The ESPYs – short for the “Excellence in Sports Yearly Awards,” – is a show dating back to 1993, when ESPN aired its inaugural telecast of the event. Viewers may remember that program for basketball coach Jim Valvano’s tearjerker speech. Dying from cancer, “Jimmy V,” who would be dead less than two months later, said:
Cancer can take away all my physical abilities. It cannot touch my mind, it cannot touch my heart and it cannot touch my soul. And those three things are going to carry on forever.
Before woke politics and agenda-driven ideological campaigns infiltrated the word of college and professional sports, athletics long united Americans. My father, who grew up in Brooklyn, said you could walk the street in the summer and never miss a pitch of a Dodgers’ game, because nearly everyone had their windows open and was listening to the game on the radio.
Think Miracle on Ice at Lake Placid in 1980. The World Series. The Super Bowl. So many iconic moments. We’re interested partly because many of us played versions of the games growing up, partly because the competitions are fun to watch, and partly because for the most part, the outcomes really don’t impact us. It’s stressless in a stressful world.
In the 29 years since that first event, the ESPYs have recognized a wide range of talents and personalities. This year’s recipients included Cooper Kupp (Best Championship Performance), Shohei Ohtani and Katie Ledecky (Best Men’s and Women’s Athletes) and Klay Thompson (Best Comeback Player).
These are the best of the best – magnificently gifted individuals who are in the physical prime of their lives. They wow us with their strengths and prowess. We see them leap, jump, throw and catch – and sometimes wonder if we’re seeing an optical illusion.
But the ESPYs do more than highlight pure athletic accomplishment, however impressive it might be. They provide a platform for telling the story behind the story – and the very best athletes and individuals use the forum not to take credit for success, but spread the credit around.
Upon receiving one of his two awards, Cooper Kupp, the Super Bowl winning star wide-receiver of the Los Angeles Rams, declared “God is good.” He then proceeded to say he adores his wife and boys – and thanked them for supporting him.
The likely future Baseball Hall of Famer Albert Pujols, who received the “Muhammad Ali Sports Humanitarian Award,” began by stating, “I want to thank God, my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ for giving me this platform.”
Finally, the colorful basketball commentator Dick Vitale, himself a cancer survivor, who won the “Dickie V. Award for Perseverance,” gave a real stem-winder of a speech in which he thanked his family, friends, fellow coaches and his many doctors. He made clear his successes, experiences and opportunities were thanks to them – not his ability to call a basketball game.
Vitale, who says he prays each morning, ended by saying, “Keep chasing your dreams, keep chasing your goals. Just remember – perseverance, plus passion, plus pride, equals ‘win’ in the game of life.”
It was Mariano Rivera, the Baseball Hall of Fame relief pitcher, who once nicely summed up the connection between his faith and his career on the diamond:
Everything I have and everything I became is because of the strength of the Lord, and through Him I have accomplished everything. Not because of my strength. Only by His love, His mercy, and His strength.