10 of the Most Humble Sports Superstars of the 2000s

Sid QuashieFeatured ColumnistNovember 18, 2016

10 of the Most Humble Sports Superstars of the 2000s

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    Ronald Cortes/Associated Press

    It’s hard to celebrate some athletes in this look-at-me generation of sports culture, but that’s what makes the most humble sports superstars so unique, because rather than flex their muscles in exultation of a routine play, they are quiet assassins whose best work is done in silence.

    The people on this list have earned championships and world titles by plying their trade with a relentless pursuit of excellence without calling attention to themselves. They are each considered superstars in their sport, which is one of the most important criteria for their appearance on this list.

    But these athletes have also earned the respect of other stars, never talk trash, take their sport seriously and are often admired by fans of other teams or by fans who root for other athletes in their sport.

    Because this list does not rank who are the best humble athletes, there is no honorable mention, so rein in your inner Odell Beckham Jr., and bask in the quiet greatness of these most humble of superstars.

Larry Fitzgerald

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Last year, in his 12th NFL season, Larry Fitzgerald played in all 16 games and had 109 receptions for 1,215 yards and nine touchdowns.

    With more than 13,000 receiving yards and 98 touchdowns entering the 2016-17 NFL season, Fitzgerald has likely already done enough to earn Hall of Fame induction and, with a few more good years, may be a first-ballot entrant.

    But it is his character and generosity that set him apart from most athletes.

    Fitzgerald has such a sterling, genuine reputation among his peers in the NFL that even a supreme trash-talker like Richard Sherman of the Seattle Seahawks leaves him alone.

    That’s one of the reasons Kevin Clark of the Wall Street Journal wrote Fitzgerald is one of most respected players in the NFL. Clark interviewed former Pittsburgh Steelers defensive enforcer Ike Taylor, who said of Fitzgerald, “Everyone loves him…he respects the game.”

    In addition to playing football, Fitzgerald has also established the Larry Fitzgerald First Down Fund, a nonprofit organization that helps underprivileged children and families.

Kawhi Leonard

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    The San Antonio Spurs acquired Kawhi Leonard’s rights in the 2011 NBA Draft after the Indiana Pacers had selected him with the 15th pick. The move cost the team George Hill, the well-regarded backup point guard, but in return the Spurs got a talented but unformed piece of basketball clay that the team molded into one of the top-five all-around players in the NBA.

    That fact was recently validated by ESPN.com’s annual NBA Rank, which breaks down the top 200 players in the league, and listed Leonard at number four.

    Leonard personifies the humble and quiet star who internalizes nearly all his emotion and just outworks everyone, despite his enormous talent.

    Many people questioned whether Leonard would ever be good enough to warrant the cost of trading away Hill, so he went to work proving doubters wrong.

    He has improved his scoring, blocks and assists every year since he joined the league in 2011, and he broke through in the 2014 NBA Finals when the Spurs won the championship and Leonard earned MVP honors at the tender age of 22.

    He has since followed that up with two consecutive Defensive Player of Year awards in 2015 and 2016, and he signed a $94 million contract way before the salary cap went bonkers, just to give the Spurs the money to sign elite free agents such as Pau Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge.

    And yet, no one knows much about Leonard, and that’s just how he likes it.

    SI.com’s Lee Jenkins’ profile of Leonard included this revealing quote from coach Gregg Popovich:

    “When Kawhi makes a mistake, he’s almost apologetic. He doesn’t want to disappoint anybody. There are times he does something well, and I have to tell him, ‘That was super. That was fantastic. That was a helluva job. You can smile now. You can feel great about yourself.’”

    Humility, hard work and a constant hustling ethic make Leonard not only a top-five player, but also one of the most admired superstars in the NBA.

Kaka

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Kaka was once one of the finest futbol players on the planet, a breathtaking combination of speed, grace and skill.

    The Brazilian talisman won the World Cup in 2002 and has also earned a slew of awards, including two Serie A Footballer of the Year trophies, FIFA World Player of the Year and induction into the AC Milan Hall of Fame in 2010.

    But it’s Kaka’s humanity and compassion that really make him a unique athlete of world stature.

    He was named a U.N. World Food Programme ambassador in 2004 at the age of 22 and is known throughout the futbol world for his charity work and his commitment to his faith.

    Kaka’s sterling reputation was chronicled by Simon Veness of MLSsoccer.com, and in that profile, Veness described Kaka—who now plays for Orlando City SC of MLS—as “the anti-celebrity, in many respects, albeit a hugely well-paid one who garners enormous professional respect.”

    Veness’ impression of Kaka is of a humble superstar, one with more than 20 million Twitter followers and more than 30 million Facebook “likes,” who has no entourage, never calls attention to himself, sits for interviews without a public relations team and will on the day he retires be considered one of the 100 greatest soccer players of all time.

