If you're a sports fan, it's more than understandable if sometimes you feel jaded about the people who play the game.
Amid headlines about alleged, racially charged hazing, callous social media scuffles between athletes and a sordid history of men and women behaving badly, the resulting malaise can be exhausting.
While the hyper news cycle of the 21st century seems to provide headlines that fuel greater disappointment in the athletes who are part of the sports we love, we shouldn't take for granted that being caught in the act of "being human" can be a good thing.
Sure, the scandalous news often wins the day, but lost behind the arrest sheets and embarrassing, candid moments caught on cellphone video are great examples of athletes who don't just avoid trouble but actively engage in charities and other inspiring endeavors.
These athletes are being human in the best possible way—by working to improve the lives of others in their own communities or in someone else's.
Los Angeles Lakers big man and Spanish national treasure Pau Gasol won the J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award in 2012 as the NBA's best citizen. After a quick Google search, (if you didn't already know why) it becomes obvious why he was an excellent choice then and anytime in the future.
As an ambassador for the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), he has traveled around the world to raise awareness of the issues that impact millions of children worldwide—like hunger, lack of safe drinking water and the spread of infectious diseases.
We often take this things for granted with our good fortune in the USA.
Not only is he doing his part to bring attention to the plight of children in developing nations, he's going to the heart of the problem and meeting those affected.
As the evidence mounts that a career in pro football could carry a real risk of one day suffering from CTE and other associated brain injuries, the looming health crisis is often framed as a recent one.
But for Hall of Fame New York Giants linebacker Harry Carson, the long-term impact of repeated concussions is a big issue—one that deserved attention long before the recent headlines and documentaries.
Suffering from memory loss and other post-concussion syndrome symptoms since being diagnosed in 1993, he has worked to bring attention to the relationship between football and long-term brain injuries, despite years of cultural and institutional indifference.
At the top of his sport, sprinter Usain Bolt—the pride of Jamaica—could lock himself behind the gates of a mansion for the duration of his life, and it wouldn't dampen the love that the island nation feels for the Olympian.
Instead of basking in the limelight for the sake of enjoying his fame, Bolt has used his foundation to give back to the country he loves—one that struggles with child poverty, hunger and related issues.
A great example is the event he hosted last January at the community of Sherwood Content, where he rolled up his sleeves and helped serve food, give out toys and provide school supplies to children under 12.
Texans star Andre Johnson has used his celebrity and wealth as a platform for improving the lives of disadvantaged or at-risk youth in the Houston area.
The Texans organization has done its part to support his efforts, highlighting and promoting his charitable endeavors to help the community that the franchise calls home.
While his foundation is engaged in several initiatives, few resonate more—or provide a better glimpse into his character—than his holiday Toys "R" Us shopping spree for young children in Houston's child protective services system.
Last year, 12 kids selected by the agency were given 80 seconds to go on a toy shopping spree at Toys "R" Us, with Johnson picking up the nearly $20,000 tab.
Not even Cortland Finnegan could ruin that.
If you're like me, every now and again you have a moment of true clarity and realize that despite all your grievances or perceived discomforts, you have it pretty good.
And people like former Ironman athlete John Carson offer a measure of context—if not an outright reminder.
While training for a race in 2009, he was hit by an SUV while cycling in Long Island, New York. The impact injured his spinal cord, leaving him a quadriplegic with little hope of recovery.
Despite the prognosis, he vowed to run the Ironman again. His family contacted the Christopher and Dana Reeves foundation, and he soon began an intensive rehabilitation program at the Mount Sinai Medical Center.
Eventually he gained enough ability to move his arms and legs to become a "walking quadriplegic." In 2011, he competed in a final Ironman competition under the banner of the Reeves Foundation.
Retired NFL tailback Warrick Dunn has a well-deserved reputation as one of the NFL's—and the sports world in general—consummate philanthropists.
For more than 15 years, his charity has assembled an army of volunteers to provide homes for single parents across the southern United States.
As admirable as it is to provide the most essential of basic necessities to those in need, the fact he has focused on single parents—most often single mothers—shows he understands the unique challenges they face raising a child.
Some of the biggest names in sports have quietly worked to make a difference after years in the spotlight.
One such person is Boston Bruins great and true legend of the NHL, Bobby Orr.
For decades, he has spent time—away from cameras and microphones—with children suffering from terminal and debilitating conditions, working to bring some measure of comfort to hockey fans who have yet to truly live.
Children who endure a condensed lifetime of pain and discomfort need every helping hand and advantage we can provide, yet their plight is all too easy to shy away from because of the emotional toll it takes.
Orr has never shied away from anything.
Sometimes the most effective diplomats don't build bridges but remind people that one needs to be crossed. Agents of change don't always follow the conventional route when advocating for those without a voice, but they do share a sense of fortitude that most of their peers shy away from.
And in the NFL, few men are better examples of this than free-agent punter Chris Kluwe.
While the typical American workplace has largely conformed to the changing attitudes of a rapidly evolving society, the NFL has remained a stubborn microcosm of the "good ol' boys club" mindset—a fact all the more glaring in light of the recent hazing allegations surrounding the Miami Dolphins.
So, when Kluwe thrust himself into the debate about sexual orientation and the conservative culture in NFL locker rooms, he suddenly became one of the voices on the issue of intolerance in sports. The role quite likely contributed to the loss of his job this summer, but he hasn't run away from it.
As good as legendary big man Dikembe Mutombo was as a player, what he has done off the court before and since retiring could be his greatest legacy.
Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, his personal story of a young man who left a native land embroiled in conflict to become a great basketball player is inspiring on its own. However, he has toiled to help those still in his native country.
Highlighting his good works—in addition to donating over $19 million of his own money—Mutombo helped raise $29 million to build the Biamba Marie Mutombo Hospital and Research Center in city of Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
For his humanitarian endeavors, the 7'2" Mutombo received the President's Service Award in 1999 and was inducted into the World Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame in 2007.
Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning's enshrinement in the NFL Hall of Fame is a formality at this point. It's just a matter of him actually retiring and waiting the required allotment of time before he becomes eligible.
And though he could be on his way to that elusive second Super Bowl ring, few will question his status as one of the best to ever play the position.
Beyond the physical tools, he is a prime example of a student of the game. He meticulously studies game film, and very few quarterbacks playing today could be entrusted with the kind of near total control of the offense he commands.
Which begs the question, how does he find the time to be—by all accounts—such a valued member of the communities he's lived in?
Clearly recognizing how his hero status with football fans young and old can be used to benefit those in need, Manning has seized the opportunity to contribute. He participates in Make-a-Wish Foundation events, visits seriously ill children in hospitals and reaches out to those who could use a measure of comfort.
In addition, his Peyback Foundation provides scholarships, grants and other support to disadvantaged youth and the organizations that serve them.
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