When you watch a running back shed tacklers with less effort than it takes you to brush crumbs off your shirt, then see him at the press conference in a suit that costs more than your house, it’s easy to set high expectations for the guy—and not just on-the-field expectations. You and your buddies take Sundays off to kick back on the couch with some munchies, but when Ricky Williams does it, well, he might as well have kicked Grandma down the stairs.
We like to forget that professional athletes are actual, flawed human beings—with feelings and problems (and, sure, an occasional psychological disorder) like the rest of us. What sets them apart? A lifetime of dedication and discipline few of us could match.
For this list we picked 10 dedicated pros who also happen to be really good guys. None of them is perfect. If punching a fan was on your rap sheet, you still had a shot. Kicking an opponent? Sure. Appearing on Baywatch? Why not. Providing gainful employment to Ben Roethlisberger? That was fine too. We drew the line somewhere near homicide and actually being Ben Roethlisberger.
10. Roger Federer
In 2006, Federer appeared in India to visit tsunami victims after 18,000 people, many of them children, were reported missing or presumed killed in that country alone. He refused to talk tennis.
Federer has aided victims of Hurricane Katrina. He became a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. He’s worked to raise AIDS awareness. He organizes charity drives for Haiti.
Feeling bad about yourself yet?
When Forbes Magazine listed its 100 most powerful celebrities, Federer was No. 29, one spot behind LeBron James, one ahead of Brad Pitt, seven behind Steven Spielberg, and 28 behind Oprah. He was on the list not solely because of his prowess with a racket, but because of an increasing global signature for being one of the more generous celebrities in all of sports.
9. Grant Hill
Grant Hill was born into American royalty. His father, who played for the Dallas Cowboys, was a frat brother of George W. Bush. Hill’s mother roomed with Hillary Clinton. On the night Hill was drafted by the Detroit Pistons, he got a congratulatory phone call from President Bill Clinton.
People have become far more egotistical over much less. But that’s the beauty of Grant Hill: there isn’t an arrogant bone in his body. Just confidence.
Hill went to Duke before his 17-year NBA career unfolded. Along the way, he emerged as one of the league’s most trusted and visible personalities. (That cameo on Home Improvement didn’t hurt. It may not have helped, exactly, but whatever.)
Grant Hill’s charity list is long. He’s donated $1 million to Duke, given $50,000 to Child Abuse Protection, created scholarships for underprivileged kids in Orlando and Detroit, and done about every other charitable thing you’d want from a pro athlete. But what’s most telling is the one run-in he had with the NBA’s league offices.
Back when he was with Orlando, Hill cost the Magic $15,000 for violating salary cap rules. His transgression: winning a $50,000 check to be donated to the charity of his choice for his “outstanding community service.” The $50,000, supposedly, bumped Hill’s contract over the league maximum.
8. Kelly Slater
In May, Congress passed a resolution that “recognizes and honors Robert Kelly Slater for winning the 2010 Rip Curl Pro Bell Championship and for his other outstanding achievements in the world of surfing.” The resolution—a laundry list of Slater’s achievements in and out of the water—passed by a voice vote without any apparent opposition.
By our calculations, Kelly Slater’s greatness is the first thing that the government has agreed on since … well, forever.
Late last year, Slater won his 10th world surfing championship—twice as many as the guy in second. He was 38. He also won it when he was 20. He’s both the youngest and the oldest champion—a level of sustained greatness you don’t see anywhere. He’s one of the most dominant male athletes in history—yet he seems stuck as nothing more than a footnote in pop-culture consciousness.
After Slater won his 10th title, Quiksilver donated $10,000 to 10 different charities of Slater’s choice. In 2007, he founded the Kelly Slater Foundation, which raises awareness and money for both environmentally and socially conscious charities.
Whether he returns for an 11th shot at a title remains to be seen. But no matter what, Slater’s left his mark with righteous dignity. We hope it lives on for years.
