Top 25 Sports Role Models of Last 25 Years

James RiggioContributor IFebruary 21, 2012

Top 25 Sports Role Models of Last 25 Years

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    Everyone has one, two, three or maybe even more people they define as a role model.

    In the opinion of this writer, a role model is defined as someone who has been a great individual, not just on the playing field, but off it as well.

    The off-the-field conduct of these individuals is outstanding.

    While there will definitely be some quality individuals that are omitted from this list, it comes as a result of the great difficulty in accumulating one.

    In order to be part of this list, an athlete or coach has had to have an almost flawless record.

    Those that are part of the list are in alphabetical order and are not ranked —such a task would be impossible.

Craig Biggio

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    Craig Biggio is one of the members of the elite 3,000 hit club and may soon find himself in Cooperstown.

    But the former Houston Astros star has done just as much off the field as he did on it.

    He was honored with the Hutch Award in 2004, given to a player who shows great competitiveness, as well as for his work in the community. 

    He received the Roberto Clemente Award in 2007, which is also given to a player for great work on and off the field.

    Biggio is the spokesperson for the Sunshine Kids Foundation, which raises money for children with cancer.

    He is now a high school baseball coach in Texas.

Dave Dravecky

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    Dave Dravecky was a solid left-handed pitcher for the San Diego Padres and the San Francisco Giants in the 1980s. 

    Sadly, cancer ended his career, as his left arm and shoulder were amputated. 

    Winner of the 1989 Hutch Award for best exemplifying a fighting spirit, Dravecky has written two books and is now a motivational speaker. 

Tim Duncan

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    The longtime San Antonio Spurs star is slam dunk for basketball's Hall of Fame.

    The low-key Duncan has been a model citizen and a great person off the court.

    He has his own foundation, donating thousands to help with health education, and other charitable endeavors. 

Roger Federer

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    Roger Federer is the best player ever in the eyes of most tennis experts. 

    He has 16 Grand Slam titles, but has done lots of work off the court that puts him on this list.

    Federer was appointed a Goodwill Ambassador by UNICEF in 2006, and is involved with many charities.

    He helped aid the victims of Hurricane Katrina, and those hurt by the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

Adonal Foyle

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    Foyle was primarily a backup power forward in the NBA from 1997 to 2009. 

    His numbers of the court are not the most impressive, but his work off the court is.

    Foyle founded Democracy Matters, a non-partisan, non-profit group that works on spreading democracy.

    In 2009, he was inducted into the World Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame.

Pau Gasol

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    Gasol has won two NBA titles and was the 2002 NBA Rookie of the Year.

    He is also perhaps the smartest man in the NBA. Gasol actually attended medical school in his native Barcelona, Spain until his basketball career took off.

    As one who speaks many languages fluently, Gasol would probably be the contestant to beat if the NBA had its own game of Jeopardy.

A.C. Green

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    The former NBA player is a role model in many ways.

    For one, Green did not miss a single game from 1986 to 2001.

    In 2011 he was honored with the Bobby Jones Award, for character, leadership and faith in basketball.

    He also has his own foundation in which he teaches abstinence until marriage to youth.

Grant Hill

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    Hill is a three-time winner of the NBA's Sportsmanship Award. 

    Hill was the vice chairman of the board of directors for the Special Olympics World Games in 1999.

    He is also involved with a number of charities and has created scholarships for many.

Mike Krzyzewski

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    He has won more games than any coach in NCAA Division I college basketball history.

    He has won four national championships, led 11 teams into the Final Four and taken home gold in the 2008 Olympics.

    But perhaps Mike Krzyzewski should be credited for graduating a very high percentage of his players and for sticking with Duke University.

    Krzyzewski has had opportunities in the past to coach the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers, but has turned down the more lucrative offers to stay loyal to the Blue Devils.

Jeremy Lin

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    Lin wasn't on this list when preparation for this slide show began, but he certainly merits it.

    He never gave up when colleges passed on giving him a scholarship.

    He also never gave up when some NBA teams cut him.

    Now he has become a star —and an icon —with the New York Knicks.

Andrew Luck

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    Luck could have left college a year ago and been the top pick in the NFL Draft.

    But getting a degree from the prestigious Stanford University was more important to him.

    Fortunately, Luck did not get injured and is the odds-on-favorite to be the top pick in this year's draft.

Greg Maddux

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    Maddux is known by many for winning four consecutive Cy Young Awards and 355 games in his career. 

    Although not an overpowering pitcher, he was known for his outstanding control and longevity.

    He is the only pitcher in Major League history to record at least 15 wins in 17 consecutive seasons.

    Off the field, Maddux and his wife Kathy, according to their Web site, have raised more than $850,000 since 2001 for various charities that support children with cancer, as well as shelters for abused women and children.

Eli Manning

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    Winning two Super Bowls is not why Eli Manning makes this list, even though that certainly doesn't hurt.

    Manning volunteered to help victims following Hurricane Katrina.

    He also started a campaign to donate $2.5 million to the University of Mississippi's medical center.

    Manning also appeared in commercials to raise awareness following the BP Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

    He is also involved with an annual charity golf event that raises money for the blind.

    In college, Manning was a fine student, graduating with a 3.44 grade point average.

Peyton Manning

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    One of the reasons why Eli Manning makes this list is because he has a great older brother and father to follow.

