Virginia is for lovers and athletes

By CARA COOPER

Last weekend as I was watching the NASCAR race, I heard the announcers on the TV say “Chesterfield, Virginia native Denny Hamlin.”

I knew Denny was from Virginia, but the thought struck me after hearing that – is Denny the biggest current Virginia-born athlete?

I wondered this for a few minutes and two things came of it:

  1. I quickly remembered (and had people point out on Twitter) there are a number of other Virginia athletes probably more popular than Denny.
  2. A quick Wikipedia search revealed Denny wasn’t even born in Virginia. He was born in Tampa, Florida and to that I say, I’m glad he made here where it’s better.

So, with this being summertime, a.k.a. the season for pointless debates, I thought I’d start one of my own and try to count down the best Virginia athletes currently playing their given sport.

First, the ground rules.

  1. I’m not sticking with the “Virginia born” part. Mostly because Wikipedia is super unreliable and where someone was “born” is hard to know for sure. I’m going with athletes who when asked where they’re from definitely say Virginia. Let’s be honest, some people just aren’t lucky enough to be born here, but it’s good to know they found their way eventually.
  2. It’s only current athletes currently playing. Because everyone on earth knows the greatest Virginia athlete of all time is Allen Iverson (I refuse to hear any arguments to the contrary). Sadly, this means that Kam Chancellor has to be taken down from the list after the NFL’s best safety (I said it!) retired Sunday night.
  3. The rankings are based on a combination of athletic prowess, on field achievements and overall popularity.
  4. Only players made the list. Mostly because I realized too late that Pittsburgh Steelers’ Head Coach Mike Tomlin is from Hampton, and I didn’t feel like adding him.

So, after some research, I’ve compiled a list of Virginia athletes from all major sports, and have narrowed down the list to eight, so we’ll call this a “Double Mt. Rushmore,” I guess. This is a column in two parts, with Nos. 8-5 coming today, and Nos. 4-1 coming tomorrow.

I’m going to rank those eight from last to best Virginian, and have some honorable mentions at the end.

  1. Tyrod Taylor

Hometown – Hampton

– Cleveland Browns quarterback, 2015 NFL Pro-Bowler, 2010 ACC Player of the Year at Virginia Tech

Tyrod will always, to me, be one of those quarterbacks you feel like you never know his real potential because he can’t seem to find a team that respects him and his talent. For his career, he’s got an insane 51-18 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He led the Buffalo Bills to their first playoff appearance in 18 years last year, while throwing for 8,800 yards in three seasons with the team.

I don’t know where Tyrod’s career goes from here. The Browns obviously just picked him up to be a placeholder until Baker Mayfield is ready, so hopefully they’ll trade him to a desperate playoff team that needs a QB. But that’s a conversation for another day. For now, he’s a great NFL quarterback who had a great career as a Hokie.

  1. David Wright

Hometown – Norfolk

– New York Mets third baseman, 7 times MLB All-Star, two Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards, Mets captain since 2013

Eight or nine years ago Wright is definitely No. 1 on the list, or at least top 3. He looked destined for Cooperstown early in his career and was arguably the best third baseman in the game in 2007 and 2008. But, injuries have slowed him tremendously. He had never been on the disabled list in the first five years of his career, but in the last three seasons he’s played just 75 games thanks to a string of neck, back and shoulder ailments. Last week he was taking swings in the cage though, so at just 35 he could maybe, possibly turn it around. But if not, we’ll forever be left wondering what might have been.

  1. Denny Hamlin

Hometown – Chesterfield

– 31 career NASCAR Cup Series wins, 11 time NASCAR playoff contender, 2016 Daytona 500 Champion

In a sport flush with competitors from Virginia, Denny is currently one of just two driving in the NASCAR Cup Series. While he’s never won a Cup Series championship, he’s won 50 races throughout NASCAR’s three series, and was a championship round contender in the 2014 Chase.

Denny has 14 years and 451 races under his belt in the Cup Series, and the 37-year-old likely has a few more seasons behind the wheel. He’s consistently been one of the top 10 most popular (and sometimes most controversial) drivers in NASCAR, and could see his name in the Hall of Fame once his career is all said and done.

  1. Chris Long

Hometown – Charlottesville

Philadelphia Eagles defensive end, 2-time Super Bowl champion, nine years in the NFL, ACC Defensive Player of the Year at UVA, Second overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft

Long may not have huge career numbers, but he’s pretty widely known around the NFL as just a good locker room presence and well-liked teammate. And he’s been a solid defensive end for almost a decade, recording 63.5 sacks and 236 tackles in his career.

Plus, beyond the numbers and on-field stuff, Long has upped his popularity in recent years thanks to his charity work. He donated his entire 2017 salary to different charities, many based in Charlottesville. He’s just a super good guy, and a really good follow on Twitter. He was technically born in Santa Monica when his dad, Hall of Famer Howie Long was playing for the Raiders, but he grew up in Virginia and is cool so I’m putting him on the list.

Be sure to check out Pt. 2 for the rest of the list. First, here are the honorable mentions who just missed the cut:

Honorable mention:

Melvin Upton (Norfolk) – Cleveland Indians outfielder

Justin Upton (Norfolk) – Los Angeles Angels outfielder, 3 times MLB Silver Slugger award winner

Chris Taylor (Virginia Beach) – Los Angeles Dodgers infielder, 2017 NLCS MVP

Elliott Sadler (Emporia) – NASCAR Xfinity Driver, 3-time XFinity Series Most Popular Driver winner, 3 NASCAR Cup Series wins

Torrey Smith (Colonial Beach) – Carolina Panthers wide receiver, 2-time Super Bowl champ

Maame Biney (Reston) – Olympic speed skater

Scott Darling (Newport News) Carolina Hurricanes goalkeeper, one of only five NHL players ever born in Virginia.

This story first appeared in The Martinsville Bulletin.

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