Sport is all about winners and losers, champs and chumps, and 2013 will no doubt be the same. Though 2012 might be remembered as the year some icons were exposed once and for all, it was also the year of unlikely heroes stepping up to the plate, which gives us hope as the new year unfolds. So for every Lance Armstrong there was a Bradley Wiggins, for every Joe Paterno an R. A. Dickey, proving once again that although sports can break your heart, it can also lift your spirits. We’ve got 2012’s sports figure highs and lows, just as we start a new year of watching favorites win and lose on and off the field.
For years, seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong thrilled us not only with his cycling accomplishments, but also with his perseverance in the face of extraordinary personal trials: he is a cancer survivor who not only beat the illness, but went on to dominate one of the most physically-challenging sports. Sadly, it was all a lie–the report released October 10, 2012 by the USADA proved once and for all that he was at the center of a sport-wide doping scandal, forcing others to either play along or get off their bikes. (He was subsequently stripped of all his Tour de France titles, and has subsequently severed links with his cancer-fighting charity, Livestrong.) His smash bestselling memoir, “It’s Not About the Bike,” feels like a document from a different era, one in which he was a man who could overcome anything–now, the title feels ironic, especially when compared to accounts by others, either those actually involved in the doping (Tyler Hamilton’s “The Secret Race” comes to mind), or journalists who’ve tracked the story for years and who were seldom believed before now (“From Lance to Landis” by David Walsh was published in 2007–what vindication Walsh must now feel).
British champion cyclist Bradley Wiggins isn’t a straight-out-of-central-casting cyclist like Armstrong–instead, he looks like the lead singer of some indie band, with long sideburns and hipster-medieval haircut. But 2012 was his year: Not only did he become the first Brit to win the Tour de France, but he did it with class. After some imbécile threw carpet tacks on the route, Wiggins instructed everyone to slow down to let those affected by punctures catch up, causing French TV to call him “Le Gentelman Wiggins.” His subsequent triumphs at the London Olympics, where he rang the bell to start the opening ceremony, and won the time trial to take his lifetime medal tally to seven (the most of any Briton ever), cemented him as a superstar, even though his subsequent bicycle accident (he broke some ribs when he collided with a van) threatened to derail his ascent. His 2007 autobiography, “In Pursuit of Glory,” details his life and career more honestly than many previous sports memoirs–as just one example, early on in the book he describes his father, Garry, as “a complete disaster as a human being.”
“JoePa,” they called him, and he was the god of Penn State football, a man who coached them seemingly forever (from 1966 until 2011), along the way delivering two national championships and five undefeated seasons to his school. But like the statue of the man outside Penn State’s Beaver Stadium, it all came crashing down after Paterno’s longtime defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky, was revealed as a dangerous sexual predator of children. Neither Paterno nor Penn State did enough to stop or expose Sandusky and by failing to act decisively, JoePa and his program were forever tainted. Joe Posnanski‘s definitive account of the life of Joe Paterno appeared in August, 2012, after the coach’s life ended six months earlier in shame.
From a sports figure at the end of his career to one at the start: American Olympic gymnastic phenom, Gabby Douglas. Her extraordinary performances in London–she won gold medals in the team competition and the blue-ribbon event, the all-around–cemented her place as a fledgling American sports superstar. Partly this stemmed from her thrilling, fearless gymnastic skills, but she also wore a smile as wide as the River Thames–and she doesn’t turn 17 until New Year’s Eve. Her memoir, “Grace, Gold & Glory,” details her sporting triumphs, as well as a life of faith that helped her achieve them.
Lawrence Taylor was the greatest linebacker of his generation, leading the New York Giants to Super Bowl wins in 1987 and 1991, but during and since his heyday he struggled with drink and drugs. 2011 saw perhaps his lowest point, as he was charged with having sex with a 16-year old prostitute in an upstate New York motel. Before that new fall from grace, Taylor had been turning his life around, as chronicled in his 2003 autobiography, “LT: Over the Edge.” In late 2012, an assault charge brought by the woman (she had been horribly forced into the encounter by a pimp) was thrown out, and fans of LT could only hope that his words after the “not guilty” verdict–that he was hoping to “concentrate on my own broken life and try to repair that”–would come to fruition in 2013 and beyond.
R.A. Dickey, like LT before him, is a New York sports superstar, but it would be hard to imagine a figure more diametrically opposed to Lawrence Taylor than the Mets knuckleballer. For a start, LT reached stardom early, debuting for the New York Giants at 21; Dickey, on the other hand, threw his first pitch at Citi Field in his mid-30s. Before then, Dickey’s career had been solid if not stellar, but 2012 saw two significant moments that made Dickey a fan favorite. First, the well-read and highly literate pitcher released his memoir, “Wherever I Wind Up,” in which he claims he was a victim of sexual abuse as a child. (He is writing three books for children, too, starting with the children’s version of his autobiography.) Second, Dickey was awarded the National League Cy Young as best pitcher of the 2012 season–somehow, he also managed to notch 20 wins for the dreadful New York Mets. He’s back at CitiField this season, too–let’s hope they build a better team around his amazin’ arm.