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A year ago at this time, a little-known third baseman who had played in only 87 major league games was on probation following his second arrest on DWI charges. Today he is the World Series MVP and possibly the most beloved athlete in the state of Missouri. A year ago, a college quarterback who was notable for little more than the Roman numeral after his name had just lost 38--14 to 6--6 Illinois in the Texas Bowl. Today he is the Heisman Trophy winner, fresh off reading the Top Ten list on David Letterman's show. A year ago, a goalkeeper, who had been vilified for publicly criticizing her coach for benching her before a 2007 World Cup match, struggled to comb her hair because of recent shoulder surgery. Today she is a national hero and television celebrity, thanks to her World Cup performance last summer.
In just 12 months, an athlete can go from nobody to somebody, from merely familiar to suddenly famous. We don't always recognize it as it's happening. A year in sports is like a wave washing up on the beach: Only after it recedes do we fully appreciate all the shiny new treasures it left behind in the sand. David Freese (the Cardinals' Series hero), Robert Griffin III (the Heisman winner from Baylor) and Hope Solo (the star of the U.S. women's soccer team) were among the gems we discovered in 2011, all reaffirming how deep an impression a player can suddenly leave on us.
Isn't that one of the main reasons we watch sports? To see which new athletes will play their way into our consciousness? One of the things that draws us to games is the possibility of revelation, the chance that at any moment we might stumble onto the next great player.
Did you watch Griffin throw for 359 yards and five touchdowns in Baylor's season-opening 50--48 upset of TCU and think, Where did this kid come from? That's why we watch. Millions tuned into baseball's postseason knowing all about Albert Pujols's dangerous bat, only to be surprised and—unless they were Phillies or Brewers or Rangers fans—thrilled to see the little-known Freese produce clutch hit after clutch hit. That's why we watch. The nation got caught up in the tough, exciting play of the U.S. women in the World Cup and realized along the way that Solo was a stunning goalkeeper in more ways than one. That, too, is why we watch.
Those breakthrough performances don't just happen. Freese, for instance, had to change his behavior after his second DWI, in December 2009. He curtailed his drinking and spent much of the off-season with teammate Matt Holliday, whom he credits for helping him mature. "I'm not sure I'd still even have a career if it wasn't for him," Freese said.
But Freese, Griffin and Solo weren't the only discoveries of 2011. There were plenty of athletes who made us see them—or see them as more than bit players—for the first time. Bruins goalie Tim Thomas. Braves closer Craig Kimbrel, the National League Rookie of the Year. Packers receiver Jordy Nelson. Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne. Mavericks point guard J.J. Barea. A pair of 16-year-olds, golfer Lexi Thompson and swimmer Missy Franklin.
Think of the now familiar nicknames that would have meant nothing to you a year ago: Honey Badger. Tony Plush. Gronk. By now you know that the first belongs to Tyrann Mathieu, LSU's game-changing cornerback and kick returner, and the second to Nyjer Morgan, the eccentric outfielder who helped make the Brewers' division-championship run all the more entertaining. Having a catchy handle helps bring instant attention. Twelve months ago you might have thought Gronk was the name of some animated Pixar character, but now most fans know it belongs to Rob Gronkowski, the second-year Patriots tight end who has become a fantasy football demigod by setting an NFL record for touchdowns in a season at his position.
Not everyone earned his new fame in competition. Kris Humphries married into it through his 72-day union with Kim Kardashian, and it doesn't matter that the marriage didn't last as long as the NBA lockout—Humphries is no longer just another obscure power forward. During the telecast of a Nets-Knicks exhibition game last Saturday, Knicks broadcaster Walt Frazier, noticing that Humphries, an unsigned free agent, wasn't in attendance, asked, "Where's that Kardashian guy?"
Humphries may be relieved to find that the spotlight will leave him soon enough. That tends to happen to sports figures who come to our attention for trivial reasons. It also happens to those who are more notorious than famous (the Fiesta Bowl's John Junker, Tennessee's Bruce Pearl, the Bears' Sam Hurd ...). There will be more of those kinds of breakthroughs in 2012. Fortunately there are usually more fresh faces who uplift us than disappoint us.
The best thing about 2011 drawing to a close is the knowledge that somewhere an athlete is doing what's necessary to become famous by this time next year. He is vowing to grow up and rededicate himself to his sport, or he is drawing motivation from a defeat, or she is rehabbing an injury intent on coming back stronger and proving her critics wrong. There are players preparing to grab our attention in 2012 and not let go. We don't know them right now. But we will.