CRAWFORD | My sports people of the year for 2016 - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | My sports people of the year for 2016

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Sports Illustrated covers in 2016 for Muhammad Ali and Lamar Jackson. Sports Illustrated covers in 2016 for Muhammad Ali and Lamar Jackson.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — Last December, I instituted an award with no ceremony, no trophy, no certificate, no cash prize, no prestige, and no academy, except for me.

I wanted to recognize those individuals I deemed to be the sports people of the year in our area. I didn't really define the distinction, except to say that I knew it when I saw it. It's someone who moved the public needle in sports in the preceding year, but not necessarily via controversy. More than likely, it's not just someone whose influence in sports was pronounced, but whose reach extended into the general public, too.

In 2015, my winners were American Pharoah and Bob Baffert for their Triple Crown accomplishments, Matt Jones, for his work not only in the media but extending into new political ventures and serving as host at Kentucky's historic Fancy Farm political picnic, and Katie George, who was the face of University of Louisville sports as a senior, as a volleyball All-American and Miss Kentucky USA.

This year, the candidates were many, but in the end, the decision was easy. I'm honoring a two people who not only dominated the sports landscape in this city for a significant length of time, but who earned national attention in doing it. Both graced the cover of Sports Illustrated, and both taught us lessons in and out of their respective sports.

Muhammad Ali, who died this past summer, setting off a worldwide week of mourning and celebration, burst into the American consciousness when he won the light heavyweight gold medal in the 1960 Rome Olympics when he was 18 years old. University of Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson became the youngest Heisman winner ever at age 19 in December.

This year, these men blessed us with the end of one journey and the beginning of another. We're fortunate to have had a hometown seat for their efforts. They are my sports people of the year for 2016.


Ali passed away on June 3 at the age of 74. He was very specific in how he wanted his memorial handled, and his wife, Lonnie Ali, was very faithful in carrying out those wishes.

Ali's Memorial Service, and his final procession through the streets of Louisville, was an event like none I've ever seen in this city, and an event like none we'll see again. It was an international event, of course, with news organizations from all over the world in Louisville to memorialize "The Greatest."

But it also was an intimate event, when Ali's funeral procession pulled off Interstate 65, turned right on Muhammad Ali Boulevard, and wound through the neighborhoods where Ali grew up, went to high school, and lived his early life. People wanted to touch the cars. They wanted to touch Ali's friends and family inside the cars. Kids ran alongside the hearse, throwing fists into the air. They piled flowers on the windshield. The streets outside Cave Hill Cemetery were covered in rose petals.

Ali always came back to Louisville, after his greatest wins and most bitter defeats. His final return was one more gift to the city that produced him.

You can read a collection of WDRB’s coverage of Ali’s Memorial week by clicking here. In particular, my story about the procession and Memorial service endeavored to sum up what the entire day, the man and his memorial, meant to this place in particular.

It was part parade, part procession, funeral and festival. In Louisville, we have a parade down Broadway every year at Kentucky Derby time, The Pegasus Parade. Pegasus is a mythological winged divine stallion who flew among the gods delivering lightning and thunder from the heavens.

It’s here on Broadway in Louisville that my thoughts turned the day Ali died. I remembered Wade Houston talking about how Ali always loved to come back to the city after his fights, and how he’d be driving his big recreational vehicle west down Broadway so fast that police would pull him over, until they looked and saw him inside, and just smiled and said, “Slow down, champ.”

On Sunday, Ali came home one, last time. And on Friday, headed up Broadway the other direction, to the stately gates and rose-strewn streets near Cave Hill Cemetery, the champ finally slowed down.

Ali had a recurring dream that his daughter Hana Ali wrote about.

“When he was younger he said, ‘I used to dream that I was running down Broadway in downtown, Louisville, Kentucky, and all of the people were gathered in the street waving at me and clapping and cheering my name, then all of a sudden I just took off flying,’” she said.

Crystal, whose eulogy for Ali was among several that reached pitch-perfect proportions, invoked the thunder Pegasus commanded in remembering his old friend.

“I have labored to come up with a way to describe the legend,” he said. “He was a tremendous bolt of lightning, created by Mother Nature out of thin air. A fantastic combination of power and beauty. We’ve seen still photographs of lightening bolts from the moment of impact — magnificent in its elegance, it lights up everything around, so you can see everything clearly. Muhammad Ali struck us in the middle of America’s darkest night. In the heart of its most threatening gathering storm his power toppled the mightiest of foes, and his intense light shined on America, and we were able to see clearly, injustice, inequality, poverty, pride, self-realization, courage, laughter, love, joy and religious freedom for all.”


The University of Louisville quarterback became the most exciting player in college football during his sophomore season with the Cardinals, and the first major college player ever to throw for 30 touchdowns and run for 20 during a single regular season.

During the lead-up to the Heisman ceremony in New York in early December, we all got to know Jackson a little better. We heard the story of his mother, and Jackson's no-nonsense upbringing in South Florida. We heard about the high school teammates who always said, "See you in New York" at the end of practice, hoping one of them might do what Jackson eventually did. We heard about Jackson winning a pretend Heisman while playing video games, a precursor to winning the real thing at the PlayStation theater in Manhattan.

Along the way, we saw Jackson accept the honor emotionally and humbly. We saw him credit his teammates and call them at several points during the weekend. You can read a collection of my coverage from Jackson’s Heisman journey by clicking here.

One thing we didn't see, until we learned of it after Jackson’s Heisman weekend, was, amid all the celebration afterward, Jackson stepping away from the excitement to place a phone call to one of his youth coaches in Florida. The coach put the call on speaker, and Jackson spoke with old friends and teammates and coaches back home.

I thought it said something about him that he took the time to do that.

I’ve said it enough time that it’s barely worth repeating: That the University of Louisville has a Heisman Trophy in its Schnellenberger Complex case is perhaps as astonishing as any turn of events I’ve covered.

Jackson immediately earns a spot in Louisville’s Mount Rushmore of sports legends. Athletic director Tom Jurich acknowledged, he’ll commission a statue of Jackson at the appropriate time. 

It’s likely impossible for Jackson take all this in. But he has done it in an unassuming way, and in a way that has earned him the respect of his coaches and teammates.

When he won the Heisman, I wrote this about Jackson:

In the city of Louisville, one by one, buildings were illuminated in red in honor of Jackson’s achievement and his Heisman opportunity. The administration building on Louisville’s campus. The Humana building downtown. The KFC Yum! Center on game nights. And the Muhammad Ali Center, whose namesake loved Louisville football games.

Ali used to lie in his backyard and tell his brother of his dream to be “the greatest.”

There’s no such crystal clear premonition from Jackson’s life. Except maybe this. On his high school practice field in Boynton Beach, Fla., a group of teammates and Jackson took to telling each other, “Meet me in New York,” at the end of practices, a nod to one of them making it, and winning the Heisman trophy.

“Sometimes,” author Frederick Buechner once wrote, “wishing is the wings the truth comes in on. Sometimes the truth is what sets us wishing for it.”

Truth and talent are good. But Jackson also needed a chance. Some of the best football minds in the college game didn’t think he could play the position, or at least, weren’t ready to let him try to grab hold of the quarterback job on the day he arrived on campus.

At Louisville, Bobby Petrino took a chance, and gave Jackson a chance. 

If you are a sports fan in Louisville, this was a special year. Remember all you can about it. We’re not likely to see the likes of it again for a very long time.

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