The Everyday Heroes of 2018

From high school to the pros, these athletes showed the true meaning of sportsmanship this year
December 13, 2018

A version of this story appears in the Dec. 17-24, 2018, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.

Sportsmanship takes many forms, and—as these athletes demonstrate—supporting others makes for a sweet victory too. 

Nhat V. Meyer/Digital First Media/The Mercury News via Getty Images

Paradise High School

Today will be another 18-hour workday for Anne Stearns as she strains to keep Paradise High's sports teams afloat. Stearns, the athletic director, is working from home in nearby Chico because the school was badly damaged in the Camp Fire that began on Nov. 8, destroying almost 14,000 homes. At least 85 people were killed in the deadliest fire in California history, and it demolished the town of Paradise. "We have 200 athletes at our school," Stearns says. "Four of them have homes."

After changing the diaper of her daughter, Davis, she logs on to her computer, which greets her with dozens of emails about makeup games and open gyms and fields. Her goal, she says, is "to get these kids playing games again, as soon as possible." In a situation like this, she says, "it's not about winning. It's about being on the court. It's about, for 90 minutes or however long the game lasts, not having to deal with it." Maintaining the sports structure at PHS, she says, "is the last thing I think of at night and the first thing I think of in the morning, and all hours in between."

Around the same time, football coach Rick Prinz presides over a meeting of P.E. teachers at Buffalo Wild Wings in Chico. The topic: How to hold gym classes at a shopping center. School resumed on Dec. 3, but the "campus" is now a series of unused stores in Chico Mall. Prinz, who was forced to forfeit the Bobcats' playoff game, ending their season, says after the meeting, "We're just starting to get the idea that things are going to be really different."

When the boys' soccer team drove 90 minutes north for a game against Anderson Union High, it was presented with a set of uniforms—Anderson's road kits from 2017. "Our whole town is gone, from our house to our bank and everything in between," says Paradise parent Jim Fansler, who is smiling nevertheless because his son, Ben, just scored on a 30-yard rocket to put the Bobcats up 1--0. "The only time I haven't seen my son with a glaze on his face is out here."

Paradise midfielder Gabe Price is also one of the area's top cross-country runners. He missed the qualifying race for the state meet on Nov. 8 because he was grabbing what he could from his home before it burned down. But Stearns made some calls and got permission for Price to run the course at West Valley High by himself a few days later to try to qualify.

To Gabe's surprise, several West Valley runners showed up to pace him, invaluable support on a hilly, unfamiliar course. Price finished in 17:12, nearly 30 seconds faster than the minimum time required. He was as grateful for West Valley's assistance as he was for the jerseys and shin guards Anderson High had donated to his soccer team. "The kindness in everyone's hearts, and the understanding," he said after Paradise gutted out a 2-1 win, "it's been amazing to know that our opponents don't see us as just another team to beat."

Prinz witnessed a similar act of kindness when the 49ers bused his players to their home game against the Giants on Nov. 12. Two Paradise players were shopping at the team store when a pair of strangers "walked up to them and said, 'Buy whatever you want,'" Prinz says. The humbled kids didn't choose game jerseys or signed helmets. Says Prinz, "They bought coats." —Michael McKnight

Courtesy of Minnesota Twins Twitter

High school baseball player, Ty Koehn

As the Mounds View High Mustangs raced toward the pitcher's mound to celebrate clinching a berth in the Minnesota state championship, the young man whose arm got them there ran toward the plate.

"I love you," Ty Koehn told the player he'd just whiffed, Totino-Grace High outfielder Jack Kocon. "There were seven innings in this game, and one at bat wasn't the deciding factor. I hope you remember our friendship longer than this game. Don't hang your head—you've done a great job."

"Thanks," said Kocon. "Congratulations."

The boys, both seniors, had been friends since Little League. Koehn's heart sank when he realized he could end Kocon's high school career. "I was rooting for him a little bit," Koehn admits now. "No one wants his last at bat to be a strikeout. But I've gotta work for my team first." Kocon's walk-off single in the semifinals had knocked Mounds View into the losers' bracket, forcing the Mustangs to win two more games before facing Totino-Grace in the championship. This time Koehn sealed his complete-game, 4--0 win with the K. He hugged his friend and joined his jubilant teammates.

In the days that followed, a clip of the moment went viral: Koehn and Kocon appeared on Good Morning America, NBC Nightly News and SportsCenter. The fame astonished the boys. (At their graduation parties later that week, they teased each other about needing a hug.) Mounds View lost in the first round of the Class AAAA state tournament, but the lessons imparted by Koehn and Kocon—Mustangs coach Mark Downey often reminded his players that they can be great competitors and great human beings—remain. Koehn is playing football and baseball for Bethel University in St. Paul, and Kocon is now a student at Marquette. "In a few years I'm not gonna remember the score of the game," says Kocon, "but I'll remember that moment."

