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Shoeless, Yogi & Catfish? The Stories Behind 16 Athlete Nicknames

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Floss editor extraordinaire Jason English recently found an interesting fact: Reggie Jackson's famous "Mr. October" nickname was originally a derisive jab from teammate Thurman Munson when Jackson was struggling his way through the 1977 playoffs. Soon after Munson coined the mocking nickname, Jackson started hitting like his normal awesome self, and the name stuck as a testament to Reggie's slugging prowess.

What about the famous or unusual nicknames of other athletes? Here are the back-stories on a few notable ones:

1. Pelé

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History's greatest soccer star got his nickname when he couldn't pronounce the name of local soccer team Vasco da Gama's goalkeeper Bilé. Friends teased the young soccer player about getting tongue-tied, and soon the mispronunciation became his lifelong mononym.

2. "Oil Can" Boyd

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The longtime MLB starting pitcher took his odd nickname from his hometown of Meridian, Mississppi. In Meridian some folks refer to beer as "oil," and apparently as a young man Dennis Ray Boyd enjoyed a tipple or two, hence the nickname.

3. Chili Davis

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The first Jamaican ever to play in the big leagues got his unique nickname from a terrible childhood haircut that prompted a friend to question whether the barber had used a chili bowl to guide his clippers.

4. "Three Finger" Brown

Hall of Fame pitcher Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown's nickname doubled as an accurate description of his pitching hand. As a young man Brown accidentally fed his hand into the family farm's feed chopper, which mangled the digits and lopped off most of his index finger. Although the remaining mangled digits disqualified Brown from working as a hand model, they helped him put a ridiculous amount of spin on his pitches, which turned him into a groundball machine.

5. "Hot Rod" Williams

Everyone's favorite longtime Cleveland Cavaliers big man "“ sorry, Brad Daugherty "“ got his famous nickname as a baby. Young John Williams would crawl backwards around the house while making motor-like noises, so his family started calling him Hot Rod.

6. Night Train Lane

The Hall of Fame cornerback took his famous nickname from a Buddy Morrow song of the same name. Dick Lane enjoyed the "Night Train" record his Los Angeles Rams teammate Tom Fears liked to spin, and soon his teammates started calling the hard-hitting DB "Night Train." The song itself isn't quite as intimidating as Lane was:

7. Deacon Jones

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One of history's most legendary pass rushers wasn't actually a Deacon, and there's no real back-story with the nickname, either. David Jones simply started calling himself "Deacon" one day because he thought "nobody would ever remember a player named David Jones."

8. Billy "White Shoes" Johnson

The Hall of Fame return man got his nickname in high school. Johnson was whitewashing a fence when some of the paint spilled on his shoes. His friends and family teased him for making the mess, and the name never wore off.

9. Robert "The Chief" Parish

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The man in the middle for the 1980s Celtics owes Ken Kesey some credit for his famous nickname. Teammate Cedric Maxwell dubbed Parish "The Chief" because the looming, quiet center reminded him of the similarly stoic Chief Bromden character in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

10. Digger Phelps

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The longtime college hoops coach, analyst, and highlighter enthusiast takes his unusual nickname from time spent around his undertaker father when Phelps was a boy in Beacon, N.Y.

11. Muggsy Bogues

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The diminutive point guard got his famous nickname when he was growing up in Baltimore's housing projects. Going up against Tyrone Bogues' scrappy, aggressive style on the court reminded fellow ballplayers of being in a mugging, so they started calling him Muggsy.

12. Calvin "Megatron" Johnson

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The Detroit Lions' quickly rising star wideout received his nickname from former teammate Roy Williams, who thought Johnson's giant hands were similar to the famous Decepticon leader's mitts.

13. Yogi Berra

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The always quotable catcher received his nickname from a buddy who said that Berra's serene posture before at-bats and while sitting on the bench reminded him of a Hindu yogi they had seen in a movie. Yogi's real name is Lawrence Peter Berra.

