So far as sports are concerned, I liked 2016. From a Super Bowl matchup that I could really get behind, to the inspiration of the Olympics, to an end to the longest championship drought in sports, this year offered a number of uplifting and inspirational moments to renew our confidence in the sports world generally.
As I look back, I realize that many of those moments I remember were actually not on the biggest stages but instead originated in communities, including our own, and local competition that typically never receives the spotlight. So, this year, we shine a light on several of those smaller yet all-too-important stories. The first, from our local Philadelphia area, is one of the most viewed and shared stories we’ve ever written.
1. Local CYO game inspires a community
This past February, during a Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) playoff basketball game between two Philadelphia-area teams, a lopsided score with waning time on the clock led two competing coaches to work together for a memorable finish.
Coach Todd Monahan, whose team was trailing significantly in the second half, began substituting his starters for bench players and, in response, Coach Ed Morris’ team eased up. As the fierce competition transitioned into competitive camaraderie, Morris also had an idea. One of his athletes, Tyler, brought his cousin, Jonathan to the game. Jonathan, who has some handicaps but is a huge basketball fan and a manager for another local team, was overjoyed when Tyler took off his jersey, handed it to him, and Morris subbed him into the game.
Players began feeding the ball to Jonathan, who, by the end of the night, shot close to 50% to score 12 points for his team.
“Every now and then, there’s a moment like this that transcends the game and sports, and it puts things in perspective,” said opposing Coach Todd Monahan, whose team did go on to lose that game. “Sports can be a transcending vehicle for a greater good.”
Indeed, it was an uplifting moment not just for Jonathan but for the student-athletes on both benches, the fans, and for Jonathan’s father, who was in the stands that night and unexpectedly got to see his son compete.
After the final buzzer, said Coach Ed Morris, “you couldn’t tell who won or lost. Everyone was so happy.”
Read the full story here.
2. High school catcher consoles opposing pitcher
This is rare. Really, really rare. In the joyous moments after winning a championship, who stops to think about consoling their opponent?
Amazingly, one high school athlete did just that after his team won a state championship in Indiana. Tied 2-2 with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth inning, Zionsville pitcher Jack Pilcher got his opposing batter to hit a chopper towards shortstop. When the shortstop and third baseman both went for the ball and collided, though, a routine throw couldn’t beat the runner at first and the winning run was forced home.
Stunned, Pilcher lay face down next to the pitchers mound as the Roncalli Rebels celebrated by first base. As he lay there, he felt a hand on his shoulder. It was Cody Smith, Roncalli’s catcher.
“I saw the heartbreak and the distress in all their players,” said Smith. “It just really got to me and I just wanted to go over there and tell him that everything’s gonna be alright.”
It was a simple gesture, but one that spoke volumes. These moments of sportsmanship are rare and worth noting. Like the previous story, they show us that selflessness is alive and has a place in sports, even in respect to opponents. It’s even better, perhaps, when we see young and amateur athletes setting the example.
3. Brother carries brother in dramatic triathlon finish
Jonny Brownlee, of the UK, was leading a triathlon in Mexico this past September when, on the last turn before the finish line, his body simply gave out. Stumbling, Brownlee began visibly losing motor skills and was saved from falling by a volunteer at a water station.
Not far behind Jonny were his brother, Alistair, and Henri Schoeman of South Africa, both of whom were battling for second place. Seemingly without a thought, Alistair sacrificed his own finish by throwing Jonny’s arm around his neck and helping his brother to the finish line.
Arm-in-arm they pushed to the finish, Alistair stopping short to push a collapsing Jonny over the line first before moving forward to secure his third-place finish.
Here’s the thing: Alistair had a shot at winning the race. By stopping to help his brother, he let Schoeman easily coast to victory. It seems, though, it was hardly a decision.
“If it had happened to anyone, I would have helped them across the line,” said Alistair.
No wonder, then, it was such an instinct to help his brother. With gold medals on the line, it is indeed refreshing to witness such selflessness.
4. Olympic runner helps fallen competitor
It’s one thing to help a teammate or friend, but perhaps another to stop and help your competition.
During a 5,000 meter race at the Rio Olympics, runners Abbey D’Agostino and Nikki Hamblin got tangled up, tripped, and fell to the ground. D’Agostino got up but, before continuing the race, turned back to help Hamblin, who was still on the ground, not moving. After encouraging Hamblin, even trying to pull her back to her feet, the two did start to run again.
Quickly, though, D’Agostino realized she was hurt, began limping, and fell back to the track. This time, Hamblin stopped running and turned back to her competitor to offer encouragement. The two did part ways, and D’Agostino did later painfully complete the race. Hamblin was waiting for her at the finish line, where the two embraced.
Neither came close to winning. But together, they embodied the Olympic spirit, “not to have conquered but to have fought well.”
“Although my actions were instinctual at that moment, the only way I can and have rationalized it is that God prepared my heart to respond that way,” said Abbey D’Agostino, reflecting on the moments she encouraged Nikki Hamblin after their initial fall. “I was so thankful and just drawn to what I felt like was a real manifestation of God’s work in my life.”
5. Redskins players deliver supplies to Haiti
It’s great to see athletes serving others off the field, too. In October, Hurricane Matthew spun a path of destruction from the Atlantic through the Caribbean before making landfall in Haiti and Cuba as a Category 5 storm. Sadly, Haiti’s death toll from the hurricane exceeded 1,000 people.
In response, Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder reached out to wide receiver Pierre Garcon, who still has family in Haiti, and defensive end Ricky Jean Francois. Together, they personally delivered badly needed medical supplies to Haiti.
Why the personal touch?
“I understand it’s easy to pick up the phone and put your debit card or your credit card down and donate $100 or $200,” said Jean Francois, “but what’s really real to us, our people of Haiti, is to see your face here and seeing you put the time in, put the work in, put the sweat in to rebuild our country.”
6. Blind running back sees no barriers
What’s your excuse?
Philadelphia area student-athlete Marvin Pearson doesn’t seem to have any. Pearson, who is blind and partially deaf, recently had a couple memorable moments when he scored a touchdown as well as a critical two-point conversion for his Pottstown, PA varsity high school football team.
Though the former was an uncontested run into the end zone, a sign of respect from his opponents, this story isn’t really about the scoring. Instead, it’s about Pearson’s drive, determination, and refusal to be stopped by obstacles.
“It’s like he never even lost his sight. He doesn’t think he has it worse than others. He feels equal to everybody else,” said Marvin’s sister, MarDaije.
Pearson, who has been heavily involved in wrestling, track and field, and football, has indeed never let blindness hold him back. That’s something that his coaches and teammates like, too; Marvin, perhaps unintentionally, has taught them something about overcoming adversity, even though it’s unclear that Pearson sees his physical disability as such. He is already looking forward to college, possibly at Kutztown University, where he hopes to continue his playing career.