Editor's note: This story originally ran as part of our ESPN Boston Hall of Fame series. In it, Jeff Wagemheim looks at the five college athletes that deserve a spot in the ESPN Boston Hall of Fame, including Doug Flutie.
It happened in the summer of 1852 a hundred miles north of Boston. A bunch of college kids from Cambridge brought their boat up to Lake Winnipesaukee, and in that woodsy New Hampshire setting they met up with a group of undergrads from New Haven, Conn., and started something big. How big? Well, every last thrilling exploit in the history of college sports -- the Final Fours and Frozen Fours, the Bowl Championship Series and College World Series -- grew out of that Harvard-Yale rowing race, the country's first intercollegiate athletic event.
Many of the early milestones of college sports are rooted within reach of Boston. First college baseball game: Amherst College vs. Williams College, 1859, on a square (not diamond-shaped) field in Pittsfield. First college hockey game: Harvard vs. Brown, 1898, on a frozen pond in Boston's Franklin Park. So there's a whole lot of history to consider while pondering who warrants a spot on a list of Boston's five greatest college athletes.
Football: Hail to the Heisman
Not long after his last-second desperation heave ended up cradled in the arms of receiver Gerard Phelan to beat defending national champion Miami back in November 1984, Doug Flutie had something cradled in his own arms: the Heisman Trophy. But while Flutie's nimble scramble away from pressure, his 65-yard spiral bullet downfield and his weightless leap into a teammate's arms while they were running to join the end zone victory party endure as an iconic moving image, the Boston College quarterback had the Heisman won well before the play that's come to be known as the "Hail Flutie." (He wouldn't be handed the trophy for another couple of weeks, but the votes already were in.)
That day at the Orange Bowl, Flutie's 472 passing yards pushed him over 10,000 for his career, making him the first college quarterback to break into five figures. He was everybody's All-American, and in 2007, his first year of eligibility, he was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame. For his numbers and his mystique, Flutie is a shoo-in for our list.
So is fellow football collegian Harry Agganis, right? Judgment can get clouded when assessing a player from the deep past, because when you haven't seen someone play with your own eyes, you're left to rely on yellowed sports page clippings and scraps of statistical evidence to separate man from myth. Agganis, a three-sport star at Lynn Classical High, is said to have been recruited by 75 colleges, including Notre Dame. As the story goes, he wanted to remain close to his widowed mother, so he chose Boston University. From there, his numbers take over: In a career interrupted by a year and a half in the Marines, Agganis broke school football records on offense (passing yardage, TD passes), defense (interceptions) and special teams (punting average). He led BU against some national powers and was the school's first All-American.
Agganis was a baseball star with the Terriers, too, batting .322 as a junior in 1952. After that season, despite being much better known for his football prowess and even being selected by the Cleveland Browns in the first round of the '52 NFL draft, Agganis signed to play ball with the Red Sox. A couple of years later he was an emerging long-ball hitter batting cleanup behind Ted Williams when he shockingly died of a pulmonary embolism at age 26. But not before leaving his mark in the annals of local sports.
Other footballers worth considering: Dan Ross, an All-American tight end in 1979, his senior season at Northeastern, where he broke most career and season reception records; Gordie Lockbaum, the two-way All-American (running back, cornerback) for Holy Cross who was fifth in the 1986 Heisman balloting, third the following season; Division III Plymouth State running back Joe Dudek, ninth in the 1985 Heisman voting, the best finish for a non-Division I player; and a bunch of other BC stars, such as Bill Romanowski, Mike Ruth, Matt Hasselbeck, Matt Ryan, Ernie Stautner and Art Donovan.
Basketball: No dunks for the Doc
Reggie Lewis, who in 1987 graduated from Northeastern as the school's all-time leading scorer (22.2 points per game), is probably the greatest to play his college ball in Boston. But there are bigger stars to be found if you look westward, to Amherst, where a couple of game changers performed.
Julius Erving spent two seasons at the University of Massachusetts, averaging 26 points and 20 rebounds. If the NCAA wasn't prohibiting dunks back in 1970, and Dr. J were allowed the kind of high-flying wizardry he soon would be pulling off with the red-white-and-blue ball of the ABA, he might have changed the course of UMass basketball.
Instead, that job was left to Marcus Camby, who in 1996 was the catalyst in the Minutemen's first No. 1 national ranking (you can look it up), won multiple national player of the year awards (look that up, too) and led UMass to the Final Four (um, don't look that one up). The school was forced to vacate its four tournament wins that season after Camby was found to have accepted money from two agents. Over his 11 career tourney games, though, he piled up an NCAA-record 43 blocked shots. Maybe the Final Four never happened, but those blocks sure did.
A little closer to Boston, but further back in hoops history, a couple of future Celtics teammates made their name at Holy Cross. Bob Cousy was a three-time All-American who, as a freshman in 1947, was on the Crusaders team that became the first from New England to win the NCAA championship. Tom Heinsohn, a two-time All-American, broke the school's career scoring record but is even better known for his work on the glass. In a game against BC in 1956, his senior season, he scored 51 points and pulled down 42 rebounds, the latter still a school record.
