Feel-good stories from the year in sports

The 2010 sports year yielded lots of controversy, with players, coaches, officials and entire organizations messing up every way imaginable. But sports also brought out the very best in people this year. We saw heartening examples of sportsmanship, honesty, loyalty, dedication, gratitude, grace, perseverance and courage from players, coaches and teams at every level.

To offset our “Dirty Dozen” of sports controversies, here are 12 feel-good sports stories that illustrate the positive side of athletics:

JOHN LINDSEY FINALLY GETS THE CALL

He won the Pacific Coast League hitting title, hitting .353 for Albuquerque with 25 homers and 41 doubles. But he was years removed from prospect status. The Rockies drafted him back in 1995, 347th overall. He didn’t reach the Double-A level until he was 26. He didn’t ascend to Triple-A until he was 30. He fell out of organized ball for 1 1/2 seasons, playing independent ball to keep his career alive.

Lindsey, 33, spent 16 years in the minors without playing a major league game. Then Los Angeles Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti recalled him from the club’s Triple-A affiliate in September, rewarding Lindsey’s dedication to the sport.

“I’ve been waiting all my life for this,” Lindsey told the Los Angeles Times. “It was an awesome feeling.”

He summoned his extended family to Houston to see his major league debut.

“Letting him know that he was going to the big leagues is the best thing I’ve gotten to do in the two years I’ve been here,” Albuquerque manager Tim Wallach said. “There’s not many guys who would even consider staying in the game that long. It’s just his love of the game.”

A GRATEFUL MAN NAMED SUH

Nebraska Cornhuskers defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh struck it rich in the NFL. As the second overall pick in the 2010 draft, he eventually signed a Detroit Lions contract that could pay him $68 million.

But he is not your typical high-paid rookie living large at 23. His father is an engineer from Cameroon and his mother is an elementary school teacher from Jamaica. Their influence helped Suh remain well grounded.

That showed when he donated $2 million to the Nebraska athletic department and another $600,000 to the College of Engineering to fund a scholarship.

“I didn’t feel like I had to,” Suh told reporters, “but I definitely wanted to give back to the university that gave me so much.”

Later he paid for the installation of iPads at all 123 lockers in the Nebraska locker room. He is the gift that keeps on giving to the Cornhusker program.

EDGAR RENTERIA, WORLD SERIES MVP

The San Francisco Giants weren’t supposed to make the playoffs, much less win the World Series. And injury-ridden shortstop Edgar Renteria, 34, wasn’t projected to be the World Series MVP.

Renteria spent time on the disabled list three times during the regular season. With his production in rapid decline, he pondered retirement. The Giants didn’t include him on their active roster for the first round of the playoffs.

“It was a tough year for me,” Renteria said. “I told myself to keep working hard and keep in shape because something is going to be good this year.”

Sure enough it happened. Renteria got called on and came through. He hit .412 (7 for 17) with six RBIs — including the Series clincher for the second time in his career.

“It’s unbelievable,” a beaming Renteria said amid the Giants celebration. “That’s life.”

WES WELKER’S REMARKABLE COMEBACK

When his left knee blew up on Jan. 3 — both his anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments tore — he seemed unlikely to play the 2010 season. Many New England Patriots fans wondered if he would ever make it all the way back.

But the undersized Welker beat the odds to become an impact receiver in the NFL. Then he beat them again by making an astonishingly fast and thorough recovery.

After undergoing surgical repairs in February, he was back on the practice field in June.

“I had pretty much instilled in my mind that I’d be back,” Welker told reporters in September. “This was always my goal, to get back for Week 1 or if not even sooner. I didn’t know how much I’d play in Week 1, but I wanted to be back in time to contribute to the team winning, and we were able to accomplish that.

“There were different scenarios that were talked about, trying to save my body and different things like that. But that’s just not in me. I can’t do that, sit and watch my team out there playing and sit there and just work out all day. I was sick of it and I wanted to play.”

A VERY SPECIAL TOUCHDOWN

The Dunn County (Wisc.) News reported a story of uncommon sportsmanship at the high school level.

Menomonie High School was beating Superior handily at home. With less than a minute left, Menomonie coach Joe LaBuda put senior receiver Sam Kolden into the game. Kolden had been a four-year fixture on the team despite a developmental disability. The coaches wanted to reward his effort.

LaBuda talked to his team, then the officials, then to Superior coach Bob DeMeyer to explain the scenario.

Senior quarterback James Nelson threw Kolden a screen pass. The News picks up the story: “Kolden caught the ball and took off down the field at a relatively conservative pace while Spartan defenders dove at his feet. Kolden raced 66 yards for the game’s final touchdown.”

Given the one-sided score — 52-14 for Menomonie — Superior’s actions were especially commendable. LaBuda had asked Superior to go easy tackling Kolden, but the visiting team decided to let him score.

“Superior’s guys are a class act,” said LaBuda. “It was a great thing they did at the end.”

ANOTHER STUNNINGLY HONEST GOLFER

In our ruthlessly competitive athletic world, golf’s code of honor seems quaint and anachronistic. If you’re not cheating, you’re not competing, right?

Golfers don’t believe this. Just ask Englishman Brian Davis, who was trying to earn his first PGA Tour victory and the seven-digit winner’s check at the Verizon Heritage. He nailed an 18-foot putt in the last hole to force a playoff with Jim Furyk.

On the first playoff hole, he inadvertently nudged a loose reed on his backswing. He felt something was amiss with that shot, so he summoned PGA Tour tournament director Slugger White and explained the situation. Sure enough, slow-motion TV replays confirmed a violation of rule 13.4, moving a loose impediment during a takeaway.

