Ordinary Heroes

Dec. 23, 2013
Dec. 23, 2013

Table of Contents
Dec. 23, 2013
Sportsman of the Year

Ordinary Heroes



This is an article from the Dec. 23, 2013 issue

THE QUARTER-SCALE replica of Fenway Park that Pat O'Connor built in his backyard in Essex, Vt., a dozen years ago might have been little more than the ultimate Red Sox fan's indulgence. Except that every summer since, Little Fenway has been home to the annual Travis Roy Wiffle Ball Tournament (above) to benefit the foundation established by the former Boston University hockey player, who in 1995 was left a quadriplegic 11 seconds into his first college shift. In August the event blew through its previous record: 24 teams raised more than $500,000 over one weekend, with members of the winning squad, Boston Beef, bringing in almost $100,000 alone. Viral video of a game-ending catch, in which 20-year-old Konnor Fleming took a Torii Hunter--esque tumble over the rightfield wall, spread awareness of the foundation's work to support research into spinal-cord injuries and provide the disabled with adaptive equipment. "As much fun as Wiffle ball is, there's a much bigger story," says Roy. "My name is on the foundation, but everybody's a part of it."

That spirit took root shortly after Little Fenway's opening on July 4, 2001, when a parent persuaded O'Connor to turn a scheduled recognition event for Little Leaguers into a pay-to-play fund-raiser for victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Over the following winter O'Connor, an engineer with IBM, read Roy's book, Eleven Seconds, and offered the foundation use of the field for fund-raising. The first tournament, held over a rainy weekend in 2002, raised $4,000; at every one since, Roy, now 38, has patrolled the grounds in his motorized wheelchair, abandoning a smile only when he holds a pen in his teeth to sign autographs. The hope is that someday Travis plays in the Travis. "That would be my ultimate dream," says O'Connor, who has also lent out Little Fenway to campaigns against diabetes, breast cancer and ALS. "To see him swing a bat and hit one over the Green Monster."

Maybe it was ecumenical karma from O'Connor's having built an adjacent Little Wrigley, with a knockoff of the cornfield in Field of Dreams set to open next summer. Perhaps it was the way that Roy, who could hear the explosions from his Boston condo, reached out to survivors of April's Marathon bombings to assure them that resources exist to help them lead full lives. Or maybe it was the benevolent voodoo spilling south from the raucous Little Fenway watch party the night the full-sized Bosox clinched their World Series win. For whatever reason, 2013 was the year that in a remote province of Red Sox Nation, the O'Connor backyard went big league.

—Alexander Wolff


DAVID-ALEXANDRE BEAUREGARD retired from pro hockey this year at age 37, after playing for 18 teams in a 17-year career. He did so knowing he could never make it to the NHL—and it didn't matter. For all the athletes who insist they would play for "the love of the game," here's a concrete example.

When Beauregard was 18, he was a rising prospect in the Sharks' organization. But in a game in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, a high stick left him blind in his left eye. The NHL forbids such players from competing, but Beauregard resumed his career as a minor leaguer. For the next two decades he continued to score goals—581 of them.

When you're Crash Davis, unable to catch the attention of the Show, it breeds bitterness. But Beauregard was already at his highest possible level. Why not savor it? "Competing, playing games, playing as hard as I could, winning, having teammates," he says, "I knew it would probably be the best times of my life."

—L. Jon Wertheim


AT FIRST the crowd groaned and the coaches scratched their heads. It was the third quarter of an Oct. 5 game between Olivet (Mich.) and Eaton Rapids middle schools, Olivet up 34--6. Running back Sheridan Hedrick took a handoff at the Eaton Rapids 17-yard line and was cruising untouched into the end zone when he slid down at the one. It was strange, a 13-year-old passing up an easy touchdown, but when Hedrick and quarterback Parker Smith sprinted to the sideline and yelled to Olivet coach Tim Jungel, "We need Keith," all became clear. Soon Keith Orr, a sparingly used, 4'11" 95-pounder, was lined up in the backfield, handed the ball by Smith and ushered into the end zone by a phalanx of teammates. The crowd and coaches—and, especially, the players—erupted in such jubilation that an official told Jungel, "Don't worry about a delay of game penalty. Enjoy this."

Orr (above, being carried by teammates), who suffers from ADHD and oppositional defiant disorder, played football for the first time this fall because his mother, Carrie, wanted him in a structured extracurricular activity that could teach him teamwork. Long anonymous among his eighth-grade peers, Keith won over his fellow Eagles, who wanted to reward his spirit and positive attitude with a shot at gridiron glory. Hedrick hatched a plan to set up Orr for a goal line score, spreading it among his teammates behind their coaches' backs, keeping the surprise even from Orr. "They're genuine friends," says Jungel. "That's where the play came from."

The rest of Olivet has followed the football team's lead. Last month, when the boy who once lacked enough friends to have a birthday party turned 15, he found his locker decorated with balloons; on a banner hanging nearby were the signatures of his entire class. "How awesome," says Carrie, "that these kids have such big hearts."

—Dan Greene


TAISIR AL ANTAIF, the goalie for first-division Saudi Arabian soccer team Al Nahdha, found himself in a pinch during a November match against Al Ittihad: He was preparing to clear after receiving a back-pass, but the laces on his dominant shoe had come undone—his boot would go flying if he kicked—and his Mickey Mouse--sized gloves made tying them impossible. With Al Ittihad striker Jobson bearing down on him, Al Antaif picked up the ball (a violation on a back-pass), but Jobson wasn't there to poach an easy goal. He squatted down and knotted the keeper's cleats, accepting a friendly high five and a pat on the head for the help. Alas, the ref wasn't moved by the burst of sportsmanship. He whistled Al Antaif for delay of game and called for an Al Ittihad free kick. With players from both teams shaking their heads, Jobson's teammate Leandro Bonfim got into the noble spirit. He harmlessly rolled the ball out-of-bounds, giving Al Antaif a goal kick.

—Adam Duerson


SOME OF Israel Idonije's earliest memories are of hungry people coming to the door of his parents' home in Brandon, Manitoba. They would ask his father and mother, Christian missionaries from Nigeria, for food. "My father would say, 'Go get them a chicken,' " Idonije says. "I'd open the freezer and there would be only one chicken in there, and he would give it to them."

Idonije, 33, has spent the majority of his 10 NFL seasons trying to emulate the generosity of his parents. A 6'6" defensive end for the Bears through 2012, Idonije signed with the Lions last June. Though he no longer plays in Chicago, that city is still the hub of his philanthropic endeavors. He has donated between 5% and 10% of his career earnings to his eponymous foundation, which focuses on youth development in the U.S. and Africa. It is sustained by his many business interests, including real estate and a company that makes prefilled plastic Communion cups. Even more important, his NFL contemporaries say Idonije's charity is nurtured by the time he puts into it.

"The majority of athletes have a giving heart, but what happens is third parties get in the way," says Adewale Ogunleye, former defensive end for the Bears, Dolphins and Texans. "The difference between Izzy and 90% of guys who give is he is completely hands-on. You're never going to hear about someone taking advantage of the Israel Idonije Foundation."

Idonije spent several off days this season in Chicago, tutoring kids in his after-school program and helping with Shop with a Cop, a program which pairs underprivileged kids with police officers from their neighborhoods for a WalMart shopping spree. Every year he organizes a trip to Africa (above) with other NFL players, providing medical supplies and services to struggling communities. Ogunleye went in 2008, when Idonije returned to his native Nigeria with a team of doctors and nurses who provided prenatal care. Idonije put in doctor's hours, if not doctor's work. "Izzy was always on time," Ogunleye says, "always with a smile on his face and always wanting to be among the people he was helping. He taught me to give without any expectations of being rewarded."

Idonije will soon be on his way out of football and likely into real estate, where he's already had success buying and selling residential properties in Chicago. It's part of an ongoing effort to avoid being defined by the football life and fortune he feels he was given.

