Proof that athletes can inspire quietly

JERSEY CITY, N.J. – With all due respect to Richard Sherman, Peyton Manning's legacy and the winter weather, the best Super Bowl story of the past week is one that hasn't screamed for attention or prompted hours' worth of heated debate about what's important to us as a society.

The best Super Bowl story so far is about 9-year-old twins Riley and Erin Kovalcik and what they have in common with Seattle Seahawks fullback Derrick Coleman -- namely, that all of them are deaf.

You've probably seen the story. It did more than 800,000 page views on ESPN.com last week. Jake Kovalcik, the girls' father, tweeted a photo of a letter one of his girls wrote to Coleman, the Seahawks' second-year fullback, when they learned that he was deaf. Coleman wrote the girls back, telling them, "Even though we wear hearing aids, we can still accomplish our goals & dreams!" It was tear-jerking stuff, a feel-good gem nestled amid the breathless cacophony.

And with all that has been swirling around Sherman, who announced his presence on the Super Bowl scene at high volume within seconds of his team clinching its spot in the game, it's worth taking a look at the Coleman story as a positive example of just how visible these guys are and just how significant an impact they have on the lives of the people who are watching them.

Tuesday is Super Bowl media day, an annual celebration of the staggering amount of attention the world now pays to NFL football. The latest Harris Poll says 35 percent of fans list the NFL as their favorite sport, making it the most popular by a wide margin. So while the Sherman fracas may serve to remind the league's players that everything they say and do can become a huge deal, the Coleman story is a reminder in a positive direction of the power these guys have. Whoever they are, whether they realize it or not, whether they like it or not, someone's watching and being influenced by what they do and the way they carry themselves.

This is nothing against Sherman, who seems like a fine young fellow in spite of the conclusions to which so many people jumped a week ago. Sherman is circumspect, and he talked about this very issue Sunday night. He said the controversy that followed his post-NFC Championship Game outburst last week was an opportunity for him to learn and grow and think about the ways in which the things he does affect people, especially kids. But Coleman's story offers the same opportunity. It just does so with a quiet smile on its face. And it probably speaks to more sports fans than we may even realize.

See, not every sports fan lives and dies with the fortunes of one particular team. Not every fan paints his face or waves a poster behind the set of "College GameDay" or sees a weekly trip to a football game as an opportunity to yell and scream and lose his mind. I'd venture to say that the vast majority of those Harris Poll respondents, whatever their favorite sport is, don't watch that sport for the violence or the attitude or the in-your-faceness of the whole thing.

There is a large but quiet swath of our population that connects with sports on a far more peaceful and personal level. It comprises relatively casual viewers. Someone who might catch part of a broadcast out of the corner of his or her eye and think, "Wow, that guy went to my high school," or "He's majoring in biology? So am I!"

Or, in the case of Riley and Erin Kovalcik, "That guy's deaf, like we are, and look what he can do."

The power in that connection is at the very root of sports and why we watch them, and on media day and throughout Super Bowl week, it's worth it for all of us to take note of a much quieter example of just how big a deal these games and the people who play them can be to the people who watch.