The Joy of Sport

Welcome back to campus. Please enjoy a few notes on the passing scene …

The Joy of Sport

The late winter months are rather slow ones on the sports calendar, at least until March Madness percolates and wakes us up like a hot cup of coffee (or an iced-cold Coca Cola for us non-java types). College basketball offers some nice conference blockbusters (the Duke-North Carolina game comes to mind), the NBA is more interesting than usual due to the shortened season, golf just offered a nice Phil-Tiger pairing at Pebble but really starts at Augusta National, baseball is barely slumbering out of hibernation, and much of this sports-crazed nation is recovering from a sort of post-football hangover.

The calendar makes this a nice time to reflect on sports heroes.

Every spring in my Sport in Society course, students learn about real sport stars. Most everybody recognizes names like Kobe, LeBron, Peyton, Tom Brady, Tiger, Derek Jeter, A-Rod, and the like. But … do you know Lou Zamperini? How about Maggie Maloy or Darryl Williams? Maybe Sam Paneno?

Didn’t think so.

Sadly, those names do not garner much attention, even though they are every bit the heroes as the media darlings.

Zamperini, who turned 95 in late January, is a former American Olympic distance runner. He is better known for being a World War II prisoner of war, where his stature as an American athlete brought down the wrath of his sadistic Japanese capturers (the wrath of one in particular – the notorious Mutsuhiro “Bird” Watanabe). Zamp is the subject of Laura Hillenbrand’s terrific book Unbroken (the best book I’ve read in the past few years).

Maloy and Paneno were the initial recipients of the NCAA’s Inspiration Award for student-athletes who overcame life altering events to succeed and inspire. Maloy endured a violent attack as a high school runner, and a severe auto accident while at Defiance College that broke her pelvis, but in both instances she came back to compete. Paneno was a star running back at UC-Davis before suffering a knee injury in 1999. Complications arose that led to his lower right leg being amputated. Paneno survived and continued to thrive as an athlete, using four different prosthetic devices for various activities.

Darryl Williams (whom I had the pleasure of hearing speak at conferences) died nearly a year ago, but his courage will remain inspirational for a long, long time. As a high school sophomore football player in the Boston area, Williams was shot during a game in a racially motivated crime. He survived, but spent the remainder of his life as a quadriplegic confined to a wheelchair. Rather than falling victim to bitterness and racism himself, Williams became a motivational speaker teaching others about tolerance. Quite a man.

During this slow sports season, we should spend some time reflecting on true sports heroes … not those named Kobe, LeBron, Peyton, or Tiger … instead think of Zamp, Maggie Maloy, Sam Paneno, and Darryl Williams.

They truly reflect the joy and power of sport.

Until next time.