Sporting Greats: Rays of Hope

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Sporting Greats: Rays of Hope
(Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

I would like to thank Blaine Spence, Rocky Getters, and Leroy Watson for helping me with this article.

 

I doubt there are many people who would disagree with this statement: The world is in a gloomy state.

Dishonest, sleazy politicians left, right, and centre; news stations constantly screaming at us to PANIIIIIIIIIIC!!!, and it doesn't matter what about—be it the economic recession (which will recover), the swine flu pandemic (which is relatively mild, all things considered), or the number of lost puppies on the streets, it is an insignificant detail—just so long as we continue watching that particular station.

Nothing like a bit of drama to rack up the viewer count.

Issues with privacy, with governments going too far to "protect" their countries from terrorism; proposed schemes which will "cut costs" but will eventually cause enormous problems for the younger generations; the madness of "political correctness" making it impossible to say anything without it being taken offensively by somebody, somewhere; the people of the world paying dearly for the arguments of their governments, through war; I could go on and on, but I imagine most people get the idea.

Is it really any wonder that such a huge number of people are turning to sport more readily and more enthusiastically than ever before?

In a world where it is difficult to know whom to trust, sports serve as escapes from reality. Whether we are watching them or playing them; writing, reading, or talking about them, sports allow us to forget the troubles of the world, and the troubles of our own individual lives, for a few precious hours each day.

And occasionally—just occasionally—they afford us glimpses of the true human spirit. Of people standing up for what they believe in, despite the entire world telling them not to bother; of people overcoming adversity so strong, other people would have broken long before.

So I give you this list, of sportsmen and sportswomen who deserve recognition for what they have given this world—hope.

 

Andy Roddick

Andy Roddick is best known for his achievements in the tennis world—U.S. Open champion in 2003, three-time Wimbledon finalist, and holder of the fastest recorded serve at 155 mph.

What is less well-known is his incredible sense of morality, and determination to do what he feels is right—regardless of the circumstances.

The defending champion of the 2009 Dubai Open publicly announced his disapproval of Dubai's refusal to allow female player Shahar Peer into the country by boycotting the tournament.

In doing this—in standing up for the Israeli player when her fellow competitors in the WTA failed to do so—he lost the chance to defend his rankings points from the previous year.

He also provided a display of goodwill and selfless action the likes of which is increasingly rare.

 

Billie Jean King

This incredible woman paved the way for women in all walks of life to be respected in the workplace.

Her historic defeat of Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes is undoubtedly her most-remembered match—despite her astounding 39 singles, doubles, and mixed doubles Grand Slam titles.

King did more than anybody else in the fight for equality between men and women. In 1971, she became the first female athlete to earn over $100,000 in a year; in 1973, she became the first president of the Women's Tennis Association; she founded WomanSports magazine; and she started the Women's Sports Foundation, which is an organisation dedicated to furthering athletic opportunities for women.

In 1981, Billie Jean King came out about her sexuality, at a time when having a partner of the same sex was viewed very unkindly.

King was a pioneer for the rights of women and homosexuals everywhere, and has long been appreciated as one of the most influential figures in the world.

 

Jim Abbott

Jim Abbott is a legendary Major League pitcher, best known for pitching with only one hand.

He was born without a right hand, and as a youngster practised throwing balls against a wall to develop his fielding skills, as well as his pitching.

He fulfilled his dream of pitching for Michigan, after impressing the team's coaching staff; he was given the opportunity of pitching their first spring game. He didn't focus on convincing the sceptics, only on the fact that he was living his dream.

He became the first baseball player to win the Sullivan Award as the nation's top amateur athlete. In 1989, Jim Abbott went straight from college to the Major Leagues.

His achievements as a baseball player were numerous; he now works as a motivational speaker.

Jim Abbott has proved himself time and again capable of overcoming adversity; he never backed down, and refused to even think of himself as handicapped.

 

Lance Armstrong

The Lance Armstrong story is one which is relatively well-known.

In 1996, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. By this time, he had made a huge name for himself in the cycling world—winning the 1991 U.S. Amateur Championships; the U.S. National Cycling Title and the World Cycling Championships in 1993; 10 one-day and stage races, also in 1993; and the Thrift Drug Triple Crown, still in 1993.

In 1994 and 1995, his results were less spectacular, possibly as a result of the undiagnosed cancer: Of the Triple Crown races, he won only one in 1994, the Thrift Drug Classic; and other than that, only a small number of minor European races.

In 1995, he did manage to acquire the prestigious Tour de Pont in the U.S., as well as the Spanish Classica San Sebastian.

In 1996, the cancer was discovered.

Originally, the prognosis was poor. After having surgery, Lance's doctor told him he had less than a 50-per cent survival chance.

Undeterred, Lance Armstrong had treatment between 1996 and 1998, and was cleared to begin training again by the start of 1999.

His comeback was incredible.

He won seven consecutive Tour de France titles—breaking the previous record of five which was held by Miguel Indurain, Bernard Hinault, Eddy Merckx, and Jaques Anquetil—between 1999 and 2005.

Over his career, he won 22 Tour de France stages—two of them coming before his cancer treatment.

In 1999 he was named the ABC Wide World of Sports Athlete of the Year. In 2000 he won the Prince of Asturias award. In 2002, Sports Illustrated magazine named him Sportsman of the Year.

