Amid these challenging and still uncertain times, we can all use a little inspiration every now and then. Sports provide the perfect avenue for inspiration. There was no shortage of inspirational moments on the 2021 sports scene. Here are those moments we thought were worth highlighting.
The coronavirus pandemic has taken a toll on just about every aspect of everyday living. It's safe to say that professional, respectable health care workers, particularly those on the front line of the pandemic, have been the true heroes amid it all. So, it was a special and appropriate moment when the NFL invited roughly 7.500 vaccinated health care workers to be the league's honored guests at Super Bowl LV in Tampa on Feb. 7. It was also an extremely positive way to begin a new year.
Maybe it's true that certain things -- and people -- get better with age. That was the case in 2021. There was then-43-year-old Tom Brady winning his seventh Super Bowl and fifth Super MVP award (both records) for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. After turning 44, Brady became the NFL's all-time leader in passing yards and completions during the 2021 campaign, then threw his 700th regular-season and playoff touchdown. Meanwhile, Yadier Molina is still going strong for the St. Louis Cardinals, and at age 38, caught his 2,000th game this past season. Finally, a 50-year-old Phil Mickelson won the 2021 PGA Championship to become golf's oldest major champion.
Speaking of athletes defying age, Olympian Allyson Felix should be an inspiration to anybody over the age of 35. Now 36, Felix, who also gave birth just three years ago, closes out 2021 as the most decorated woman in Olympic track and field history with 11 medals after she took home a bronze in 400 meters and gold with the United States' 4x400-meter relay squad at the Tokyo Summer Games. Felix is also the most decorated American track and field athlete -- man or woman -- in Olympic history.
Sticking with the finally-held Tokyo Summer Olympics. The Games are filled with plenty of inspirational moments. And, when it comes to proving that age really is nothing but a number, there was no better story this summer than 46-year-old Oksana Chusovitina, who has competed in eight Olympic Games for three different nations (Unified Teams, Uzbekistan, and Germany). She's won two medals in those competitions, and this summer was praised for her participation this summer -- which it assumed would be her last at the Olympics. However, this Fall, Chusovitina noted that she was not completely shutting the door on world competition.
Then there's the story of Qatar's Mutaz Essa Barshim and Gianmarco Tamberi of Italy. Each cleared the highest rung during the Olympic high jump competition this summer in Toyko. But, instead of continuing their attempt to successfully complete that tiebreaking jump, both asked Olympic officials to share the gold medal. Their request was granted, joy proved to win the day and the spirit of competition and sportsmanship still existed amid these crazy times around the world.
For some, the act of selflessness is more fulfilling than even winning an Olympic medal. That's how Polish javelin thrower Maria Magdalena Andrejczyk felt after she finished second in the event in Tokyo. Shortly after her performance, Andrejczyk announced she would sell her silver medal, with the proceeds from the sale going toward heart surgery for an 8-month old Polish infant. Polish convenience store-chain Zabka proved to be the highest bidder ($125,000), but instead, donated the proceeds and told Andrejczyk to keep her medal.
When talking about Olympic glory, Dreams can come true at a young age. All Games -- Summer or Winter -- have a few teenagers shine bright and provide inspiration for those young athletes striving for that same sort of success. In Tokyo, 18-year-old Suni Lee rose to the occasion -- when one of America's greatest Olympic superstars momentarily stepped aside -- to deliver the overall performance of her life to win gold in the women's gymnastics all-around competition. Meanwhile, in the pool, 17-year-old Lydia Jacoby not only became the first swimmer from Alaska to qualify for the Olympics, but she won gold in the 100-meter breaststroke and silver in the 4x100 medley relay.
Sometimes it's the simple things that provide comfort during trying and uncertain times -- like, say, a global health pandemic. So, when the Chicago White Sox and New York Yankees finally got together to play a game at the famed Field of Dreams field in Dyersville, Iowa on Aug. 12, innocence was restored for even a few hours. It was a celebration of baseball, companionship, and hope. What once was good can be so again, perhaps, and not just on the ball field. And Tim Anderson's two-run walk-off homer into the right-field corn was truly an ending made for Hollywood.