7. Tony Gonzalez
Perhaps the greatest tight end in the history of the NFL once saved a man’s life:
Three years ago Gonzalez was at a California restaurant with his family when a man sitting at a table next to him began choking on a piece of steak. The man’s girlfriend noticed and began screaming for help. Gonzalez calmly walked over, wrapped his arms around the man’s abdomen, and performed the Heimlich maneuver. The obstruction easily popped out.
“She was screaming, ‘He can’t breathe, he can’t breathe,’” Gonzalez told the Associated Press. “The whole restaurant was quiet. Nobody was doing anything. Then I saw he was turning blue. Everybody in the restaurant was just kind of sitting there wide-eyed.”
So, in total, Gonzalez has 11 Pro Bowls, the record for career touchdowns for a tight end, career receptions for a tight end, career receiving yards for a tight end, and one life saved. Not bad.
Gonzalez has done work with the Kidney Foundation and has also started several small businesses. For well over a decade, he’s been known as one of the NFL’s great public ambassadors. He’s a favorite with the media; every player in the sport sees him as one of its leaders. Gonzalez is a strong personality and a respected one. He’s considered one of the more stable personalities in all of sports.
6. The Rooney Family
“They epitomize what family-run businesses can mean to a place,” wrote Ben McGrath in The New Yorker.
In 1933, in honor of his son Dan’s first birthday, Art Rooney bought the Pittsburgh Pirates football team for $2,500. Another $2,500 in entrance fees made them an NFL team. Ten years later, the team was renamed the Steelers. Seventy-five years later, the Steelers won their sixth Super Bowl—this time, under Art Rooney II.
In 2009, Sports Illustrated named the Rooney family the best owners in the NFL. “At the end of the day,” they wrote, “the Rooneys have won a record six Super Bowl trophies and have given Pittsburgh, an industrial town that always seems to be hit hardest in tough economic times, its biggest source of civic pride”—not to mention stability.
They’ve managed to maintain consistency and success by also being willing agents of change. The Rooney Rule, named after Dan, requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate for any open head coach or general manager position. They were the first franchise to have a neurosurgeon on the sideline and use an objective test for cognitive problems.
Dan and Art are already in the Hall of Fame. It’ll be no surprise if Art II joins them one day soon.
5. Tim Howard
An African-Hungarian-American with divorced parents—and Tourette’s. It couldn’t have been easy for Tim Howard growing up in New Jersey. Ten-year-olds don’t take well to a kid who can’t stop blinking and coughing.
Now the starting keeper for Everton in the English Premier League and for the United States National Team, Howard’s acrobatics, aggression, and quick reflexes make him one of the best goalies in the world.
When he’s done playing, there’s a good chance we’ll consider him the greatest American soccer player of all time. But ask Howard if he’d ever get rid of Tourette’s, and he’ll say:
It is always there. A cough or a tic or clearing my throat, blinking a lot. Honestly, I would miss it if it weren’t there. If you offer me the chance to not have it, I wouldn’t take it.
In 2001 Howard won the MLS’s Humanitarian of the Year award for his work with children with Tourette’s. He serves on the board of directors for the Tourette Syndrome Association of New Jersey, where he talks to children about his battle with the disorder.
4. Craig Breslow
Breslow graduated from Yale in 2002 with degrees in biochemistry and molecular physics. He’s a left-handed relief specialist with Oakland. He’s been called the smartest athlete alive.
Matt McCarthy, author of Odd Man Out: A Year on the Mound With a Minor League Misfit, calls him lots of other things:
“What initially drew me to Craig was his quiet confidence and even-keeled nature. He was the calming presence amid the flurry of activity at Yale, and he always knew what to say when disaster struck.
“When I failed my first calculus exam as a freshman, he was there to pick up the pieces. When my high-school girlfriend dumped me, he was there to point out her flaws. And within a week he had set me up on a blind date that ultimately failed, because, as Craig put it, ‘You can’t kiss a girl on the forehead on the first date. It just makes you look like an impotent creep.’”
Last season with Oakland he finished with 71 strikeouts, a career high. Breslow remains as effective as ever.