14. Jim "Catfish" Hunter

Longtime Kansas City/Oakland Athletics owner Charlie O. Finley loved the potential when he signed a young pitcher named Jim Hunter, but he hated the hurler's bland name. Ever on the lookout for a new promotional opportunity, Finley then informed Jim Hunter that his new name was "Catfish." Finley even created a back-story for the newly fabricated nickname: Hunter was to tell reporters that he had run away from home as a child, and by the time his father found him, he'd already caught five large catfish. You have to admit that "Catfish" is much more memorable than "Jim."

15. Satchel Paige

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It's not clear exactly how Negro Leagues legend Leroy Paige got his famous nickname, but it definitely stems from a childhood job of carrying passengers' bags at the local rail depot for a little extra money. According to Paige, he got the nickname because he could carry so many bags at once. A friend who worked this beat with Paige, however, said he gave the pitcher the nickname after the young Paige was caught trying to swipe a bag he was carrying.

16. Shoeless Joe Jackson

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According to Jackson, he got his famous nickname well before he reached the Major Leagues. He was playing in a game as a teenager when a new pair of cleats began giving him a blister. Rather than suffer through the rest of the game in ill-fitting shoes, Jackson simply went barefoot. Opposing fans heckled him for being shoeless, and the name followed Jackson.

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Big Questions
Who Was Heisman and Why Does He Have a Trophy?
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On Saturday night, one of three finalists will be named this year's Heisman Trophy winner. But before anyone brings home the hardware, let’s answer a few questions about John Heisman and his famous award.

Who Exactly Was John Heisman?

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His name is mostly associated with the trophy now, but Heisman (right) was a player, coach, and hugely successful innovator in the early days of football. After playing for Brown and then Penn as a collegian from 1887 to 1891, Heisman became a coach at a series of schools that included Oberlin, Buchtel, Auburn, Clemson, Penn, Washington & Jefferson, Rice, and, most notably, Georgia Tech.

For What Football Innovations Does Heisman Get Credit?

Just some little trivial stuff like snapping the ball. Centers originally placed the ball on the ground and rolled it back to their quarterbacks, who would scoop it up and make plays. When Heisman was coaching at Buchtel (which later became the University of Akron), though, he had a 6’4” QB named Harry Clark. Clark was so tall that picking the ball up off the ground was wildly inefficient, so Heisman invented the center snap as an easy way to get the ball in Clark’s hands. Heisman also innovated the use of pulling guards for running plays and the infamous hidden-ball trick.

Any Other Shenanigans on Heisman’s Resume?

You bet. When Heisman found a way to gain an edge, he jumped on it no matter how ridiculous it seemed. When Heisman was coaching at Clemson in 1902, his team traveled to Atlanta for a game against Georgia Tech. Although Heisman was known for being a rather gruff disciplinarian, the Clemson team immediately started partying upon their arrival.

When Georgia Tech’s players and fans heard that the entire Clemson squad had spent the night before the game carousing, they prepared to coast to an easy win. When the game started, though, Clemson roared out of the gate en route to a 44-5 stomping.

How did Clemson crush Tech when by all rights they should have been ridiculously hungover? The “team” that everyone had seen partying the night before wasn’t really Heisman’s Clemson squad at all. He had sent his junior varsity players to Atlanta the night before to serve as drunken decoys, then quietly slipped his varsity team in on a morning train right before the game.

What Kind of Coach Was He?

Heisman worked as an actor in community stock theater during the summer – he consistently received rotten reviews – and allegedly spoke in a brusque, yet bizarrely ostentatious manner. Georgia Tech’s website relates a story of one of Heisman’s speeches he would break out on the first day of practice while describing a football: "What is this? It is a prolate spheroid, an elongated sphere - in which the outer leather casing is drawn tightly over a somewhat smaller rubber tubing. Better to have died as a small boy than to fumble this football."

How Did His Name Get on the Trophy?

After leaving his head-coaching job at Rice in 1927, Heisman became the athletic director at New York’s Downtown Athletic Club. In 1935 the club began awarding the Downtown Athletic Club Trophy to the nation’s top college football star. (Chicago’s Jay Berwanger won the first trophy.) Heisman died of pneumonia the following fall before the second trophy could be awarded, and the club voted to rename the prize the Heisman Memorial Trophy Award.

Did He Ever Really Throw that Iconic Stiff Arm?

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Possibly, but Heisman didn’t have the ball in his hands all that much. Even though he was a fairly small guy at just 5’8” and 158 pounds, he played as a lineman throughout his college career.

The famous “Heisman pose” is actually based on Ed Smith, a former NYU running back who modeled for the trophy’s sculptor in 1934. Interestingly, Smith went years without knowing that he’d modeled for the famous trophy. His sculptor buddy Frank Eliscu had just needed a football player to model for a project, and Smith volunteered.

Smith figured Eliscu was just doing some little personal sculpture and remained totally oblivious to his spot in football history for the next 48 years until a documentary filmmaker called Smith to interview him about the Heisman in 1982. Smith initially had no idea what the guy was talking about, but he eventually remembered his modeling days. In 1985, the Downtown Athletic Club gave Smith his own copy of the Heisman, and in 1986 he even received recognition on the televised ceremony. He looked at the four finalists – Vinny Testaverde won that year – and quipped, "Whoever wins the award, I feel sorry for you, because you're going to be looking at my ugly face for a long time." [Pictured Above: Auburn's Bo Jackson in 1985.]

What’s a Heisman Trophy Worth on the Open Market?

Quite a bit. A number of Heisman winners have eventually sold their hardware, and the trophies fetch quite a bit of loot. O.J. Simpson got $230,000 for his, and several others have gone for six-figure prices. The most expensive trophy that’s changed hands was Minnesota back Bruce Smith’s 1941 award; it fetched $395,240.

How Did Steve Spurrier Change the Process?

SEC fans are going to be floored by this one, but the Ol’ Ball Coach did something really classy when he won the Heisman in 1966. Instead of taking the trophy for himself, Spurrier gave it to the University of Florida so the school could display it and let the student body enjoy it. Florida’s student government thought Spurrier’s generosity was so classy that they paid for a replica for Spurrier so he’d get to have his own trophy, too. Since then both the school and the player have received copies of the trophy.

So Heisman Must Have Been the World’s Greatest Sportsman, Right?

Well, not really. Heisman was on the victorious side of possibly the most gratuitously run-up score in sports history. In 1916 tiny Cumberland College canceled its football program and disbanded its squad, but it had previously signed a contract to travel to Atlanta to play Heisman’s Georgia Tech team. If Cumberland didn’t show up, they had to pay Georgia Tech a $3,000 penalty, which was quite a bit of cash in 1916.

Rather than forfeiting the money, Cumberland scraped together a team of 16 scrubs and went to take their walloping from Heisman’s boys. For reasons that still aren’t totally clear – some say it was to avenge an earlier baseball loss to Cumberland, while others claim Heisman wanted to make a statement about the absurdity of the old system of using total points scored to determine the national champion – the legendary coach showed Cumberland’s ragtag band no mercy. Tech went up 63-0 in the first quarter, but Heisman kept attacking until the final score was 222-0. There are tons of hilarious stats from the game, but the funniest is Georgia Tech rushing for 1,620 yards while Cumberland only squeaked out negative-96 yards on 27 carries.

This article originally appeared in 2010.

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#TBT
Thin Ice: The Bizarre Boxing Career of Tonya Harding
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Al Bello/Getty Images

In 2004, the Chicago Tribune asked Tonya Harding about the strangest business offer she had received after her skating career came to an abrupt end in the mid-1990s. “I guess to skate topless,” she answered. In 1994, the two-time former Olympian became infamous for her ex-husband’s attempt to break the leg of rival Nancy Kerrigan. Although Harding denied any knowledge of or involvement in the plan—which ended with Kerrigan suffering a bruised leg and Harding being banned from the U.S. Figure Skating organization, ending her competitive pursuits—she became a running punchline in the media for her attempts to exploit that notoriety. There was a sex tape (which her equally disgraced former husband, Jeff Gillooly, taped on their wedding night), offers to wrestle professionally, attempts to launch careers in both music and acting, and other means of paying bills.

