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Sportsman-like

Dec. 15, 2014
Dec. 15, 2014

Table of Contents
Dec. 15, 2014

EDITOR'S LETTER
INBOX
Sportsman of the Year
POINT AFTER
Departments

Sportsman-like

THE IRREPRESSIBLE Jose Canseco, who shot off one of his fingers in October while cleaning one of his guns, and now can only count to nine, is not the 2014 SPORTS ILLUSTRATED Sportsman of the Year. But why not?

This is an article from the Dec. 15, 2014 issue Original Layout

Francisco Rodriguez, the Brewers' reliever who was injured during spring training when he stepped on a cactus, barefoot, is not our Sportsman of the Year either. But perhaps he should be.

Diego Schwartzman, a young Argentine tennis player who faced Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic in the first two Grand Slam tournaments of his budding pro career, and got bounced from both in straight sets, is not the 2014 Sportsman of the Year, though he remains our runaway selection for 2014 Schwartzman of the Year.

And good for him, as all these lowercased sportsmen, and many others, deserve our encouragement too. They're worthy runners-up, especially the runners-out, like U.S. Olympic bobsledder Johnny Quinn, who was locked in the bathroom of his Sochi quarters for an hour before he made like Kool-Aid Man and burst through the door, leaving a hole—as one witness put it—"in the shape of a person who just ran through the door." Quinn was clearly the breakout performer of the year, but he is not the SI Sportsman of the Year.

There were just too many worthy candidates in 2014, the Year of the Horse on the Chinese calendar, a year in which kung-fu master Zhao Zhenhua lifted 80 kilograms of bricks (that's 176 pounds) and swung it back and forth for 10 teeth-clenching minutes. This was even more impressive considering the weight was suspended from Zhao's testicles, earning him the nickname—and the likely future medical necessity of—Balls of Steel.

Each of these athletes has some combination of fortitude, bravery, creativity and cojones, qualities prized in previous Sportsmen. But any fool can see LeBron James is Sportsman material. What of the subtler sporting arts that annually go underappreciated?

It was hard not to admire, against all reason, the childlike response of Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez, who bit an Italian player at last summer's World Cup—the third such incident of his vampiric career—but explained that he had merely lost his balance, and as a result, "I hit my face against the player, leaving a small bruise on my cheek and a strong pain in my teeth."

As models of sportsmanship go, Suarez may be an outlier—an out-and-out liar—but not if you build your Sportsman √† la carte. Let's take the glorious precociousness of four-year-old Nolan Haynes, who made an 80-yard hole in one this year, and the elation of 81-year-old Dom DeBonis, who made four holes in one over 36 days, proving you can do remarkable things if—as Zhao Zhenhua might put it—you just hang around. These golfers give hope to everyone in the 4-to-81 demographic.

At the risk of beating a dead horse, in this nearly dead Year of the Horse, we might have to look outside the box for Sportsmen. Not everyone can be Peyton Manning, but who among us is not capable—in our own way—of stepping barefoot on a cactus?

We all get thrown, but the important thing is to get back on the bull, unless it happens to be Bushwacker, who retired this year with a rodeo record of 42 consecutive buck-offs. Getting back on that bull would be pointless. Dangerous, even.

But otherwise, true sportsmen bounce back. They bounce back like the half-court heave of Brad Rustik, the Gonzaga student who was plucked from the crowd last month only to miss badly, the ball hitting the top of the backboard and careening high out of the video frame—before falling straight through the hoop, and winning Rustik $500.

Canseco, meanwhile, turned severance into perseverance and had his finger surgically reattached. And even he could not beat, for stirring comebacks, the late James Carver, who died in 2008 but whose cremated remains were packed into fireworks this year and shot into the night sky over southwestern Missouri in an eight-minute display that redefined going out in a blaze of glory.

That's what 2014 is doing now. So let's load the remains of this year into a confetti cannon and shoot it—stand back, Mr. Canseco—high into the sky. When 2014 returns to frame, fluttering back to Earth with a song in its heart and a pain in its teeth, we'll reassemble it into a mosaic that looks, if you squint just so, like a beautiful work of art.

Any fool can see LeBron James is Sportsman material. But what of the subtler sporting arts that go unrecognized?

Who is your nominee for subtler "sportsman" of the year?

Join the discussion on Twitter by using #SIPointAfter and following @SteveRushin

PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYER/SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDILLUSTRATION