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Twenty-five years ago this month, as SI readers returned from the last of their holiday-shopping stations, a surprising issue of this magazine went thump on millions of coffee tables. Our editors had decided to make a statement in their choice of Sportsman of the Year. As a corrective to an era increasingly marked by greed and narcissism, we honored eight male and female Athletes Who Care to recognize, as senior writer Frank Deford put it in his introduction, "the whole athlete, not simply that fabulously facile part that scores goals and wins games."
Each of the men and women in that 1987 package was dedicated to a project that helped young people—from hurdler Judi Brown King, who worked with abused children; to golfer Patty Sheehan, who founded and funded a group home for troubled teenage girls; to Olympic distance runner Kip Keino, who, with his wife, Phyllis, had turned their home in Kenya into an orphanage for 35 kids. Such compassion for the next generation conformed to the iconic scene of the pilgrim-athlete at a child's hospital bed. But when we decided to assemble a new crop of exemplary athletes to mark this anniversary, we quickly discovered that the species had evolved. Thus our updated Athletes Who Care includes more worldly and socially activist honorees, who have embraced such causes as nutrition and health, the status of gays and lesbians, and the fight against climate change, in addition to the welfare of children.
In 1987, when we asked Braves outfielder Dale Murphy why he almost never turned down charitable requests, he cited the example of his mother, who had spent every school day as a volunteer with handicapped kids. "When I asked her why she did it, she replied, 'It's important,'" Murphy said. "Nothing more needed to be said. She could help someone, so she did. I was always taught that a 'meaningful life' is just that. Society is what we make of it, so we'd better try to make it the best we can."
The motivation of some athletes to help their fellow human beings stands timelessly the same. Nothing more needed to be said then or now, or surely 25 years from now.
See if their stories don't lead you to agree.
THE WISDOM OF THE WORLD
To care requires one first to be aware, and Fitzgerald is forever taking in things besides the footballs thrown his way. Every off-season the Cardinals' wide receiver makes a point to see the world. Artifacts on the walls and shelves of his Paradise Valley, Ariz., home document those stopovers: a Berber dagger from Morocco; a replica terra cotta soldier from China; a vase from Jordan; a tile from the sacking of Constantinople. Scrapbooks on his coffee table bulge with his own photographs of landmarks and adventures. A photo he shot in Africa with a 400-mm lens shows a leopard in a tree finishing off a gazelle. Here is Mandela's cell on Robben Island; there, McCain's in the Hanoi Hilton. The man most people know for his six Pro Bowl appearances sandboards in the United Arab Emirates, surveys the Zambezi River from an ultralight and rides an elephant in Cambodia.
Because Fitzgerald, 29, makes sure to fold charity work into his travels, he's sometimes treated to moments of almost transcendent understanding, like the one in Rwanda two years ago, during a mission for the Starkey Hearing Foundation. As Fitzgerald fit the left ears of children with hearing aids, the daughter of Pasteur Bizimungu, the country's first postgenocide president, fit the right ears. As the two worked, she recounted stories from that dark chapter of Rwanda's past. "She was my age," Fitzgerald says. "And to get her view on how her father was able to bind the country back together—it wasn't hearsay or a BBC or Western documentary on the subject."
Since he first traveled overseas on a USO Tour during the summer of 2004, Fitzgerald has made four more trips to see the troops. Earlier this year, with the international relief organization Oxfam, he and Ravens receiver Anquan Boldin (his former Cardinals teammate) visited Ethiopia to plant trees and help build an irrigation project in drought-plagued villages. Stateside, Fitzgerald is devoted to organizations that fight breast cancer, which took the life of his mother, Carol, in 2003. Through his First Down Fund he recently donated Kindle Fires to a school on a Native American reservation in Arizona, and for the past two seasons he has invited fans to nominate the charity to which he'll write a $1,000 check each week of the season. "If they take the time to write, I know they're passionate about the cause," he says. "So I'll donate in their name."