This self-reported violation resulted in a two-stroke penalty and handed Furyk the win.

“I know I did it," Davis told White, “and I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t (call the penalty).”

MICHAEL VICK 2.0

When Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Kevin Kolb got hurt this season, Vick played brilliantly in his absence. He was a far better quarterback than in his earlier life. He played at an MVP level, beating teams with poise and precision.

More impressive, though, was the constructive lifestyle he embraced after serving nearly 20 months in federal custody for operating a dog-fighting ring. The defiant superstar who once chewed gum in the face of a sentencing judge evolved into a thoughtful leader.

He speaks frequently to students and other groups about the mistakes he made while abusing animals and bankrolling a gambling operation. By all accounts, he takes his public service commitments to The Humane Society seriously.

“I don’t have to think about going back down the path I’ve traveled because it’s not going to happen,” he told reporters in Philadelphia recently. “I can live my life with a clear mind every day, knowing that I’m moving forward.”

ARMANDO GALARRAGA FORGIVES JIM JOYCE

Galarraga was one out away from one of the rarest athletic feats, a perfectly pitched baseball game. Cleveland Indians batter Jason Donald grounded the ball to Detroit Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera.

Galarraga easily won the race to the bag. He took Cabrera’s throw and was ready to rejoice. Shockingly, umpire Jim Joyce called Donald safe — ruining the perfect game with a blown call.

“I had started to celebrate,” Galarraga told reporters after the game. “But then I looked at him. I thought, ‘OK.’ I thought, ‘I can smile or punch this guy.’”

He smiled and returned to the mound without throwing a fit. He finished off his win without incident. Later, Galarraga accepted Joyce’s profuse apologies and forgave the blunder during their face-to-face meeting. The next time Joyce worked home plate for a Tigers game, Galarraga brought out the lineup card as a show of support.

“He really feels bad — probably more bad than me," Galarraga said after the blown call. “But nobody’s perfect. I give a lot of credit to that guy because he needed to talk to me and say, ‘I’m sorry.’ His body language said more than a lot of words. His eyes were watering. I gave him a couple hugs.”

JOANNIE ROCHETTE LOSES MOTHER, WINS MEDAL

During the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, this Quebec native was expected to medal in figure skating. After all, she had won the silver medal at the World Championships the year before.

But then her mother, Therese Rochette, died of a massive heart attack after arriving in Vancouver to watch her skate. Just a few hours later, a tearful Joannie returned to the rink to practice.

“She’s so close to her mother, I think she doesn’t even entertain not skating,” her coach, Manon Baden, said at the time. “She’s a tough fighter. It’s got to be hard to switch gears and say no to [the Olympics]. This is what she has been training for all these years. She’ll be trying to fulfill the goal they had together.”

Rochette fought through her grief and won the bronze medal.

“The thing that I’m the most proud of is that I could step on that ice and be tough, because that’s what my mom taught me all of her life,” she said afterward.

The Canadian Olympic contingent chose her to carry the country’s flag at the closing ceremonies.

JOSH HAMILTON’S GINGER ALE

Texas Rangers superstar Josh Hamilton is a recovering addict. So after he led his team to the AL West title, teammates wanted to celebrate with him while keeping him clear of alcoholic beverages.

The Rangers rounded up some water bottles after the clinching victory . . . but Hamilton had already changed clothes so he could speak to the assembled religious groups at Faith Day in Oakland.

So the Rangers planned ahead. When they won the first playoff series over the Rays, they had bottles of Canada Dry ginger ale ready to go. Hamilton was going to avoid the clubhouse free-for-all for obvious reasons, but an attendant told him to don protective goggles.

“I was getting a little worried,” Hamilton said. “I didn’t know what was going on.”

He braced himself and walked into the clubhouse.

“Everybody yelled ‘Ginger ale!’ and I just jumped in the middle of the pile and they doused me with it,” Hamilton said. “It was the coolest thing for my teammates to understand why I can’t be a part of the celebration, and for them to adapt it for me to be a part of it says a lot about my teammates.”

THE LITTLE BASKETBALL SCHOOL THAT COULD

Butler University has employed a series of outstanding basketball coaches. The school has consistently put excellent teams on the court.

But current coach Brad Stevens stunned his peers by doing two things: Leading Butler to the NCAA championship game, losing to Duke 61-59, and then rejecting major college job overtures immediately thereafter. He signed a 12-year contract at Butler instead, indicating his desire to stay longer than predecessors Thad Matta (who left for Xavier, then Ohio State) and Todd Lickliter (who left for Iowa).

Why does he want to stick around Hinkle Fieldhouse?

“To me it’s about something you can feel, see and know that it was a unique experience when you walk out of this gym,” Stevens said earlier this year. “We talk about that to our guys all the time. Hey, we want this to be different. This can’t be like every place else.”

MARK HERZLICH OVERCOMES CANCER

When the Boston College linebacker sought medical attention for nagging lower leg pain, he got the worst possible news: Doctors discovered Ewing’s Sarcoma, a rare type of bone cancer. They told Herzlich that the survival rate was about 70 percent. They told him his football career was over.

“I wasn’t overly religious before, but I began praying every day that I would be cured of cancer and that I could play football again,” Herzlich said before the season. “That’s what I love most.”

After seven months of chemotherapy, five weeks of radiation and surgery to install a titanium rod in the afflicted leg, Herzlich began regaining his strength. The cancer went into remission. He resumed training, returned to the BC team after a 21-month absence and played like his old self.

“Mark’s story is truly amazing,” Boston College head coach Frank Spaziani said. “To fight cancer and win, then to come back and play the way he has is one of the most remarkable accomplishments I’ve ever witnessed.”