2014 had no shortage of big moments in sports. While the personal decisions of some professional and amateur players have, on occasion, clashed with the values and expectations of their athletic endeavors, we’re lucky that many of the year’s biggest stories lifted our spirits and pointed to something greater than the game itself.
Some of these athletes persevered through illness or incredible odds; some lifted others up in a time of need; all of them displayed an awareness to something in athletic competition that is bigger than him or herself. Here’s our picks for the top stories from 2014 that showcase the good in sports.
Lauren Hill plays her first college game
We first learned about Lauren Hill, a freshman at Mount St. Joseph University in Ohio, when, in the face of an inoperable brain tumor, she persevered to play – and score – in her first college basketball game. The outpouring of support for Lauren has been tremendous. Her local communities, including her high school and her new college, and the national stage have stood in awe of Lauren’s courage to continue playing despite a terminal disease. Everyone, too, has been awed by the grace with which she has handled herself.
“What keeps me going is remembering why I’m here,” said Lauren in an interview back in October. Lauren wants to raise awareness about her condition. “I told (God) I’d take every opportunity to speak for the kids who can’t speak.”
In addition to Lauren’s incredible stamina and attitude, there is another and, perhaps, less obvious element of good from her story. Lauren’s big wish was to play in at least one college basketball game. Hiram College’s team, originally scheduled to face Mount St. Joseph on Hiram’s home court in the first game of the season on November 15, graciously agreed to move the game up two weeks and to play at the 10,000 seat Ciras Center at Xavier University so that Lauren could compete in front of her friends, family, and supporters. Lauren’s first points in that game proved to be emotional for everyone, the women of Hiram’s team included. Their display of sportsmanship went beyond anything that mattered on the court or on the scoreboard; through mutual support and respect, the game was a win for everyone involved.
Cincinnati Bengals support Devon Still
Devon Still, a defensive tackle with the Cincinnati Bengals, was cut from the team just before the start of this year’s NFL season. It proved to be exceptionally bad timing for Still; his daughter, Leah, was battling Stage 4 cancer.
Still’s battle did not go unnoticed. To support him, the Bengals quickly offered Devon a spot on their practice squad, a move that provided Still a steady income to support his daughter. Shortly after, they re-acquired Still onto the full-time roster. But this was just the beginning. In the coming weeks and months, teams around the league – including rivals! – began to support Still’s daughter and the sale of his jerseys, all proceeds from which went to pediatric cancer research and treatment.
His own daughter’s battle has not blinded Devon Still to the struggles of others, and it is the level of support, both for and from Still, that makes this story stand out as one of the best of the year. Devon reached out and met Lauren Hill back in October, and upon meeting her (and knowing of his daughter’s similar struggle), called Lauren’s story “beyond inspirational.” Finding strength in each other, Lauren more recently provided support back to Devon and Leah by giving them her autographed jersey from her November 2 game at the Cintas Center. The friendship that has formed between Lauren and Devon and Leah Still has proven inspirational for all three, as well as for the sports world that is cheering them all on.
LeBron James returns to Cleveland
LeBron continues to be a polarizing sports personality, but this story is not just about the uniform he wears or the home court on which James plays. Rather, it is about the maturation and attitude of a player who saw something bigger than himself in sports. In his return to the city in which he grew up, James saw an opportunity to influence his community for the better. His promise? Leadership.
“I feel my calling here goes above basketball,” wrote James in his announcement article in Sports Illustrated. “I want kids in Northeast Ohio, like the hundreds of Akron third-graders I sponsor through my foundation, to realize that there’s no better place to grow up. Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business. That would make me smile. Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get.”
James also addressed the ire directed at him after he left the Cavaliers for Miami four years earlier. “Everybody makes mistakes. I’ve made mistakes as well. Who am I to hold a grudge?” he asked. When earlier that same week Richard Sherman of the Seattle Seahawks led an unprovoked rant to exude his hope that a seemingly minor tiff between he and 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree would linger forever (Sherman’s wish: “I hope to play him every year for the rest of my career and choke him out”), James’ view towards something bigger than himself and his willingness to bury the past was a refreshing display of maturity and a prime example of the impact of sports away from the arena.
Cross country runner carries a fallen rival
We all run our own races in life. How often do we stop to help someone else in the race?
Minnesota high school cross country runner Melanie Bailey, upon finding Danielle LeNoue immobile along the course due to a torn patella tendon, made what was, to her, the obvious choice: she carried LeNoue the remaining half mile to the finish line, sacrificing her own race time in the process.
“It’s just a race,” said Melanie Bailey, putting things in perspective. “That’s the thing. A person is forever. A race just lasts 25 minutes.”
