Flint Proud of Its Many Flintstones
Little Flint, Mich., produces professional athletes now like it once produced cars
(Editor’s note: This story was a long-term research project. The interviews were conducted over the last several years)
Flint, Michigan has become known to the world as the city with the contaminated water.
But Flint is known to those who live there as a city of spectacular athletic achievement.
Flint carved a niche for itself in the industrial world in the early 1900s as the birthplace of General Motors and a springboard for the United Auto Workers. It became a hub for the auto industry by 1960 with a population soaring to 190,000 — roughly the size of a Des Moines or a Little Rock. But rising gasoline prices and increasing competition from automakers in Germany, Japan and Korea over the years led to a decline in the U.S. car production, which triggered a decline in Flint’s population.
Flint has lost more than 50,000 industry-related jobs in the last 40 years and only 80,000 residents now call that Michigan city home. That’s roughly the size of Gastonia, N.C., Lake Charles, La., and Longview, Texas Yet a city that no longer rolls cars off the assembly line continues to hum along with its assembly line of athletes.
Located an hour north of Detroit, Flint and its environs have produced 18 first-round draft picks by the four major-league sports, including players who were selected with the second (Pam McGee, WNBA), third (Carl Banks, NFL), fourth (Glen Rice, NBA), fifth (Todd Lyght, NFL), sixth (Trent Tucker, NBA) and an eighth overall choices (Jim Abbott, MLB).
Flint has produced a Sullivan Award winner as the nation’s top amateur athlete (Abbott), a Heisman Trophy winner as the nation’s best college football player (Mark Ingram Jr.), an NFL all-decade linebacker (Banks), a Hall of Fame college football coach (Tubby Raymond, Delaware) and two Vezina Trophies as the NHL’s best goaltender (Tim Thomas).
Flint also produced the NFL’s all-time leading interceptor (Paul Krause), a heavyweight boxing champion (Chris Byrd), a pitcher who threw a no-hitter (Abbott), a key figure on the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team that produced the “Miracle on Ice” (defenseman Ken Morrow) and a world-record holder in track (sprinter Herb Washington).
Rice is the all-time leading scorer in University of Michigan basketball history. Fellow Flint products Jeff Grayer (Northwestern) is the all-time leading scorer in Iowa State history and Roy Marble (Beecher) the No. 2 scorer in Iowa history. Twin sisters Pam and Paula McGee both had their jerseys retired by Southern Cal.
“There was always a game going on,” said Abbott of his hometown. “There are just good athletes there. Everyone plays every sport – football, baseball, basketball in the winter, soccer in the summer. Sports are a way of life in Flint. I played football against Andre Rison in high school and basketball with Glenn Rice all the time in gym class in junior high.
“I can’t imagine a more sports-oriented town. Flint really breeds sports attitudes. High-school sports are all really big. Athletes are revered there, It’s pretty amazing, really.”
And Flint starts them early. Since 1957, Flint has staged an Olympic-style competition with its sister city in Canada — Hamilton, Ont. — called the Canusa Games for boys and girls 18 years of age and under. The games are conducted annually, alternating between the two cities, with competition in a variety of sports, ranging from baseball, basketball and hockey to darts, judo and pickleball. Each city fields a team of 200 athletes.
“The competition was fierce for those spots,” said Banks, who was selected to the NFL all-decade team for the 1980s as a linebacker with the New York Giants. “You had to compete against a lot of other guys from different schools around the city. For two whole months kids are sharpening their games to compete in those tournaments.”
Football was not one of the sports at the Canusa Games. But that didn’t keep Banks away.
“I competed in shuffleboard, ping-pong, basketball…I even threw the shot put one year,” Banks said. “We had a lot of fun. I won the shuffleboard and we won it in basketball. I did the ping-pong because it was challenging and fun. But Mark Ingram’s school (Northwestern) had the ping-pong team. They had the best ping-pong players around.”
