FREDDIE PATEK, 5'5"
When he appears at Little League games in his hometown of Lee
Summit, Mo., Freddie Patek can hear the whispers. "If he can make
it," the dads tell their kids, nodding in Patek's direction, "so
During his 14-year career with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Kansas
City Royals and California Angels, Patek was baseball's shortest
player, but what he lacked in height he made up for in heart and
hustle. "I can't recall a moment when I ever walked on the
baseball field," says the three-time All-Star, who stole 385
bases and batted .242.
At 59 Patek is now a stay-at-home grandpa to Jordan, 7; Jackson,
4; and one-month-old Jacob. When he's not taking them swimming,
he's raising money for the Kim Patek Fund, which supports
paralysis patients. He founded the organization in memory of his
youngest daughter, who was paralyzed in a 1992 car crash and died
"If I had one regret," Patek says, thinking back on his career,
"it's that I wasn't a Yankee, but I don't think Mr. Steinbrenner
would have wanted me in pinstripes. Then again, they would have
made me look taller."
EDDIE LEBARON, 5'7"
When Eddie LeBaron would meet potential clients in his law
office, he could sense their skepticism by the cock of the brow,
the length of the stare. "You're a football player?" they would
ask. Yes, and a lawyer and land developer. (He owns a vineyard in
Northern California.) LeBaron broke the mold not only with his
stature but also with his smarts. "The only people who brought up
my height were the press," says LeBaron, who played quarterback
for the Washington Redskins and the Dallas Cowboys from 1952 to
'63. "I tried to make up for it with quickness and agility."
It worked. The four-time Pro Bowler with the legendary backfield
fakes led the NFL in passing in 1958 with the Redskins while
earning his law degree from George Washington University.
"Through football I learned to be prepared and never give up,"
says LeBaron, who lives in Sacramento. Those principles still
serve him well. "Everything I get into," he says, "is competition."
AARON PRYOR, 5'6"
At 47 Aaron (the Hawk) Pryor was ready for the ring. "Hawk Time!
Hawk Time," the crowd chanted. "It was just like going to a
championship fight," says the former WBA junior welterweight
titlist, "and I was only getting married." On June 5 Pryor wed
Frankie Wagner at the boxing hall of fame in Canastota, N.Y.
The cheers were long in coming. The man who had defended his belt
eight times from 1980 to '83 battled crack addiction in the late
'80s. His $3 million in earnings evaporated, and he wound up on
the street and, eventually, in jail. "Then I got saved," says
Pryor. He was lying on the floor of a Cincinnati crack den,
ulcers bleeding, when someone called 911. After Pryor left the
hospital, he went straight to the New Friendship Church. He's now
a Baptist deacon.
Pryor also helps guide young fighters, including sons Aaron Jr.
and Stephan. Occasionally he sees his virtual image get KO'd on
his PlayStation. "They needed a machine to knock me out," he
says. Or maybe just a woman. "The Hawk," he admits, "has finally
MARY LOU RETTON, 4'9"
She walks into her family room in Houston and sees her four
daughters, ages one to eight, crowding around the television,
checking out a tape of their mother sticking the perfect landing
off the vault and clinching an Olympic gold medal. "They can't
believe that's their mom," says Mary Lou Retton.
Sometimes neither can she. "I don't walk around in my leotard
wearing my medals," says Retton, who at age 16 won the all-around
gold as well as two silvers (in team competition and the vault)
and two bronzes (uneven bars and floor exercises) at the Los
Angeles Games in 1984. Retton, 35, is still bouncing and tumbling
as host of the PBS children's show Mary Lou's Flip Flop Shop.
Nine years ago she and her husband, Shannon Kelley, developed the
program, which airs in 65 cities and teaches kids to make smart
For all her fame, though, Retton is clear about her greatest
achievements. She watches her girls watch her on video and says,
"They're my gold medals now."
MONTE TOWE, 5'5"
Monte Towe has a thing for ESPN Classic. "They only show the
games I played good in," says Towe, a junior on North Carolina
State's 1974 national championship team. He watches highlights
from that year's ACC title game, an overtime win over Maryland,
or the Wolfpack's double OT defeat of UCLA in the NCAA
semifinals, or the national-final victory over Marquette, which
featured one of his signature alley-oop passes to David Thompson.
"When I threw that pass," Towe says, "it looked like it was going
out the coliseum."
Towe, 49, can't seem to keep himself out of the arena. In 2001 he
became head coach at the University of New Orleans, where he has
gone 30-28 in two seasons. "Coaching," he says, "is prolonged
adolescence." Each morning at 5:45 he leaves his wife, P.D., to
have breakfast with his players, then heads to the office, where
he reviews plays and watches game film. Sometimes even his own.
PAT STAPLETON, 5'8"
Wherever he goes, Pat (Whitey) Stapleton seems to improve the
outlook. In 1973, for example, he left the Chicago Blackhawks
after eight seasons to join the basement-dwelling Chicago Cougars
of the World Hockey Association. In no time Stapleton turned the
Cougars into playoff contenders. "I try to get the best out of
people," says the four-time NHL All-Star. "You build a team that
And a business. When his son Tom, one of his six children,
started The Best Wash of America, an environmentally friendly
18-wheeler wash in Sarnia, Ont., in 1999, he didn't have to look
far for someone to mind the shop. Pat, 62, helps in hiring
twentysomethings who he hopes will make the company their career.
He also coaches youth hockey in Strathroy, Ont., where his
players know little about his former glory.
"I don't live in the past," Stapleton says, "but what I want them
to know is that hockey is just a vehicle for life." With
Stapleton as mentor, his players are more likely than most kids
to get the best out of themselves.
COLOR PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER GREGOIRE; WALTERIOOSS JR. (LEBARON)
COLOR PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER GREGOIRE; MANNY MILLAN
COLOR PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER GREGOIRE; TONYTRIOLO (PRYOR)
COLOR PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER GREGOIRE; JERRY COOKE
COLOR PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER GREGOIRE; JAMES DRAKE(TOWE)
COLOR PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER GREGOIRE; BRUCEBENNETT STUDIOS