Fedor Emelianenko

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Before MMA fans knew Anderson Silva or Jon Jones, the only moniker that mattered in the entire sport was “Fedor.”

    The Russian superstar was for a decade the most feared and destructive force in combat sports, a poker-faced fighter with a man-bod and the title of Baddest Man On the Planet.

    Emelianenko dominated Pride Fighting Championships from 2003 to 2007, capturing the heavyweight title and never relinquishing it despite stiff challenges from Mirko Crocop and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, two future Hall of Fame fighters.

    Since he became a professional in 2000, Emelianenko has fought 41 fights, won 36 of them—10 by knockout, 17 by submission and nine by submission—and only lost four times.

    And more admired than his redoubtable skills is the fact the Russian fighter never belittled his opponents, never disrespected anyone in the ring, never made excuses after his first loss in 10 years to Fabricio Werdum and always showed tremendous sportsmanship to whoever climbed into the ring to face him.

    David St. Martin of MMAfighting.com recounts an interview Emelianenko gave Michael Schiavello of AXS TV in which he explained the origin of his trademark expressionless demeanor by saying, “I always remember that I represent myself, but also my country. People are making judgments about Russian people based on me. This is why I never allow myself any aggression towards my opponent.”

    In that same interview, Emelianenko described combative UFC president Dana White as “very reserved and very respectful,” and for an MMA fighter often ranked in the top five of all time to give White that kind of compliment is a true testament to his humility.

Mike Trout

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    It’s bad enough this guy became the best baseball player on the planet the first time he took a pitch in his debut on July 8, 2011, for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, but does he have to do it with such class and likability?

    You never see Mike Trout in the tabloids.

    TMZ doesn’t bother to record his movements, and no one asks his opinion about pop culture or hot-button politics, because Trout just wants to do two things: treat the game with respect and become the greatest baseball player in MLB history.

    On both counts, he’s doing a bang-up job.

    Through the 2015-16 MLB season, Trout’s line is a .306 average with 917 hits, 168 home runs, 497 RBIs, a .405 on-base percentage, 600 runs and 143 stolen bases. He is also a five-time All-Star, won the AL MVP in 2014 and was runner-up in 2012, 2013 and 2015, and he will likely finish in the top three for the 2016 AL MVP.

    This past spring training, Peter Gammons of GammonsDaily.com wrote a story about how Mike Morin, an Angles relief-pitching prospect was in his locker after a game and Trout asked him if he wanted to play golf.

    Morin was up for it but didn’t have his clubs, so he told Trout that going back to retrieve them would take too long and waste Trout’s time. Instead of bailing on the golf outing, Trout advised Morin to get his clubs and that he would buy the pitcher lunch and pick it up from wherever he wanted.

    “I’m trying to make the team,” Morin said, “And he’s taking my order and picking up my food so we can play together. He has no air of being a star. He’s just the most normal person you could ever meet.”

    A student of the game with a supernatural work ethic, Trout never shows up anyone, including opposing pitchers, which is why he told the Los Angeles TimesBill Shaikin that he would never flip his bat after a home run.

    “My parents always taught me to be humble,” he said.

David Beckham

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    Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

    What’s cool about David Beckham is that for all the fame he achieved as an international soccer star, he never lost the common touch.

    Maybe it’s the fact he doesn’t speak the Queen’s English but rather seems to have a mouth full of marbles and the working-class accent of a bloke from Newcastle. This is simply a guy you can’t hate, despite the fact he married a Spice Girl and modeled boxer briefs, because he doesn’t take himself seriously.

    By many accounts, he has always been a loyal teammate, an opinion shared by Brazilian soccer legend Ronaldo, who famously backed Beckham’s possible selection onto the English team for the 2012 London Olympic Games.

    “He’s a team player, and despite his status and fame, he’s actually humble,” Ronaldo said in an interview with Mail Online. “Never during my time at Real Madrid did I hear anyone complain about him.”

    Beckham has model good looks and a common man’s self-deprecation, which likely came from his modest upbringing in Leytonstone in East London with a mother who was a hairdresser and a father who was a kitchen repairman. He never forgot his middle-class values, and that’s why despite the fact he retired in 2013, Beckham still ranked fourth in The Cauldron’s listing of soccer players with the most Google searches, behind only Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Neymar.

Rafael Nadal

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    Andy Wong/Associated Press

    The Spanish superstar known as “Rafa” is only 30 years old, and yet since turning pro in 2001, he has won 14 Grand Slams, tied for second all-time with Pete Sampras, and has 69 career titles, good enough for sixth place in the Open Era.

