Sporting events would not exist without fierce competition. From cross-town rivalries to international feuds, sports thrive on the adrenaline of facing down your arch rivals and giving them a thorough trouncing. Even within sports teams, there is the overriding desire to be the absolute best of the best. That's why it's so touching when one team honors a member above all others, or even gets its rival to pay tribute to a lost coach or player.
The following stories are about heartfelt tributes players paid to one another, to titans of the field, and even departed family members.
Austrian-born weight lifter Matthias Steiner competed for Germany in the 2008 Olympic Games in the heaviest weight category (+105 kg/230 lbs). Steiner’s preparations for the games were dealt a heart-breaking setback when his wife Susann died in a car accident in the summer of 2007. After getting back into shape, he traveled to the 2008 Olympics with a point to prove.
The competition was intense and going into the second round, Steiner failed to lift 235 kg (518 lbs) on the first try. His coach gambled on securing a medal by packing on more weight for the second attempt at 245 kg (540 lbs). Many athletes would be content with a bronze medal, but Steiner had promised his late wife he’d win the gold. With the field clear, he had the chance to claim gold on his final lift. His coach had once told him an athlete’s career is defined by a handful of moments, and that the difference between a very good athlete and a champion is the ability to seize those moments. With those words and the memory of his wife in his mind, he stepped up to go for gold.
The clean and jerk is a lift with two parts, the first is getting the bar onto the chest from the floor and the second is one almighty push to lift the bar overhead. Steiner made the first half, he recalled that his whole body was giving out but for his arms, it was almost as if there was another set of arms helping him. The lift got the green light and all those emotions of the last year poured out. He was overwhelmed with joy and relief from all the pressure he’d been under but also loss. As he stood at the podium with the gold medal, in a moving tribute, he held a photo of his late wife, not wanting to be alone at that moment.
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At 22, Los Angeles Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart had made an excellent start to his professional career. In just his fourth start he didn’t give up a run against Oakland in six innings, allowing only seven hits. Tragedy struck just hours later when he was hit by a drunk driver running a red light a little after midnight on April 9, 2009.
At the next Angels game, following a postponed fixture, fans and teammates paid a moving tribute to a star taken far too young. Adenhart’s jersey was hung in the team’s dugout for the rest of the year and teammate Jered Weaver scrawled the initials “NA” into the pitcher’s mound before every game. He later named his son after his fallen teammate in 2013.
No player wore Adenhart’s No. 34 jersey until 2022 when Noah Syndergaard wore it with the full blessing of Adenhart’s family.
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Not everyone is born to be a star athlete, but that doesn’t mean you can’t help your favorite team in your own way as George Baker showed across six decades of service to the English club Sunderland AFC. He managed the tunnel and dressing room at Sunderland from 1959-2020, first at Roker Park and then at the Stadium of Light from 1997.
He called time on his lifetime of service to Sunderland in January 2020, aged 87. In recognition of his many years, he was given VIP treatment for the home game against Wycombe Wanderers. He was applauded onto the field by officials, players, and fans and presented with the match ball as a memento of his special day.
Club chairman paid tribute to Baker’s years of service:
To have given 60 years of service is quite incredible and we are delighted to be able to give George a special send-off as a token of our immense gratitude.
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Pro wrestling is described as “sports entertainment” rather than a legitimate athletic competition but there’s little doubt about the very real physical toll all those death-defying stunts take over the years. World Wrestling Entertainment has a list of controversies a mile long, with many former wrestlers succumbing to early demises. But every so often, the company gets things absolutely right. The “last match” of legendary performer Ric Flair was one of those moments.
Wrestling has the ability to tell a story unlike any other medium of entertainment. In Flair’s case, it was the story of the inevitability of time. At WrestleMania 24, the biggest event of the year, he was pitted against fellow legend Shawn Michaels with the stipulation that if he lost, he would have to retire. Though almost 60 at the time of the match and decades past his prime, Flair and Michaels rolled back the years to put on the match of the year in 2008.
At the climax, a beaten and battered Flair was out on his feet as Michaels hesitated to pull the trigger on his finishing move. In this case, the scripted nature of the event actually made it more emotional as Flair’s realization that his final on-ring moments were unfolding was painfully etched across his face as he beckoned Michaels on.
At the other side of the ring Shawn Michaels mouthed “I’m sorry, I love you!” as he landed his finisher and pinned Flair for the win. Michaels embraced his fallen opponent and quickly rolled out of the ring to give Flair his moment with the fans. A tearful Flair struggled back to his feet to take in the applause for the match and the multi-decades he’d entertained in the ring. Not a dry eye was left in the house as he slowly made his way back to the curtain.
It was a perfect way to end a career, a great match on the biggest stage of them all with an emotionally satisfying finish. Alas, Flair decided to keep going with other wrestling companies and competed as recently as July 2022 aged 73, a match that many found uncomfortable to watch.
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Former Rugby Star Doddie Weir Was Honored With A Standing Ovation For His Positivity While Suffering From MND
George Wilson “Doddie” Weir was a stalwart of the Scottish rugby team in the 1990s, representing his country 61 times and touring with the British Lions in South Africa in 1997. As a lock, he wore the number 5 and played in the second row, sometimes called the engine room of the team. Weir was known for his imposing 6’6” stature and never-say-die attitude on the pitch.
After a successful playing career, he retired in 2005 and worked occasionally as a pundit and commentator.
He was diagnosed with motor neuron disease in 2016. As his once powerful body wasted away, he dedicated his final years to securing funding for research through his My Name’5 Doddie Foundation. In November 2022 he made what would be his final appearance at Murrayfield, the home stadium of the Scottish rugby team.
Weir was wheeled out to a standing ovation just before Scotland’s match with New Zealand. Jill Douglas, the foundation’s CEO said of Doddie Weir:
His positivity, energy, and drive to make a difference is inspiring. I also believe more and more people have become aware of MND, it is not as rare as many think, and they want to help us achieve our vision of a world free of motor neuron disease.
Doddie Weir passed away less than two weeks later at the age of 52.
Andrés Iniesta went into the 2010 World Cup on the back of the most difficult season of a glittering professional career. In August 2009 he was distraught by the passing of a close friend and fellow player Dani Jarque from a heart attack, aged just 26. The loss took a heavy toll on Iniesta, and his place in Spain’s 2010 World Cup squad was in doubt due to injuries. He made the team and played a crucial role in Spain’s run to the final against the Netherlands.
Before the game, he described his wish to pay tribute to Dani:
And right before going out to warm up, I remembered – or it kind of came to me – I told [a member of the Spain delegation] to make me an undershirt with the message for Dani. I wanted to pay tribute to him at some point.
Deep into extra time with the score goalless, the ball broke to Iniesta and he sent an unstoppable drive low into the net. In the greatest moment of his career, his first thought was of his lost friend. As he ran to celebrate, he tore off his shirt to reveal a message he’d prepared before the game "Dani Jarque siempre con nosotros" ("Dani Jarque always with us"). Spain saw out the final moments of the game to lift their first World Cup.
The normally quiet and understated midfielder wore his heart on his sleeve as he took in the emotional moments after the game.