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10 Sports Heroes That Are Actually Heroes

Zachary D. RymerMLB Lead WriterNovember 12, 2010

10 Sports Heroes That Are Actually Heroes

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    We talk a lot about sports heroes, but how many of them are actually heroes?

    To be sure, the very meaning of the word is drastically different on a day like Veteran's Day, which I suppose is why it's on our minds in the first place.

    Indeed, being a hero goes beyond performing physical feats. Every athlete does that. It's their business. 

    It's the ones who are heroic away from their respective sport, the ones who sacrifice their time, money, and sometimes even personal well-being for the betterment of others, that are actually worthy of our admiration.

    Here are 10 sports heroes who actually deserve to be called heroes.

10. Michael Jordan

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    If you're the skeptical sort, you might be sitting there wondering exactly what Michael Jordan ever did to elevate his hero status beyond the basketball court.

    Well, as one great sports writer once put it, Jordan was and still is "the first great athlete of the wired world."

    And if I can add my own two cents, I would say that Jordan should perhaps be considered the first great celebrity of the wired world. His appeal as a celebrity was able to transcend national boundaries and became a kind of figurehead for the modern age.

    True, MJ is a little lacking in the personal sacrifice department. But I just think he deserves to be on here for starting a revolution that was bigger than sports.

9. Terry Fox

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    Ever wonder where all those charity runs come from?

    You're looking at him.

    Fox was a distance runner and basketball player who had his right leg amputated in 1977 after he was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a cancerous condition.

    In 1980, on an artificial leg, Fox began the "Marathon of Hope," a cross-country run across Canada intended to raise money for cancer research. He started at Saint John's and made it as far as Thunder Bay, just outside Ontario, before his worsening condition forced him to stop.

    He planned to continue his run, but his cancer had spread to his lungs and he died nine months later.

    He had raised $1.7 million by the time he was forced to stop the Marathon of Hope.

    He is considered a national hero in Canada, and he should be considered a hero in the sports world at large.

8. Pat Tillman

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    Pat Tillman cut his football career short so he could enlist in the U.S. Army and fight in the War on Terror.

    Tillman was a star safety for the Arizona Cardinals at the time of the September 11th attacks, and he turned down a contract offer of $3.6 million in May of 2002. He and his brother Kevin, who was a pretty good pitcher in his own right, enlisted in June, and completed basic training in September.

    Tillman was killed in action in 2004, which, after some controversy, was revealed to have been due to friendly fire.

    As far as sacrifice goes, no contemporary athlete is anywhere near Tillman's level.

7. Roberto Clemente

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    The link between professional athletes and charity is pretty much assumed at this point.

    But Roberto Clemente did it before it was a trendy professional obligation, and it ended up costing him his life.

    Clemente used to spend his offseasons doing charity work for his native Puerto Rico, but it was a charitable visit to Nicaragua that ultimately claimed his life. He was on a relief flight to Managua that was dangerously overloaded, and the plain crashed off the coast of Puerto Rico.

    Today, the Roberto Clemente Award honors the player who best exemplifies sportsmanship and community involvement.

6. Billie Jean King

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    Billie Jean King once said, “I've never cared that much for cementing my place in history. Sports is so transitory, so ephemeral.... One lesson you learn from sports is that life goes on without you.”

    And I think that's part of why Billie Jean King is so important. She was a key figure in the fight for women's equality during the 1970s, the time in which her famous victory over Bobby Riggs.

    Life magazine would eventually name her as one of the "100 Most Important Americans of the 20th Century" in the 1990s.

5. Arthur Ashe

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    "True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost."

    Those are not the words of some political leader, or even some guy trying to take down a political leader. Those are the words of Arthur Ashe. And that's exactly why he's on this list.

    It would have been enough if Ashe was remember solely for being the first great African American tennis player. But he used his celebrity to further civil rights causes, most notably the movement against Apartheid.

4. Jackie Robinson

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    Jackie Robinson did more than just change baseball. He was a key figure in a movement that changed a culture. And that's worth something.

    In the words of the late David Halberstam, "What made him so important was... that he stood at the exact intersection of two powerful and completely contradictory American impulses, one of the impulse of darkness and prejudice, the other over the impulse of idealism and optimism, the belief in the possibility of true advancement for all Americans in this democratic and meritocratic society."

    My feeble words can do no better than that.

3. Ted Williams

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    Ted Williams is considered by many to be the greatest hitter that ever lived, and the baseball world is forever thankful for what Teddy Ballgame did for the game.

    Thankfully, Williams is just as well known for his lengthy military career as he is for his days as a star left fielder for the Boston Red Sox.

    The Splendid Splinter served as a flight instructor in WWII and a combat pilot in Korea, totaling five years of active military service. Those five years came right in the middle of what would have been Williams' prime baseball years.

    In both tours of duty, Williams was offered the chance to just play baseball for the Navy and Marines. He chose to fight instead.

    There have been many who wondered why Williams wasn't more of an endearing figure during his career. But as the great John Updike once wrote about Williams, "Gods don't answer letters."

2. Jessie Owens

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    I'm of the opinion that anybody who could personally piss off Hitler is worth being called a hero. And I'm very thankful that there's at least one person in the sports world who can achieve hero status by that very method.

    Jesse Owens was the star of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, which was supposed to be a showcase for the so-called "master race."

    Owens won four gold medals, and his success made Hitler choose to skip all medal presentations after the first day.

    On balance, Owens' is one of the best stories in the history of the Olympics.

1. Muhammad Ali

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    To introduce Ali, I would like to once again quote the great David Halberstam:

    "I thought him a great fighter, a remarkable, luminescent personality, a genuine original (unlike so many thin imitators who have come along since), in the end someone so large on the landscape that he transcended the smaller world of sports for the larger one of American history."

    Indeed, there was perhaps no greater athlete who was a bigger cultural icon in 20th century America than Muhammad Ali. He was bigger than boxing, and he was bigger than sports.

    And that's what makes him a hero, and the reason why he ranks ahead of Jackie Robinson. While neither of them took any crap from anybody, Ali had to deal with far more adversity because he chose to do it his way.

    Ultimately, if you're looking for a figure from the sports world that has had a bigger influence on a society, then you're looking for Muhammad Ali.

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