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It's time to honor 'The Other Athlete'
By Mike Imrem | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 12/26/2007 4:55 AM

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OK, it's time to recognize my 2007 Person of the Year: "The Other Athlete."

Too often we overlook him amid the rubble that is pro sports.

The media -- including this space -- tend to focus on the bad behavior that transforms the image of athletes from famous to infamous.

You know, the ones who become the deadbeat dads, drunk drivers, recreational drug abusers, gunslingers, barroom brawlers, promoters of dog fighting …

Baseball alone has the Mitchell Report, and the game's best pitcher of our time issuing video denials on his Web site, and the best hitter of our time indicted on perjury and obstruction of justice charges.

Nearly every day last NFL off-season, Commissioner Roger Goodell felt he had to suspend a player for breaking rules or laws.

There are enough NHL goons and NBA loons and NFL louts and MLB losers to make it seem all athletes are creeps or criminals.

Ain't so, folks.

While it's tempting to judge the whole by the worst among them, no brush is wide enough to paint all athletes with one broad stroke.

As in society overall, the society of sports has more good people than bad despite what the bloody headlines indicate on most days.

Heck, sometimes the alleged evil-doer and alleged do-gooder co-exist within the same person.

ESPN aired a feature this week on San Diego Chargers all-pro linebacker Shawne Merriman, who was disgraced last season by being suspended for using performance enhancers.

Well, the ESPN piece centered on Merriman also being the man who helped a family rebuild after their home was destroyed in a Southern California wildfire.

Bad guy, good guy, same guy.

Athletes aren't simple, one-dimensional, cardboard characters. Most are as complex as the rest of us, capable of performing both commendable and condemnable acts in and out of the workplace.

Yet we tend to emphasize the negative because it's more sensational and, let's face it, the decent, solid, law-abiding citizen is taken for granted.

Today, here, he isn't because that "Other Athlete" is my 2007 Person of the Year.

Several times every week, e-mails arrive publicizing a local athlete who has done something positive in the community.

This being football season, recent messages have been mostly about the Bears: The entire franchise contributing to the USO, Tommie Harris and Devin Hester supporting the Boys and Girls Clubs of Chicago, Charles Tillman being named the team's nominee for the NFL's "Walter Payton Man of the Year" service award.

I usually delete the messages without even opening them. I'm more inclined to open the sports pages to read about what athlete was arrested for what on that given day.

But many Bears, Cubs, White Sox, Bulls and Blackhawks give of themselves routinely. So do Fire, Wolves, Cougars and Flyers.

They donate money, devote time and lend names to worthy causes. They drop off Thanksgiving turkeys to underprivileged families, distribute Christmas gifts to needy children and collect winter coats for the homeless. They aid battered women, advocate literacy and speak to school classes.

These "Other Athletes" have forums the rest of us don't have and many -- maybe most -- embrace the opportunity to serve.

These men don't get enough credit for being the positive role models they are.

That alone is enough to make them my 2007 "Person of the Year" before they fade back into the background.