BenFred: Musial Awards about sports stories that stir the soul | Ben Frederickson


It’s embarrassing to admit the moment faded from memory.

On the sideline of an NCAA Tournament game in 2014, players for a winning Tennessee basketball team turned a handshake line into a procession of hugs.

One by one, Volunteers wrapped their arms around Iowa coach Fran McCaffery. Slowly, the stiff coach loosened. He began hugging back.

That same morning, doctors had removed a malignant tumor from the thyroid of McCaffery’s 13-year-old son. The coach had hustled from an Iowa hospital to an Ohio arena. Patrick McCaffery would go on to beat his cancer diagnosis. Dad had no way of knowing that then.

Cuonzo Martin, the Missouri coach who was then at Tennessee, made sure his Volunteers understood. The cancer survivor could relate. His players hatched a plan.

The fiery McCaffery has often gone viral for his outbursts. But this line of spontaneous hugs between a coach and the players who had just knocked his team from the tournament didn’t gain much traction. March Madness rolled on. A shining example of sportsmanship disappeared.

Shouldn’t we do more to celebrate such moments? Shouldn’t we lift up those who turn their careers into examples of what is good in a sports world so often dominated by egos and greed? Sounds smart, right?

The movement is already in motion. Has been for a while now. It’s only going to get bigger and better. And the party is right here, in your backyard.

“We want this to become the most prominent and prestigious awards program in the country,” St. Louis Sports Commission vice president Marc Schreiber said. “The Heisman Trophy of sportsmanship.”

The St. Louis Sports Commission will once again host the Musial Awards on Saturday night at Stifel Theatre. Chill bumps will rise. Tissues will soak. Those who have followed the lead of an iconic Cardinal will be cheered.

Baseball Hall of Famer Jim Thome, the Stan Musial Lifetime Achievement Award Winner For Sportsmanship, will be applauded for a career that is more similar to Musial’s than most realize.

Jean Dolores Schmidt — you know her as Sister Jean — will share a stage with Ozzie Smith. Her grace made us fall in love with Loyola hoops. His wizardry helped bring the PGA to St. Louis, and golf to kids who might have never played. Wait until you hear the one about the youth hockey goalie who offered a struggling opponent a lesson — in the middle of the game.

These stories stir souls. Here’s one worth remembering. It explains how St. Louis planted its flag as the city that celebrates this stuff.

The start of the Musial Awards can be traced back to the pages of the Post-Dispatch. Twenty-two years ago this month, P-D sports columnist Bernie Miklasz introduced readers to volunteer youth coach Rich Zoellner, who refused to let a terminal cancer diagnosis stop him from coaching at a local elementary school. Zoellner died the same week the column ran. His legacy lives on.

Harry Morley, moved by Zoellner’s story, started raising funds to honor Zoellner’s legacy. He was more successful than he imagined. He approached the St. Louis Sports Commission with thousands of dollars and a request for assistance.

A grassroots program focused on promoting and honoring sportsmanship was born. The awards element, which began as a partnership with the Citizenship Through Sports Alliance, outgrew venues as the commission searched for the perfect name. That came in 2012, when the Musial family enthusiastically approved the committee’s request to honor Stan.

That’s the thing about this event. If you know what it’s about, you get on board.

“It’s the people who made this happen,” St. Louis Sports Commission President Frank Viverito said. “It’s people who have shared this vision of the value of sportsmanship. Everybody knows what a good sport is. That’s what we want to celebrate and encourage. And we love the fact that it’s born in St. Louis.”

The reach has gone national. Don’t believe me?

Hear Viverito and Schreiber recap one of their first ‘wow’ moments. A decade ago, when the awards were still in their infancy and under another name at another venue, MLB Commissioner Bud Seling attended. He heard the story of Mallory Holtman and Liz Wallace. The Central Washington University softball teammates carried an opponent around the bases when she injured her knee after hitting a home run. Central Washington lost that game. Holtman and Wallace won a fan in Selig. He invited them to the All-Star Game in New York, where they were introduced during the Home Run Derby.

“Wow,” Viverito remembers thinking. “Maybe this is going to go.”

See the cautious optimism as commission members describe positive talks about a potential national TV broadcast in the future. Listen to Thome gush about being linked to Musial. Understand that an aging Arnold Palmer, the recipient of the 2015 lifetime achievement award, went against his doctor’s advice to come accept his honor in person.

Remember that line of hugs for McCaffery? This year’s Musial Awards made me remember it.

Iowa basketball player Jordan Bohannon will receive a Musial Award on Saturday. Last season, he had a chance to set a school record with a 35th consecutive made free throw. He missed. On purpose. Decided he would rather stay at 34 and share the record with former Hawkeye Chris Street, who died in a car accident during his own free-throw streak in 1993.

What a moment. Just one problem.

Iowa played Friday night in a tournament in New York. It looked like Bohannon would not be able to attend — until a late phone call came through.

Bohannon was coming. McCaffery, his coach, insisted.

Another wow moment, with more to come.


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