Though she did not accept the offer to perform semi-nude, she did embark on a new career that many observers found just as lurid and sensational: For a two-year period, Tonya Harding was a professional boxer.

Tonya Harding rises from the canvas during a boxing match
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Following the attack on Kerrigan and the subsequent police investigation, Harding pled guilty to conspiracy to hinder prosecution, received three years’ probation, and was levied a $160,000 fine. (Gillooly and his conspirators served time.) Ostracized from skating and with limited opportunities, Harding first tried to enter the music scene with her band, the Golden Blades.

When that didn’t work—they were booed off stage in Portland, Oregon, Harding’s hometown—she disappeared from the public eye, offering skating lessons in Oregon before resurfacing on a March 2002 Fox network broadcast titled Celebrity Boxing. Using heavily padded gloves and outsized headgear, performers like Vanilla Ice and Todd Bridges pummeled one another on the undercard. In the main event, Harding used her physicality to batter and bruise Paula Jones, the woman who had accused then-president Bill Clinton of sexual harassment.

This was apparently the boost of confidence Harding needed. “I thought it was fun knocking somebody else on their butt,” she told the Tribune. Boxing, she said, could be an opportunity to embrace her self-appointed title as “America’s Bad Girl.”

Harding looked up a boxing promoter in Portland named Paul Brown and signed a four-year contract that would pay her between $10,000 and $15,000 per bout. The 5-foot, 1-inch Harding quickly grew in stature, moving to 123 pounds from her 105-pound skating weight. Following her win against Jones, Brown booked her a fight against up-and-coming boxer Samantha Browning in a four-round bout in Los Angeles in February 2003. The fight was said to be sloppy, with both women displaying their limited experience. Ultimately, Browning won a split decision.

Harding rebounded that spring, winning three fights in a row. Against Emily Gosa in Lincoln City, Oregon, she was roundly booed upon entering the arena. “The entire fight barely rose above the level of a drunken street brawl,” The Independent reported.

Of course, few spectators were there to see Harding put on a boxing clinic. They wanted to watch a vilified sports figure suffer some kind of public retribution for her role in the attack on Kerrigan. Following her brief winning streak, Harding was pummeled by Melissa Yanas in August 2003, losing barely a minute into the first round of a fight that took place in the parking lot of a Dallas strip club. In June 2004, she was stopped a second time against 22-year-old nursing student Amy Johnson; the Edmonton, Alberta, crowd cheered as Harding was left bloodied. Harding later told the press that Johnson, a native Canuck, had been given 26 seconds to get up after Harding knocked her down when the rules mandated only 10, which she saw as a display of national favoritism.

Harding had good reason to be upset. The Johnson fight was pivotal, as a win could have meant a fight on pay-per-view against Serbian-born boxer Jelena Mrdjenovich for a $600,000 purse. That bout never materialized.

Tonya Harding signs head shots on a table
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There was more than just lack of experience working against Harding in her newfound career. Having been a longtime smoker, she suffered from asthma. The condition plagued her skating career; in boxing, where lapses in cardiovascular conditioning can get you hurt, it became a serious problem. Although Harding competed again—this time emerging victorious in a fight against pro wrestler Brittany Drake in an exhibition bout in Essington, Pennsylvania, in January 2005—it would end up being her last contest. Suffering from pneumonia and struggling with weight gain caused by corticosteroids prescribed for treatment, she halted her training.

In an epilogue fit for Harding’s frequently bizarre escapades, there was remote potential for one last bout. In 2011, dot-com entrepreneur Alki David offered Harding $100,000 to step back into the ring, with another $100,000 going to her proposed opponent. Had it happened, it probably would have gone down as one of the biggest sideshows of the past century. Unfortunately for Harding, Nancy Kerrigan never responded to the offer.

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