Wins and losses are the daily obsession, but there are other, more lasting ways for athletes to demonstrate how inspiring sports can be
This is an article from the Dec. 21, 2015 issue
LOVE IN HAITI
In the spring of 2012, DAVID NELSON was looking for a way to use his status as an NFL receiver to help people in need, beyond the usual team-sponsored meet-and-greets. At the suggestion of his then girlfriend's sister, Nelson spent Memorial Day weekend touring Haiti, the Western Hemisphere's most impoverished nation. After four days of playing with children in the streets, Nelson was struck by how little they cared about his stature as an athlete and how much they simply longed for affection. "It was just an awakening like I'd never experienced," Nelson, 29, says. "We all have this desire to love and be loved."
Not two weeks later he returned to the Caribbean with two of his younger brothers; by the following January they had launched I'm ME, a nonprofit that aims to address Haiti's orphan population of 600,000. The group's first initiative was an after-school program to supplement the nation's feeble education system. Last year the four-bedroom house Nelson bought to serve as the organization's Port-au-Prince headquarters was turned into a home for 11 children rescued from hellish conditions at a corrupt orphanage nearby.
The six-year NFL veteran has been on injured reserve for the Steelers with a shoulder injury since August, so his fall has been filled with 12-hour days at the I'm ME office in his hometown of Dallas. This year he has made more than a dozen trips to Haiti, where I'm ME is planning to build a $3.2 million sports complex. But Nelson takes the greatest satisfaction from the children living in his group home. "It's the most beautiful thing in my life," he says. "They're not just getting by. These kids are thriving."
SET RIGHT, MATCH
After a grueling victory in the second round of the Australian Open, the first question posed to Rafael Nadal was irrelevant. The 14-time Grand Slam winner handled it deftly, steering the conversation toward the topic he wanted to discuss: what his opponent, 112th-ranked American Tim Smyczek (below, right), did in the final game of their four-hour, five-set match.
Two points from victory, Nadal was serving when a fan's exclamation mid-toss broke his focus. The ball sailed long, and the Spaniard oozed disgust.
Immediately, Smyczek, 27, signaled the chair umpire to give Nadal a do-over. Responding to Smyczek's decision with a thumbs-up, Nadal won the next point and clinched the match minutes later. It was quintessential tennis: a couple of silent gestures restoring civility in the heat of battle. And yet Nadal's p.r. man Benito Pérez-Barbadillo said of Smyczek's gesture, "I've never seen [anyone call a do-over in a match], and I've been in tennis for 19 years."
POWER OF THANKS
Aside from the absence of football and that it was held a day early, it was a standard Thanksgiving: family catching up, children running around, an overabundance of turkey. But for the nearly 90 Syrian refugees gathered at Chicago's American Islamic College, this meal was a milestone.
Inspired by the spirit of the holiday, A's reliever SEAN DOOLITTLE and his girlfriend, EIREANN DOLAN (above), worked with the Chicago mayor's office to give 21 Syrian families a taste of their adopted country's traditions. It wasn't a political statement, the couple say; they were simply struck by the parallels between these refugees' journeys and that of Dolan's grandfather, who left the Troubles in Northern Ireland for the Windy City in the 1940s.
"We just wanted to welcome them with a nice American Thanksgiving," says Doolittle, who spent much of the season rehabbing a shoulder injury and had stints with three different minor league teams. "What's more American than pigging out and hanging out with your family?"
Although Doolittle and Dolan couldn't share the meal in person, they helped arrange and pay for the catering and recorded a minute-long video greeting for their guests, in both English and Arabic.
The Chicago event was one of several gestures of generosity by the couple this year. In June they bought (and then donated) tickets for the A's LGBT Pride Night game from season-ticket holders who didn't want to attend. They spearheaded a letter-writing campaign offering condolences to the family of Scott Lunger, a local police officer killed in the line of duty in July. And later this month they plan to finance Christmas for two military families through Operation Finally Home.
"Everything we do is about making people feel welcome in a community," Dolan says, "which I guess makes sense, because we move five times a year."
After finishing first in a district championship 5K race on Oct. 22, senior Zach Hougland of Davis County High in Bloomfield, Iowa, celebrated for five minutes. The victory brought tears to Hougland's eyes.
But when he looked back on the course, he saw a runner struggling to catch his breath. Hougland knew the rule: The Iowa High School Athletic Association prohibits one runner from assisting another during a race. "Is anyone going to help?" Hougland yelled. When no one responded, he hustled to Garret Hinson, 17, of Mediapolis High, who was on all fours. "Here we go, here we go!" Hougland said as he helped Hinson up.
