The List: Greatest teenage athletes
By Jeff Merron & David Schoenfield
Page 2 staff

Freddy Adu, the 14-year-old soccer phenom, signed a professional contract with Major League Soccer that will reportedly pay him several hundred thousand dollars per year. He has already starred in international competition, scoring three goals in one game in the Under-17 World Championships in August.

Adu hopes to make the U.S. World Cup roster in 2006, but he has a ways to go to make our list of greatest teenage athletes of all time. We concentrated on teens who were professionals or reached the highest level of their sport (like track and field). We discounted sports that are dominated by teenagers -- like gymnastics, swimming or figure skating -- because the athlete's teenage accomplishments are not as significant.

After Pele led Brazil to the 1970 World Cup, one paper had this headline: "How do you spell Pele? G-O-D"

1. Pele
Just 17 when he made his World Cup debut for Brazil in 1958, Pele scored three goals in a semifinal win over France and two more in Brazil's championship win over Sweden. Pele's teammates carried him off the field on their shoulders, with the teenage phenom in tears. Swedish defender Defender Sigge Parling later confessed, "After the fifth goal, I felt like applauding." Pele would go on to become recognized as the greatest soccer player of all time.

2. Bob Mathias
Competing in only his third decathlon, Mathias, 17, won the 1948 Olympic gold medal, sitting atop the sports world as the best all-around athlete. Mathias accomplished the win in cold, wet conditions in London, enduring a 12-hour final day that could have given the edge to more experienced competitors. But it didn't.

"In rain, on a track covered with water ... in fading light, and finally under floodlights, it was an amazing achievement," wrote Allison Danzig in The New York Times.

Mathias proved his victory no fluke; he won four straight AAU national titles, and won gold again in the 1952 Helsinki Games while breaking his own world record.

Wayne Gretzky
The Great one poses with his hardware after an MVP season as a teenager.

3. Wayne Gretzky
Sportswriters were writing stories on Gretzky when he was 7 years old and by the time he was 10, he was already a big name among hockey fans in Canada. He turned pro at 17 with the Indianapolis Racers (who quickly sold him to Edmonton) of the WHA. When the WHA folded and the Oilers joined the NHL in 1980, Gretzky won the Hart Trophy as MVP his first season -- as a 19-year-old. It was his first of eight straight Hart Trophies.

4. Jim Ryun
Ryun became the first high schooler to run a four-minute mile as a Wichita, Kans., schoolboy (a record broken in 1999 by Alan Webb). He immediately became a popular magazine cover boy and made the 1964 Olympic team while still in high school. At 19, Ryun ran the mile in 3:51.3, breaking Michel Jazy's world record by two and a half seconds. He would win an Olympic silver medal in the 1,500 meters in 1968, but fell in a qualifying heat in 1972.

5. Bob Feller
Feller was still a 17-year-old high school student when he debuted for the Cleveland Indians in 1936. He struck out 15 in his first major-league start and later tied the record of 17 K's in one game. He went 5-3 that summer before returning to Iowa for his senior year of high school. Feller went 9-7 as an 18-year-old and won 17 games while leading the league in strikeouts at 19. He would go on to win 266 games and make the Hall of Fame.

6. Tracy Austin
Austin, only 16, became the youngest champion in U.S. Open history in 1979, and she did it the hard way -- beating that year's Wimbledon champ, Martina Navratilova, in the semis, and four-time Open champ Chris Evert in the finals. By that time, Austin was already an experienced pro. She won her first pro title at age 14 in 1977 and became the youngest entrant ever at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.

Austin would become, in 1980, the youngest sports millionaire ever, and would win another U.S. Open title in 1981. But accumulated injuries forced her to retire in 1983, and nothing much came of an attempted comeback a decade later.

Boris Becker
Boris Becker's powerful serve keyed his Wimbledon win in 1985 at age 17.

7. Boris Becker
Becker, unseeded, became the youngest player ever to win the men's Wimbledon singles title, achieving the feat at age 17 in 1985. Then he repeated in 1986. He also competed on Germany's Davis Cup team as a teenager.

"There never has been a tennis prodigy this big," Arthur Ashe told Sports Illustrated in 1985 "Becker's like a high school junior in the NBA. He isn't even all there yet, and he scares the hell out of guys with his power. You hate to play against somebody who's not only good but unpredictable. The guy hits the ball harder than anyone and yet keeps it in play all day. Plus you never know exactly what he's going to do with it."

After his Wimbledon win Becker became one of the most popular celebs in Germany. He retired in 1999, ending his career with six Grand Slam singles titles.

8. Steve Cauthen
In 1977, Cauthen, who turned 17 in May, won $6.1 million in purses, more than any other jockey in history, and was named the Associated Press male athlete of the year and SI's Sportsman of the Year. He rode Affirmed to a Triple Crown in 1978, becoming, at 18, the youngest jockey in history to accomplish that feat.

Cauthen had wasted no time when he first rode as a pro at 16 at Aqueduct. He won 85 of 330 mounts at that track in just two months in the winter of 1976-77, a spectacular accomplishment that turned Cauthen, still an apprentice jockey, into an immediate media sensation. Cauthen slumped in 1979, and accepted a lucrative offer to ride in England, where he won the English championship in 1984, 1985 and 1987.

9. Tony Conigliaro
No teenager hit more home runs than Tony C., who hit 24 for his hometown Boston Red Sox in 1964 at age 19 (and hit .290 as well). And he did it despite breaking his arm August and playing only 101 games. Conigliaro was headed for Cooperstown-style greatness -- he reached the 100-homer mark earlier than any other major leaguer in history -- but then was beaned in the face by Angels fastballer Jack Hamilton in August 1967, nearly losing his vision and causing him to miss the rest of 1967 and all of 1968.

Conigliaro came back with a couple of fine seasons in 1969 and 1970 -- slamming a combined 56 home runs -- but his vision deteriorated in the early 1971. In 1982, just 37 years old, Conigliaro suffered a heart attack that left him in capicitated. He died in 1990 of pneumonia and kidney failure.

10. Dwight Gooden
Gooden was just 19 and straight out of Class A ball when he stormed through the National League with the New York Mets in 1984. Gooden went 17-9 with a 2.60 ERA and led the NL with a rookie-record 260 strikeouts (in 218 innings). Gooden finished second in the NL Cy Young voting to Rick Sutcliffe, an award he would win the next year at age 20. While Gooden won 194 games, he never again matched the accomplishments of his first two years in the majors.

Honorable mention
Kobe Bryant, Jennifer Capriati, Martina Hingis, LeBron James, Marty Liquori, Houston McTear, Gary Nolan, Mel Ott, Michael Phelps, Mike Tyson.


Jeff Merron & David Schoenfield Archive

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