Who’s your pick for top Arkansas-born athlete?

By: Wally Hall
Published: Sunday, June 1, 2014

Several years ago while touring Eagle Hill in Little Rock with Jim Lindsey, we had a discussion about who was the greatest athlete in the history of Arkansas.

A born and bred Arkie.

Lindsey wasted no time in voicing his opinion, and I’ll get to that in a minute.

I never forgot the conversation, not because we agreed to disagree and admitted that both had come up with great names, but because the idea is so totally subjective.

So I’ve decided I’d like to put together a list of the top five athletes born in the Natural State, but it isn’t going to be subjective. I’m kindly asking you to email me your top selections from one to five.

Send them to between now and June 10. One ballot per person please. I’ll tally them up and give the results in this space, and if they are not in the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame, which would be a shock, I will personally consider nominating them (something any member can do).

Now back to what started this idea all those years ago.

If memory serves, Lindsey just plain asked who I thought was the best athlete ever born in Arkansas, and I said Keith Jackson.

Jackson, the ace radio analyst for the Arkansas Razorbacks football team, was a high school All-American as a two-way starter at Little Rock Parkview and a two time All-American tight end at Oklahoma when the Sooners were running the Wishbone.

Jackson also was an outstanding basketball player, earning the nickname “Hack” on the court. He finished second in a national slamdunk contest after his playing days at Oklahoma. Ironically, he lost to Mike Conley, the All-American track and field star and gold medalist for the Razorbacks.

Lindsey said Jackson was a good one, but he had someone else in mind.

Understand, Lindsey has forgotten more about athletics than most of us will ever know. Long before he became a wealthy real-estate developer in Northwest Arkansas, he played for the Hogs (he was a major part of the 1964 national championship team), and went on to play for the Minnesota Vikings in the NFL for six seasons.

His opinion carries some weight, needless to say.

Lindsey said Donnie Kessinger. Like Jackson, Kessinger didn’t play for the Razorbacks.

But Kessinger, a native of Forrest City, where Lindsey grew up, chose to stay closer to home and went to Ole Miss where he was an All-American in basketball and baseball.

He went on to play shortstop for 15 years in the major leagues, 11 of those with the Chicago Cubs, but what really separated him for Lindsey was what happened in the bigs.

Kessinger was a great fielder with a rifle arm, but he struggled at the plate until Leo Durocher, the Cubs manager, told him he should try switch hitting.

Kessinger, with the help of hitting coach Pete Reiser, learned to hit from both sides of the plate and his batting average went from .201 in 1965 to .274 in 1966. He also became the Cubs’ leadoff hitter for the better part of a decade.

There have been a lot of great athletes born in this state, beyond the two noted by Lindsey and yours truly.

Bobby Tiner comes to mind. He was a great quarterback at UCA when it was Arkansas State Teachers College, back when there wasn’t a lot of difference in the Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference and some of the biggest schools in the country.

There wasn’t a sport Tiner couldn’t play. In his 60s now, he was recently named an All-American softball player as a shortstop.

There’s no shortage of former major leaguers to consider, names like Brooks Robinson (the human vacuum cleaner), George Kell and Dizzy Dean.

Or former NFL receiver Rod Smith.

How about Lou Brock or Sonny Liston? Brock, the great baseball player, and Liston, former heavyweight champion of the world, were born in Arkansas but not raised here.

Scottie Pippen?

Or how about the person you think was the best athlete born in Arkansas?

This poll may be unofficial and informal, but it should be fun.