Downey has watched videos of the hug hundreds of times, and he always comes away thinking the same thing: That was really beautiful—but you know, the kid pitched the game of his life too. —Stephanie Apstein

Michael Hickey/Getty Images
Michael Hickey/Getty Images
Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Tyler Trent

The Boilermakers weren't supposed to beat the No. 2 Buckeyes 49-20 on Oct. 20, and Tyler Trent wasn't supposed to be there to see it. The 20-year-old Trent had withdrawn from Purdue early in the fall because of a terminal form of bone cancer.

But he not only predicted the stunning victory, he also joined the team on the sideline at Ross-Ade Stadium that night. "The guy never makes excuses," coach Jeff Brohm said after making Trent an honorary captain. "He never complains. He has a huge smile on his face every day. He's about giving back to other people."

Trent's battle has been a source of inspiration, not just on the West Lafayette campus but also throughout the country. First diagnosed in 2014, Trent started an organization called Teens With a Cause that recruits kids to help families affected by cancer with service projects such as raking leaves or shoveling snow. He has helped raise thousands of dollars for cancer research too.

Even as his body fails, there is no stopping Tyler Trent's spirit. —Laken Litman

Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Desiree Linden

By the end of the first seven miles of the 2018 Boston Marathon, elite runner Desiree Linden was feeling listless and awful. A torrential downpour and freezing winds had prevented her from warming up the way she normally did, and she had reset her expectations for the race. Mid-stride, her own hopes dashed, she turned to fellow American Shalane Flanagan and told her to let her know if she needed any help blocking the wind or adjusting the pace.

Five months before Boston the 36-year-old Flanagan had become the first woman from the U.S. to win the New York City Marathon since Miki Gorman in 1977, and she was deemed a contender to end a similar 33-year drought in Boston. Linden, 34, was a dark-horse contender, but after realizing it was not going to be her day, she switched her purpose to providing support for her friend.

It wasn't long before Flanagan did need help. Midway through the race Flanagan stopped for a 14-second bathroom break. Pausing during a marathon usually ends an elite runner's chances of winning, but Linden slowed down to wait for Flanagan to pace her. The duo then worked together to rejoin the lead pack, which had tried to pull away.

A near-gale headwind made that difficult, but by mile 22 Linden had unexpectedly hit her stride again. "Helping her helped me, and I kind of got my legs back," Linden said after the race.

Linden pulled away after Hearbreak Hill and ran alone to the finish, winning by more than four minutes, in 2:39:54. Flanagan, who finished seventh, thanked Linden for being "a true friend and teammate on the course."

Nice girls finish first. —Chris Chavez

Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Malcolm Brogdon

Bucks guard Malcolm Brogdon has earned the nicknames Humble Moses and the President for a reason. In addition to his notable skills on the hardwood, he has a solid track record of community service and leadership. As part of his thesis project at Virginia, he partnered with a company called PureMadi, a nonprofit that collaborates with South Africans to design, test and produce affordable ceramic filters that use silver nanoparticles to purify water.

Brogdon has been interested in service projects in Africa since he spent three weeks in Ghana with his family during elementary school. The trip "lit a fire" in him, he says. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in history and a master's in public policy from UVa and, after his Rookie of the Year season in 2016--17, he reached out to fellow Virginia alum Chris Long, a defensive end for the Eagles, to inquire about Long's Waterboys charity.

Waterboys raises money to build wells in Tanzania to provide clean, easily accessible water to communities in need. A single well can serve up to 7,500 people. Brogdon saw an opportunity to expand Long's initiative to the NBA, so he launched Hoops2O and recruited four other NBA players—Justin Anderson and Joe Harris (who also went to UVa), and Garrett Temple and Anthony Tolliver. The group's goal is to raise $225,000 for the project through their own donations and contributions from fans. —Emily Caron

Rob Leiter/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Daniel Mengden

A’s righthander Daniel Mengden has just one save in his professional career (in Class A), but this offseason he added two more. The 25-year-old Mengden—best known for his old-timey, Rollie Fingers-style mustache—was part of a three-man rescue crew on Nov. 12 for a pair of puppies who were trapped in a storm drain in Houston. "It was just kind of dumb luck," Mengden told of his mission. He was on his way home from the gym when he and another man descended into a sewer drain to corral the puppies. The dogs were hoisted out, frightened but safe. According to KHOU 11 News in Houston, the puppies were put up for adoption after surviving their ordeal—and went home with Mengden and his girlfriend. "I was in the right place at the right time," he said. Spoken like a true closer. —Jon Tayler




Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)