Indeed, both competitors gained something greater from that race than a good finishing time. They both won a new friendship. For everyone who noticed Bailey’s selfless act, they also inspired others to at least stop and think: Would I carry someone who needs my strength?
Kevin Durant wins the 2014 NBA MVP award
Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder discussed a lot in his NBA MVP acceptance speech back in May. He talked about his love of the game, the respect and support of his teammates, and how the game of basketball has influenced his life. But nothing was more important than what he saved until the end: praise for his upbringing.
In words heard by the entire sports world, Durant took the spotlight off himself and directed it at who, in his mind, deserved the praise. He thanked his mother for all her selflessness over the years. “You made us believe. You kept us off the street,” said an emotional Durant. “You put clothes on our backs, food on the table. When you didn’t eat, you made sure we ate. You went to sleep hungry. You sacrificed for us. You the real MVP.”
Though his praise for his mother was definitely the emotional climax, Durant’s entire acceptance speech reminded us of an attitude of love and appreciation for those who have helped us along our respective journeys. Throughout the speech he offered thanks to God, to his family, and to his friends, truly feeling that his trophy was a shared award between himself and everyone who paved the way for his accomplishments on the court.
Dick and Rick Hoyt compete in their last Boston Marathon
Many outside the Boston community hadn’t heard of the Hoyts. Not, at least, until they won the 2013 Jimmy V Perseverance Award and then announced that the 2014 Boston Marathon would be the father and son team’s last race.
Since 1981, Dick has been pushing his quadriplegic son Rick, who has cerebral palsy, all 26.2 miles of the famous marathon in a modified wheelchair. The 2013 race was supposed to be their last, but like so many others, they were forced to cut it short when the bombs went off near the finish line. To finish one more race and honor all those who suffered in the attack, the Hoyts made 2014 their racing finale.
More inspirational than just the act of father pushing son for so many years and through so many races is the motivation behind the duo’s decades-long career. When Rick was young, he publicly faced the stereotypes and criticisms of a society that largely saw him only for his disability. The Hoyts wanted to change that, to prove that, as Dick says, “there isn’t anything you can’t do as long as you make up your mind to do it.” Moreover, it was the disabled Rick himself who prompted the team’s foray into racing. When Rick was just 15, he found a charity road race for a badly injured lacrosse player and wanted to provide inspiration to let him know that life goes on, despite paralysis.
Through the intervening years, Rick has described feeling during races that his disability disappears. And this has meant the world not just to Dick and Rick Hoyt, but to all those they’ve touched through their perseverance in the races. They have sent a clear message. “We got all these other kids who are physically challenged out in the public now, and they’re able to live, learn, work and play just like everybody else,” Dick has said. “We have been able to help change all of that.” Though their last race has concluded, the story they have created will inspire others for years to come.
Kayla Montgomery becomes top runner despite MS
There are many athletes – some represented in this post and countless others as well – who have worked to overcome incredible odds to be able to compete. Among the stories, the ones which often stand out are those in which someone else is vital to the athlete’s success. In the previous story, Rick Hoyt would be physically unable to compete without the love and support of his father, Dick. In this story, high school runner Kayla Montgomery would be unable to run without her coach, Patrick Cromwell, literally catching her every time she falls.
In 2010, after losing feeling in her legs, Kayla was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). The diagnosis sidelined her from soccer, which she loved, and from any contact sports. But, determined to make the best of it, Kayla turned to running and with the help of Coach Cromwell, improved steadily from just an average runner to one of the best in the state of North Carolina.
The relationship she forged with her coach, though, is arguably the best part of her story. As her body heats up during a race, she progressively loses feeling in her legs. By the time she finishes any given race, she is unable to feel or control her lower body to make a controlled stop. Instead, she falls into her coach’s arms. Without Coach Cromwell, Kayla could not safely compete. But with trust in his training, presence, and support, she has achieved goals that no one thought she’d be capable of. This is a story not just of triumph over the odds, but also of the support that makes it possible.
More stories from 2014
The great sports stories compiled here are certainly not the only ones from 2014. They are simply the ones that have stood out the most, whether due to the number of people impacted or the inspiration they have offered to many both on and off the field of play. Other stories, like the 13-year-old blind wrestler who became a serious contender in his weight class, the Seattle Seahawks running back who became the first deaf player in the NFL, a double plane crash survivor who made it to the college basketball court and scored points for Michigan, and the NHL star who put his athletic life on hold to endure the greatest challenge of his life, are all inspirational in their own way.
Undoubtedly there are many more stories out there. Which ones inspired you this year? Add your favorites from 2014 in the comments below!