In terms of statistics, McKenzie Milton's 2021 football season at Florida State was hardly anything to write home about (775 passing yards, three touchdowns, six interceptions in six games). However, the simple fact he was on a football field is remarkable itself. There was a point following the devastating knee injury Milton suffered on Nov. 23, 2018, while starring for UCF, that a portion of his leg would need to be amputated. However, through rehabilitation, training, and perseverance, he finally made it back on the field. With a new school, but still owning that same competitive fire that almost helped the Seminoles pull off an upset of then-No. 9 Notre Dame on Sept. 5, McKenzie was named 2021 Mayo Clinic Comeback Player of the Year.
The Atlanta Braves were not the best team in baseball during the 2021 regular season. On Aug. 1, the Braves were 52-55 and already lost star outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr. to a season-ending knee injury. However, Atlanta got hot when it mattered most, going 36-18 down the stretch to win the NL East. In the playoffs, the Braves rode some solid pitching and an offense that belted 23 home runs to upset Milwaukee, the Los Angeles Dodgers, and mighty Houston Astros en route the franchise's first World Series title since 1995.
It's impossible to know how many young athletes, spanning all sports, not just soccer that famed United States Women's National Team member Carli Lloyd. On Oct. 26, the 38-year-old Lloyd played her final game for the USWNT, in a 6-0 friendly rout of South Korea. And, the reception she received that night in Minnesota was truly special, and a testament to one of the most important, influential, and inspiring female athletes of all time who just happened to record 134 goals through 316 international appearances.
Sports fans love an underdog -- for the most part. When it came to the 2021 college football season, the Cincinnati Bearcats could fit that description. OK, the Bearcats have been a force for some time now, going 44-6 since the start of the 2018 season. However, after putting together an undefeated 2021 campaign, which included a win at Notre Dame, Cincinnati is the first Group of Five program to crack the College Football Playoff. Sure, defending national champion and No. 1 Alabama awaits, but there's always a reason to believe the underdog will prevail.
The subject of mental health in sports was brought to the forefront in 2021 like no other year in recent history. Naomi Osaka's decision not to meet media obligations due to mental health issues at the '21 French Open, then ultimately pulling out of the tournament altogether, sent shock waves throughout the sports world. It can be argued that was the first time mental health was seriously discussed on the international sports stage, and Osaka was lauded for her courage to be transparent. The conversation, however, had just begun.
When Simone Biles pulled out of the Olympic gymnastics all-around competition at this summer's Tokyo Games because she was "(feeling) the weight of the world on (her) shoulders," a new reality had set in. Regardless of the thinking on Biles' situation, and there are plenty still willing to bash her Olympic decision, mental health issues were likely going to be as common as knee injuries or arm soreness going forward. Because, when one of the most successful and beloved athletes in the world has trouble handling the pressure, then is able to find even the slightest way through with success, inspiration is taken to another level.
Lane Johnson has long been an inspiration to both his Philadelphia Eagles teammates and their die-hard fan base -- on and off the field. Johnson, the three-time Pro Bowler, former All-Pro and Super Bowl champ, stepped away from his spot on the Eagles' offensive line for a bit during the 2021 season to deal with anxiety and depression issues. Tackling his own mental health with the same straight-on approach his shows on the field, Johnson continues to be praised for being open and comfortable talking about his own personal situation, hoping his story will help others in a similar position.
Jeff Mezydlo has written about sports and entertainment online and for print for more than 25 years. He grew up in the far south suburbs of Chicago, 20 minutes from the Mascot Hall of Fame in Whiting, Ind. He’s also the proud father of 11-year-old Matthew, aka “Bobby Bruin,” mascot of St. Robert Bellarmine School in Chicago. You can follow Jeff at @jeffm401.
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