Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 3. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer. For more essays, click here.
He wasn't coming here to be a superstar, he told us. He was coming here to make a difference, to make kids believe that they could dream bigger in a sport that has never been embraced in full by the American public.
Did you believe him? I wasn't sure. Dropped from the English national team, benched by Real Madrid, it seemed David Beckham was desperate to stay relevant. When the news broke last January that he was leaving Europe for America, it drew a combination of sneers, snickers and shrugs from the once-adoring English public.
The man who was an icon and a national hero wasn't even a man anymore, they said. He was a walking brand name. A man more interested in fame, Hollywood and attaching his good looks to the next big marketing deal.
If you believed his critics, whose hopes used to hang on his every bending free kick, Beckham was a hollow shell of the player he once was. Or worse, he was overhyped to begin with.
Sour grapes? Maybe. Beckham turned his back on Europe for the great unknown, signing a five-year deal with Major League Soccer's Los Angeles Galaxy with incentives and bonuses that could top out as high as $250 million. It was all for the money, his critics said; the most well-known athlete in the world couldn't deal with the fact that his star had fallen. And for joining a league that most in the Old World laughed at, they certainly had an argument.
To be sure, Beckham's dream of captivating America got off to a rough start. Injuries limited him to 252 minutes over five MLS games for the Galaxy. The sarcastic I-told-you-so's on both sides of the Atlantic drowned out what was supposed to be Beckhamania Part II: An American Tale.
But something funny happened as Beckham received perhaps his worst public lashing since his infamous 1998 World Cup ejection against Argentina. The veneer of uber-celebrity that he had built over the past decade began to crumble. He shed real tears. He showed raw anger and frustration. He vehemently defended his honor when he and his family were criticized.
In short, he did and felt things that reminded us that, beneath all the riches, notoriety and fame, he was a regular guy. And his new teammates in L.A. realized it. Here was a global icon sharing their locker room, yet he had the same passion, desire and intensity as they did during practice sessions.
Even as he struggled through pain, Beckham wanted to be on the field, to make good on the enormous excitement that his arrival created. He pushed it too far, trying to play three games on two continents in one week (one of them an England national-team game) that set him back further on the road to recovery.
When he finally scored his first goal in a Galaxy uniform, it was a moment that gave you goose bumps, as if he had just fired England into the World Cup. His teammates, most of whom he'd known for barely a month, mobbed him, genuinely happy that something had gone right for a guy who had earned their respect. In kind, Beckham beamed from ear to ear, the kind of sincere smile that you can't suppress when you've fought through adversity and things finally start to look up.
So Brand Beckham's arrival hasn't gone smoothly. But it has made us see there's a human being there who wants to be loved, who wants to succeed and make a difference. Through it all, Beckham has comported himself with grace and class. For that, he earns my nod for Sportsman of the Year.
Even if you're an American who hates soccer -- and we know there are plenty of you -- you now know this: David Beckham plays in an American soccer league called MLS, and he plays for a team called the L.A. Galaxy.
More important, all those critics back in Europe know it, too. With that, Beckham did his job.
Agree with this selection? Give us your pick for Sportsman here.