Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Nov. 30. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer.
Since the inception of the honor in 1954, SI's Sportsman of the Year generally has been a stand-up guy.
This year my nominee is a guy who stooped.
Many of the men and women who have earned the award have changed their sports, their communities and sometimes even the world.
This year there should be consideration for a man who changed a tire.
Meet Brooks Laich.
You might not know much about him. He is a 6-2, 205-pound center for the Washington Capitals. If you are familiar with any player on that team, it is almost certainly the fabulous Alexander Ovechkin. Then there's Mike Green and Nicklas Backstrom and maybe Alexander Semin. You probably have to work your way down your memory, and the depth chart, to come to Laich, even though he had creditable 25 goals in 2009-10 and has scored at least 20 in the past three seasons.
Laich is one of the dressing-room talkers on the Capitals, an expansive 27-year-old who is the de facto conscience of the team. But on this night, he left the Verizon Center uncharacteristically without talking to the media that had assembled to ask the essential question: What the hell happened? The Capitals, the NHL's best team during the regular season, had just coughed up a first-round playoff series to the Montreal Canadiens, blowing a 3-1 lead by losing Game 7.
He was headed home, crossing the Roosevelt Bridge over the Potomac River, when he saw a woman and her daughter stranded next to a late-model Acura. The car had a flat tire. Laich could have kept his foot on the accelerator of his SUV -- he had been having his own rotten night, you know? -- but he slowed and pulled over in front of the car to see if he could help. The woman, Mary Ann Wangemann, who happened to have been at the game with her 14-year-old daughter Lorraine -- they were both decked out in Capitals apparel when Laich stopped -- said she had already called for auto service but a high volume of calls was backing things up.
So Laich, whom they immediately recognized, went to work.
Reportedly the tire change took 40 minutes. At one point the Acura fell off the jack and Laich, dressed in a going-to-work suit, had to start anew. Finally he finished. And it was then that Mary Ann asked for a hug. Laich had one for her, another for her daughter.
When the Capitals returned to the arena later that week to clean out their lockers -- the Wangemann women had already told their story to the Washington Post -- Laich sloughed off his act of generosity that was reminiscent of Yankees manager Joe Girardi helping a stranded motorist in Westchester County after the final game of the 2009 World Series. (The difference: New York had won, and Washington had been humiliated.)
"It was just a tire," Laich told reporters. "It's not a big deal. It was just a tire. The lady was stranded on the side of the road, I saw that it was just a lady and her daughter, and I figured my tire expertise outweighed hers. It's a busy spot, on that bridge, and I just pulled over to help them. That's it. Just because my day sucked didn't mean that I couldn't help somebody else."
So there is Brooks Laich, SI Sportsman of the Year nominee. Too often professional athletes seem to live by separate rules if not on completely different planets. They behave as if they are above us. But on a sad spring night in D.C., a small-town Saskatchewan guy lowered himself to the pavement.
Laich was a gentleman. This is something of which we never tire.
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