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9 Inspirational Sports Stories
Update: It’s been nearly three years since this article was written, and luckily for all of us there have been a good amount of inspirational sports stories to happen in that intervening period. Too many to include them all, in fact, but we can narrow it down to a couple of the best that have happened since November, 2011 and bring you up to date on professional sports inspiration. After all, inspiration is timeless – at least, it better be. We might all be in trouble if professional sports ever becomes 100% depressing and ridiculous.
The last couple of weeks, it seems like the sports page has been dominated by one depressing story after another. First, football legend Joe Paterno became embroiled in a tragic child abuse scandal. Then we heard that one of the greatest boxers of all time, Joe Frazier, passed away. And now, just this past Thursday, we received news of yet another tragic plane crash that claimed the lives of two Oklahoma State Women’s Basketball coaches.
Given this run of bad news, we here at Total Pro Sports thought this would be a good time to do a list that highlights the uplifting side of sports. So to that end, we present to you 9 of the most inspirational sports stories you will ever come across. Each one serves as a reminder that sport is about more than greed and ego and tragedy. It can also inspire compassion and charity and hope. Enjoy.
Update Bonus #11. Matt Kemp
After a game against the Giants in 2013, Matt Kemp of the Dodgers literally gave the shirt off his back to a young fan who was going through some tough times. As if that weren’t enough, the kid also got a baseball signed by Kemp, Kemp’s shoes, and Kemp’s hat. This takes the concept of “fan appreciation day” to the next level.
Update Bonus #11. Eric LeGrand
Eric LeGrand was on the Rutgers University football team when he suffered an injury that cut short his NFL dreams and paralyzed him from the neck down. But in a rare case of a professional football team putting conscience over profits, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers signed him to an honorary position on the team, so no matter what LeGrand goes on to accomplish, he’ll always be able to put the NFL on his resume.
9. Jackie Mitchell
In an age where women did not have too many opportunities to get involved in sports, Jackie Mitchell did the unthinkable: she became a professional baseball pitcher. In 1931, at the age of 17, Mitchell was signed to a contract by the Double-A Chattanooga Lookouts. That right there is pretty inspirational. But it gets a lot better. In her very first week with the Lookouts, Mitchell had to go up against the mighty New York Yankees in an exhibition game. This of course meant she would be facing baseball legends Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth.
All Jackie Mitchell did was strike them both out. Back to back.
Of course, given the improbability of what happened, many have wondered whether there was some kind of conspiracy behind these strikeouts. However, judging by the fact that the Great Bambino was less than gracious when interviewed about the incident, I’m going to take the position that the Ks were legit. So consider me inspired.
8. University of San Francisco Dons
The University of San Francisco never had a particularly strong football program. Thus, when the 1951 team went undefeated, it was kind of a big deal. An invitation to a Bowl game would have provided a huge influx of cash for the football program, and it would have jump started the pro careers of the team’s star players. So let’s just say, they wanted it bad.
However, they did not want it bad enough to turn their backs on their two black teammates. When Orange Bowl officials extended an invitation to San Francisco with the stipulation that they leave those two teammates at home, the Dons turned their back on money and fame for the sake of friendship and dignity.
It’s pretty damn amazing, really. Why they haven’t made a film about this yet is beyond me.
7. Derek Redmond
At the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, British sprinter Derek Redmond had his dreams of an olympic medal crushed by a debilitating hamstring injury in the middle of a semi-final race. But whereas most athletes would just submit to defeat, bend over, and cry, Redmond was determined to finish what he started. So he picks himself up off the ground and begins hobbling around the track toward the finish line. Then, just when it seems he might not be able to go on any longer, Redmond’s dad forces his way onto the track and puts his arm around his son, who cries on his shoulder as the two finish the race together.
If that doesn’t make you want to pick up the phone and call your dad, well, what the hell is wrong with you?
For greater impact, here’s another clip of this touching moment set to inspirational music by Coldplay.
6. Natalie du Toit
South African Natalie du Toit was a promising swimmer on the verge of making her first Olympic games in when, in 2001, she lost her left leg below the knee after an auto accident.
Amazingly, the amputation of this swimmer’s leg didn’t stop her. Hell, it hardly even slowed her down.
Not only has Natalie dominated the Paralympic summer games (winning a total of 10 gold medals in 2004 and 2008); she also still competes against able-bodied swimmers. In 2003, she won gold in the 800 meter freestyle at the All-Africa Games. Then, in 2008, Natalie finally achieved her goal of qualifying for the Summer Olympics. She competed and finished 16th in the women’s 10km race.
