When it comes down to it, we're lucky in the world of soccer: The sport is so widespread—and so interconnected with culture and society—that it can't help but produce the kind of stories that highlight the human condition and, occasionally, represent the best in us. In 2013, two American soccer figures did exactly that, inspiring us with their courage and grace when others would have withdrawn in fear.
And so I nominate Bob Bradley and Robbie Rogers as my Sportsmen of the Year.
You want courage? Bradley stayed. As the Egyptian national team coach, Bradley could have left Cairo after the security situation crumbled there. Most foreign coaches would have done so in a heartbeat. More than 70 soccer fans died at a stadium massacre, leading to the suspension of the Egyptian league, but Bradley stayed. A state of emergency was declared in Cairo as the military toppled an elected government and killed more than 800 protestors, but Bradley stayed.
He did more than stay, too. Bradley and his wife, Lindsay, became part of the Cairo community, raising money for the Cairo Children's Hospital and visiting the stricken kids there regularly. And on the field, against all odds and without a functioning domestic league, Bradley somehow took Egypt to within a hair's breadth of qualifying for its first World Cup since 1990. He talked about his Egyptian team as a band of brothers, rallying a fractured nation behind a team that succeeded despite having different opinions and beliefs. He built a bond of mutual respect with Egyptian star Mohamed Aboutreika, the driven coach from New Jersey and the devout philosophy major from the Arab world.
In the end, Bradley and Egypt won seven of their eight World Cup qualifiers. Their one loss, to Ghana, was enough to end Egypt's dream of Brazil. Some Egyptian media called it a failure. They were as wrong as you could be.
You want courage? Rogers came out. In a male team sports world that had never embraced gay athletes, Rogers announced his orientation and stepped away from the sport in the same blog post in February. At first, the reaction was two-fold: Rogers, a former national-team player, got a tidal wave of support from the U.S. soccer community, but there was also a sense of deep regret that Rogers felt he needed to leave soccer at age 25 upon making his announcement.
Then a remarkable thing happened. After hiding from public view initially, thinking the response would be almost wholly negative, Rogers did a 180. He returned to the U.S. from England, started training again and eventually joined the Los Angeles Galaxy, becoming the first openly gay male athlete to play in a prominent North American team sport. (Basketball player Jason Collins had come out in early May but has yet to latch on with an NBA team.) By the end of 2013, Rogers had gone from fleeing public view to calling himself an "activist" and launching an organization called "Beyond It" to support initiatives for moving past easy labels of people.
So quickly did Rogers become just another player—the way it should be, after all—that it was easy to forget how much fortitude it took for him to come back to the sport. Rogers didn't have a great year on the field: He didn't score any goals for the Galaxy, and the player he was traded for, Mike Magee, won the MLS MVP award. But while Rogers would have preferred a different scenario, the questioning of the trade was another reminder that he was just like any other player. Not "the gay player."
Off the field, Rogers' transformation over a period of months from hiding into courageous public leadership is nothing short of remarkable. Rogers is a gifted writer with a strong voice, and he has used it to call out Russia's anti-gay laws ahead of the Winter Olympics while encouraging Olympians there to wear a green bar on their clothing to make a statement in support of gay athletes.
Before we leave 2013, let's remember just how remarkable a year it was that Rogers and Bradley, two men who could easily have won SI magazine's Sportsman of the Year award, both hail from the growing but still relatively small pond of U.S. soccer. There are some special people in our little corner of the sports world, and this year they showed that in the best possible way.