Courage award: One will win, all are winners

The most gut-wrenching, impossible-to-fill-out awards ballot in sports doesn't have anything to do with this year's Baseball Hall of Fame vote.

Seriously -- Mark McGwire or no Mark McGwire? What's so hard about that? I can chug a frosty in less time than it would take to ignore the name of Mr. I'm-Not-Here-To-Talk-About-The-Past.

OK, then, how about the Heisman Trophy ballot? That's always a toughie because -- aw, what's the use? Everybody knows Ohio State's Troy Smith is going to win the thing. Smith could have picked out his acceptance suit and tie a month ago.

NFL MVP? I've got two letters for you: L and T.

PGA Tour Player of the Year? Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. Tiger.

Division I-A Coach of the Year? It has to be Wake Forest's Jim Grobe, Rutgers' Greg Schiano or Oklahoma's Bob Stoops, right?

No, without a doubt, the hardest ballot I've ever had to complete was the one I sent in a few days ago: The FedEx Orange Bowl/Football Writers Association of America Courage Award.

Courage is a word that has lost some of its muscle tone when it comes to sports. Courage is often mistaken for a holed bunker shot in an FBR Open playoff, or a one-handed catch moments before safety John Lynch arrives, or a decision to go for two points in the first overtime.

Those are admirable moments, but to describe them as courageous is to cheapen the word. Real courage has more to do with the soul than the stats. It is about the simple, honorable act of trying to overcome an adversity that would otherwise render most of us into puddles of tears. It is about something as elemental as the human spirit.

Oklahoma State cornerback Martel Van Zant was born without ear drums, the result of his mother's contracting chicken pox during the pregnancy. Van Zant can't hear, but he can hit. He had 60 tackles this season, two interceptions, five pass deflections, one forced fumble ... and about a zillion admirers.

Then there's Indiana coach Terry Hoeppner. All he did was undergo brain surgery in December 2005 and again this past September. First they removed a tumor, and later, scar tissue. But nobody can remove his work ethic. After the mid-September procedure, Hoeppner returned to the sidelines in about two weeks -- two weeks earlier than expected. And maybe it was just a coincidence, but when the IU coach made an on-stage appearance with the Beach Boys after the Oct. 28 Homecoming win against Michigan State, he sang, ta-da, "Be True To Your School." Was there ever any doubt?

Remember your second year of college? Classes ... keggers ... and obtaining legal custody of your 11-year-old brother because your mother suffers from a cocaine addiction and your father has a gambling problem? Welcome to Ray Ray McElrathbey's life. McElrathbey, a Clemson redshirt freshman defensive back, is 19 going on Man of the Family. But with the establishment of an NCAA-approved trust fund to help with expenses, Ray Ray cares for Fahmarr, and does so without complaint.

Oklahoma defensive tackle Carl Pendleton knows the feeling. While his parents deal with the collateral damage of a difficult divorce, Pendleton is the legal guardian of his 10-year-old brother, Kierstan. The experience has so affected him that Pendleton will forego his senior year of eligibility to concentrate on raising his brother. Raising his own grades will be more of a problem -- Carl already has a 3.86 GPA in sociology, minors in religious studies and recently earned an $18,000 postgraduate scholarship. And, oh, yeah: He teaches Sunday school. Slacker.

Meanwhile, California offensive lineman Mike Tepper returned to the field this season after missing 2005 because -- are you sitting down for this one? -- he was run over by a car not once but twice while protecting a female friend from a group of convicted felons. So severe were the injuries that doctors initially considered amputating the foot of his broken right leg. When Cal faces Texas A&M in the Holiday Bowl, Tepper will play with nine screws and a metal plate in the leg. "I wasn't looking to do something spectacular," he told the San Francisco Chronicle of the incident, "so I don't accept the hero tag at all." Sorry, but you've got it.

Cancer did more than touch the lives of three other Courage Award nominees; it humbled them, strengthened them and, in a way, redefined them.

Navy's Eddie Martin was diagnosed with lymphoma shortly before the start of the season. He couldn't play because of the chemo treatments, but he did lead the team out onto the field before every home game. He was the one carrying the American flag. His teammates were the ones wearing his No. 32 jersey number on their helmets.

Southern Illinois finished 9-4 and reached the quarterfinals of the Division I-AA playoffs. Afterward, SIU coach Jerry Kill told reporters they'd learn from the loss and do better in 2007. Memo to Jerry: You can't do better than surviving a cancerous kidney tumor and fatigue-related seizures.

Judy Doba died last April after more than a two-year battle with cancer. Her husband, Washington State coach Bill Doba, was left to fill the gaping hole in his heart. They had been college sweethearts, married for 43 wonderful years. Doba called her his "rock." So when you see Washington State's 6-6 record and its wins against Oregon State, UCLA and Oregon, among others, remember it was done by a grieving coach who came home to an empty house.

Grief isn't the sole property of Doba. Oregon State head student manager Carlos Garcia wears a tattoo on his back bearing the birth dates of his mother and father -- and sadly, the dates of their deaths. Neither of them was alive by the time he graduated from high school. But Garcia honors them by working his way through college.

Dan Howell, Washington's junior outside linebacker, does the same thing for his father, Keith, who died in September from heart-surgery complications. Dan considered his dad his role model. Now his U-Dub teammates feel the same way about Dan.

So, go ahead, try filling out one of these FedEx-FWAA ballots. Try measuring and comparing a man's courage. You can't. Nor should you try.

Instead, you write three names at the top and hope the other seven understand that the award is really for all of them. And always will be.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.