In January of 2011, just four weeks after he married his high school sweetheart, Clayton Kershaw found himself in Lusaka, Zambia, captivated by the beautiful smile of a 10-year-old girl named Hope, an orphaned, HIV-positive child who had lost both of her parents to AIDS. Kershaw's wife, Ellen, had met Hope that summer on a missionary trip to Africa.
"It changes you," Clayton Kershaw said last October. "It puts things in perspective."
Clayton and Ellen Kershaw came home to Dallas with a plan: to build a home for Hope and about a dozen children of Zambia just like her. Today, just 23 months later, a ranch-style home stands near completion in Lusaka, awaiting only some finishing touches, such as a security wall with electrical wiring atop, which is considered standard building practice in Lusaka. The Kershaws will be there in January to open their orphanage. It is called Hope's Home.
It is a place built on love and faith. There will be no modern American conveniences and luxuries. No washers and dryers, for instance. It is built for a safe, comfortable Zambian lifestyle.
"Over there," Kershaw said, "they don't have the same greed and that same want, so that's almost a blessing."
What Kershaw has done by the age of 24 is to have built something lasting and meaningful a world away -- in manners both in terms of geography and, considering his line of work, humility. Kershaw is my Sportsman of the Year because we need his perspective on what is truly important -- on how very small these games are when measured against true human greatness and the awesome power of faith.
Sports have become immensely important in an America with a growing, insatiable appetite to be entertained. To be dropped into the downtown of a major U.S. city after two decades of foreign travel would bring amazement at the many gleaming, excessive sports edifices -- garish monuments to ourselves filled with can-you-top this luxuries and foodstuffs, most of which are designed to be consumed without the bother of utensils.
Americans spend roughly three times as much money on entertainment as we do education. The entertainment money dropped on what the Bureau of Labor Statistics calls "Fees and Admissions" -- the segment that includes the prices you pay to watch sports -- has increased significantly more over the past two decades than our overall spending. From 1991-2011, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics, overall spending rose 33 percent, but the money we sunk into sports and other entertainment fees and admissions soared 65 percent.
The more we want sports the less we ask from those who play them. Admiration, even expectations, for the character of players shrink as the want to be entertained grows. Just entertain us, and even the miscreants are excused, even found darkly appealing. No word may be more twisted out of its original meaning -- and it is sports that have done most of the twisting -- than notoriety. It is derived from notorious, a synonym for dishonest or infamous. And yet all the time we hear not just from players but also those in the sports media who use notoriety as a synonym for attention or fame. It seems just getting noticed is all that matters, sportsmanship and humility be damned.
Kershaw gets noticed for all the right reasons. Please don't call it notoriety.
Kershaw was born in Dallas. His parents divorced when he was 10 years old. Raised by his mother, young Clayton was bound by worry, anxiety and distrust. College, or more specifically, how to pay for it, was a particular worry. He was interested in Texas A&M, where Ellen would go to school. Clayton and Ellen had known each other since junior high. Ellen's grandfather, Ed Melson, became something of a grandfather to Clayton, too, taking him on trips to the family's ranch in East Texas for outdoor adventures.
Everything changed for Kershaw in 2006. The Dodgers took him with the seventh overall pick of the draft. They signed him for $2.3 million. The anxiety fell away. Kershaw's faith in God deepened. It was what he called a "life-changing" discovery.
Kershaw was in the majors just two years later as the youngest player in the league at 20. Drawing comparisons to the great Dodger lefthander Sandy Koufax, if only because of the one K in their name and the hundreds in the scorebook, not to mention a wondrous, arcing curveball, Kershaw has become one of the most accomplished 25-and-under pitchers in baseball history. He is 61-37 (.622) with a 2.79 ERA, which includes four straight seasons with an ERA no worse than 2.91.
This year he led the league in ERA (2.53) and WHIP (1.023) and finished second in strikeouts (229) and innings (227 2/3).
Already Kershaw has won a Cy Young Award, a strikeout title, two ERA titles, the pitching triple crown and two All-Star Game selections. Only one honor, however, moved the Dodgers left-handed pitcher to the brink of an emotional breakdown. It happened last October in Detroit at the World Series, when at a news conference he was presented with the Roberto Clemente Award, baseball's highest off-the-field honor, which is awarded to players for significant humanitarian and charitable work.
Kershaw looked at Ellen upon receiving the award and began to get choked up.
"Ellen, thank you," he said. "She did a whole lot for this."
His eyes teared up. He paused to gather himself.
"It just means a lot," he said. "So thank you very much."
Later, in more composed moments with the media, Kershaw explained, "Winning an award like this means more to me than any individual award I could ever achieve."
The average age of the previous Roberto Clemente Award winners was 35. At 24, Kershaw easily was the youngest to win the award, a testament to the scope of his efforts and the rarity of someone so young having such a firm hold on what's important.
His charity goes well beyond Hope's Home. Kershaw began charitable endeavors in Los Angeles and Dallas almost as soon as he arrived in the big leagues, reminiscent of how Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter began his Turn Two foundation as a 22-year-old rookie.
In Los Angeles, Kershaw's foundation, Kershaw's Challenge, works with the Peacock Foundation, which provides at-risk youth with mental health services, including the use of rescued animals as part of group therapy. In Dallas, Kershaw's Challenge teams with Mercy Street, a ministry in West Dallas that provides youth services such as mentoring and sports programs. Helping disadvantaged children is at the heart of Kershaw's work in Africa, Los Angeles and Dallas.
"I've been fortunate to be able to start playing baseball professionally and at the big league level at an early age," Kershaw said in Detroit. "I'm so thankful for that. With that comes a great platform to do stuff off the field. I'm fortunate I got a great start in L.A. and started to do stuff off the field almost immediately."
Legacy is not the sort of word often applied to 24-year-olds. Yet Kershaw, so accomplished on the field and even more so off it, already has a legacy. He is one of the best pitchers in baseball who is making an event bigger impact without a baseball in his hands. His legacy is right there in Hope's smile, and those of the many children who will follow her at Hope's Home.
"Baseball is just something we've been given," he said. "It's a God-given talent. With that there are a lot of responsibilities that come with that. You need to find what you're passionate about off the field. Obviously I'm passionate about baseball and I love it. But off-the-field stuff means more."