He received the award for the Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year in 2002, 2003, 2004, and 2005. ESPN gave him their ESPY Award for Best Male Athlete in 2003, 2004, 2005, and 2006.

He also won the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Overseas Personality award in 2003.

Armstrong retired from racing at the end of the 2005 Tour de France, but in January ‘09 he made his return to competitive cycling.

Ultimately, he is the King of Comebacks.

 

Boomer and Gunner Esiason

Boomer Esiason had an illustrious career as an NFL quarterback. He set a number of records for left-handed quarterbacks, including most touchdown passes (247), passing yards (37, 920), and completions (2, 969). He was also selected to the Pro Bowl game four times, in 1986, 1988, 1989, and 1993.

Multiple awards were heaped upon him—he was named the NFL's Most Valuable Player in 1988; he won the Walter Payton Man of the Year award in 1995 for his charitable work; and in 2004, he was inducted into the Nassau County Sports Hall of Fame.

However, in 1993, Esiason had to deal with the news that his two-year-old son, Gunnar, had cystic fibrosis—a disease of the respiratory and digestive systems. He had been taken to hospital with breathing difficulties, and was soon after diagnosed with the disease.

Crushed by the news, Esiason formed the Boomer Esiason Foundation, a charity which aims to develop a cure for cystic fibrosis, to raise awareness of the disease through education, and to provide a higher quality of life for those suffering with it.

Not long after starting the foundation, he formed a company with John Sawyer to sell Boomer's Products to Fight Cystic Fibrosis. The top-selling item is Boomer's BBQ Sauce, with all proceeds going to cystic fibrosis research.

Now 17 years old, Gunner Esiason is an active teen-ager, who takes medications and has treatments daily. He is a quarterback on his school football team. 

 

Doug Flutie

Doug Flutie was one of the most under-rated quarterbacks the world has ever seen.

America as a nation fell in love with him after the "Miracle in Miami." The one where, in the final seconds of the game, he threw the football some 60 yards against a 30 mph wind; it sailed over the heads of the opposing defense, into the waiting arms of Gerard Phelan in the end zone—and gave Boston College a 47-45 win over the Miami Hurricanes.

He won many awards and broke many records throughout his career.

The Heisman Memorial Trophy Award, considered the most prestigious prize honouring the best player in collegiate football, was awarded to Flutie in 1984.

He holds the professional football record of 6,619 yards passing in a single season. His college football career was exceptional, but he was told by many that because of his height—5'10"—he would never play in the NFL.

The United States Football Association, where he made his professional football debut, folded after his first season. He then entered the NFL with the Chicago Bears in 1986; in 1987, after signing with the New England Patriots, he crossed the picket lines of a strike-ridden NFL to participate with his team.

Thereafter, he was labeled a scab.

In 1990, he made his way to the league where he would become revered as the greatest quarterback ever to play there—the Canadian Football League. He spent eight seasons in the CFL, making a name for himself as a passing threat.

His 48 touchdowns in 1994 remains a CFL record, as do his 6,619 yards in 1991.

In his return to the NFL in 1998, with the Buffalo Bills, Flutie won the Comeback Player of the Year award.

He had a career most footballers would dream of, yet rarely gets the recognition he deserves for it.

In 2006, Doug Flutie said goodbye to his professional football career.

His son, Doug Jr., has autism, and the Fluties established a foundation in honour of him. The foundation's goal is to raise awareness of autism, and to support families affected by it.

Flutie created a cereal, Flutie Flakes, with the benefits and proceeds going towards the foundation.

Doug Flutie silenced his critics, the people who doubted his ability to compete in football, in an extraordinary manner; and he overcame every difficulty presented to him, always living by his motto: "Never Say Never."

 

Paolo Maldini

Paolo Maldini is a rare breed of footballer. His passion for the game was always evident, and his leadership abilities on and off the court are well-documented, being able to inspire and organise his teammates. He has been heralded many times as "the best defender of all time," and with just cause.

During his 16 years as an international player, Maldini became Italy's most capped player, with 126 appearances. He has won the Serie A seven times; the Italian Super Cup five times; and jointly holds the record for appearances in Champion's League finals with Francesco Gento.

Maldini scored the fastest ever goal in a European Cup final against Liverpool F.C. in 2005, at 51 seconds. He also became the oldest player ever to score in a final.

He was the first defender ever to win the prestigious World Soccer Player of the Year award, which is a huge achievement—defenders are often overlooked when compared to goal-scorers.

The honours he received during his career were numerous; the records he set were plenty.

But what puts him aside from other players of the sport, is his remarkable show of loyalty in staying with the one club—A.C. Milan—for his entire 25-year career. He is one of few players to refrain from selling out his integrity, remaining with one club regardless of other offers.

 

The sportspeople mentioned in this article are only a few examples of the type of thing this world needs more of—I daresay there are many others, some of whom include Dave Dravecky, Rick Ankiel, Martel Van Zandt, Tim Broschi, Dustin Podroia, Kevin Garnett, and Earvin "Magic" Johnson.

In this time of darkness, people like those above shine brightly—flashes of light in the dark sky; rays of brilliance on the dull, monotonous canvas of life.

Rays of hope, that the world will again become a decent place to live.

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