Sports Illustrated has gotten into a rut. Rather than picking a Sportsman of The Year, the magazine has essentially become just another ho-hum forum for selecting the athlete of the year -- or some variation thereof. The best team, the best player on the best team. The Sportsman was never supposed to be just a popularity contest. If the magazine doesn't start applying some imagination to selecting a Sportsman -- and not just ratifying this year's champion -- it runs the risk of becoming the Golden Globes of sport.
In the last decade, the only choice that wasn't chalk was Dean Smith, in 1997. He didn't win anything that year. Coach Smith just managed to stand above the crowd as an exemplar of what sports, at its best, is supposed to be about.
This year, SI has an opportunity to make a selection that would surprise everyone, delight the thoughtful and irritate all the folks who only want a certification of the usual.
The 2005 Sportsman of the Year should be Afleet Alex.
They picked a horse -- har-de-har-har.
Yeah, that's right.
And, of course, it couldn't just be Afleet Alex. It would have to be Team Afleet Alex -- the jockey, Jeremy Rose, and the trainer, Tim Ritchey, and the owners, the Cash is King Stable. They're all deserving.
The horse. Afleet Alex is the true people's choice -- small, not well-bred, and dead game. Apart from all his victories, what he did in the Preakness was the single most amazing feat in athletics this year. Knocked down to his knees at the top of the stretch, he pulls himself up and roars to victory. Then comes back and runs away with the Belmont. This is the stuff of legend.
The jockey. Rose was young and untested in top competition. He was taken off when Afleet Alex started looking like a champ. Given the mount again, and with the pressure on him, he did not make a mistake in the Triple Crown -- and what he did in the Preakness, gathering Alex up as he started to fall, showed agility, the strength of men twice his size, and the courage of a man who had to respond knowing that he could be trampled to death if he fell.
The trainer. Ritchey was hooted at by the know-it-alls for the unique way he trained Afleet Alex. He had the guts not to waver, and he was right. Had the guts to stick with Rose, too.
The stable. When the owners heard about a little girl named Alex Scott, who was dying of cancer, they offered their Alex namesake up in support of the cause. Soon, Scott's lemonade stands were at race tracks everywhere, even after she was taken by the disease. And Cash is King gave even more cash to Scott's cause. The owners also promised to give up huge sums of guaranteed stud money, and to keep Afleet Alex racing for another year -- in the best spirit of sacrificing for their sport ... and for the fans.
Afleet Alex suffered a hairline fracture and appeared to be finished for the year. Never mind, he and his sportsmen have done more than enough to make a horse -- yes a horse -- this year's top dog.
React: Who's your Sportsman of the Year?
Sports Illustrated will announce the 2005 Sportsman of the Year winner on Friday, Dec. 9 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO. Check back every weekday until then to read more Sportsman picks from SI writers.