When Kirk Gibson smacked a walk-off home run in the 1988 World Series, kids and parents alike no doubt whispered “my hero” as they watched him fist pump on the base paths. But while professional athletes are often looked to as role models, their status as true “heroes” is hotly debated: surely heroism constitutes more than just scoring touchdowns or hitting home runs?
For those on the fence of the “hero” debate, these 10 athletes have proven without a shadow of a doubt they are worthy of this distinction. Even if sports aren’t your thing, you’ll be amazed at the incredible lengths these stars went to in order to better the lives of others.
1. Muhammad Ali: It’s nearly impossible to talk about the legendary boxer without mentioning the word “hero” at least a dozen times. Yet even with all the lives he touched through his philanthropy and activism, there was one in particular that Ali left a lasting impact on.
On January 19, 1981, Ali witnessed a 21-year-old man climb onto the ninth-floor ledge of a Los Angeles apartment building, ready to jump. Despite both a minister and a psychologist failing to talk the young man down, Ali stepped in and convinced him not to.
The New York Times
2. Tom Brady: Though he’s already revered as a hero to everyone in the New England area, Tom Brady is also indirectly responsible for saving a life. When Brady learned that his college mentor Tom Martinez needed a kidney transplant, the quarterback took to social media to help Martinez find a match.
Sadly, Martinez passed away before a match could be found, but Brady’s mission hadn’t been in vain. Inspired by the NFL star’s devotion to Martinez, a Massachusetts man named Peter Hughes donated his kidney to a Bosnian woman in dire need of a transplant.
3. Roberto Clemente: As both the first Latin American and the first Caribbean man to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, Clemente opened the door for countless players of color to live their dreams and play in the major leagues. But for all his accolades earned on the field, Clemente’s legacy outside of baseball is just as impressive.
Los Angeles Times
Over the course of his 17-year career, Clemente spent most of each off-season performing charity work in Latin America. Tragically, however, after three initial emergency relief flights intended for earthquake-devastated Managua were rerouted by corrupt officials, Clemente accompanied the fourth relief flight and was killed when the plane crashed off the coast of Puerto Rico.
4. Pat Tillman: It takes a tremendous amount of courage to put one’s life on the line for their country, but Tillman’s decision to abandon professional football for a U.S. Army career was a sacrifice he should undoubtedly be applauded for. Unfortunately, the NFL safety-turned-soldier’s service would be short-lived.
Pat Tillman Foundation
On April 22, 2004, Tillman was initially reported to have been killed during a hostile engagement while stationed in Afghanistan; however, following a lengthy investigation, his cause of death was ruled as friendly fire. Tillman was posthumously awarded the Silver Star and Purple Heart decorations and has had several statues erected in his honor.
5. Joe Delaney: At just 24 years old, Joe Delaney was renowned for his desire to help others; in fact, he once paid for the funeral of a former teacher when the family couldn’t afford it. Even after finding early career success with the Kansas City Chiefs, big-hearted Delaney couldn’t resist helping those in need.
The Kansas City Star
While visiting a theme park in Monroe, Louisiana, Delaney spotted three children struggling to stay afloat in a nearby watering hole and, despite being unable to swim, dove in to save them. The football star managed to save one child before tragically drowning. The Chiefs honored his memory in 2004.
6. Todd Frazier: The Mets are often considered to be a beleagued team, but their third baseman Todd Frazier can add “hero” to his list of accomplishments after saving a man’s life in May of 2012…
While out dining at a Pittsburgh restaurant, Frazier spotted a fellow patron choking on a piece of steak and immediately rushed over to help. Though he claims to have had never done it before that day, Frazier performed the Heimlich maneuver and popped the piece of meat free.
7. Martellus Bennett: Known for his sense of humor, Bennett was all business when he inadvertently saved a life just after a game. The former NFL tight end was simply trying to hand a pair of gloves to a pair of young fans when things took an unexpected turn.
As he approached the stands, an onlooker took a swipe at Bennett’s gloves, missed, and accidentally tripped over the railing. Luckily, Bennett caught the man before he hit the ground, avoiding what could’ve been a fatal accident.
8. Paul Worrilow: The NFL linebacker actually put his life on the line to help a 23-year-old leukemia patient in need of a life-saving stem cell donation. A registrant of the National Marrow Donor Program, Worrilow and the woman were found to be a perfect match.
On May 25, 2011, over the course of six hours, the football player had a portion of his blood drained, ran through a centrifuge, and then returned to his body in order to harvest peripheral blood stem cells. Since that day, Worrilow has yet to meet the woman who received his donation.
9. Shawn Daivari: During his time with WWE, Daivari’s character was known for his aggressive personality and hatred for all things American. In reality, the Minnesota native is as patriotic as they come, and in late 2012, he gained attention for his heroic actions aboard a Minneapolis light rail.
When a deranged passenger began shouting obscenities and threatening to kill everyone onboard the train, the wrestler quickly sprung into action. Locking him in a rear chokehold, Daivari subdued the man until police arrived on the scene.
10. Nomar Garciaparra: In a moment of crisis, ordinary people are capable of doing extraordinary things. The same goes for Nomar Garciaparra, All-Star shortstop, who, after hearing cries from the nearby Boston Harbor, quickly rushed over to help.
When Garciaparra reached the water, he discovered that two women had fallen in, with one sustaining a serious injury after hitting her head on a dock. The former Red Sox shortstop immediately dove into the harbor and pulled both the women to safety.