Other hoopsters worth considering: BC had a couple of Big East players of the year, John Bagley (1981) and Troy Bell (2001, 2003), and Jared Dudley won that honor in the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2007; and Holy Cross had a pair of standouts who not coincidentally go by the same name -- Ron Perry Sr., who led the Crusaders to the 1954 NIT championship as well as the '52 College World Series baseball title, and Ron Jr., an All-American in his senior season of 1980.
And if we weren't restricting this list to those who played their college ball in Massachusetts, we'd throw into the mix Southwick's Rebecca Lobo (1995 national player of the year at Connecticut, which went undefeated and won the NCAA championship), Cambridge's Patrick Ewing (1984 NCAA title with Georgetown, 1985 national player of the year) and Ernie DiGregorio, a 1973 All-American who led Providence to that year's Final Four.
Hockey: Traffic on Comm. Ave.
Bill Cleary was a 1955 All-American at Harvard who, a dozen years after winning a gold medal with the 1960 U.S. Olympic team, became coach of the Crimson, mentoring Hobey Baker Award winners Scott Fusco, Mark Fusco and Lane MacDonald. Angela Ruggiero led the Harvard women's team to the 2004 NCAA final and, as the nation's top collegiate player, won the Patty Kazmaier Award; she also won four Olympic medals, including 1998 gold. Northeastern has had a couple of great goaltenders in Bruce Racine (two-time All-American in the '80s) and Brad Thiessen (Hobey Baker finalist in 2009). But c'mon, if you're talking college hockey in Boston, you're talking BU and BC.
The Eagles' honor roll includes 1991 Hobey Baker winner David Emma, the school's career scoring leader, and 2000 winner Mike Mottau. But at the top of our list are Joey Mullen, who left in 1979 as BC's points leader (he's No. 4 now), and Brian Gionta, who during a BC career that ended in 2001 won one NCAA championship and went to the final two other times. He owns school records for goals and hat tricks. Brian Leetch? A great pro, but he spent just one season -- albeit one All-American season -- at the Heights.
Among the Terriers, there's 2009 Hobey Baker winner Matt Gilroy and 1998 winner Chris Drury, the only BU player with more than 100 career goals, and there's John Cullen, the school's all-time leading scorer. But a couple of names from the glorious 1970s must take top billing.
Mike Eruzione is best known for scoring the winning goal against the Soviets in the 1980 Olympics, but he also is the fifth-leading scorer in BU history. His fellow Olympic hero, goalie Jim Craig, led the Terriers to a 30-2 record and an NCAA championship in 1978, the year after Eruzione graduated. That was the first of three national championships for coach Jack Parker, whose 853 wins would earn him consideration for our list if he weren't still behind the bench after 37 years. We're not including anyone still active as a player or coach.
Other sports: Don't rein me in
Outside the so-called major sports, superstar performances go unnoticed every day. There's no doubt we're overlooking some worthy accomplishments in lacrosse or softball or soccer or somewhere.
Take the state university in Amherst, for example: there's Briana Scurry (UMass '93), the goalkeeper for two gold medal-winning U.S. Olympic teams (1996, '04) and a World Cup champion (1999), who had 37 shutouts in 65 collegiate starts; Danielle Henderson, a three-time All-American softball pitcher who twice led the nation in strikeouts per seven innings (1998-99); and Dick Garber, who coached UMass lacrosse from 1955 to 1990 and was the nation's winningest coach (300-142-3).
No doubt there are more at other schools who deserve mention, especially if you're creative with your criteria. Joan Benoit Samuelson, for example, was a four-time track All-American at Bowdoin, which is out of range for this list. But winning the 1978 Boston Marathon while still a college student -- and while wearing a Red Sox cap -- makes her impossible to ignore.
The final analysis
Doug Flutie is in, for sure, and Harry Agganis is too legendary a figure to be denied. So that's it for football.
Representing basketball, we'll take just one from UMass, and Julius Erving gets the nod. Camby played against higher-level competition and took the Minutemen to unprecedented heights, but Dr. J was simply the greatest ever to set foot in Amherst. Using much the same reasoning, Bob "Houdini of the Hardwood" Cousy also earns a spot, edging out Heinsohn.
So that's four spots occupied, leaving just one more, which has to go to someone from a sport more beloved in Boston than anywhere else in the country: college hockey. Who's in, then? BC's Gionta has the offensive numbers, BU's Eruzione the iconic highlight goal all athletes dream of. But we're going to go in a different direction, down to the other end of the rink. While Eruzione had his Olympic moment, goalie Jim Craig stopped 36 Soviet shots that day. At BU, he was 55-10-3, going 16-0 during the 1978 NCAA championship season.
Why not Gionta? Well, for one thing, he's now captain of the Montreal Canadiens, which in Boston does not win you any points. But, really, it all comes down to the Beanpot. BU has won the storied tournament 29 times, giving the Terriers nearly as many championships as the other three schools combined. For shining most brightly in Boston, BU earns its position on the inside track.
Jeff Wagenheim is a contributor to ESPNBoston.com.