Flint high schools have won more than 100 state championships, including 45 in boys and girls basketball and 39 in boys and girls track. They have also won titles in baseball, cross-country, football, golf, soccer, softball, track and field, volleyball and wrestling. Flint Northern won 30 of those championships. But that school closed in 2014.
Flint Northern produced the McGees and former baseball manager Steve Boros (Oakland A’s, San Diego Padres). The McGees won 74 consecutive games and two state titles at Northern, then won two more NCAA championships at Southern Cal. At 34 years of age, Pam McGee became the second overall pick of the inaugural WNBA draft in 1997. She also was a member of the 1984 gold-medal winning U.S. Olympic basketball team. Boros spent nine seasons in the major leagues as a third baseman with the Tigers, Cubs and Reds prior to his career as a manager.
Claressa Shields out of Flint Northwestern also captured Olympic gold, winning the middleweight competition as a boxer at both London in 2012 and Rio de Janeiro in 2016. Chris Byrd attended Northwestern as well. He became the world heavyweight boxing champion in 2000 and again in 2006, holding onto the crown the second time around for four years. Byrd numbered Evander Holyfield and Vitali Klitschko among his ring conquests. Northwestern closed its doors in 2018.
Morrow and Thomas both attended school in suburban Davison and Brian Rolston attended Flint Powers. Rolston was a first-round pick of the New Jersey Devils in 1997 who became a three-time Olympian, an NHL all-star and a Stanley Cup champion. He scored 130 goals in his 22-season NHL career.
After the Olympics, Morrow went on to win four Stanley Cups with the New York Islanders in the 1980s. Thomas became a Conn Smythe Award winner as the most valuable player in the NHL playoffs with the Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins in 2011. Morrow was 18 years older than Thomas but the young goalie knew of his Olympic and NHL lore.
“Ken Morrow was such a big influence on me,” Thomas said. “What he did was inspirational. Having an example like that from our area can motivate kids and give them confidence.
“The first time I ever met Ken I was selling apples door-to-door. I paid my way through junior college and juniors by selling fruit. I didn’t know where he (Morrow) lived but when I went to his house and he opened the door, I had no motivation to sell apples after that. I went through my lines as quickly as possible and got out of there. I was so embarrassed.”
Krause (Bendle) intercepted 81 career passes and is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He started four Super Bowls at safety for the Minnesota Vikings in the 1970s. Reggie Williams (Southwestern) is in the College Football Hall of Fame for his play at Dartmouth. He started two Super Bowls at linebacker for the Cincinnati Bengals in the 1980s. Williams believes there could have and should have been even more success stories to come out of Flint.
“There were a number of athletes who had tremendous ability but never got the chance to show it,” Williams said. “A lot of that was directly related to the Vietnam war. Flint was hit hard at the time. A lot of its greatest athletes, my role models when I was a little kid, were drafted. Their lives were ruined. Some were killed. Some came back with drug addictions. None of them came back to perform.”
Jon Runyan (Carman-Ainsworth) was named to the Philadelphia Eagles’ 75th anniversary team as an offensive tackle and later in life became a Congressman representing New Jersey. Ricky Patton (Southwestern) started the 1982 Super Bowl for the San Francisco 49ers at running back and led the team with 55 rushing yards.
Mark Ingram Sr. (Northwestern) of ping-pong fame started the 1991 Super Bowl for the New York Giants at wide receiver and led the team with five catches for 74 yards. His son Mark Jr. (Southwestern) won his Heisman at Alabama and became a first-round NFL draft pick. He led the league with 12 rushing touchdowns in 2017 and became a three-time Pro Bowl running back.
Banks started two Super Bowls for the Giants. He made a team-leading 10 tackles in the 1987 victory over Denver and four more in the 1991 victory over Buffalo. Andre Rison caught a 54-yard touchdown pass in the 1997 Super Bowl victory for the Green Bay Packers. Cornerback Todd Lyght (Powers), a first-round pick by the St. Louis Rams in 1999, and Jim Morrissey (Powers), a backup linebacker in the 1980s for the Chicago Bears, also wear Super Bowl rings.
