Sports fans of all ages, spanning multiple generations, have compared athletes from different eras and have long debated “Who is the greatest?” Was Ali the greatest boxer ever, or Frasier, or Holyfield, or Marciano? Is Shaq basketball’s premier center, or would Chamberlain have taken the Diesel to school? Was Ted Williams baseball’s ultimate hitter? The best NFL quarterback ever was Joe Montana ... or Broadway Joe ... or Unitas ... or Elway ... or is the best QB ever still suiting up on Sundays at Lambeau?
ESPN recently chose to bypass the question altogether with its “Who’s #1?” series, focusing only on the most recent quarter-century of sports in conjunction with its 25th anniversary on the air. Selecting the top teams, plays and players from the relatively “modern era” of sports allowed producers and writers to narrow the field to men and women that either competed concurrently or played within one generation of each other. All the while, ESPN has the luxury of showing us clips that are intended to convince us as to “Who’s #1”.
Ranking players and teams is a flawed process, corrupted by our own biases for “the hometown team”, athletes that compete in the style we prefer, personalities that mirror our own, or individuals that we admire for one reason or another. Plus, plain old nostalgia gets in the way--that’s why this author thinks the Lakers of the 80s would beat the Bulls of the 90s. Michael Jordan may be good enough to be the greatest basketball player for most of the planet, but diehard residents of Beantown might not include His Airness in their Dream Team starting five.
Perhaps the truest benchmark of greatness in collegiate athletics over decades or even centuries isn’t measured with a “1” at all. Maybe a “2” works better, or a “3”. Of course, we’re no longer talking rank; we’re discussing multi-sport athletes.
The multi-sport athlete, much like the NCAA student-athlete model, is to be respected for his excellence in more than one specialization. While a large percentage of collegiate athletes played more than one sport in high school, not so many can sustain the dual role as undergraduates in college.
Why is there such a dropoff? For the most part, athletes make choices based on advice from coaches in order to select THE sport in which an individual has the best chance to earn a scholarship for higher education. That athlete then pursues his or her best shot to be noticed by college coaches.
In big-time Division I programs, coaches are less likely to share star players with another sport for fear of injury, burnout, or insurmountable courseload pressures. Academia has no off-season.
Maybe an athlete prefers basketball to football and hangs up his helmet in favor of hardwood. It could be that a player adopts a second sport to stay in shape for his top priority. Some college basketball teams enter cross country events to serve as conditioning for the upcoming season. Even I used soccer to stay in shape for basketball season as a high school benchwarmer.
For all those reasons and more, the two-sport athlete is rare and deserves recognition. Would Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders shine as brightly without touchdowns and home runs on their resumes? (We’ll reserve judgment on Drew Hinson and Chris Weinke, two more modern two-sporters, until we see how their NFL careers play out.)
Sophomore wide receiver/small forward Tymere Zimmerman is the latest in a long line of Newberry athletes that might have earned the nickname “Slash” long before Kordell Stewart’s parents were ever born.
At 6’3”, Zimmerman is a big target at wideout. He’s the type of player you pray the defense will try to cover one-on-one and you’re throwing a fade route to the back of the end zone. Against North Greenville last week, Zimmerman made one of those jumpball catches for a touchdown.
“For starters, he was one of the most highly recruited athletes out of South Carolina,” wide receivers coach Ike Allred answered when questioned about what makes Tymere so great. “Getting Tymere here in 2003 was the catalyst to bringing in other talent in the last two recruiting classes.
“The second thing that makes him great is his work ethic. There are players with his talent that think they can just bring it on gameday, and just slip by in practice without working hard. Tymere works hard in practice every day and takes nothing for granted. He brings everyone around him up to a higher level.
“Tymere has great ball skills. He has the height, weight, and strength to play--all the physical pieces are there. Beyond that, he just has that instinct. When the ball is in the air, he figures out a way to get to it.”
Jimmie Coggins, voice of both the Indians’ football and basketball teams, has nothing but praise for the star sophomore. “The main thing with Tymere is that he’s an incredible athlete. He can do things that are hard to describe from an announcer’s standpoint. He’s very quick on both the field and the floor.
“He can move the ball up and down the court. He’s not a big guy at 6’3”, not as tall as a big man per se, but can play inside when necessary.
“On a personal level, Tymere is a very good guy and a nice guy. He’s always very polite and conversational. I’ve enjoyed being around him.
“He’s brought things to the table as a leader. We know what he can do in football, but what he brought to basketball was leadership. At the start of the season, he was a little rusty after not having practiced that much with the guys, but you could see that he improved every game.”
Head coach Zak Willis seconded that opinion during the South Atlantic Conference football media day. “Tymere is a really special athlete. He was the heart and soul of that basketball team last year, and one of the big reasons that they made it to the tournament finals. He made them a better team.”
Zimmerman started 20 of 23 games as a redshirt freshman, and averaged 6.7 points and 6.2 rebounds per game. He helped Newberry to its best record in 20 years (16-13) and a berth in the SAC Tournament championship game.
What’s not certain is the type of numbers he could have put up if not playing on a semi-loaded team already. Between firepower from seniors Rashaad Carter and Brandon Moses, there were not many scoring opportunities left. Tommy Burke had an All-Freshman team year as well, so Tymere filled roles where needed.
Former Newberry head basketball coach David Conrady speaks to Zimmerman’s court presence. “He has the unique ability to make the other players around him better, and not just from an athletic standpoint. People around him reach their potential as individuals. When he’s around, good things happen.
“His numbers do not fully represent what he brings to the team. On a team without Brandon and Rashaad, certainly his scoring and rebounds would increase, because he’s a very good basketball player. His desire to compete and be associated with success is what makes him a real asset to the team.”
HALL OF FAME MATERIAL?
Two athletes paved their way into the Newberry Athletic Hall of Fame by playing the same two sports for the Scarlet and Gray. Dominic Colangelo and Chester McPhee were honored in consecutive years (1977-78). Twenty two of the 99 inductees graced the baseball diamond in addition to their exploits with pigskin and roundball. (Did I mention that Zimmerman was also a starting center fielder on Marlboro County’s baseball team as a senior?)
Five quadrathletes participated in track along with the aforementioned three sports -- Ralph B. Baker, R.E. Beck, D.C. Henry Witt, James W. Ingram, and Howard Holt. If playing four sports is a sign of a better athlete, these guys must have been all-world.
On the other side of the gender line stands a couple of recent examples of multi-sport standouts. Jeanette Eargle, playing from 1996-2000, won 12 varsity letters in three sports. Senior Aubrey Mosley, who has completed her volleyball eligibility and will compete with the women’s golf team next spring, has All-SAC honors in both sports.
Newberry Hall of Famer Peggy Barnes was a tremendous basketball and volleyball player, but above her athletic fame, she is making a difference every day as an educator. She is molding these current-day Indians, as she has done for 14 years, into student-athletes in which Newberry College and the community can take pride. And, just maybe, she is teaching individuals who will one day join her in the Athletic Hall of Fame.
Whether Tymere will earn that distinction is still up in the air. He is only three touchdowns and 1,200 yards away from putting his stamp in the football career record books. What is indisputable is that both Newberry football and basketball are better since the Bennettsville native has suited up. And winning may very well be the truest sign of greatness beyond what numbers and statistics can measure. ###