Joe Juliano of the Philadelphia Inquirer is a past-president of the Philadelphia Sports Writers Association, and for 29 years he has anchored the committee that selects the winner of our annual Most Courageous Athlete Award.
Annually, the award is the finale of the PSWA banquet, and the identity of the winner is kept secret until the night of the dinner.
We asked Joe to share some of his memories of this hallowed award.
Following is the first of two posts that trace unforgettable award-winners, and some of the athletes who have inspired us through all these years.
In September 1974, John, a pitcher who won more than 200 games in his major league career, underwent a new radical form of surgery on his left arm after doctors advised him to “look for some other way to make a living.” Surgeons took a tendon from his right forearm and transferred it to his left elbow. However, scar tissue grew over the nerve, prompting another operation, and John spent 16 weeks in a cast.
“I accepted it,” said John, then of the Los Angeles Dodgers. “I never once doubted I would come back and pitch. I never said, ‘Woe is me.’”
Nevertheless, he still liked hearing Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda say to him, “You’re going to pitch a lot of games for me, and you’re going to win a lot.”
John eventually came back and was one of the key figures in the Dodgers’ defeating the Phillies in the 1977 National League Championship Series.
Incidentally, that radical form of surgery is now common among major-league pitchers, and is named for Tommy John.
1980 – Bobby Clarke, hockey
Clarke was the epitome of an NHL team captain, a gutty player who led the Flyers to Stanley Cup championships in 1974 and 1975 despite a lifelong struggle with diabetes. True to his nature, when he was told he would receive the Most Courageous Athlete award, he couldn’t figure out why.
“In my situation, I really don’t feel that way (courageous),” he said. “I am aware of the problems that can arise from having diabetes but I never think about that. I have more important things to think about.
He said when he thought of courageous athletes, one name that came to mind was former Eagles kicker Tom Dempsey, who was born without part of his right foot.
“There are a lot of people that come back from different things, plus other people, like Tom Dempsey, that overcome serious handicaps they were born with. You find those people are full of enthusiasm and that you can’t help but admire them and follow their lead.”
1985 – Scott Hamilton, figure skating
Hamilton, a gold medallist in the 1984 Winter Olympics, spent four years of his childhood in which doctors poked and prodded, tested and retested. The reason? He had stopped growing at age 5 – no physical development and a body that was unable to absorb any nutrition. He bounced from hospital to hospital in different cities. He tried different diets and treatments that made him frail.
“They put me on a lot of interesting diets,” Hamilton said. “I couldn’t have this and I couldn’t have that. I wasn’t allowed to have any white flour or milk. One doctor said they were basically starving me to death.”
At the age of 9, Hamilton took up skating. The next year, doctors told him, well, we didn’t know what you had, but whatever it was, it’s gone and you’re healthy again.
“I don’t know whether it was skating that cured me or not. There are so many theories. It’s a better story that way. But it could have been just a phase in my life.”
Upon seeing the names on the Most Courageous Award plaque, Hamilton said, “I’m just in awe, but I’m really kind of embarrassed.”
1987 – Jim Abbott, baseball
Abbott was one of the few Most Courageous Athlete winners who made his name on the national sports scene for years after he received the award. When honored by the association, he was a sophomore at the University of Michigan. He was born without a right hand but he used a unique fielding technique to keep opponents from bunting on him.
His glove would be tucked under his right arm when he delivered. Upon release, he would jam his left hand inside the glove. When fielding, he’d tuck the glove back under his arm, remove the baseball and throw.
“I never really thought much about what it would have been like to be able to do it like everyone else,” Abbott said. “I grew up learning the do things the way I am, with my capabilities, just the way everyone else learned to play ball with theirs. Hey, maybe my way is easier. Nobody really knows, do they?”
Of Abbott, Jayson Stark wrote in the Inquirer: “If this story proceeds along anywhere near the path it has followed so far, in a few years everybody will know who this guy is.”
Abbott went on to play 10 major-league seasons with four teams, including California and the Yankees, for whom he pitched a no-hitter.
1992 – Tim Kerr, hockey
Kerr was a goal-scoring machine for the Flyers but he played in constant pain. He underwent nine operations on his shoulders – seven on his left, two on his right. While in the middle of a successful career, his wife, Kathy, died during childbirth in 1990.
“You don’t sit there and ask, ‘What’ll I do?’ You just do,” Kerr said. “You don’t dwell on the bad things. You just try to make the bad things good again.”
Kerr’s ability to play through pain was legendary during his days with the Flyers.
“I’m sure there are a lot of people who think I’m crazy,” he said. “After each operation, I’d say, ‘This is it.’ This is positively the last operation. But each comeback became a challenge, like a little game.
“The biggest thing I learned is you have to value today. Look at your life and decide what is important. Instead of looking far down the road, appreciate the here and now.”
To view the second installment of memorable ‘Most Courageous Athlete’ moments, click here.