Sports is filled with special people
By Jim Armstrong
Special to Page 2

Saw the most unbelievable sight at the Rams' training camp last summer.

The temperature had to be pushing 100 with humidity to match, but there sat Kurt Warner, sweat pouring down his face, signing autographs for a good hour after practice.

Not only that, but he supplied trading cards for kids who didn't have one. Each card contained his picture on the front and a Biblical passage on the back.

I couldn't believe it. But when I asked Rams P.R. director Rick Smith about it, he just smiled.

Kurt Warner
Rams QB Kurt Warner is one of the good guys in sports.
"That's Kurt," he said. "What you see is what you get."

Therein lies the rub in this mad, mad sports world of ours. So often, what we see isn't what we get. Far from it. We think we know today's athletes, but we don't. Not really. We want to know them, want to idolize them, want to be proud they wear our cities' uniforms. But far too often, they only disappoint us. Or worse, they enrage us.

Which brings us to the Kobe Bryant saga. Ever since the sexual assault story broke, we've been subjected to commentary after commentary about the duplicitous nature of today's athletes. They're phony, the story line goes. Disingenuous. Cunning. Sure, we know the persona, but in reality we wouldn't want to know the person, much less put him on a pedestal.

In the aftermath of the Kobe story, we've been asking ourselves how we could have been so damn gullible, so ridiculously naive. It was all a charade, this business about Kobe being such a great guy, about his ability to resist the temptations of the NBA lifestyle, about his marriage allowing him to be faithful to one woman.

It's true. Sometimes we don't know them, and sometimes it's just as well that we don't. But you know what? Sometimes we don't know what we're missing by not getting to know today's athletes better. Sometimes they surprise us. Sometimes the person is even better than the persona.

Not that many people want to read about all the good people in the sports world. It's boring. It isn't good copy. It isn't cutting-edge, doesn't hit any nerves, capture any buzz.

Trouble is, the sports world is filled with a heck of a lot more good people than bad ones.

I know. The litmus test came a few months ago when one of the editors at Page 2 ran a column idea past me: The 10 biggest jerks in sports. Talk about your easy gigs. It must have taken me five minutes to do the research. When the column hit the Internet, it received 2 million hits.

Moral to the story: It's Jerry Springer's world; we just live in it. For all they complain about it, the truth is, people actually like reading about the dirt in today's sports world.

Now for the flip side: Since we try to present both sides of issues, I've been trying to come up with a list of the 10 best guys in sports. I started a month ago and I'm still going at it. Why? Because there are so many that it's almost impossible to narrow the list to 10. For every name I come up with, I know there are 100 others I should put on the list.

The intent here, then, isn't so much to name names as it is to let you know it's still okay to be a sports fan. It's all right, no matter how many nasty headlines you read in the sports section, to pull for today's athletes. Most of them are good people. Like I said, sometimes the person is even better than the persona.

It's amazing, the things you never read about these days. I remember, a couple of years ago, Brett Favre telling me at the Packers' training camp about his wild and crazy days in Atlanta when his night-time escapades caused him to miss the team picture shoot. But how his life, his career and his priorities changed when his daughter first spoke that most magic of words: daddy. Then, as we walked out to the parking lot, he motioned me over so I could check out the whistles and bells on his new Hummer.

Then there's Daunte Culpepper. I was in the Vikings' camp the other day, and he thanked me for making the trip to talk to him. Then he showed me the inside of his too-cool Denali. Wasn't the first time that's happened, and it won't be the last.

Luis Gonzalez
D-Back Luis Gonzalez is another athlete with a great reputation.
True story. The first time I ever interviewed Sammy Sosa, he called me "sir" and thanked me for my time. Granted, that was a long time ago. But still, I didn't detect a bit of the phoniness I so often hear associated with Sammy.

You never know what you're going to get when you walk into a big league clubhouse. But that doesn't mean bad stuff is going to happen. To the contrary. I'll never forget walking into the Diamondbacks' clubhouse and hearing someone say, "Hey, how you doin'?" Whereupon I turned and encountered Luis Gonzalez. Not that it's the first time it's happened. The Reds' Sean Casey had the same message a year earlier.

The word in Denver is that Brian Griese never was totally accepted by his teammates. True, he had some personality issues and could be difficult with the media. But not many people saw another side of Griese. He used more than $1 million of his own money to establish a foundation he named after his mother, whom he lost to breast cancer as a kid.

A couple of years ago, USA Today produced a package of stories on athletes' foundations. Much of the coverage centered around the relatively small percentage of revenue that actually goes to charity after some of these foundations cover their operating costs. What struck me as incredible, though, was the sheer volume of foundations, each established by an athlete or named after one. There were 248, and that was just the number the newspaper decided to examine.

It's amazing, the generosity of some of today's athletes. David Robinson and his wife, Valerie, gave $5 million to launch a charter school in San Antonio. Dikembe Mutombo has kicked in millions of his own money and made countless pilgrimages to help his countrymen in Africa. Sergei Fedorov donated his entire $2-million salary from the 1998-99 season to his foundation.

We don't have enough cyberspace to list all the others. But they share a common denominator. They're athletes and they're good people. Better, in many cases, than you even know.

Just a thought. But you might want to remember it the next time you tune into the Kobe case.

Jim Armstrong, a sports columnist for the Denver Post, is a regular contributor to Page 2.



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