Ten greatest athletes in Dallas sports history

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Dirk Nowitki, Emmitt Smith, Roger Staubach. Y! Sports Illustration

Editor's note: YCN contributor Brian Honea has compiled his list of the 10 greatest athletes for Dallas. Roger Staubach edged Emmitt Smith for the top spot in user voting. Full results to the right.

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One of the largest professional sports markets in the country resides in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex in Texas. It has become such relatively quickly; of the four "major" professional sports teams in the Dallas area (football, baseball, basketball and hockey), none existed before 1960.

Football's Dallas Cowboys -- "America's Team" -- have won more championships (five) than the city's other three major professional sports teams combined (two). D-FW has also been the home to various pro soccer teams since the 1960s and also hosts two PGA events annually -- the only metropolitan area that can make that claim.

The following is an alphabetical list of the top 10 professional athletes who helped make the Dallas-Fort Worth sports market what it is today. What these athletes contributed goes far beyond statistics -- each one was a game-changer in his own way and has a special place in the hearts of fans.

Troy Aikman (Cowboys, 1989-2000)
Aikman and the other two "Triplets" (Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin) led the Cowboys from doormat, where they spent the latter part of the '80s, to perennial champions in the '90s. The Cowboys won three Super Bowls under Aikman's direction, and to this day he is still the team's all-time leading passer. He has stayed visible in the Dallas area in the years since his retirement due to his charity work and his appearances in Acme Brick commercials, and he has become a popular football commentator on Fox.

Tony Dorsett (Cowboys, 1977-87)
What didn't Dorsett accomplish while wearing the star on his helmet? The No. 2 pick in the 1977 NFL draft lived up to the hype after winning 1976 Heisman Trophy, rushing for 1,007 yards and 12 touchdowns his rookie season and leading the Cowboys to a win over the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XII.

Dorsett ended his 11-year Cowboys career with 12,036 yards and 72 rushing TDs. His accolades are nothing to sniff at: 1977 Offensive Rookie of the Year Award, four-time Pro-Bowler, Dallas Cowboys Rings of Honor member, and a 1994 induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Michael Irvin (Cowboys, 1988-99)
One of the all-time great wide receivers, no question about it. Playing his entire career in Dallas, Irvin totaled 11,904 receiving yards, 65 touchdowns and 750 receptions. Along with Aikman and Emmitt Smith, he guided the Cowboys to three Super Bowl titles in the 1990s.

In 1995, Irvin set an NFL record for most 100-yard receiving games in a season with 11. He went to five Pro Bowls and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2007.

Bob Lilly (Cowboys, 1961-74)
A former star for TCU in Fort Worth, Lilly joined the Cowboys in their second year and was a big part of their evolution from a woeful expansion club into "America's Team." Lilly was one of the toughest and most feared defensive linemen of his time; Tom Landry once called Lilly the greatest player he ever coached. In 1975, a year after he retired, Lilly became the first inductee into the Cowboys' hallowed "Ring of Honor."

Mike Modano (Stars, 1993-2010)

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Mike Modano led the Stars to the Stanley Cup in 1999. (AP)

Easily the greatest American-born hockey player ever to play in the NHL, Modano was the centerpiece of the Stars' only championship team in 1999, as well as many other playoff teams. The Stars' success, of which Modano was at the front, caused the popularity of youth hockey to soar in North Texas in the late-1990s.

Byron Nelson (professional golfer)
The golfer nicknamed "Lord Byron" won the Texas Victory Open in Dallas in 1944, one of 52 PGA events Nelson won in his illustrious career. In 1968, the tournament Nelson won in Dallas 24 years earlier was named after him and remains so to this day. Due to his involvement with the Byron Nelson Classic, Nelson remained a visible and beloved figure among the sports community in the Dallas-Fort Worth area from the late-1960s until his death in 2006 at age 94.

Dirk Nowitzki (Mavericks, 1998-present)
The German-born Nowitzki has achieved almost every basketball honor and accolade imaginable in his 15 years with the Mavericks. The Mavs' rise to become one of the NBA's elite teams coincided with Nowitzki's rise to become an elite player and the face of the Mavs franchise. Nowitzki led the Mavs to their only championship in 2011, and another NBA Finals appearance in 2006.

Nolan Ryan (Rangers, 1989-93)
"The Express" already had Hall of Fame credentials when he came to the Rangers at age 42. But his five years with the Rangers propelled him to legendary status as he achieved three unparalleled milestones in a Rangers uniform -- his 5,000th strikeout and his sixth and seventh no-hitters. As a Ranger, he also collected his 300th win. And 17 years after he retired, in 2010, he became the Rangers' owner and CEO.

Emmitt Smith (Cowboys, 1990-2002
Another one of the famous "Triplets," Smith helped transform the Cowboys from a 1-15 team the year before his arrival to Super Bowl champions in three out of four seasons in the '90s. Smith rushed for more than 1,000 yards in 11 straight seasons and became the NFL's all-time leading rusher in 2002 as a Cowboy.

Roger Staubach (Cowboys, 1969-79)
Staubach led the Cowboys to two Super Bowl championships (four Super Bowls overall) in his nine years as a starter. Nicknamed "Captain Comeback" for his ability to overcome fourth-quarter deficits, Staubach was the No. 2-rated passer of all time at the time of his retirement behind only Otto Graham.

Staubach's successful real estate company began while he was still playing and continued for many years afterward.

Brian Honea is a freelance writer based in Dallas, Texas.

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