    Peyton Manning, seen signing a jersey for a fan, had never missed a game in his entire NFL career until missing the entire 2011 season.

    The string of 208 consecutive games to start a career is one of Manning's many NFL records.

    He also established The Peyback Foundation, which focuses on helping disadvantaged children in Louisiana, Tennessee and Indiana —the three states close to his heart.

    Manning's current status is up in the air as the Indianapolis Colts own the first pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, and could possibly draft quarterback Andrew Luck.

    Even if Manning were to retire now, the 11-time Pro Bowl selection has a place waiting for him in Canton, Ohio.

Joe Paterno

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    Some may believe Paterno does not belong on this list after his firing following the arrest of Jerry Sandusky that rocked Penn State last fall.

    Former player Matt Millen said it best when he said Paterno "died of a broken heart."

    Paterno may have made a mistake in not going further in the investigation of Sandusky, but this was something done out of ignorance to the situation.

    Joe Paterno was a father figure to so many men that played football at Penn State University for more than half a century. 

    Some may choose to look at the one mistake he made. The author of this slide show believes he did far more good things than bad before he left this planet.

Walter Payton

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    One of the greatest players in the history of football, Payton was considered by many to be an even better person off the field.

    Once the NFL's all-time leading rusher, he died at age 45 in 1999 from cholangiocarcinoma, a rare liver disease.

    But his legacy lives on. 

    He spent the final months of his life encouraging the donation of organs.

    The NFL renamed its Man of the Year Award in honor of the 1977 recipient, and is given to a player that displays outstanding humanitarian work.

    The NCAA Subdivision Football Offensive Player of the Year award is also named after him.

Cal Ripken Jr.

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    It is hard to argue against a guy that shows up to work every single day for 17 years without ever missing once.

    Cal Ripken Jr. played in 2,632 consecutive games, and did many more things during his storied career with the Baltimore Orioles.

    Off the field, Ripken has worked to raise money for research of Lou Gehrig's Disease, also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. 

    He has also worked to help allow underprivileged children attending camps, and started his own youth baseball leagues. 

    Ripken was also commissioner of the White House Tee Ball Initiative of President George W. Bush.

Mariano Rivera

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    Rivera has done a lot more than just save more games than any relief pitcher in baseball history.

    The 12-time All-Star and native of Panama, Rivera has already given so much back to those in his homeland.

    He has helped build schools, churches and has bought Christmas gifts for the poor.

    Rivera plans to dedicate himself to philanthropy after retiring from baseball. 

David Robinson

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    Robinson became a role model before he even set foot on an NBA floor, deciding to delay the start of his career to serve his country in the Navy.

    When he played, Robinson was one of the greatest centers in history, winning two NBA championships.

    A 10-time All-Star, Robinson won the NBA's 2001 Sportsmanship Award. 

    The NBA has named its Community Assist Award in Robinson's honor for his many charitable efforts.

Myron Rolle

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    It is hard not to include an athlete who put off his NFL career because he was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford University in England.

    The Pittsburgh Steelers safety graduated from Florida State University in just two and a half years, with a 3.75 grade point average.

    He plans to be a doctor his playing days are over.

Pete Sampras

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    A winner of 14 Grand Slam singles titles, Pete Sampras often didn't draw as much publicity as rival Andre Agassi during their storied rivalry. 

    But Sampras stayed away from drugs, the changing hair styles and bizarre uniforms.

    The soft-spoken Sampras has been involved in many charitable causes by donating to help in the fight against breast cancer.

    He has also helped the foundations of his late former coach, Tim Gullikson, which assists brain tumor patients, and the late Vitus Gerulaitis, which provides opportunities for inner-city children to play tennis. 

Pat Summitt

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    With eight NCAA titles to her resume, Pat Summitt has been a pioneer in women's sports.

    The University of Tennessee women's basketball coach since 1974, Summitt has more than 1,000 victories in her career.

    She was also an outstanding player, captaining the first United States women's national team as a player. 

    And In 1984, she coached the U.S. to gold in the Olympics.

    Just 59, Summitt announced last year that she has been diagnosed with early-onset dementia. She has continued to coach despite the diagnosis.

Tim Tebow

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    He won a Heisman Trophy and two national championships at the University of Florida, but Tim Tebow is a fan of many for what he does off the field.

    A devout Christian, the Denver Broncos quarterback has been known for helping many children with life-threatening illnesses.

    He has plans to build a hospital in the Philippines, where he was born when his parents served as missionaries.

    Tebow, who played four seasons with Florida, twice turned down a chance to turn pro after winning the Heisman Trophy.

Pat Tillman

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    Tillman gave his life for his country when he died in Afghanistan in 2004. Sadly, it was later discovered that he was killed by friendly fire.

    The Arizona Cardinals defensive back walked away from a three-year, $3.6 million contract offer to join the Army, following the attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.

    In college, Tillman was the Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year at Arizona State University. 

    He was also an excellent student, graduating in three-and-a-half years with a 3.85 grade point average.

John Wooden

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    No list of sports role models could be complete without John Wooden, the later legendary UCLA men's basketball coach.

    Although he had been long retired, Wooden spent the final years of his life as an author and inspirational figure to so many.

    Wooden has had a school, a post office, buildings and awards named after him.

    He is remembered by many to be the greatest basketball coach of all-time.