November 24, 2008

Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 2. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer. For more essays, click here.

Why should John Elway be my 2008 Sportsman of the Year?

The answer is simple: On the 10th anniversary of awarding our most prestigious honor to Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, SI would make an important statement by withdrawing that recognition and instead presenting it to Elway, who's clearly a more deserving winner.

Understand, I don't take the idea of stripping McGwire and Sosa lightly. But over the years SI has been proud to serve as the conscience of sport, and taking a stand against McGwire and Sosa -- whose drug-tainted home-run exploits are now beyond any reasonable doubt -- would be taking a stand against the steroid era in baseball, to say nothing of the performance-enhancing drug era in all of sports. If Major League Baseball won't remove McGwire and Sosa from the record books, then we can at least remove them from our halls of honor.

But I don't want my 2008 award to be a wholly punitive action, as cleansing as that might be. So who should be named as the rightful winner of the 1998 SI Sportsman of the Year? Based on transcendent performances in '98 we could consider the pluses and minuses of several nominees. Marion Jones had a remarkable year on the track, but she's just as tainted by drugs as McGwire and Sosa are. Zinédine Zidane was majestic in leading France to the World Cup title, but he got a red-card in that tournament (and didn't help his legacy with that head-butt in 2006).

Two other candidates come closer to fitting the bill: Pat Summitt, who guided Chamique Holdsclaw and Tennessee to an undefeated season and the NCAA title, and Steve Yzerman, the heart and soul of the Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings.

But I'm going with Elway. It's easy to forget that Elway entered 1998 as a 37-year-old three-time Super Bowl loser who, for all of his late-game heroics over the years, was known as a choker in the big game. But then look at what happened. Elway didn't put up big numbers in Super Bowl XXXII, but it was his third-and-six scramble (and refusal to run out of bounds) deep in Green Bay Packers territory that was the play of the game in the Denver Broncos' taut 31-24 upset.

And while I know that Elway's jaw-dropping MVP performance in Super Bowl XXXIII took place a few weeks after McGwire and Sosa won the '98 Sportsman of the Year award, I'm going to include it in my argument anyway. It was the culminating game of the 1998 NFL season, after all, and the final game of Elway's Hall of Fame career. The Broncos quarterback was spectacular, completing 18 of 29 passes for 336 yards and a touchdown in a 34-19 win over the Atlanta Falcons.

How many other athletes in the Pantheon have been able to retire at the top? Rocky Marciano, for one. Ray Bourque, Michael Strahan. Michael Jordan (if you ignore his forgettable Wizards years). But Elway did as well, and he did it in style. Let's recognize that now. Let's recognize John Elway as the 2008 (and the 1998) Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year.

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