Ken Venturi

In the words of Sports Illustrated, Ken Venturi had become a “loser’s loser.” And really, until that searing hot June day in 1964, who could have argued the point?

The former San Jose State golfer from up the Peninsula in San Francisco – the one who once had come closer than any amateur to winning the Masters, who had been a regular winner since turning pro in 1956 – was mired in a three-year winless slump. His prize money amounted to less than $4,000 in 1963. And he was no longer on the Master’s invitation list.

But in the ’64 U.S. Open, the slump that had begun following injuries suffered in an automobile accident ended suddenly and mysteriously. Gobbling salt tablets as defense against heat exhaustion on that 100-degree day at Washington’s Congressional Country Club, Venturi put together a 66-70 on the 36-hole final day to win the Open in one of the greatest finishes in tournament history. He was PGA Player of the Year, and Sports Illustrated named the loser’s loser its Sportsman of the Year.

Venturi’s return to the top of competitive golf didn’t last long. Carpal tunnel syndrome forced him off the tour in 1967 with 14 career victories. So he began a 35-year career as CBS Sports’ lead golf analyst that represented a comeback every bit as unlikely as his Open championship. As a youngster, Venturi had played round after round alone at San Francisco’s Lincoln and Harding Park public courses while he worked to overcome his stutter.

Playing serious golf from the age of 9 and winning the first of his three San Francisco city championships at age 17, car dealer and U.S. Golf Association executive committee member Ed Lowery gave Venturi a sales job that allowed him to pursue golf as a career.

He first gained local notice in 1951 when he won the first of his two California State Amateur titles, but it was five years later when he exploded onto the national golf scene. That year he was invited to the Masters as an amateur and took the first-round lead with a 32-24 – 66 that included an eagle 3 on the 13th. He held the lead through the next two rounds but missed becoming the Masters’ only amateur champion when Jack Burke nipped him by a single stroke.

The PGA of America honored Venturi in 1999 with a Lifetime Achievement in Journalism Award for his work with CBS. In 2000, Venturi served as captain of the U.S. President’s Cup Team that swept to victory.

“It was a great way to cap it all off and wind down a career,” he said.

Benny Pierce

When he retired as Saratoga High School’s football coach after the 1994 season, one of the many newspaper stories honoring Benny Pierce said “Pierce’s teams were noted for their upsets.”

If that’s true, a lot of people weren’t paying enough attention to Pierce.

How does a coach last 33 seasons with the same team unless he’s doing a lot of things consistently right? How does a coach with 33 winning seasons surprise anyone? How does a team with 21 league or section championships over that span ever rank as anything less than the team to beat?

The story did mention one of Pierce’s great achievements as evidence – the 1987 season when his second-place Falcons qualified for the Central Coast Section playoffs by a coin flip but then downed three undefeated teams in a row to take the title. But by then, Saratoga High’s trophy case was already bursting at the seams with hardware brought home by his teams. Surely folks had become accustomed to his miracles by then.

It also mentioned that after reaching an enrollment high of 2,100 students in 1976, Saratoga’s student body had dwindled to only 900 by Pierce’s last season. But did that ever make the ranks of Falcon players who packed the sidelines any less menacing from the other side of the field?

It shouldn’t have. People should have expected Pierce-coached teams to be consistently superior, and, in fact, they did. Pierce was the capital letter and the period on an era of Saratoga football history.

He came to the school to start the junior varsity program in 1959 after playing quarterback for San Jose State, where he was the guy who threw the ball to Bill Walsh. The switch from player to coach was broken by a three-year stint as an Air Force pilot. And from the very start, Pierce’s teams won, never having a losing season.

“It is very hard to single out one team as being the best,” he said prior to his final game as coach, four years after the mild heart attack that caused him to give up teaching. He remembered his 1980 undefeated team, ranked sixth in the national, and the Cinderella squad from ’87.

Upsets? Upon further review, maybe the newspaper was right. Never in Pierce’s career did his teams play a “home” game, instead taking the bus down Highway 9 to Los Gatos High. Today the Falcons have a stadium on campus. Benny Pierce Field.

