We celebrate athletes mainly for feats of greatness between the lines. But it was also a year of many sportsmanlike moments off the field—gestures large and small that remind us of how good our games can be
Home Is Where His Heart Is
TAMBA HALI was born in Liberia in 1983. Ten years later, with the country in the midst of civil war, his mother sent him to live with his father, a chemistry teacher in New Jersey. While speaking to The MMQB's Peter King in October, it didn't take long for the Chiefs' outside linebacker to acknowledge what his fate would have been had he never left West Africa. "I would be dead," said one of the NFL's most feared pass rushers. "I would have gone to war. So I'm really blessed to be in the position I'm in, and I don't want to ever forget that."
This fall Hali, 31, partnered with Heart to Heart International, a Kansas City--based humanitarian aid group, to build a 70-bed Ebola treatment unit in Liberia. The unit cost $100,000 to $150,000 to construct; Hali donated $50,000, and though he is typically loath to talk publicly about his charity work, he opened up about this cause because of the desperate need created by the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. It's affecting his family—aunts, uncles and myriad cousins who live there now.
Hali is not comfortable being a spokesman, but he understands that there are few famous Liberians in America and that it's up to him to speak up and try to get people to donate money and time to help contain Ebola. "I'd be the first one to tell you that every time I do charity work, I like to do it on the hush-hush," Hali said. "But there are some matters—like this—that are way bigger than me."
In October, Jim Mitchum, the CEO of Heart to Heart International, spoke to King from Liberia, where Mitchum was planning the construction of treatment units and looking for health-care workers to staff them. "When Tamba appeared at our announcement [Heart to Heart's Kansas City--area press briefing on Oct. 7], he helped generate a lot of interest and helped to spread the word," Mitchum said. "When we met, I could tell how important this is to him. The emotion in his voice, the feeling in his voice.... He just wanted to know what he could do to help."
First and Last Men Standing
AS IS customary at the end of grueling cross-country ski races, Dario Cologna of Switzerland collapsed to the snow soon after he crossed the finish line of the 15-kilometer event at the Sochi Olympics. With a time of 38:29.7, Cologna had defended his Olympic title and earned his second gold medal of the 2014 Games. But instead of retiring to a warm training room and a well-deserved postrace massage, the 27-year-old champion (below, right) stuck around the finish area for another 28 minutes, waiting for the last man, Roberto Carcelén of Peru, to cross the line.
The 43-year-old Carcelén (below, 92), who was competing with a fractured rib sustained days before in training, finished the race in 1:06:28.9, more than 10 minutes behind the penultimate finisher, Dachhiri Sherpa of Nepal (91). When Carcelén crossed the line waving a Peruvian flag he had retrieved from the boisterous crowd (he is only the third Peruvian Winter Olympian), he was met with hugs of congratulations from Sherpa—and gold medalist Cologna.
FAMILIES sacrificing for a dream are not uncommon among Olympians, but U.S. biathlete Tracy Barnes sacrificed a dream for family. Shortly after she qualified for her second Olympics, last January, the then 31-year-old Barnes effectively gave her ticket to Sochi to her twin sister, Lanny.
Lanny (above right, with Tracy), an Olympic biathlete in 2006 and '10, had been a favorite to make the team again, but she missed three of four selection races due to illness, and she came in sixth in the competition for the U.S. team's five spots. Tracy was the fifth qualifier. "Lanny is my best friend and my teammate," Tracy said after the U.S. trials. "I see how hard she works on a daily basis, so I know firsthand that she is deserving of a spot on the Olympic team."
Tracy, who competed in Turin in '06, saw the chance to counter her sister's spate of bad luck, and one day when they were out hiking together, she informed Lanny of her decision to withdraw from the team, making Lanny the final qualifier. Lanny protested, but eventually she accepted Tracy's spot. She competed in the 15K biathlon in Sochi, finishing 67th with a time of 53:02.2.
"Often during the hype of the Games we forget what the Olympics are really about," Lanny said. "They aren't about the medals and the fame and all that. They are about inspiration, teamwork, excellence and representation. I can think of no better example of the true Olympic spirit than what Tracy did."
Courage to Come forward
STEELERS CORNERBACK William Gay signed up through the team for a community service event, but the details were vague, and he was confused when he was led into an unmarked building in Pittsburgh with a steel door and bulletproof windows. Inside he was introduced to 40 women and children, most of them victims of domestic violence. "However I ended up there," Gay says, "turned out to be a blessing." He asked the women questions and listened to their stories. Then, for the first time, he shared his own. Gay was eight years old when his mother, Carolyn Hall, was shot to death by his stepfather. Hall was trying to move out of their home after many months of abuse. "If my mom had known a shelter like this existed," Gay says, "she might still be alive."
It's been four years since Gay's fortuitous introduction to the Women's Center & Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh. He has hosted a holiday dinner there each year since, and he gives speeches on the shelter's behalf. This fall he helped promote the center's new smartphone app, a resource with GPS technology to help users locate the nearest domestic-violence hotline or shelter. For nearly two decades, as he built a career in a sport obsessed with toughness, Gay was reluctant to speak about his mother's murder. He was wary of others thinking that he was using his tragic backstory as a crutch. "Now I see it in a different light," he says.
"He's pretty vulnerable for putting himself out there," says Shirl Regan, the shelter's CEO and president. "But he says if he can save just one life, it's worth it." This season, as the NFL endured a storm of criticism for its handling of domestic-violence cases, Gay continued a more subtle campaign for change. There was the day he overheard a few Steelers engaged in a debate: What if you found out a teammate was beating his wife? Would you intervene? The answers varied until Gay intervened. "I don't care who you are," he said. "If I find out you are hurting a woman, I'm going to say something."
Gay recruited Steelers teammates to volunteer at the shelter this year. He told them not to be startled by the steel door and bulletproof windows, which are simply reminders that the women have left dangerous situations. And Gay always refers to the women as heroes, never victims. The courage to seek help, he says, can't be understated.
For Love Of the Game
DULGUUN BOLD-ERDENE fell in love with basketball at his first Knicks game, in the fourth grade. Although the home team was dismantled by the Celtics, the kid from Forest Hills, Queens, was hooked. Whenever his father, a former finance coordinator born in Mongolia, could drive him to the local gym, they spent hours playing together. Dulguun loved Michael Jordan and Ray Allen, and like his idols, he was determined to hone his craft and become a better player.
Dulguun thought the 2013--14 season at the United Nations International School in Queens would be his final year of playing basketball; he'd be going to high school after that and feared he wouldn't be able to contend at that level. The season started out poorly, with tough losses and a decline of interest among the players. Then the head coach died suddenly, leaving Dulguun and his teammates to pick up the pieces of a broken season.
By last February they had come together in honor of their coach, adopting the mantra No Excuses as they tried to turn things around. When most kids Dulguun's age were indoors sipping hot chocolate and playing video games, the 13-year-old shooting guard took to Ehrenreich-Austin Playground in Forest Hills with a shovel in one hand and a ball in the other. He cleared enough snow to work on his jump shot, his left hand and his ballhandling. A passing photographer, Emmanuel Midy, snapped a few shots of the scene and asked Dulguun why he was out there when no one else was.
"The city isn't going to shovel the court, and I can't wait for the sun to melt it," Dulguun explained to Midy, who posted a photo on Instagram and then watched it go viral. "I need to practice now, because I want to win."
ON THE morning of Oct. 24, the day that the Marysville-Pilchuck football team was to play for Washington's Wesco 3A North divisional championship, a terrible tragedy struck the halls of the high school. A freshman, Jaylen Fryberg, opened fire in the cafeteria, shooting five students, four of them fatally, before taking his own life. The events shook the Marysville community—and moved the members of the Oak Harbor Wildcats, Marysville-Pilchuck's title-game opponent.
In the wake of the devastating news, Oak Harbor announced it would forfeit the championship to the Tomahawks; instead of playing, the Wildcats traveled more than an hour to attend a vigil in Marysville. They also stopped in on a Tomahawks team meeting to shake hands and offer hugs. "I can't put into words what it meant to our guys," Marysville-Pilchuck coach Brandon Carson told The Seattle Times. "This just goes beyond the game, this just shows us what athletics can do."
The gesture of sportsmanship did not go unanswered. Five days later Marysville-Pilchuck players (left, in red) surprised Oak Harbor at practice, presenting the Wildcats with the Wesco 3A North championship trophy. "It was the least we could do with everything they have done for us," Carson said.
His players were completely on board. As Tomahawks senior Corbin Ferry told The Herald of Everett, Wash., "It's nothing compared to what they did for us."
Photograph by Chris Humphreys USA Today Sports
Courtesy of Heart to Heart International (3)
KRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/GETTY IMAGES (COLOGNA)
SCOTT HALLERAN/GETTY IMAGES (BARNESES)
ANDREW WEBER/USA TODAY SPORTS
EMMANUEL MIDY (BOLD-ERDENE)
NICKI LUPER (MARYSVILLE)