I’ve talked before about the meaningless of sports. That’s not an easy topic to dive into as a sports fan. It’s tough to think about all the hours spent on something I enjoy so much that ultimately is just fun and games. Sports are not life or death. That doesn’t mean sports can’t inspire us as a people though. Whether we are watching an athlete in our own family or just watching a special one from the comfort of our recliner, sports can make a difference in our lives. Wins and losses may not affect our life expectancy, bank accounts, or fix world hunger, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be moved by sports and the athletes involved.
There have been at least hundred or so athletes that have inspired me over the years. I might even be able to list up to 500 of these athletes. Some of them may have just been flashes in the pan, but I was inspired by maybe just a single performance. For the sake of the space provided here and your free reading time I have narrowed that list down to just the top ten most inspiring athletes to me personally.
- I hated Michael Irvin when he was playing football. I didn’t care for his big mouth, his wild celebrations, and he happened to be on teams that I disliked already. The guy had plenty of trouble off the field to boot. After his career ended I started to warm up to him though. I would hear so many former teammates talk about how much they loved him. Guys like Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith were not just talking up a guy they used to play with. They were adamant that Irvin was the best teammate they ever had. He was not the greatest receiver ever, although he is a Hall of Famer, but he was the heart and soul of the teams he played on. He worked his ass off and inspired his team to follow his lead. Michael Irvin was not and is not perfect. He has his demons, but the guy is a leader of men.
- Joe Montana inspired me as a young football fan with the confidence he gave the teammates around him. They had no doubt that their leader would take them to win after win. He was a tough SOB that had to endure vicious hits unlike the softer NFL of today. As a 49ers fan, you never felt like your team was out of any game. Joe Montana is the guy that all quarterbacks are now measured by.
- Frankie Edgar has had some of the best fights ever seen in the UFC. His comebacks are legendary. Getting knocked down and finding the will to get back up again and again is something to be admired. This man is a fighter, pure and simple. There is no give up in this man and everyone should be inspired by such an individual.
- Tom Brady was not supposed to end up as one of the two or three best NFL quarterbacks in history. He should have never made the Patriots roster as a sixth round draft choice. Whatever “it” is, this athlete had it and still has it. Winning a Super Bowl is not easy. Just ask Dan Marino, Jim Kelly, or Dan Fouts. Brady owns four Super Bowl rings and has been the main man on a Patriots offense that only had maybe one other future Hall of Famer helping him along the way in Randy Moss. Brady gets a lot of flack from me for his golden boy image now, but he was the ultimate underdog when he entered the NFL.
- Ronda Rousey has only been on my radar for a short time compared to others on this list, but in that short amount of time she has impressed me greatly. Many sports fans are always looking for the big man or woman on top of the mountain to get knocked down a notch. I like to see dominance though and Rousey exemplifies that. Her work ethic and skill have made her a household name. She has perfected her art and is indeed the most dangerous unarmed woman in the world. She is an inspiration to me and also to many others who have come to be fans of the UFC based on her popularity.
- Jerry Rice’s picture should be in the dictionary beside the word “professional.” He didn’t come out of the womb as the greatest receiver ever. The college he attended was not a big time football school. He made his own way. Nothing was handed to him, except those bricks he laid as a kid helping his dad with his job. Jerry Rice outworked, out prepared, and out willed opponents. I will always be inspired by Rice’s constant pursuit of excellence, even after he was the best ever.
- As opposed to the brash Michael Irvin I had at number ten, Barry Sanders was the humblest superstar I have ever witnessed. As a running back, he was a gridiron artist. He didn’t have to showboat for people to notice him. Anyone who couldn’t see the greatness that was Barry Sanders simply didn’t know anything about sports.
- Muhammad Ali comes in at number three on my most inspiring athletes check list. This is no shocker as the guy is one of the greatest athletes ever. He fought in so many epic fights, sometimes as the underdog and sometimes as the champ. His fights were inspiring as well as his plight out of the ring when he was stripped of his world title when he refused to go to Vietnam. At the time I’m sure he was considered a coward by many. That has all changed now of course, and if more people had taken such a courageous stand back then, there is no telling how many lives could have been saved.
- Team Hoyt consisting of Rick and Dick Hoyt. This father and son team have competed in over a thousand endurance events including Ironman Triathlons and marathons. Rick has cerebral palsy, so his father pushes, pulls, and carries his son through these grueling events. Whenever I hear others complain or I start having negative negative thoughts, I try to think of guys like Dick Hoyt. This man enters races that most of us don’t even contemplate, and he does them while taking the weight of his kid with him. Next time you want to complain about the weather, your job, or your “tough” life, take a look at this man who shares his experience of racing with his child who is unable to join him under his own power. This duo has been an inspiration to people for over 37 years. Dick Hoyt deserves the moniker of “athlete” as much as anyone on this list.
- Michael Jordan is the greatest athlete I have ever had the pleasure of watching perform. He inspired me along with millions of others as he dominated the NBA for years. Sure he had more talent than most others in his game, but his will to win and work ethic was something to behold. It wasn’t enough for him to beat the competition. It was necessary for them to know they were being dominated and were in fact inferior to #23. There were some amazing superstars of the NBA that never got a title because they happened to be in their prime at the same time MJ was around. Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, and Karl Malone are a few of the victims of Jordan’s greatness.
Seeing the levels that a human being could reach through hard work, determination, a vicious competitive nature, and natural talent made me realize what we are capable of doing as human beings. Michael Jordan didn’t just score a bunch of points and posterize guys. He painted a portrait of basketball beauty that lasted over a decade. Everyone can’t be what Jordan was, but his efforts showed that we all can rise higher than where we start out.