Delaware hasn’t had many real superstars in sports, with the notable exceptions of Randy White in football and Elena Delle Donne in women’s basketball. The First State has had many first-rate athletes, of course, but there’s a good chance the majority of Delawareans know little or nothing about them.
So, here’s one man’s opinion of the best athletes to ever come from Delaware in their respective sports, and we’re not counting University of Delaware or Delaware State stars, unless they were born here or went to high school here. These rules are flexible, however, because I’m making them up as I go along.
Not every sport is listed, and if your favorite isn’t, feel free to be disappointed or angry, but please don’t yell at me. And if you disagree with any of the selections, that’s OK, too. Many of these were close calls and arguments could be made for several of the athletes left off of this list.
Also, my thanks to the Delaware Sports Hall of Fame website, from which I shamelessly stole much of the bio material for these outstanding athletes from Delaware.
Football – Randy White. No-brainer No.1. Not only is he the only Delawarean in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he was also recently selected as one of the top 100 NFL players of all time. He was voted to nine Pro Bowls and was co-MVP of Super Bowl XII. The only negative about the former McKean High legend is that he played his entire career for the Dallas Cowboys, but you can’t have everything.
Women’s basketball – Elena Delle Donne. No-brainer No. 2. Delle Donne had this locked up a long time ago, but cemented her legend this past year, when the former Ursuline Academy and UD ace and Olympian was voted as the MVP of the WNBA and then led the Washington Mystics to the league championship.
Men’s basketball – Donte DiVincenzo. He’s the only Delawarean to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated, after he led Villanova to the national championship two years ago. Now the former Salesianum star is a valuable role player for the Milwaukee Bucks, who have the best record in the NBA.
Baseball – Vic Willis. The pitcher from Newark and UD won 20 or more games in his 13-year career in the major leagues in the late 1890s and early 1990s for Boston, Pittsburgh and St. Louis, and in 1901 he pitched 45 complete games, including a no-hitter. He was inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., in 1977.
Softball – Dionna Harris. She starred at Delcastle High and Temple, but really made her mark on the U.S. national team and as a Gold-medal winner on the 1996 Olympic team. Harris was the U.S.’s leading hitter in the Olympics, batting .409
Hockey – Mark Eaton. The defenseman from Dickinson High played 13 seasons in the NHL and was the first Delawarean to play in the big leagues. He played for the Flyers, Predators, Penguins and Islanders and won the Stanley Cup with Pittsburgh in 2009.
Soccer – Robert C. Smith. He was Delaware player of the year at McKean High and then played for South Carolina, where he still holds the school record for assists, with 40. The midfielder played on U.S. National team from 1991-96 and was on the U.S. team for the 1996 Olympics. He also played five seasons with the Columbus Crew of Major League Soccer.
Boxing – Art Redden. The light-heavyweight started boxing while in the U.S. Marines and, at the age of 32, he was the older boxer to compete in the 1968 Olympics, where he finished ninth overall. Redden, who also starred in football and track at Howard High, won a Gold Medal in the 1967 Pan American Games. He was a Marine lifer and eventually coached the Marines boxing team, where he mentored future heavyweight champ Leon Spinks.
Men’s track – Vic Zwolak. The distance runner from Salesianum won two NCAA championships in two different seasons while competing for Villanova in 1963 after a tour of duty with the U.S. Marines – he won the titles in cross country and the 3,000-meter steeplechase. He also competed in the 1964 Olympics in the 3,000-meter steeplechase.
Women’s track – Vicki Huber-Rudawsky. She ran wild at Concord High and later at Villanova, where she won eight NCAA titles in cross country and indoor and outdoor track and was the NCAA athlete of the year twice. She also competed in two Olympics, finishing sixth at 3,000 meters in 1988.
Wrestling – Sheldon Thomas. He’s the only Delawarean to win an NCAA wrestling title, which he did in 1996 for Clarion University. He was a three-time All-American at Clarion, where his career record was 124-12. Thomas was a four-time state champion for St. Mark’s High.
Men’s golf – Edward “Porky” Oliver. He narrowly beats out Dave Douglas for this honor. Oliver had the unique distinction of almost winning the Grand Slam of second-place finishes – he was runner-up in the 1946 PGA Championship, the 1952 U.S. Open and the 1953 Masters. He won eight PGA events in his career and had 10 top-10 finishes in major championships.
Women’s golf – Patsy Hahn. She was club pro at DuPont CC for 26 years and dominated local golf during that time. She played on LPGA tour for four years until injuries forced her to quit, a career that included a sixth-place finish in the 1964 U.S. Open.
Men’s tennis – Terry Hassall. He never hit the big time, but no male tennis player from Delaware ever has. But Hassall was a dominant force in the mid-Atlantic region in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He went to P.S. du Pont High and then Western Kentucky University, where he is a member of the school’s athletics hall of fame.
Women’s tennis – Margaret Osborne du Pont. OK, so she wasn’t born in Delaware and only lived here for about 17 years, when she was married to William du Pont Jr. and lived at Bellevue Manor (now part of Bellevue State Park). But she was so dominant in her era that we decided to include her – Osborne du Pont won 37 Grand Slam championships from 1941-62, including six singles titles at the U.S. Open, French Open and Wimbledon. She was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1967.
Men’s ice skating – Johnny Weir. An honor student at Newark High, Weir was a three-time national champion, the 2001 World junior champion, a 2008 Bronze medal winner at the World Championships and a two-time Olympian before embarking on a career as a broadcaster.
Women’s ice skating – Calla Urbanski. She wasn’t born in Delaware and didn’t come here from her native Chicago until she was an adult, when she started training with the late, great Ron Ludington at the University of Delaware. But she did live here while training and even took night business classes at Delaware Tech – which is worth bonus points — and then she stayed here to coach, so she qualifies as a First Stater. Urbanski teamed with Rocky Marval to win two national championships and qualify for the 1992 Olympics, where they finished 10th.
