The Top 10 Legendary Florida Athletes | South Florida Sports and Recreation

top 10 florida born athletes

Florida is a true hotbed of culture, vivacity, and generally high-achieving, energetic people. This is evidenced by our many successful business people, artists, musicians, and yes... athletes. Something about the year-round sun and our place in the world has made the state of Florida one of the best states for young athletes to ascend to stardom. Whether it's simply a question of the population to select from or the lack of a semiannual slog through snow, Florida is responsible for thrusting some of the best athletes the world has ever seen into the limelight. For ten of our favorite legendary Florida-born athletes, read our intriguing list below!

Deion Sanders - Ft. Myers

Primetime! Nobody was louder, prouder, and more electrifying than a prime Deion Sanders. Born in Ft. Myers, Sanders attended college at Florida State University, where he would later be drafted fifth overall in the legendary 1989 NFL draft. In addition to serving as an NFL cornerback, kick returner, and even wide receiver, Deion played part-time as a left and center field for 5 MLB teams across 641 games. To this day, perhaps only Sanders' draftmate, Detroit Lions Running Back Barry Sanders, could claim the title of the most riveting player to ever put on shoulder pads. Today, Deion has wielded his presence as Head Coach of Jackson State University to increase the profile, competitiveness, and ultimately, the funding for both Jackson State and other HBCUs in their conference. 

MICHAEL IRVIN - FT. LAUDERDALE

Perhaps the only NFL athlete as brash and prideful as Primetime, onetime rival and longtime teammate Michael Irvin epitomized the early swagger at the University of Miami, where the indelible impact made by the team and its players - both on the field and through the attitude they played with, left a lasting impact on college football as a whole. Before attending "The U," Irvin played at a historic high school powerhouse, St. Thomas Aquinas. An explosive athlete, Irvin always seemed to step up when his team needed it most, joining Troy Aikman as one of the best postseason performers, holding second place records for postseason 100-yard games, postseason receiving yards, and postseason receptions, all of whom are second to only Jerry Rice. The three-time Superbowl Champion was a key member of "The Triplets," with this QB-WR-RB combo commonly seen as the blueprint for an explosive offense that can score at any level from anywhere on the field.

Emmitt Smith - Pensacola

Longtime Dallas Cowboy and Super Bowl Champion Emmitt Smith is a legend nationwide, but one whose story begins in North Florida, where he was raised in the panhandle. Smith's spectacular college career cemented him as one of the finest players in the University of Florida's illustrious history, where he'd go on to join Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin (see below) to form the dynastic triumvirate that led the Dallas Cowboys to multiple Superbowl titles in the mid-90s. 

Steve Carlton - Miami

Miami-born southpaw, Steve Carlton pitched for six teams between 1965 and 1988, most notably for the Philadelphia  Phillies. His first season in 1972 was legendary, leading the league with an absurd 27 wins, 30 complete games, 310 strikeouts, and a 1.97 ERA. Despite playing for a team who finished in last place with a 59-97 record, he became the first Cy Young winner to play for the last-place team, accounting for nearly half the team's wins on his own. For a time, he led the MLB in all-time strikeouts, with a particularly scintillating 3-year period from 1982-1984 where he dueled Gaylord Perry and Nolan Ryan with several lead changes noted. 

Chris Evert - Ft. Lauderdale

Chris Evert is one of the legendary names in women's tennis, starring on the pro circuit from 1972 to the late 1980s. The daughter of a tennis coach, Chris Evert was born for the game, making her Grand Slam debut in 1971 at the U.S. Open at 16. Her 89.97% winning percentage is the second-highest in the Open Era for men or women, while her clay-court win percentage of 94.55% is a Women's Tennis Association record. Over her career, she captured an astounding 157 titles, including 18 Grand Slam singles championships.

Deacon Jones - Eatonville

There might not be a more gratifying play on the gridiron than watching your favorite pass rusher drop the opposing Quarterback in the backfield. While interceptions, touchdown grabs, and electrifying kick returns may get most of the headlines, few plays have both the on-field and psychological impact that the "quarterback sack" does. As the NFL evolved to incorporate more passing through the years, headhunters like Deacon Jones cemented themselves among the most feared players in NFL history. The "sack," is now one of the most important statistics and momentum-changing plays in football, with pass rushers joining pass protectors as the most important position on the field without the football. Deacon Jones was a pioneer of the game and is the very reason the sack is now a statistic, and one of the most satisfying plays to watch, as the opposition folds under the withering pressure of athletes who followed in Deacon Jones' footsteps.

Kurt Thomas - Miami 

Legendary American gymnast Kurt Thomas is an unforgettable figure in American Olympic history. His interest in gymnastics was piqued after watching the Miami-Dade Junior College practice, where he'd later receive a scholarship to Indiana State University, becoming a five-time NCAA Champion. His core stability and upper body strength provided the blueprint for male gymnastic greatness, where he'd leverage his peak form to become the first American male gymnast to win the floor exercise. Much like Deacon Jones above, Thomas not only excelled at the highest level, but introduced new wrinkles to the game, with three distinct moves named for him: the Thomas Flair, the Thomas Salto, and the Thomas on High Bar. Perhaps even more entertaining than his historic gymnastics career was his little-known acting career, where he'd use his skills to the fullest as the lead actor in Gymkata, an extremely cheesy if not wildly entertaining B-Movie in which Thomas competes in a fictional deadly competition in a faraway land.

Mitch Richmond - Ft. Lauderdale 

Mostly known as the "M" in Golden State's Run TMC teams along with Tim Hardaway and Chris Mullin. Richmond attended Boyd Anderson High School in Lauderdale Lakes, playing college basketball at Kansas State after a JUCO stint. Richmond's best years were played with the Sacramento Kings, where the lion's share of his All-NBA and All-Star plaudits were received. Richmond was arguably Sacramento's first star since team relocation in 1985, and a major reason why the team reached its ascendant peak in the late 1990s. As an Olympian, Richmond won bronze at the 1988 Olympics, the last featuring amateur players. In 1996, Richmond won Olympic gold alongside former 1988 teammate David Robinson.

Andre Dawson - Miami

"The Hawk" played 21 seasons as a center and right fielder, spending most of his career with the Chicago Cubs and Montreal Expos. He represents one of the most well-rounded players in the game, showing five-tool abilities through his 8 Gold Gloves, 8 All-Star appearances, several 20 home runs and 20 steal seasons, and a 1987 MVP season that saw him hit 49 of his 438 career home runs. Dawson finished his career in Miami, launching a towering 3-run homer to straightaway left field as one of his final moments in Major League Baseball, which your humble author witnessed live as a youngster. 

Alex Rodriguez - Miami 

The controversial A-Rod was technically born in New York, but grew up in Miami and is inexorably connected to the community, most notably beginning with his historic career at Westminster Christian School. Following heavy recruitment both as a quarterback and shortstop by the University of Miami, A-Rod chose to enter the 1993 amateur draft at age 17, where he'd be selected first overall by the Seattle Mariners. His professional career was as polarizing as they come - at one point threatening the all-time home run record based on the trajectory, he was on. Alex Rodriguez was a 14-time All-Star, 5-time American League home run leader, 10-time Silver Slugger, 3-time AL MVP, and 2009 World Series Champion. Despite his many, many awards and recognitions, Rodriguez will forever be connected to the Balco scandal, which saw him receive a record suspension of 211 games, later rescinded to 162. Despite his numerous criticisms, and very public relationship with J-Lo, A-Rod represents one of the final names in the historic "Steroid Era' of Major League Baseball, and is undeniably a legendary Florida athlete regardless of the opinions some may share.

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