Twenty-fourteen is the year that America learned more about its athletes than it cared to know. Much of the off-the-field news made it clear that sports is not necessarily the place we should look for role models.
There are exceptions of course, and this past week saw two athletes who could serve as role models honored for their accomplishments.
Sports Illustrated has named San Francisco Giants southpaw Madison Bumgarner its “Sportsman of the Year.”
It is not hyperbole to say that the North Carolina native had an October for the ages. In the postseason, he “pitched 52 ⅔ innings, threw two shutouts, and saved a game while posting a 1.03 ERA.” Only two pitchers in history had done that in a month during the regular season. Believe me, folks, this a huge deal.
The save alone catapulted Bumgarner into “legend” status. After winning games one and five of the World Series as starter, he came out of the bullpen in game seven to lead the Giants to their third World Series title in five years. As his teammates put it, Bumgarner put the team on his back and carried them to the championship.
Note, his teammates say that—you’ll never hear it from Bumgarner. SI’s Tom Verducci marveled at Bumgarner’s humility. As Verducci put it, “He wants success without spoils, achievement without attention and the ball without excuses,” traits that are “rare in an era when self-promotion defines too many athletes.”
That’s because Bumgarner is interested in promoting something else. He told Verducci that “My short-term goal as a person is to witness an activity of Jesus in my life, and my long-term goal is for people when they look at me to see something in me about Jesus.”
The second athlete honored last week, Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota, shares a similar goal. As he told the Fellowship of Christian Athletes magazine, “With [Christ’s] power, we are able to pursue and play for His glory. We want to go out and show the world that Christ lives.”
While the Heisman is awarded for Mariota’s on-the-field accomplishments which are considerable, his off-the-field record is what makes him most worthy of admiration.
His Oregon teammates have nicknamed him “St. Mark.” Whatever else that means, it’s says something about how they view his character. In an age of numerous academic scandals involving football and basketball players, Mariota graduated in 3½ years with a degree in science.
There are, as USA Today puts it, Marcus’s “weekly unannounced visits to the Boys and Girls Club” and daily stops to pass out food and water to the homeless. As one of his coaches put it, “The best thing I can say about him . . . is he’s done absolutely everything right since he’s been here.”
Ironically, his character is sometimes held against him. According to Sports Illustrated, some NFL teams worry about whether he is “too nice.”
That’s a rap that’s often applied to Christian athletes. It’s untrue, and, in an age when saying that an athlete is in a “lineup” can carry several meanings, more than a little shortsighted.
So, congratulations to Madison Bumgarner and Marcus Mariota, and thank you both for your witness to Jesus.
— by Eric Metaxas
Metaxas is currently the voice of Breakpoint, a radio commentary (www.breakpoint.org) that is broadcast on 400 stations with an audience of eight million. Copyright© 2014 Prison Fellowship Ministries. Reprinted with permission. BreakPoint is a ministry of Prison Fellowship Ministries