Barbara & Kathy Jordan

Women had long ago claimed a share of the tennis spotlight by the time the Jordan sisters came along in the 1960s and ’70s. But the women who preceded them to greatness at the Grand Slam tournaments – the Australian, French and U.S. Opens and Wimbledon – had traditionally achieve fame straight from the country club.

Not so the daughters of Robert Jordan, an insurance executive in King of Prussia, Pa., who was a nationally ranked player at the time in the men’s 45s division.

Barbara, the older of the two girls, was bound for Stanford University in the fall of 1974, one of the first women athletes at the Farm to win an athletic scholarship. Two years later Kathy would join her, and in their only season together on the Cardinal they would lead the team to its first national championship, taking the national doubles title for themselves.

But they took independent paths in blazing the new trail for American women’s tennis through the collegiate sports system. And though they would leave their ultimate marks on the women’s professional game as doubles players, they did not do so as doubles partners.

Barbara was a dominant junior player before she got to Stanford. Between her 13th and 18th years, she never lost a singles match in her age group of the U.S. Tennis Association’s Middle State Sections. She was named an All-American three times at Stanford, and immediately after winning the 1978 collegiate doubles title, she won the 21-and-under National Hard Court championship.

Kathy skipped that tournament in ’78, instead electing to play in the National Amateur Clay Court Championships, which she won. The next year she won the national collegiate singles and doubles crowns before joining her sister in the professional ranks.

Barbara struck first as a pro by winning the women’s singles at the 1979 Australian Open, the only American woman to win the singles title there in the decade. She climbed as high as 37th in the Women’s Tennis Association rankings, and in 1983 she won the mixed doubles championship in the French Open.

Kathy’s professional career went into high gear in 1980 when she won doubles titles a month apart at the French Open and Wimbledon. She won two more Grand Slam doubles championships the next year at the Australian and U.S. Opens. In ’85 she added her second Wimbledon doubles title and then closed out her career in ’86 with mixed doubles championships in the French and Wimbledon. She climbed as high as fifth in the singles rankings with victories over Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Pam Shriver and Tracy Austin.

Brent Jones

He caught more passes than any San Francisco 49er tight end ever. In his 11 seasons with the team, he won three Super Bowl rings. He played in the Pro Bowl four years in a row.

Brent Jones is living proof that sometimes it’s better when you don’t get what you wish for.

“I never thought about becoming an NFL tight end,” he once wrote. “As a young person growing up in San Jose, I had aspirations of playing pro baseball.”

It was the early years of his sports career at Leland High School that had Jones headed in the wrong direction, because by heritage, you’d have figured him a football player from the start. His father Mike had been a draft choice of both the Oakland Raiders and Pittsburgh Steelers in 1961. But he was a first team all-league player on the Chargers’ baseball team. As a football player, he was only second string.

Santa Clara gave him a scholarship that allowed Jones to play both sports, and the change in athletic fortunes surprised both school and athlete. He hit .345 for the Broncos’ JV baseball team while playing wide receiver on the football team. But after switching to tight end his sophomore season, Jones’ future as a football player was sealed. He made all-conference three years in a row and in 1985 was named All-American and Western Football Conference player of the year.

Still, Jones’ future as a professional wasn’t secure. Just one week after being drafted in the fifth round by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1986, he suffered a neck injury when hit by a drunk driver. His rookie season wasn’t impressive, and he was cut by the Steelers.

Signed as a free agent by the 49ers, Jones finally realized his football potential. He became a regular player in 1988, his second season when he went to his first Super Bowl, and a starter in his third season when he caught a 7-yard touchdown pass from Joe Montana to give the 49ers a 13-0 first quarter lead in their Super Bowl victory over the Denver Broncos. He got his third Super Bowl ring in 1995 when he caught a pair of passes for 41 yards in a victory over the San Diego Chargers. In 19 post-season games, Jones caught 60 passes for 745 yards and five touchdowns. In two of those games he gained more than 100 yards receiving.

But Jones’ impact on the 49ers and on the tight end’s role in the modern NFL was as a receiver in the regular season. By the time he retired as a player and became a television analyst following the 1997 season, he had caught 417 passes, just the fifth 49er to surpass 400 but the only tight end.