Championship athletes earn their glory, surely. But do they really deserve to be called heroes just because they won a title? Some athletes have reminded us what true heroism is, through their courage, sacrifice and risks for the good of others. We look at some true sports heroes.
A member of the Polish national women's volleyball team and a pro player in Europe, Mroz delayed treatments for leukemia because she was pregnant and did not want to imperil her child. When daughter Lilliana was born April 4, 2008, Mroz was unable to hold her because her immune system was so compromised. She developed an infection after a bone marrow transplant the following month and died at age 26.
A four-time Pro Bowl cornerback in an NFL career that lasted from 1981-93, Walls never stopped being a teammate after his playing days ended. In 2006, he donated a kidney to Cowboys teammate Ron Springs. Walls joined a select list of athletes who have donated kidneys, which includes NBA player Greg Ostertag and Olympic rower Missy Ryan.
A runner and basketball player in college in British Columbia, Fox's right leg was amputated in 1977 as a result of cancer. Three years later, using a prosthetic leg, he set out from Newfoundland with the goal of running across Canada to raise money for cancer research. Running roughly a marathon a day, he became an inspiring media sensation. He was forced to abandon the run near Thunder Bay, Ontario, because the cancer had spread to his lungs. He died nine months later at age 22. His effort, however, publicized challenged athletes and inspired countless others to remain competitive.
Athletes in their prime, sadly, are also generally the same age as the young men and women who fight in wars. Many athletes sacrificed or risked their lives in service to their nations. Those listed here also represent the heroism of their contemporaries. In the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001, Tillman gave up an NFL career to join the US Army Rangers. He was killed by "friendly fire" in Afghanistan in 2004 at age 27.
A college All-American who once played for legendary coach Amos Alonzo Stagg, LeBaron's rookie season in the NFL was halted after two games in 1950 when he was activated from the Marine Reserves. He served in the Korean War, where he was wounded in the leg and shoulder to earn a Purple Heart. He was awarded a Bronze Star for heroism on the front lines. He recovered well enough to rejoin the Washington Redskins in 1952 and played quarterback in the NFL for 11 years.
"Rapid Robert" was the dominant pitcher of his generation. He was rushed to the big leagues by age 17 and, by 22, had led the American League in wins for three straight seasons and in strikeouts for four straight. Then Pearl Harbor was attacked. On Dec. 8, 1941, the day after the attack, Feller enlisted in the Navy and volunteered for combat duty. He was the first of hundreds of ballplayers to join the military in World War II. He missed four major league seasons during his service as a gun captain aboard the USS Alabama. He earned five campaign ribbons and eight battle stars.
Kusocinski, representing Poland, won the 10,000 meters in the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. When Germany invaded his nation seven years later, he joined the Polish army and was wounded twice. During the subsequent German occupation, Kusocinski secretly joined the Polish resistance while working as a waiter. He was arrested by the Gestapo on March 26, 1940, and was executed three months later.
Baseball Hall of Famer Christy Mathewson enlisted in the United States Army for World War I in 1918, two years after ending his storied career. He served overseas as a captain in the newly formed chemical service, along with Ty Cobb. While in France, during a training exercise, Mathewson was accidentally gassed and consequently developed tuberculosis.
Rarely does the actual competition provide a forum for heroics, but the 1936 Olympics were an exception. With the Nazi Party using the Berlin Games as a stage for its racist propaganda, Jesse Owens made a statement to the world by winning four gold medals in track and field. His performance transcended sports.
A star running back for the Kansas City Chiefs from 1981-82, Delaney made the Pro Bowl in his rookie season. He died at age 24 after his second season when he leaped into a amusement park's swimming pond to try to save three children, even though he was an inexperienced swimmer. The children had moved into a 20-foot-deep hole left by construction work, an area not intended for swimmers. One child got out safely, but the other two died. President Ronald Reagan honored Delaney with the Presidential Citizens Medal on July 15, 1983, for putting the children ahead of his own safety.
A prizefighter from 1909-31, the Welshman held the British bantamweight title in 1913. His boxing career supplemented his income as a coal miner, work he continued after he retired from the ring. He died in a mine in Bryn, Wales, in 1932 when he threw himself in front of an underground rockfall to protect one of his sons who was also working there. He was 41. Bryn locals this year honored his memory by naming a hill near the mine Billy Benyon Hill. After a full day in the mines, Benyon would run up that hill to train for fights.
Yossef Romano and Moshe Weinberg
Part of the Israeli contingent to the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Romano and Weinberg fought back against terrorists in the early minutes of an attack on the area housing Israeli athletes. Weinberg, the wrestling coach, was shot twice during the attack, the second time fatally. The weightlifter Romano (pictured) was shot and killed after he wounded one of the intruders. While wounded, Weinberg convinced the terrorists that one of the housing units had athletes from another country, which allowed seven of his compatriots to escape harm. In all, 11 athletes or coaches from Israel and a West German police officer were killed by the terrorists.
Clemente, a 12-time All-Star with the Pittsburgh Pirates, regularly supported humanitarian causes. In December 1972, he chartered a plane to Nicaragua to deliver earthquake aid. It crashed off Puerto Rico after takeoff. His body was never found. He was 38. The Baseball Hall of Fame waived its usual five-year waiting period and inducted Clemente in 1973. Major League Baseball created the Roberto Clemente Award to recognize active players for their humanitarian work.
Jackie Robinson integrated baseball in 1947 and took the racist catcalls, threats and other abuse stoically. It was his nature to fight back against such indignities, as he famously did during his Army service during World War II when he refused to move to the back of a military bus. But Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey had told Robinson it was essential to avoid confrontation for baseball to accept integration. Robinson's restraint and courage paved the way for generations of athletes in all sports, and his character helped change the way Americans saw race, a step toward the civil rights revolution.