No longer a student, Breslow now assists perfect strangers in a different sort of need. He raises money for pediatric cancer research and has teamed with some of the smartest minds and largest cancer fighting groups in the world.
All of these things are Breslow: Good friend. Smart pitcher. Guy who can discuss thermodynamic equilibrium and velocity distribution. Relentless student on and off the mound.
3. Ryan Miller
As a kid, Ryan Miller’s father told him to just make the save and get on with the game. Don’t worry about the highlight reel.
So that’s what Miller does. He just makes the save, and then another save, and then another, and then another …
Always a prodigy of sorts—one of the only goalies to ever win the Hobey Baker award, hockey’s Heisman—Miller became a national name last winter when he led the unremarkable U.S. team to within an overtime goal of the Olympic gold medal, and was named tournament MVP.
He also won the Vezina trophy, given to the NHL’s best goalie. But the NHL Foundation Player Award, awarded to the player who “applies the core values of (ice) hockey—commitment, perseverance and teamwork—to enrich the lives of people in his community,” might be Miller’s most important accolade yet.
After his 16-year-old cousin was diagnosed with leukemia in 2005, Miller and his father created the Steadfast Foundation, designed to help cancer patients, especially children, cope with the disease. Miller organizes family parties and therapeutic play. Their biggest event each year is the Catwalk for Charity, a fashion show featuring Miller and his Buffalo Sabres teammates as the models.
“We try to complement the medicine that those brilliant doctors and amazing hospital staff do every day,” Miller has said. “For our part, we just want to try to add a sense of normalcy and humanity to kids’ lives.”
2. Ron Artest
Ron Artest once walked into the stands and punched out a handful of Detroit Pistons fans. He’s admitted to drinking Hennessy at halftime. He applied for a job at Circuit City, so he could get an employee discount—while he was in the NBA. He asked for time off from the NBA because he was tired from promoting his rap album. He’s been on the cover of Penthouse.
And that’s just a small sample.
The picture of mental health, Artest is not. When the cameras caught him after the Lakers won game seven of last year’s NBA finals, we all held our breath. Is he going to take his clothes off? Eat the microphone? No. He thanked his psychiatrist. Over the past year, he’s become one of the most outspoken—and most active—professional athletes on mental-health issues.
Artest has fought with these issues his whole life. He’s attended counseling sessions ever since his parents divorced when he was 13. But after an arrest two years ago, he began to take the issues more seriously. And now he’s trying to give back.
In December, Artest raffled off his one and only NBA championship ring, raising over $500,000 for Xcel University, his own charity that helps high-risk youths with mental issues. He’s pledged to donate “either all or some” of his 2011 salary—$6.79 million—to mental-health charities. Artest has also worked with California legislators to promote the Mental Health in Schools Act.
“Anybody going through problems, they could identify their problems with any individual kid and be like, ‘Wow, I’m going through what he’s going through,’” Artest has said. “When you’re weak mentally, there’s nothing a kid can do.”
1. Cullen Jones
What didn’t kill Cullen Jones made him really, really fast.
When he was 5, he nearly drowned after falling out of his tube and landing in a splashdown pool at a water park in Pennsylvania. Within days, his mother put in swimming classes at their local New Jersey YMCA.
Eighteen years later, he won a gold medal at the Beijing Olympics with Michael Phelps in the 4×100-meter freestyle relay.
Now, Jones is 26. As an African-American, he’s trying to make the water safe for other minorities by touring the country with Make a Splash, a foundation hoping to encourage safety and minority participation in swimming.
Drowning is the second-leading cause of unintentional death of children younger than 19. According to Make a Splash, 70 percent of African-American children and 60 percent of Hispanic children were at risk of drowning, compared to 40 percent of whites.
Jones won a $400,000 federal pilot program in Northern New Jersey. He’s also hoping for an increase in the Center for Disease Control’s drowning-prevention budget.
“The thing that I would say is, don’t project your own fears onto your kids,” Jones said. “Enable them. My mom went against the grain. She didn’t know how to swim. When I almost drowned, she got me into swim lessons. She didn’t want to hold me away.”
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