Minnesota Athletes of the Year

Let's not lose perspective while marooned in a snowbank, watching a pitiful Vikings season fizzle out, and bracing for more "progress" from the Timberwolves: There were awesome performances this year from Minnesota athletes spanning the wide world of sports.

Herewith, a Top 5 list for your consideration. Your suggestions are welcome, of course.

5. UMD Football rushing attack
(Brad Foss, Brian Hanson, Issac Odim, Chase Vogler)

A crew award for the Division II National Champions as the three runners and quarterback Vogler combined for nearly 3,500 ground yards and 44 touchdowns en route to taking the Bulldogs to a perfect 15-0 record and their second D-II title in three years.

Before Odim went down in mid-October with a season-ending knee injury, the Rochester, Minn. native (all four are from Minnesota) was again a top candidate for the Harlon Hill Award (D-II's version of the Heisman Trophy).  In just six games, Odim, a senior, accrued 796 rushing yards and 19 total touchdowns while averaging over seven yards per carry.  

It will be interesting to see what becomes of Odim's football future considering that the past three running back winners of the Hill (Danny Woodhead, 2006 and 2007; Bernard Scott, 2008; Joique Bell, 2009) have all made NFL rosters.

4. Joe Mauer

Few ballplayers could assemble the line of numbers and awards that Mauer did in '10, and have a year looked upon as a "down season."

Yet after earning the 2009 American League's MVP award and then signing his 8-year/$184 million contract extension with the Twins, there's no arguing that Mauer's offensive numbers dropped significantly this season.

Of course, his '09 marks read as one of the finest campaigns for a catcher in the history of baseball -- so a drop in production should have been somewhat expected.  

Despite hitting 19 fewer home runs (including just one at Target Field), producing 19 fewer RBI, losing nearly 120 points in slugging percentage and seeing his batting clip fall by 38 points, the St. Paul-native was still a deserved All-Star, and won his third consecutive Silver Slugger and Gold Glove awards, respectively.  His seasonal batting average (.327) and on-base percentage (.402) both ranked in the top-five in all of baseball.

3. Jason Litzau

Despite receiving a disrespectful dearth of local pub for his inspired November win over Celestino Caballero at the MGM in Vegas, the local ring community now recognizes without question that Litzau is not only the finest fighter in the state's burgeoning boxing scene -- he's among the greatest boxers to ever hail from Minnesota.

"The American Boy" entered the Caballero bout as a double-digit underdog versus the former super bantamweight WBA and IBF world champion before exiting the nationally-televised fight with a 28-2 record via a split decision victory.

Earlier in '10, Litzau defended his (now vacated) NABF super featherweight (130 lbs.) belt with a win over then 28-5-1 opponent, Rocky Juarez at the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino, also in Vegas.  The St. Paul-native has fought in his home state just once since the spring of 2007, but he receives no blame for that as the guy is undoubtedly adding further zeroes to his pay dates by fighting in environs that are worthy of his talents.  

The rankings at BoxRec.com now chart Litzau as the top-ranked American in his weight class and the third-ranked super feather in the world.

2. Dustin Byfuglien

After his stellar 2009-10 playoff campaign with the Chicago Blackhawks, people started learning how to pronounce the surname of this Roseau-raised hockey product. 

Byfuglien groomed his ice skills in Chicago as a mid-teen, but the present-day Atlanta Thrasher showed love to his home state by raising the Stanley Cup in Roseau after he helped lead the Blackhawks to last year's title.  Although he totaled just 34 points in 82 games last season, Byfuglien went crazy in the NHL postseason, scoring 16 points (with 11 goals) in 22 games en route to Chicago's first Cup claim since 1961.  After notching a hat trick against Vancouver in the Western Conference semifinals Byfuglien had three game-winning goals in the finals versus San Jose.  

While he was quiet at the onset of the Stanley Cup Finals against Philadelphia, Byfuglien accrued four points (two goals, two assists) in the Blackhawks' Game 5 win before adding another goal in their title clinch.  Sent to Atlanta as part of a Chicago salary cap move in the offseason, Byfuglien already has a career-best 37 points entering the week, good for the 11th most (tied) in the NHL.

1. Lindsey Vonn

Sure, Mauer has his product pitches and national face-time.  But he never has (and perhaps never will) attack celebrity with the vigor of Vonn, recently named the Associated Press' "Female Athlete of the Year." By earning the accolade, the Burnsville-native became the first skier -- male or female -- to earn the award since the A.P. began voting for the title in 1931.

Vonn won her third-consecutive World Cup title in '10, and is the current leader in this season's overall standings.  As a face of the American contingent at the Vancouver Olympics, she offered a polar performance while battling a shin injury (and a broken pinky suffered during the Games), combining for two medals, two crashes and a missed gate.  

Among the medals, Vonn's gold in the downhill was the first ever earned by an American woman (and concurrently a near-unthinkable achievement for somebody who began training at Buck Hill); she also captured a bronze in the super-G.  And, of course, Vonn has relished ever camera flash pointed in her direction.  

Among her celebrity touts: she graced the cover of Sports Illustrated's Olympic issue and then appeared in the magazine's annual "Swimsuit Issue" in the same month; she appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno; she had an appearance on Law & Order; she shot a Basic Instinct remake for the cover of ESPN the Magazine.  Like numerous, attractive female athletes before her time, Vonn has been caught up in the controversy/discussion of sport meeting sexy.  

But unlike some of those peers (Danica Patrick topping the list) -- Vonn backs up the looks with consistently outstanding achievement in her field.  That noted: She doesn't top this list because of a 10-second guest spot on her favorite television show or because of some steamy photos in a sauna.  

Vonn is the "Minnesota Athlete of the Year" because she's in the process of cementing herself as one of finest athletes of either gender to ever call this tundra her home state.

Honorable Mention:

  • Kwadzo Ahelegbe
  • Noah Dahlman
  • Mardy Fish
  • Blake Hoffarber
  • John Leuer
  • Troy Merritt
  • Zach Parise
  • Jordan Taylor
  • Caleb Truax
  • Adam Weber
  • Lindsay Whalen 

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