“There were always sports-related activities for young kids,” said Morrissey, who intercepted a pass in Chicago’s Super Bowl. “I played baseball (at the Canusa Games) one summer. My sisters were all swimmers and they competed in synchronized swimming. My brother played soccer. I remember taking my first trip over there (to Hamilton) and meeting Carl Banks. He was playing basketball back then. I just remember growing up with athletics. That’s the way it’s always been in Flint.”
Michigan State started four Flint products in a loss to Duke in the semifinals of the 1999 Final Four. The following year, the Spartans still had three Flint starters in winning the national title, including their All-America point guard Mateen Cleaves (Northern). Those Spartans were dubbed “The Flintstones.”
Rice and Rison both attended Flint Northwestern. They were best friends.
“We used to sit in the back at math class and talk about where we were going to attend college,” Rison said. “We all grew up together. We all slept in each other’s homes.”
Rison chose Michigan State, Rice Michigan. Both became first-round draft picks. Rison played 12 NFL seasons and went to five Pro Bowls. Rice played 15 NBA seasons and went to three all-star games. Like Rison, Rice won a single championship with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2000.
In addition to Cleaves, Rice and Tucker, Flint products Miles Bridges (Southwestern), Terry Furlow (Northern), Grayer, Marble, Morris Peterson (Northwestern) and Kyle Kuzma (Bentley) all became first-round NBA draft picks. Bridges averaged 20.2 points per game for the Charlotte Hornets last season and Kuzma 17.1 points for the Washington Wizards.
Abbott (Central) was born without a right hand. That didn’t prevent him from playing quarterback in high school – “He was a helluva quarterback,” Rison recalled – and becoming a first-round draft pick by baseball’s California Angels in 1988. He threw a no-hitter against the Cleveland Indians in 1993 and retired from baseball in 1999 with 87 career victories. Flint Central closed in 2009.
Rick Leach (Southwestern) also became a first-round pick in baseball by the Detroit Tigers in 1980. This after a college-football career that saw him start four years for Michigan at quarterback, leading the Wolverines to three consecutive Big Ten titles. Leach and was named the Big Ten MVP in 1978 and became the first player in NCAA history to produce 200 career points both passing and rushing. Twenty-two players have since joined that club.
Like Leach, Merv Rettenmund came out of Southwestern. A career .271 hitter in the big leagues, he played 13 seasons and won World Series rings with the 1970 Baltimore Orioles and 1975 Cincinnati Reds. Rettenmund also was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys as a wide receiver.
Oakland A’s owner Charlie Finley signed Michigan State track All-America Herb Washington (Central) in 1974 as a “designated runner.” As the world record-holder in the 60-yard dash, Finley figured Washington could cover that 90 feet between first and second base faster than any catcher could throw it there. He stole 31 bases that season without ever swinging a bat and claimed a World Series ring. Third baseman Jeff Hamilton (Carman-Ainsworth) also won a World Series ring with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1989.
“There’s a blue-collar, hustler mentality there,” said Brandon Carr, another Carman-Ainsworth product who spent 13 seasons as an NFL cornerback and intercepted 21 passes. “The dream in Flint never dies. That’s all you have – that dream, that hope of getting somewhere… A belief that I’m going to work hard and I’m going to make it.”
There are only two high schools left in Flint these days, Southwestern (public) and Powers (private). But the Canusa Games continue to roll along, honing the competitive nature of the Flint youth. Flint captured the 2022 games this month, winning eight of the 11 sports contested, and now leads the all-time series with Hamilton, 33-26-3. The cars may be gone from Flint but the athletes remain.
“Even though I lived there only three years I always claim Flint – always,” said Lyght, who left Flint to become an All-America at Notre Dame and a Pro Bowler with the Rams. “That’s the place that put me on the map. We’re all the Flintstones.”