5. Billy Miske
Billy Miske (1894-1924) was by all accounts one of the most under-appreciated boxers of his era. He had a record of 48-2-2, which included wins against some of the biggest names in boxing and losses to two champions. But it’s not Miske’s boxing prowess that makes his story inspirational. It’s his willingness and determination to make the ultimate sacrifice for his family.
You see, Miske was diagnosed with a terminal kidney disease by his doctor, given 5 years to live, and told to retire. However, because he knew his family was depending on him financially, he kept jumping the ring and told no one—not even his wife—about his illness. Eventually, after a one-round knockout loss to the great Jack Dempsey, he finally decided to call it quits. But just 11 months later, with his family struggling to get by, Miske somehow conned promotors into giving him a huge fight.
By this time, he could barely walk and thus could not train for the fight. Nevertheless, he entered the ring and knocked out his younger opponent in the 4th round. He took the $2,400 he earned to buy back furniture he hap pawned several years ago, as well as some toys for his kids and a piano for his wife. Then he died just a week later at the age of 29.
Think about that next time you complain about your job.
4. Bethany Hamilton
If you can look past all the nonsense in the intro to this Today Show segment (e.g. “the buzziest stories of the decade”), you will be treated to one of the most amazing and inspirational sports stories of our time.
Of course, you surely are familiar with this one already. At the age of 13, surfing prodigy and Hawaii native Bethany Hamilton lost her entire left arm after being attacked by a tiger shark just off the coast of Kauai. But instead of giving up her dream of becoming a professional surfer, Hamilton was in the water and back on her board less than a month later.
Now that’s perseverance. Me? I sprained my knee playing pick-up soccer and “retired” at the age of 27.
Today, Hamilton is 21 years old and, yes, a pro surfer. She has a book and documentary, both called Soul Surfer, that tell her story. Also, she’s a pretty hot ticket on the lecture circuit—I suspect she makes more money giving speeches than surfing.
3. Team Hoyt
Rick Hoyt was born with cerebral palsy in 1962. Doctors told his parents to institutionalize him because he would be nothing more than a “vegetable,” but they knew better. They saw the way his eyes would follow whatever was going on, and that gave them hope that he could one day communicate. And sure enough, with the help of a computer, one day he did. From there Rick went on to graduate from both high school and college.
But what’s really amazing about Rick Hoyt is his unique relationship with his father, Dick. Rick had always loved sports, but due to his physical limitations he had a tough time finding a sport in which he could participate. Then, one day Rick read an article about running in a magazine that gave him an idea: what if his dad ran and pushed him in a wheelchair?
So they gave it a shot, and the rest was history. Since then, the two have competed in 1,032 endurance events, including a whopping 68 marathons and (perhaps even more impressively) 6 iron man triathlons.
Father Dick Hoyt—who is obviously a natural athlete given that he is able to compete so well into his 60s—says he never really had the competitive spirit on his own. But when his son Rick said to him, “Dad, when I’m running, it feels like I’m not handicapped”—that gave him all the motivation he needed.
2. Terry Fox
Terry Fox is one of the most famous athletes in Canadian history, and he wasn’t even a hockey player. That’s saying something.
After the British Columbia native lost his right leg to cancer in 1977 he decided that, if he was going to go on living, he was going to make a difference. So in 1980, Fox began what he called his Marathon of Hope—an attempt to raise money and awareness for cancer research by running all the way across Canada, 26 miles every day. Unfortunately, his cancer spread to his lungs, which forced Fox to suspect his Marathon of Hope after 143 days and 3,339 miles—but not before he inspired an entire country and became a national hero whose name is as well-known as Wayne Gretzky.
1. J Mac
The story of Jason McElwain, aka J-Mac, is right out of a movie. The 5’6” autistic equipment manager of a high school basketball team gets to play the last four minutes of his last game in his senior year of high school as thanks for his loyal dedication to the team. Once in the game, he catches fire, sinking 6 three-pointers and a two-pointer for an incredible game-high 20 points. You just can’t make this stuff up.
In my opinion, however, it’s not just the sports aspect of this story that makes it “inspirational.” In this day and age in which we hear story after story of kids being mercilessly bullied and abused by their peers to the point where they feel suicide is a viable alternative, isn’t it uplifting to see a basketball team and a school rally around someone who is a little different?