Is 2012 the year of redemption?
First there is LeBron James, whose lack of performance in the 2011 NBA Finals made him the butt of a series of ring-oriented jokes. For instance, "Why doesn't James have a championship ring? Because it is a choking hazard."
But for James, play time is over. Normally a fun loving player, LeBron has traded in his typical smiles for a stone face and fourth quarter results. The way the Heat have been rolling in their past two games, and with James finally proving he can handle the pressure of the playoffs by taking down the battle-tested Celtics, many believe 2012 might be the year he gets to trade in his foot-in-the-mouth moment for a long awaited ring.
A win over the Thunder could finally be the redeeming moment James needs to put his ostentatious free-agent signing and infamous guarantee of "not five, not six, not seven" championships to bed.
Then there is Tiger Woods and his extracurricular marital activities that landed him beyond the doghouse—perhaps in the kennel—crippling both his public appearance and course performance. For the longest time Tiger's career dragged like the economy: promises of getting better, but no signs of improvement.
Finally, in 2012, he has begun to turn around his two-and-a-half year competitive absence by winning two tournaments, including the Jack Nicklaus Memorial tying the "Golden Bear" for second-most tournament wins all time.
He has resurrected from a career low, and an abominable (by Tiger standards) ranking of 58 to No. 4, and in the lead up to the U.S. Open, has many people whispering comeback. As Oakland Tribune writer Carl Steward writes, "Tiger Woods comes to the Olympic Club this week having recaptured much of the long-misplaced skill, swagger and intimidating aura that some thought was lost forever." Redemption is just a two-putt away, it would seem.
Then there is Josh Hamilton, whose well-documented redemption story has been unfolding since 2007. His bat has been devastating to opposing pitchers and leaves baseball analysts asking, "Kemp who?" His league leading home run total is record-threatening, as his batting average and RBI continue to climb.
In light of these stories and more, here is a look at the top three redemption stories in sports this past decade.
Like the flame tattoos emblazoned on his forearms, Josh Hamilton's past drug addiction will stick with him throughout his baseball career and the rest of his life. There are constant reminders of his dark past from unpleasant memories, unrelenting road fans and of course his publicly scrutinized relapses. Nonetheless, he has withstood them all to be one of baseball's most feared hitters.
The former No. 1 overall pick, Hamilton, was banned from baseball in 2003, missing three whole years of his career in which he struggled with addiction and cycled through rehab. He finally found religion and his wife, which became the backbone to his redemption as he made the long-awaited return to baseball.
Since reemerging in 2007 to play a full rookie season with the Cincinnati Reds and his subsequent trade to the Texas Rangers in 2008, Hamilton has been one of America's favorite success stories. He was league MVP in 2010, leading the Rangers to their first of two consecutive AL Championships and World Series appearances. And as we near the halfway mark in 2012, he is a leading candidate for MVP once more.
So far this year, Hamilton has been off-the-charts hot, already hitting 22 home runs, just 3 off of his 2011 total in a quarter of the games, and a league leading 61 RBI. He had a highlight game in Baltimore on May 8, where he went 5-for-5, slugging four home runs—the 16th ever to do it and first since 2003—and 8 RBI. He was AL Player of the Month and is the center fixture to the first-place Rangers' lineup.
Just this past weekend, as I sat in the left field bleachers of AT&T Park watching Hamilton play in person for the first time, a small pack of brutal fans began chanting, "What's the matter with Hamilton? He smokes crack!" It became apparent how far he has come, and just a few years into his career, how far he might go.
He later effortlessly back-spun a Zito curveball 420 feet to the deepest part of the yard and silenced all critics, at least within earshot.
Michael Vick is another fan favorite with a nasty stain on his otherwise stellar NFL career.
The electrifying quarterback first entered the league as reigning Heisman Trophy winner and the first overall draft pick to Atlanta. He quickly stupefied critics who thought his mobile style wouldn't translate to a pocket-oriented league by throwing for 2,936 yards and 16 touchdowns with 113 carries for 777 yards and eight touchdowns in his first season as the Falcons' starter in 2002.
He was voted to multiple Pro Bowls, made two playoff appearances, and even graced the cover of Madden NFL 2004 (a prestigious honor) before his off-field lifestyle overshadowed his on-field talents.
In 2007, Vick pleaded guilty for federal dog fighting charges in the Bad Newz Kennel case in which dogs were found to be bred, fought and inhumanely killed all on his property. He was subsequently sentenced to 21 months in prison and suspended indefinitely from the league.
Things got worse as Falcons owner Arthur Blank publicly disowned his once prized quarterback, announcing he was no longer welcome in Atlanta. There was much conjecture over who would pick up the ex-con and whether he would still be able to perform as he had prior to his sentencing. Upon release, Vick was mentored by former Indianapolis head coach Tony Dungy and Philadelphia soon took a chance on the beleaguered quarterback.
Vick made his redemption official with a sincere public apology and in 2010, he set career highs in passing yards, passing percentage, QB rating, passing touchdowns and rushing touchdowns to become the Comeback Player of the Year.
Anthony Hargrove is a lesser known success story in sports, but nonetheless an inspiring one. He went from security guard to Super Bowl with rehab in between to complete undoubtedly one of the unlikeliest climbs from turmoil to triumph.
Hargrove led a tumultuous childhood in Brooklyn, in and out of homeless shelters and foster care until his mother died of AIDS when he was just nine-years-old. Taken in by his aunt in Port Charlotte, Florida, Hargrove found some success as an over-sized quarterback in high school.
As a very athletic, well proportioned teen (6'3", 220 pounds), Georgia Tech took Hargrove on to play defensive end. However, in just two years he failed out of school, squandering what seemed to be his best opportunity to make it into the NFL.
For the next two years, instead of spending his Saturdays in a packed Bobby Dodd stadium, Hargrove worked as a security guard and at baggage claim in Florida. Prospects were low and his dreams might as well have been riding the winning horse in the Kentucky Derby because his hopes of playing in the NFL seemed of equal encumbrance.
Yet, Hargrove kept training and fighting until the Rams took a chance on him in 2004.
During his short stints both in St. Louis and Buffalo, Hargrove began to play roulette with his career as he became increasingly infatuated with cocaine. With an offseason arrest and two failed drug tests, the NFL came down on him with a year-long suspension between 2008 and 2009, which he spent in rehab and therapy.
Teamless and once again hopeless, Hargrove sent out tapes to all of the teams in the league with an assurance he was clean and a personal plea to give him a shot.
He got an improbable third chance at football when New Orleans signed him. In 2010, he had 5.0 sacks and 30 tackles and helped the Saints win their first ever championship over Indianapolis in Super Bowl XLIV.