We talk a lot about what’s wrong with sports, and in turn, society.
And quite often, our shame is justified.
But it’s worth discussing that there are also times when athletics brings out the best in us. Most of the value to be found in athletics comes with participation. But sometimes being a spectator, even a fan, enables us to be inspired and uplifted in a way few other activities allow.
As 2013 comes to a close, I compiled a few of my favorite sports moments from the past year. The fact that these heroes emerged in junior high gymnasiums and high school football fields doesn’t diminish their importance. In fact, the humble scenes where these stories of compassion and generosity emerged may speak even more eloquently of what the games can teach all of us.
Whether we play, coach, critique or cheer, stories like these are reminders that as often as the games give us a chance to be stronger and more determined, they also give us the chance to be generous.
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Owen Groesser's family just wanted him to have friends. They wanted him to feel a part of something. So his mother asked the Van Hoosen Junior High basketball coach if the eighth-grader with Down syndrome could be the team's manager. The coach said yes.
As the season progressed, players noticed that Owen looked like he wanted to play. And finally, the coach decided they should design a play just for the basketball-loving boy. It was called the Owen, and when the team ran the play, Groesser received a pass on the perimeter and then made a choice — drive to the basket or shoot a 3-pointer.
His mother was nervous when Groesser made his first appearance in a game last January. His father took out his iPhone and shot a video of the original 3-point shots that made Groesser a star at school and his teammates an inspiration around the country.
Within hours of Groesser hitting two 3-point shots in the team's penultimate game of the season, his friends used Twitter to get the attention of ESPN's Sportscenter. They used the hashtag #getowenonsportscenter, attached to the video, and it went viral. Politicians and professional athletes joined the effort and Groesser's 3-pointers made the program's Top 10 Plays.
The next day, Groesser suited up again, and in front of a much larger crowd, he scored another four points. ESPN's "Outside the Lines" did a piece on Groesser and the campaign to put his first career points on national television, and what quickly became clear is that by giving the 14-year-old a moment in the spotlight they taught us all a little about the power of inclusion.
All Cody Taylor wanted was an opportunity to play.
But because he was born with arthrogryposis, a rare non-progressive muscle disorder causing stiff or immobile joints and a congenital heart defect, football was never an option. In fact, most sports were off limits to the young man who yearned to play. But where others see obstacles, Taylor sees a challenge.
“I’ve always loved football,” said Taylor. “Of course, there have been limitations for me. Sometimes I had to stop what I was doing, look for a different way. Sometimes there was no way to figure it out, so then we just move on.”
The doctors said no contact, so he asked if he could be a kicker for the team.
“It took a lot of begging and pleading,” Taylor admits. Once he'd convinced doctors and his very protective mother, he just had to win a place on the team. Taylor was Riverton High School's backup kicker and he made his first extra point in a 71-50 victory against Lehi this season.
Taylor's story, told in more detail a few months ago, reminds us not to give up when circumstances seem bleak. With the right attitude, there is always hope.
Sam Woodruff was just another outcast before he found the warm embrace of friends made through football. An only child, the team became his family. He worked hard in the classroom to keep his grades up while working hard in the weight room so he could make the Grand High football team.
On the first day the team practiced in pads, the sophomore was so excited he could barely sleep. He came home after practice, climbed into a post-workout bath, and passed away.
"The glow and smile on his face was all you needed to see to know just how happy and content he was with football," said his mom, Merry Woodruff. "Football and his team really meant the world to him. It was the center of his social life."
In the wake of his death, it was these football brothers who went to work raising money to help pay for burial costs. They got up early to clean the cemetery, they sold T-shirts and passed the hat. South Summit High offered the Red Devils money they raised, just as Grand had offered a donation when a South Summit football player was paralyzed a season earlier.
With every kindness offered, there was a reminder that love and acceptance can heal a child's loneliness and a mother's broken heart.
Normally secretive teenagers would make adults nervous. But in the case of Olivet Middle School, secrecy should be encouraged a little more because it leads to moments like this.
Keith Orr is a mentally disabled junior high student who loves to hug. The people he loves to hug most are his football buddies.
The fact that the cool kids embrace Orr could have been the end of a pretty heartwarming story. But the junior high players wanted to give Orr something special.
They told television news reporters that they wanted to do something nice for him. They wanted to give him the best feeling a football player could have. They wanted him to score a touchdown.
So the boys conspired, without the knowledge of their parents or coaches, to allow Orr to carry the ball into the end zone this fall.
The story is told beautifully in this CBS news piece.
While he and his parents revel in the joy of that moment that they never thought they’d experience, the boys who share the sideline with him point out some other lessons learned.
One of them gets choked up as he talks about how the experience taught him to think about the needs of others just a little more.
When a 12-year-old is battling cancer, he needs every advantage he can get. Grant Reed was a life-long Ohio State football fan, so he named the tumor in his head "Michigan" and talked constantly of beating Michigan.
His story moved OSU coaches, administrators and parents, who embraced him. But his story also moved Michigan football head coach Brady Hoke and Michigan boosters, who not only gave the family tickets to this year's OSU-Michigan game in Ann Arbor, but paid for the hotel where the family stayed.
Hoke's actions are a reminder that rivalries, which so often divide and diminish us, can also be our best moments.
Cheerleaders are used to being in the spotlight. And there is no bigger stage than a school's homecoming celebration. This year the Hunter High cheerleaders invited the school's special education students to share that spotlight. Their performance was captured in this video.
“The special ed kids come to every assembly, but they sit at the top so they can take kids out if they need to,” said cheer coach Jo Thompson. “Homecoming is one of our biggest assemblies.”
The students were overjoyed to leave their corner of the gymnasium for center stage, and Thompson said plans were already in place for more collaboration between the two groups.