The reality has begun to sunk that, yes, the Arizona Cardinals did in fact sign JJ Watt and he will in fact be a football player for the Arizona Cardinals for the 2021 season.
Not only did the Cardinals land a future Hall of Fame defensive player and one of the most decorated defensive players in modern NFL history but they also landed one of the most recognizable, liked athletes in the country.
In an honor that no doubt rivals his Walter Payton Man of the Year Award from 2017, JJ Watt is the inspiration for this week's Top 5 Thursday: Top 5 Most Universally Loved Athletes.
A few notes before I reveal my list. First, this isn't a list for local favorites. Second, this isn't a list that reflects pure on field accomplishments. There's a whole list of athletes who ascended to incredible heights competitively but weren't particularly loved by fans, teammates or both. Third, and this is true for every Top 5 Thursday, this list is for my lifetime because if you didn't experience something first hand, its hard to make the case for it being an all time great. Your list may differ based on your lifetime.
This list is the intersection of athletes well liked by the most people AND great. It's a smaller list than you might think and it's a harder list to subjectively rank.
Without further ado, here it is:
Top5Thurs: Top 5 Most Universally Liked Athletes
5. Steph Curry
- Curry is the only current athlete on my list because its really hard to not be completely polarizing AND famous in 2021. Curry somehow manages to pull it off probably because it feels like bullying to dislike a dude who looks like every NBA players younger brother. He's an all time great and no one denies it plus he's the kind of player any NBA fan can enjoy watching for long stretches.
4. Jerry Rice
- Rice represents a different era of NFL WR's. For older fans, he did it the right way without elaborate TD celebrations and me first actions that have come to define the WR position in the last 20 years. For younger fans, he's just the dude that sits atop all the receiving records. His longevity, consistency and sheer greatness make him a universally loved athlete across the board.
3. Peyton Manning
- Admittedly, I'm not the biggest Peyton Manning fan. His "aw shucks" country boy affect always seems like a played up for the camera kind of routine. But even I have to admit that Peyton Manning is entertaining. His most recent work on The Match II during the summer of 2020 with Tiger, Phil and Tom Brady proved his chops as a genuinely entertaining leading man. And with each year that passes, his prowess on the field becomes more about what he did do and less about what he didn't do.
2. Barry Sanders
- We hear less and see less from Barry Sanders than any other athlete on this list and maybe that's why he's so remarkably likable. Sanders abruptly retired at age 30 and most of us are still holding out hope he'll make a comeback. The experience of watching Barry Sanders remains one of the most enjoyable, unique sports experiences of anyone's life that was around to enjoy it. A mystery off the field and a mythical on field career add up to one of the most loved athletes of my lifetime.
1. Cal Ripken Jr.
- The Ironman. Hard hat and a lunch pail at a time when sports was transforming to individual branding. Cal Ripken Jr hearkens most fans back to a simpler time of single team legends and the simple fun of pursuing untarnished baseball records. He connected generations of fans and was as relatable of a superstar athlete that has existed to many baseball fans. In 2021, its hard to describe just WHY he was such a massively popular figure while rarely if ever putting up the gaudy numbers that define most legends in sports but if you were a sports fan in the 90's, you know, few athletes were ever as likable as Ripken.