Last December's tsunami in the Indian Ocean may well be the worst natural disaster of this still-young century. Yet, other than following the news as the horrifying events unfolded, offering whatever support we could and sympathizing with the families of the victims, most of us weren't directly affected.
But for Michael Schumacher, the record-setting Formula One driver from Germany, the tsunami was personal. Among the more than 200,000 people who died were Schumacher's bodyguard, Burkhard Cramer, and Cramer's two sons. All three were killed while on vacation in Phuket, Thailand.
The news broke Schumacher's heart. And as a multimillionaire -- his estimated annual income of $81 million ranks second to Tiger Woods on SI's list of highest-paid athletes -- he responded in typical fashion, donating money in early January to the relief efforts in Asia. What wasn't typical was the amount of the donation: $10 million.
Sure, the cynics will say Schumacher can afford it or that other people donated more than 12.5 percent of their annual income. But in a year in which the tsunami and the Hurricane Katrina challenged the generosity of all humans, Schumacher came up bigger than any active athlete. He came up bigger than the sports leagues and corporations themselves (a check on Wikipedia found that only a handful of American companies donated as much as $10 million to the relief efforts in the days following the tragedy). In fact, Schumacher came up bigger than some countries -- less than a week after his announcement, Russia said it was donating $2 million.
While there's no way to tell, perhaps Schumacher's staggering donation caused (shamed?) others to dig a little deeper and find a few more dollars. Russia eventually anted up with more money. The rippling effects of Schumacher's $10 million certainly were worth many more millions --- and certainly worthy of Sportsman of the Year. So would Schumacher have donated that much if his bodyguard had survived or been vacationing in, say, Hawaii? Who knows. But his generosity to humanity did not start last January. Schumacher is a special ambassador to UNESCO and has donated $3 million to that U.N. organization. He twice met with Pope John Paul II -- and it's doubtful the late Pontiff was looking for driving tips.
"If you're lucky enough to be famous," Schumacher once told a F1 magazine while helping to publicize the European Road Safety Charter, "then it's great if you can use your fame and the power your fame gives you to draw attention to things that really matter."
On the twisty, chicane-filled tracks of Formula One this season, Schumacher was not his usual dominant self. For the first time in six seasons, he did not win the driver's championship. His only race win came amid the driver defection-controversy at Indy in which just six cars competed. Rule changes designed to equalize the competition this season left Schumacher and his Ferrari team scratching their heads.
The world's best driver looks -- dare we say? -- vulnerable behind the wheel. But off the track, Schumacher produced the finest moment of his career, perhaps the finest moment any athlete delivered outside their sport in 2005. It cost him $10 million. No doubt he'd pay much more than that just to have his bodyguard by his side.