Men’s gymnastics – Jamie Natalie. The Alexis I. duPont graduate was a three-time All-American at Ohio State, which he led to the national championship in 2001, and twice was crowned as the NCAA’s all-around champion.
Women’s gymnastics – Morgan Hurd. The Middletown resident is a four-time member of the U.S. national team and she won the World All-Around title in 2017 and was third in 2018. Hurd was poised to represent the U.S. in the 2020 Olympics before they were cancelled to the coronavirus epidemic.
Men’s swimming – Steve Gregg. The Wilmington native was a four-time All-American at North Carolina State and is a member of that school’s hall of fame. He was a fine all-around swimmer, but he specialized in the butterfly and won a national championship at 200 meters in 1976 and later that year won the Silver medal in that event at the Olympics in Montreal.
Women’s swimming – (tie) Jennie Franks Hilliard and Mary-de Mackie Hand. Franks was a star at the Wilmington Aquatic Club and later at Villanova, where she became the first woman named as the school’s athlete of the year. She won a Silver medal in the 200-meters individual medley at the 1975 Pan American Games and appeared on the cover of Swimmer’s World magazine in July of 1976. Hand also started at the Wilmington Aquatic Club and was a three-time All-American at South Carolina in the late 1970s and qualified for the 1980 Olympic Trials, but the U.S. boycotted those Olympics because of the Russians’ 1979 invasion of Afghanistan.
Field hockey – Brenda Becker Ferris. The William Penn High all-around athlete led West Chester University to three national championships in the late 1970s, and in 1979 was selected as the winner of the Broderick Award, given to the national player of the year. She later was a member of the U.S. national team that was supposed to compete in the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, but the U.S. boycotted those games.
Women’s lacrosse – Jackie Pitts. She was a pioneer in this sport as a player, coach and executive. Pitts was a Sanford School standout in the 1950s and a member of the U.S. team as a player and a coach, and the 1982 team she coached won the first World Cup. She later served as president of U.S. Women’s lacrosse and the Jackie Pitts Award is given annually to the high school senior from each state who combines academics and service with athletic accomplishments. In 2015, Pitts was the inaugural winner of the U.S. Lacrosse lifetime achievement award.
Men’s bowling – JJ Johnson. He dominated Delaware bowling for years and competed on the Pro Bowlers Association Tour from 1988-2000. Johnson rolled 67 perfect games in his career and in 1997 he beat bowling legend Pete Weber 232-197 to win the PBA’s Oregon Open.
Women’s bowling – Rita Justice. She bowled in the professional league for seven years and finished in the top 10 twice. In 1973, Justice finished fourth in “Women’s Bowler of the Year” voting. In 1973, she became the first woman to roll a perfect 300 game in a men’s league.
Thoroughbred racing – Bill Passmore. Born in Middletown, Passmore raced frequently at Delaware Park. He was in the saddle for 29,000 races in his career and won more than 3,500. In 1982, his 252 victories were the ninth most in the nation.
Harness racing – Eddie Davis. The Smyrna native won 8,632 races in his career and more than $40 million in purses. Davis, who often raced at the old Brandywine Raceway, led the nation in victories in 1983, with 470, and tied the great Herve Filion the next year, with 407.
Coach/manager – Dallas Green. He pitched for Conrad High, Delaware and the Phillies, but his greatest claim to fame was as the butt-kicking manager of the 1980 Phillies, which won the first World Series title in franchise history. He also managed the New York Yankees and Chicago Cubs before returning to the Phillies’ front office to finish his long career in baseball.
Owner – Bob Carpenter. He owned the Phillies through a lot of losing seasons and he wasn’t in charge when they finally make it to the top of the mountain in 1980, although his son, Ruly, was running the team when Dallas Green led the Phillies to the World Series championship. Plus, the Carpenters owned the original Blue Rocks before they purchased the Phillies.
Front office – Pat Williams. He started his management career with the Phillies minor-league system and then was the general manager of the 76ers when he talked owner Fitz Dixon into trading for a guy by the name of Julius Erving. Then Williams moved to Orlando to become the first general manager of the Magic, and he’s still managed to find the time to write more than 100 inspirational books.
Official – Bill McGowan. He started umpiring local baseball games in 1913 and worked his way through the minor leagues before making the American League in 1925, and he never missed an inning of the next 2,541 games. McGowan umpired in eight World Series and four All-Star Games and retired in 1954. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., in 1992.
Sports writer – (tie) Gary Smith and Al Cartwright. Smith started his career as a part-timer with the Wilmington News Journal papers before moving on to the Philadelphia Daily News and then Sports Illustrated. The Dickinson High graduate has won too many awards and honors to list, and along the way also earned the reputation as the best writer in the business and the nicest guy in the business. Cartwright, a former sports editor of the News Journal papers, is the best writer in Delaware newspaper history, in any department. Plus, Cartwright was influential in instituting high school All-State and state tournament teams, and he also hired other Delaware sports writing legends like Hal Bodley, Matt Zabitka, Caesar Alsop and Izzy Katzman.
Sports broadcaster – (tie) Bob Kelley and Bill Pheiffer. Kelly was the voice of Delaware football and basketball for 36 years, starting in 1950, and was selected as Delaware Sports Broadcaster of the Year 19 times. Pheiffer also broadcast UD athletics and just about sport there is over his 50-year career, but he’s probably best known as the voice of Delaware high school sports, especially Salesianum football, which he broadcast for 25 years. He was selected as Delaware Sports Broadcaster of the Year seven times.