    But you’d never know from the way Nadal carries himself that he’s earned nearly $80 million in prize money, or that tennis legend Andre Agassi considers him the best tennis player in history.

    That’s because Nadal always gives credit to his opponent, win or lose.

    The biggest example of this deference is that despite dominating his biggest rival, Roger Federer, over the past decade, Nadal has consistently called the Swiss maestro the greatest tennis player of all time.

    But as his injuries have piled up, slowing his aggressive playing style and making him an underdog to tennis’ ascendant supernova, Novak Djokovic, Nadal has become something different. He’s a lion in winter now, a once-a-generation talent in the twilight of his career, searching for that one final title before succumbing to that undefeated opponent called “Age.”

    Who wouldn’t want to root for this guy?

Sidney Crosby

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Yes, Sidney Crosby has a lot of haters out in the NHL world, because fans of opposing teams think he and the Pittsburgh Penguins receive preferential treatment from the referees and from NHL brass, but table that for a second.

    Because the truth is you’ve never heard Crosby ever utter a disrespectful or unkind word about another player, a coach or unruly fans.

    In fact, when’s the last time you saw Crosby anywhere but on the ice?

    Crosby came into the league at 18 as the closest thing to Wayne Gretzky. Big, strong and talented, he could crash the boards like a blue-liner from the old-school Edmonton Oilers and score with the soft touch of Mario Lemieux, the man who owned the Pittsburgh Penguins, the team that had drafted him.

    Despite all the weight of expectations, Crosby kept his mouth shut and worked like a fiend to get better.

    At 29, he has already won two Stanley Cups, two Olympic gold medals, two league MVP awards, two scoring titles and a Conn Smythe Trophy. He has vanquished the luckless Alexander Ovechkin as his only true rival for designation as the best player in the NHL.

    And through all his accomplishments, Crosby has remained quiet, steady and possessed of the small-town values he inherited from his childhood in blue-collar Cole Harbour in Nova Scotia.

    He runs the Sidney Crosby Foundation, a nonprofit that gives money to charities for kids, and he recently started a hockey school for children.

    In a profile of Crosby on TribLIVE, Jason Mackey wrote that the Penguins star detests change, which is why he drives a comfortable Chevy Tahoe, uses a Palm Treo smartphone and avoids social media of all kinds, especially Twitter.

    Crosby may be the most unassuming, normal, everyday superstar in the NHL.

    In the words of 16-year-old Shane Bowers, a budding hockey talent who attended Crosby’s hockey camp and who was interviewed in that same profile: “For Sid to be the best player in the world, come from Cole Harbour and to act the way he does, he’s a big role model. Every kid around here looks up to him.”

Gennady Golovkin

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    Rich Schultz/Associated Press

    Boxing fans know Gennady Golovkin as Triple G because his middle name is Gennadyevich, and they also know he may be the best pound-for-pound boxer on earth right now.

    At the age of 34, when most boxers are careening toward retirement, Golovkin has entered his prime as a middleweight destroyer with a gaudy stat line of 36 fights, 36 wins, and 33 wins by knockout. The Kazakhstani fighter with the funny accent is one of the most destructive pugilists in the world, a man so intimidating in the ring that even the estimable Canelo Alvarez has delayed a much-anticipated bout with Golovkin.

    But away from the ring, it’s hard to tell Golovkin is even a boxer.

    Jon Saraceno of USA Today profiled Triple G and wrote he is a humble family man who is fluent in four languages and has studied economics and sports at the university level.

    Unfailingly polite, well-mannered, respectful and friendly, Golovkin is the antidote to the showmanship of Floyd Mayweather Jr., a killer inside the ring, a gentleman outside of it, and if given the chance, the next great pay-per-view star boxing so desperately needs.

Tim Duncan

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    Duncan was often called boring during his days playing for the San Antonio Spurs, because he never gave reporters anything that could become bulletin-board material for his opponents. He played the game with the same steady greatness for 19 years, obsessively committed to passing, rebounding and playing defense, rather than the showboat dunk.

    And through it all, Duncan earned universal respect because of his own respect for the game, for his teammates and for the privilege of playing in the NBA.

    This is a player whom many believe was the greatest power forward of all time and one of the five greatest centers in NBA history, and yet when he retired, he did it with a press release.

    No season-long farewell tour.

    No embarrassed acceptance of gifts from opposing teams.

    He didn’t even show up for the Spurs’ press conference announcing his retirement.

    Jason Gay of the Wall Street Journal called Duncan a “humble legend” who didn’t care about fashion or bling or anything other than playing the game the right way and who understood personal glory meant nothing outside the concept of teamwork.

    Given his reputation for hating the spotlight, it’s quite possible Duncan’s Hall of Fame induction speech may go down as the shortest in NBA history.