"It would be a disappointment to just be known for what I did on the field," he says, "because for me to get where I am today, I've had countless people support and uplift me. I look at what I've been given as a gift, and with that I can impact and touch some lives."

—Robert Klemko


ON NOV. 10, Jose Fernandez sat down at Marlins Park for an MLB Network interview about his breakout performance in 2013. Asked what message he'd send his grandmother Olga Romero, whom he'd last seen the day he fled Cuba five years ago, he replied, "Everything I do is for her." And what, he was asked, would Olga say if she were there? "I don't think she would be here now," he said.

The clubhouse doors then swung open and Olga, escorted by Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria, greeted her flabbergasted grandson. "I don't believe this," he said as they embraced. Little went right for the 100-loss Marlins, but they did orchestrate one of the most heartwarming moments of the year. The reunion—video went viral—was weeks in the making; Loria and the front office helped secure a visitation visa for Olga.

Fernandez, 21, had often spoken of Olga, who helped raise him and listened to radio broadcasts of his starts. The next day she was at his side when he won the NL Rookie of the Year award. A storybook year had its perfect ending.

—Albert Chen


THIS WAS the year Betsy Andreu came in from the cold. You may have seen her, on the set with Anderson Cooper, or smiling through ovations at the Toronto and New York City premieres of The Armstrong Lie, a documentary by Alex Gibney.

She wasn't always this popular. Betsy (above) is the wife of former Lance Armstrong teammate Frankie Andreu and the mother of their three children. For much of the last decade she was a lonely voice in the wilderness, a car-pooling Cassandra bearing news nobody wanted to hear.

It cost her dearly. Her decision to reveal what she knew of doping by Armstrong and his teammates—she knew a lot—put her and her husband in the crosshairs of a strong and vengeful enemy. Frankie's cycling career was stunted, his wife's reputation was smeared. The message from Armstrong and his minions to anyone who cared to listen was consistent, if not necessarily for attribution: Betsy was bitter, vindictive, a pathological liar. Dude, she's psycho.

She wasn't. Nor was she scared to take on a bully. Armstrong's problem, it turned out, was that he'd picked a fight with an adversary who was more headstrong than himself. He had legions of lawyers, spin doctors and yellow-braceleted acolytes. She had the truth.

She also had her cardboard box (later replaced by a large plastic bin) crammed with clippings, depositions, files, DVDs, handwritten notes and correspondence she'd collected since the mid-1990s. When not driving her children to hockey and Little League games in Dearborn, Mich., or volunteering at their school, she became an aggregator and a clearinghouse—a source for journalists and, later, federal and USADA investigators. She was Erin Brockovich with a deeper understanding of hematocrit levels and V02 max.

Armstrong's spectacular fall from grace—in January he finally admitted, on Oprah's couch (above), to doping—coincided with a complete vindication of Andreu. This formerly inconvenient woman, long ignored by reporters (such as this one) overly invested in Armstrong's story, now had far more interview requests than she could handle. She did sit with Gibney, who had originally intended to make a film celebrating Armstrong's 2009 comeback. The emerging truth about how he had won all those Tour de France titles resulted in a much different documentary. There was Andreu, bringing down the house at the Toronto premiere of The Armstrong Lie when she turned to the director and said, "Thank you for not buying the bull----."

—Austin Murphy


David Ortiz, April 20, Fenway Park

Before the Red Sox' first home game after the Boston Marathon bombing:



Mariano Rivera's final season had many trappings of a typical retirement tour. But the great closer added a wrinkle. He told the Yankees that in his last visit to each road city he wanted to meet behind-the-scenes people who had dedicated their lives to the game. The result: a series of private, often unpublicized meetings in which the pitcher touched—and was touched by—the lives of people who help make Hall of Fame careers like his possible. Said Ryan Bresette, a longtime Royals clubhouse attendant whose family met Rivera a few months after his 10-year-old son died in an accident, "Mariano provided hope and inspiration at a time when [we] needed it the most."