Watching him eventually finish on his own—Hinson was later treated for dehydration—Hougland (left, in white) heard cheers from the sidelines. But an hour later, his coach told him that despite good intentions, he had been disqualified, costing him his title and an automatic state-finals berth.
Fortunately, a strong showing by his teammates allowed Hougland to compete at states, where he finished 32nd. Almost two months after the DQ, though, Hougland has no regrets.
"Everyone said to me, 'What you did might have cost you so much, but it will be passed down to every generation,'" he says.
Baseball, with its fair share of unwritten rules, can often emphasize cold competitiveness—even from its youngest players. But on Aug. 24, members of the CHINESE TAIPEI and the UGANDA teams warmed hearts on three continents during a Little League World Series elimination game. In the bottom of the fourth, Taipei pitcher Wei Hung Chou grazed the shoulder of shortstop Joshua Olara with an 0--2 pitch. After Joshua reached first, Hung Chou walked toward the bag and tipped his cap, bowing slightly. Joshua returned the favor, doffing his helmet and placing his hand over his chest.
The next batter, Uganda pitcher Pius Echoni, hit a chopper to the shortstop, who flipped to second. Sliding hard to break up the play, Joshua collided with second baseman Shu Wei Lin. Immediately, the 5'7" Joshua helped the 4'7" Wei Lin to his feet, then took his hand while putting his other arm around him (left).
Taipei would go on to win 5--0 behind Hung Chou's one-hit, 14-strikeout performance. Yet after Uganda had been eliminated in its second appearance at Williamsport, Pa., the bond between the teams remained palpable. Rather than postgame handshakes, the players exchanged hugs. Then they posed for a group photo and even traded hats. Despite the obvious language and cultural barriers, cold, competitive baseball had brought together two far-flung teams that produced one of the year's most feel-good moments.
THE HOME MAKER
Two days after Warrick Dunn's 18th birthday, his mother, police corporal Betty Smothers, was killed in an attempted robbery outside a Baton Rouge bank. Smothers never saw her son become an All-America running back or rush for 10,967 yards in the NFL. But she has never really left him.
Smothers was not on duty when she was killed; she was driving a grocery store manager to the bank for a night drop. Also working as a security guard to make extra money, she was saving to one day buy a house for her family. Her son has never forgotten how important that dream was to her.
Since 1997, Warrick Dunn Charities has furnished homes for those in need, especially single mothers, through its Homes for the Holidays program. Beginning in Baton Rouge, the organization has expanded to 13 other cities and provided more than $700,000 in mortgage assistance. But the real joy is what people discover when they move into their new homes. The program has spent nearly $3 million outfitting them with appliances, furniture, food, linens and other household items.
The most memorable moments at an otherwise forgettable 2015 NHL All-Star weekend involved Capitals superstar ALEX OVECHKIN crusading to win a car. The league's leading goal scorer last season has many rides, let's be clear, but in hamming it up for cameras, crashing live interviews and snapping selfies, Ovechkin (below, right) strived to be the most shamelessly offensive player in Columbus. All he wanted, he said, was to be chosen last in the All-Star Fantasy Draft and receive the new Honda Accord awarded to Mr. Irrelevant.
Ovechkin's lobbying failed—he was picked third to last—but the secret reason for his campaign was worthy. He wanted to give the car to the Washington Ice Dogs, a D.C. hockey team for children with developmental disabilities. "For charity and good stuff," Ovechkin said. After the game, Honda called and offered him one anyway.
A month later, under the bright lights at Madison Square Garden, Thunder guard RUSSELL WESTBROOK (above) was named MVP at the NBA All-Star Game and found himself holding keys to a new white Kia SUV. Like Ovechkin, he realized there are others in greater need of new wheels. So in partnership with a family-services organization in Oklahoma City, Westbrook surprised a single teenage mother of two boys whose car had been malfunctioning for months. (The engine died the morning Westbrook gave her the keys.)
"Are they playing a prank on me or something?" Kerstin Gonzales told the team website. "When he showed me the keys, I was like, This is real. That's when I started to cry because it's been such a hard time."
As for Ovechkin, he donated his whip to the American Special Hockey Association, which held a raffle and raised $20,000. The raffle winner chose a cash prize instead of the Accord, but the ASHA found a Capitals fan to buy it for around $30,000. The ASHA allocated $3,000 to each of the four special-needs hockey teams in the D.C. area, then put the rest into an "assist grant fund."
You know, for charity and good stuff.