The 25 Most Inspirational Athletes in Sports History

Bill Robbins@bill_kc28Correspondent IDecember 17, 2011

The 25 Most Inspirational Athletes in Sports History

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    To inspire means to fill someone with the urge or ability to do or feel something.

    Throughout the course of sports history, there have been many professional athletes who have inspired the masses.

    Magic Johnson, Lou Gehrig and Tiger Woods are just a few of the athletes who have inspired others in their respective sports.

    Here are the 25 most inspiring athletes in sports history.

Honorable Mention

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    Rulon Gardner

    Martina Navratilova

    Dara Torres

    Mark Herzlich


    Steve Prefontaine

    Dick Hoyt

    Dan Jansen

    Jim Morris

Kurt Warner

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    Former NFL QB Kurt Warner was one of the biggest underdog stories in American sports history.

    He went from sacking groceries at a grocery store, to becoming a Super Bowl winning quarterback in the NFL.

    He is an inspiration to all QBs everywhere, as well as another member of this list, Tom Brady.

    Warner's story is one that you can hear over and over without it ever getting old.

Pat Tillman

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    Pat Tillman was one of the most patriotic athletes that this country has ever seen.

    He enlisted in the U.S. Army in 2002, just a year after his fourth season with the Arizona Cardinals.

    Sadly, he was killed in Afghanistan from friendly fire in 2004, nearly two years after he joined the military.

    Tillman has inspired many for his ultimate sacrifice for his country.

Reggie White

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    Former Green Bay Packers and Carolina Panthers' defensive end Reggie White had a following nearly everywhere he went.

    The Chattanooga, Tennessee native was nearly unblockable on defense, as he racked up nearly 200 sacks in his 15-year pro career.

    White was also known as "The Minister of Defense" due to being an ordained pastor and helping bring many to Christianity throughout his life.

    NFL Hall of Famer Michael Irvin summed up White the best when he said, "He was a gift from God, and that's all you need to know about Reggie White".

Roberto Clemente

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    Roberto Clemente was the most inspiring athlete that ever put on a Pittsburgh Pirates uniform.

    He was an amazing talent and dominated both in the outfield and at the plate while in the major leagues.

    He also was an excellent person off the field as well.

    Clemente died in late 1972 when the plane that he was in crashed on the way to help out earthquake victims in Nicaragua.

Josh Hamilton

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    Texas Rangers' outfielder Josh Hamilton has been to hell and back in his 30 years of life.

    The former Tampa Bay Rays draft pick struggled for years with his drug addictions.

    Desperate for a change, Hamilton turned to God to help save him from his problems.

    Since those dark days, he was won an AL MVP award and has been clean for years.

Ted Williams

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    Ted Williams was one of those people that was a natural at just about everything that they did.

    "Teddy Ballgame" was a 19-time All-Star in the big leagues, and was also dedicated to his country through military service as well.

    Williams took part in 39 combat missions as a pilot in both World War II and the Korean War.

    We may never see another man like him again in Major League Baseball.

Lyman Bostock

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    Lyman Bostock might be one of the most unknown people on this list, but his story is just as good as any other athlete.

    The former Minnesota Twins star made news in 1978, when he made an unimaginable offer to then-California Angels owner Gene Autry.

    Bostock offered to return his salary for the month of April, after only hitting .150 during that time period, only to have that offer declined and eventually give the money to charity.

    Unfortunately, Bostock was murdered later that year, but his enormous act of kindness will never be forgotten.

Jim Abbott

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    Former MLB pitcher Jim Abbott was a talented athlete, but he had one glaring problem.

    He was born without a right hand.

    The ex-California Angels pitcher didn't let this bother him, as he still was able to win 87 games in his 11-year big league career.

Magic Johnson

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    The former Lakers point guard was one of the best players to ever play his position.

    In 1991, he tested positive for HIV, and had to put his career and life on hold for awhile.

    Five years after his shocking announcement, Johnson was able to play again for the Lakers at the end of the 95-96 NBA season.

    Since his playing career has ended, he has been a strong advocate of AIDS awareness and continues to inspire the masses about this awful disease that affects so many in this world.

Michael Oher

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    Michael Oher's story is one of the best ones in American sports history.

    With no parental supervision and nowhere to turn, a Mississippi family decided to take him in and make them a part of their family.

    He later become a football star at Ole Miss and is now a starting right tackle for the Baltimore Ravens in the NFL.

    His story has inspired many around the world and is captured in the movie The Blind Side.

Rudy Ruettiger

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    The story of Rudy Ruettiger is another one that become very well-known throughout American sports history.

    Ruettiger was deemed too small to ever play football, yet he proved his doubters wrong but not only making Notre Dame's football team, but also getting some playing time as well.

    If you've never seen the movie Rudy, I would recommend it for any sports fan out there.

Vince Papale

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    To many, it didn't seem that former NFL player Vince Papale never had a chance to make it into the league.

    After all, he was a bartender from Philly, and hadn't even played football when he was in college.

    Papale ended up defying the odds and played for the Eagles for three seasons, after he made the team from an impromptu tryout in 1976.

Lance Armstrong

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    Lance Armstrong was on the verge of death, and he still lived to tell about it.

    In 1996, he was diagnose with testicular cancer, and doctors informed that he had around a 20-percent chance to survive.

    After going through treatment, Armstrong was able to overcome his illness and win seven straight Tour de France titles from 1999 to 2005.

    His story became an inspiration to many Americans that have fought with cancer over the years.

Michael Jordan

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    Michael Jordan is arguably the greatest pro basketball player of all time.

    He finished with six NBA titles and one of the best careers in league history.

    What's even more inspiring about his accomplishments was that he was able to do all this despite getting cut from his high school team, losing his father and failing at his other dream of playing pro baseball.

Tiger Woods

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    Woods is arguably the best golfer in the history of his sport.

    He has won 98 times in his pro career, including 14 major championships.

    A golf prodigy since a very young age, Woods is one of the most inspirational athletes that has sport has ever seen to date.

Mia Hamm

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    Hamm was arguably the best women's soccer player to ever play for the United States.

    Her 158 international goals his first all-time in U.S. soccer history.

    She continues to be a great ambassador of the sport of soccer today, and she has inspired many female soccer players around the country.

Jesse Owens

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    Owens is best known for winning four gold medals in the 1936 Berlin Olympics for the United States.

    He also did something else that was almost unheard of in those days.

    The U.S. track star stood up to German dictator Adolf Hitler, who also attended the Olympics that year in his home country of Germany.

Michael Phelps

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    The American swimming phenom has been an inspiration to swimmers everywhere since he busted onto the scene back in 2000.

    Since then, Phelps has won a total of 14 gold medals, including an incredible eight first-place finishes in the '08 Beijing Olympics.

    At just 26 years old, he has a chance to be the greatest athlete to ever participate in his sport.

Muhammad Ali

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    No one needed to tell boxing legend Muhammad Ali that he was "the greatest" boxer of his time.

    In fact, he proved this himself.

    The Louisville, Kentucky native went 56-5 in his career, while capturing a gold medal in the 1960 Rome Olympics for the United States.

    He is still considering an icon to many boxing fans who watch the sport today.

Jackie Robinson

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    If it wasn't for Jackie Robinson, it's unclear how many African-American athletes would be in pro sports today.

    The former multi-sport star at UCLA broke the color barrier in 1947 when he made his major league debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

    There were mixed emotions on that day, but Jackie ended up being the biggest winner of all when it was over.

    Since his death in 1972, MLB has picked one day out of the regular season where every play on each team were's old number 42, in honor of the late baseball and American sports hero.

Lou Gehrig

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    Gehrig was one of the best New York Yankees of all time.

    He was also one of the better people to ever play in Major League Baseball.

    After already having a Hall of Fame career, Gehrig was diagnosed with ALS in the summer of 1939.

    After a courageous battle with this terrible disease, he died just two years later in 1941, leaving behind one of the greatest first basemen to ever play the game.

Tom Brady

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    Tom Brady was a sixth-round pick in the 2001 NFL Draft.

    There were six quarterbacks that were taken before him in that draft, which ended up being six too many in the end.

    The former University of Michigan QB has gone on to star for the New England Patriots, helping them win three Super Bowl titles in the last decade.

Manute Bol

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    You won't find many people out there that are more dedicated to their home country than Manute Bol.

    The former NBA star set up numerous charitable organizations throughout his life and was very active in trying to help out people in the nation of Sudan.

    He also was one of the best shot-blockers of all time during his 10 seasons in the league.

Wayne Gretzky

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    Wayne Gretzky was the greatest hockey player to ever step foot on the ice.

    His career last an amazing 22 years, and he scored 894 goals and added 1,963 assists during that time.

    He will forever be an inspiration to the many hockey fans that have come to know him as a player on the ice and as a person off the ice.

Manny Pacquiao

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    The great story of star boxer Manny Pacquiao might be one of the lesser known stories on this list.

    His improbable rise to fame is one of the best that I've ever heard.

    Pacquiao began his life with a troubled background growing up in the Philippines, but ended up working his way to stardom in the boxing ring, where he currently stands 54-3 in his illustrious career.