From Earl Campbell to Shea Serrano, Texans have left an outsized footprint on the world of athletics over the last half century. And by the time a Texas sports icon establishes a legacy, it’s usually not just as a beloved figure within the state, but as the most decorated gymnast of all time, the winningest coach in NBA history, the archetype for modern NFL quarterbacks, or one of several other species of GOAT.
Big George was the baddest man on the planet in 1973, the year he mollywhopped Joe Frazier to win the heavyweight championship—and a year before Muhammad Ali would show the man from Marshall who truly was the greatest.
Errol Spence Jr.
The welterweight champ from DeSoto might be the baddest man on the planet today, but with all that boxing’s done over the past half century to drive fans away, does anyone but the hard-core audience even know?
The Star Quarterback
The Cowboys signal-caller was already a legend and a Super Bowl MVP by ’73—and that was before he lofted the last-second, fifty-yard bomb that made “Hail Mary” as much a football term as a Catholic prayer.
The Tyler native and Texas Tech dynamo has become the yardstick by which all other NFL quarterbacks measure themselves. And that’s too bad for them, because none can equal the pride of Kansas City.
Which would you rather be? The quintessential Sports Illustrated writer, the all-time greatest golf scribe, or the author of the funniest football novel ever? The Fort Worth native didn’t have to choose—he was all three.
Since his 2017 collection, Basketball (and Other Things), the San Antonian has largely limited his sports commentary to Twitter. Maybe that’s the mark of the modern sportswriter: pen a classic and then turn it into a TV series.
The Beloved Coach
The UT legend’s run-heavy offense might struggle to keep up with today’s high-scoring passing attacks, but his three national championships would put this era’s perennially underachieving Longhorns to shame.
The Spurs mentor’s key to compiling more wins than any other NBA coach? Caring as much about his players as the wins. Well, that and team dinners where Pop picks the wine and reveals himself to be the best tipper in Texas.
The Baseball Idol
The hard-hitting outfielder joined the Astros in 1974 and was long considered the National League’s “best-kept secret.” Not in Houston, though, where the Astrodome would often erupt in chants of “CRUUUUZ.”
One of only five players from the tainted 2017 World Series roster who were still with the Astros when they won again in 2022, the 5’6” spark plug is the heart and soul of Houston baseball—and no, he wasn’t wearing a wire.
The Game Changer
An extremely imaginative shotmaker, the trailblazing Mexican American golfer worked as a caddy in Dallas before joining the tour in 1967. He won six majors and inspired other athletes of color to take up the game.
Four Olympic golds was just a start. Through Biles’s mental health advocacy and her Houston-area training center, the most decorated gymnast ever is on pace to have an even greater impact away from the mat.
The Longhorns’ Savior
In 1973 he was voted the best high school player in America. During his four seasons at UT, the Tyler Rose obliterated rushing records and created the template for all would-be Longhorn football heroes to follow.
The latest scion of the Manning-family-quarterback bloodline, five-star freshman Arch has long-suffering UT fans hoping he’ll lead the team to success, which many Texas recruits have failed to do in recent years.
The Quarterback Turned Sportscaster
By 1973 the Original Cowboy was already several years into his television career, slinging wisecracks alongside Howard Cosell and Frank Gifford as ably as he had once flicked touchdown passes to “Bullet” Bob Hayes.
Didn’t see that pass coming? Romo did. Since hanging up his Cowboys cleats in 2017, “Romostradamus” has blown audiences’ minds with his knack for predicting what play a team will run, moments before it unfolds.
This article originally appeared in the February 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Icons, Then and Now.” Subscribe today.
Image credits: Foreman: The Ring Magazine/Getty; Spence Jr.: Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty; Staubach: Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty; Mahomes: Jamie Squire/Getty; Jenkins: Ira Gostin/AP; Serrano: Robin Marchant/Getty; Royal: Rich Clarkson/Sports Illustrated/Getty; Popovich: Darren Abate/AP; Cruz: Louis Reqeuna/MLB/Getty; Altuve: Mike Ehrmann/Getty; Trevino: Evening Standard/Getty; Biles: Grigory Sysoev/Sputnik/AP; Campbell: Puskar/AP; Manning: Chris Graythen/Getty; Meredith: Focus on Sport/Getty; Romo: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP