THIRTY YEARS AGO, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED's then managing editor, Mark Mulvoy, named eight athletes as the franchise's collective Sportsperson of the Year. A few of them were reasonably well-known; others not as much. But all of these Athletes Who Care, as the package was billed, were household names to some of the neediest and most vulnerable among us. "Sportsperson should always transcend the mere playing of the game," Mulvoy says. "I hold that sacred. So we thought, Let's do something on all these athletes who are doing meaningful things, making the world better."
Mulvoy is inarguably the most ardent, and connected, fan among the nine managing editors that span SI's 64-year history. But when it came to the franchise's signature award, off-field sacrifices and charity mattered as much as highlight reels. "Athletes who care," says Mulvoy, "is kind of the point of the award in the first place."
WE WILL remember 2017 as much for what athletes strove to achieve off the field as for what they did on it. That was no small bar to clear. New champions were crowned, notably the Astros, who won the first World Series in the franchise's history, while old champions (the Patriots, the Warriors, the Lynx, the Penguins) solidified their places in the pantheon.
Even in a year of sublime individual performances—Brady and KD, Deshaun and Fed, all of them considered for the award—athletes spoke loudest with other actions and words. Amid the tribal, black-and-white conversations that polarized the country this year, athletes used their platforms to search for truth in the gray spaces. Not just Colin Kaepernick, the recipient of the third SI Muhammad Ali Legacy Award (page 60), but also Maya Moore, the WNBA star who won her 21st championship while lending her voice to the activist movement that swept through stadiums and arenas in the late summer and early fall (page 72). They, too, demanded—and received—serious consideration for Sportsperson of the Year.
THIS ISSUE is intended to celebrate a new generation of athletes who care, in all senses of the word. Which brings us to the 2017 Sportspersons of the Year, J.J. Watt and José Altuve. By the third week of September, less than a month after Hurricane Harvey had devastated Houston and its surrounding region, Watt had raised more than $37 million in relief aid. The SOTY candidacy of the Texans' defensive end was unaffected by the season-ending leg injury he suffered in Week 5. The three-time Defensive Player of the Year could have had his best season, or his worst. His place as a Sportsperson had already been engraved (page 32). "Nothing J.J. Watt has achieved in his career, or might still achieve, will measure up to what he did for Houston," says MMQB editor-in-chief Peter King.
The 5'6" Altuve had his own contribution to make to Houston's post-storm recovery. The personal journey of the Astros' second baseman is inspirational, a classic tale of an underestimated athlete overcoming the longest of odds. And this fall Altuve was the joyous catalyst for one of the most unlikely World Series runs in recent memory. Championships don't save communities, and we should be careful not to assign too much weight to their powers of healing. But what other event can bring a million-plus people together and provide a platform, however ephemeral, to cast aside differences? "The city of Houston has treated me really good," Altuve tells Tom Verducci (page 46). "So when they were having a hard time, I wanted to give something back to them."
The stories of these two athletes who care represent very different paths to the same destination: #HoustonStrong. Congratulations to J.J. Watt and José Altuve, 2017 Sportspersons of the Year.