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December 14, 2004 - McCaffery: In 2004, Elliott gave fans memorable ride

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McCaffery: In 2004, Elliott gave fans memorable ride
McCAFFERY
If this were New England, where fans were able to celebrate championships in the World Series and the Super Bowl, then identifying the region’s most important sports figure of the year would be especially difficult.
But this is Greater Philadelphia -- and this year, it may be even tougher.

That’s because around here, 2004 was a year of tremendous achievement, but without the overdue championship celebration to serve as the easy-to-use tiebreaker. Here, there were plenty -- more than usual, in fact -- of admirable accomplishments, thus complicating this sometimes annual, highly unofficial proclamation. Nonetheless, as mid-December arrives, it is time. So, following recent winners Jeffrey Lurie and Bernard Hopkins, congratulations to Stewart Elliott, who in 2004 would be Greater Philadelphia’s Sports Figure of the Year, if the Sports Illustrated model were followed.

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Of all the athletes, coaches and administrators to have entertained Philadelphia sports fans in the past 12 months, none was more spectacularly successful than the Philadelphia Park-based jockey who rode Smarty Jones to victory in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. Certainly, he had help, and it would be appropriate if Elliott and trainer John Servis shared the honor. But for the actual achievement -- for the very piloting of the animal to victory, even when many (hand raised here) did not believe such a career journeyman would be so capable -- Elliott belongs in the winner’s circle.

This, then, would be the order of finish for Philadelphia’s Sports Figure of the Year, as determined by a panel of one -- one who covered, analyzed and, yes, enjoyed every precious 2004 accomplishment:

1. Stewart Elliott: He did not win the Triple Crown -- but because he won the Derby and Preakness, he had that opportunity. But he became a Philadelphia champion -- period, no asterisk -- with his confident riding style and his clear comfort atop Smarty Jones, a horse that captured the imagination of the world.

2. Keith Primeau: It was unfortunate that the Flyers’ captain did not get to skate around a rink with the Stanley Cup, for rarely -- ever? -- had one player done so much in one postseason to attempt to push one team to a championship. Though the Flyers -- like the Eagles -- fell short in the Final Four, Primeau’s was the best individual Stanley Cup playoff performance by a Flyer since Ron Hextall in 1987.

3. Jameer Nelson: The consensus national college basketball player of the year, the Chester High All-Delco came within seconds of leading Saint Joseph’s to the Final Four. Never in the modern era had the Big 5 produced such a complete player, and few had ever been so popular.

4. Joe Banner: The Eagles’ president edges two of his players -- Donovan McNabb and Terrell Owens -- in this race, only because of his yearlong success. He managed the Eagles into the NFC final in January, uncorked a spectacular offseason by acquiring Owens and Jevon Kearse, then constructed another NFC East champion sitting entertainingly now with a 12-1 record.

5. Donovan McNabb: Though not quite as spectacular in his postseason as Primeau was in his, the Eagles’ quarterback followed an appearance in the NFC final with what is now a strong MVP candidacy, highlighted two weeks ago with a 464-yard passing performance that left Brett Favre 30 points in the dust.

6. Phil Martelli: The Drexel Hill resident took a no-football, private school with a compact arena at 54th and City Line and coached it to the No. 1 ranking in the national Division I college basketball polls. He did that, yes, with two first-round NBA draft choices. More significantly, though, he did it with a sense of joy and inclusion that heightened the pleasure of true Hawks’ fans and casual observers alike.

7. Terrell Owens: If this story continues as it seems and the Eagles play in a certain football game of national interest in February -- and should they even win it -- then there would be no reason to bother with this Top 10 list next December. T.O. -- as spectacular as advertised -- will already have collected the necessary electoral votes for victory.

8. David Montgomery: It took a while -- and years of blunted skepticism -- but the Phillies’ president snipped the ribbon at a retro ballpark that was as delightful as it was accessible as it was popular with 3.3 million fans willing to participate in a rebirth of Philadelphia baseball.

9. Bernard Hopkins: Though a parade through downtown streets did provide the emphasis that Philadelphia does not lack for a major-league world champion, the so-nicknamed "Executioner" fought only twice in 2004. However, his brilliant ninth-round knockout of Oscar De La Hoya was a reminder that the world’s finest middleweight remains one of the most outstanding pro athletes ever to have called Philadelphia home.

10. Jimmy Rollins: He led the National League in triples, was third in runs scored, stole 30 bases, hit 14 home runs, batted .289, surfaced as the leadoff hitter the Phillies lacked and was dependable afield, with just nine errors in 154 games. That means, he is a star.

Here’s to them all -- and to Bobby Abreu, David Akers, Brian Dawkins, Don DiJulia, Robert Esche, Brendan Hansen, Ken Hitchcock, Lisa Raymond, Andy Reid, John Servis, Jim Thome, Delonte West and Brian Westbrook, all of whom easily could have been so honored -- for making 2004 such a joy.

Now, bring on 2005 ... and one more special ride for Philadelphia fans.

To contact Jack McCaffery, e-mail sports@delcotimes.com