hitters before MLB integration, Johnson’s mastery in his era cannot be denied.
“My father was well versed in all things Walter Johnson,” Blackistone said. “There’s no question that of the baseball players here in Washington, Walter Johnson is the greatest. What he did in the 1920s, some of that stuff is still unprecedented.”
Johnson’s legend got bigger remembering that he starred for an often losing team, carrying it as a reliable, stable force. He was respected by all his teammates for just doing his great job until the winning shot at the World Series finally came. Despite how Johnson intimidated batters with his imposing presence, his kindness was known throughout the majors, as he became friends with Ruth, Ty Cobb and other stars.
Johnson was one of the “Five Immortals” elected first into the Hall of Fame with Ruth, Cobb, Honus Wagner and fellow ace pitcher Christy Mathewson. Johnson also displayed class wherever he went as a paradigm of sportsmanship. Few sports have ever seen a friendlier competitor.
Johnson also went on to manage the Senators after his playing days to stay in Washington. From his native Kansas to his adopted Maryland, Johnson’s legacy is prominent with what all has been named to honour him, from schools and roads to public parks and baseball fields. Even songs have been sung about what a nice sportsman he was.
“The Big Train” chugged along for 21 MLB seasons, all in Washington. Johnson was a rock for the Senators and deserves to be in an eternal state of D.C. granite with Ovechkin, Green and Unseld.