Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year is an annual must-read. Given that the national recognition rarely has anything to do with the teams or individuals whom we cover. In turn, WFNY will soon announce its choice for 2013’s Cleveland Sportsman of the Year. Here’s one of the nominations for that honor by an WFNY writer.
What exactly is the ‘Sportsman of the Year’? Is it simply the best player or individual athlete on one of the local teams? I can’t imagine so. That’s why they have ‘Athlete of the Year’ or ‘Most Valuable Player’ awards. To me, sportsman goes beyond just stats and wins.
Let me start with a couple individuals that were in consideration for my nomination. The first was D’Qwell Jackson. Jackson is the unquestioned leader of the Cleveland Browns defense, and maybe the entire team for that matter. The 30-year-old inside linebacker doesn’t miss plays let alone games. He led the team in total tackles—again. He is the quarterback of the defense, calling out changes and getting guys into position. He answers every question from the media and gives thoughtful responses. His teammates look up to him.
I also considered backing Ubaldo Jimenez, which is astounding considering my feelings towards him at this time last season. To his credit, Jimenez pitched through the criticism and even boos from the Cleveland faithful. With the support of his manager and help from pitching coach Mickey Calloway, Jimenz regained the form he had in Colorado. He became the pitcher that the Indians needed when they traded for him in 2011. Without Jimenez, the Indians never make the playoffs last season.
There are others, but in the end I decided to nominate Browns cornerback Joe Haden.
I start my case for Haden with a reminder of his 2012 season, a season in which he was suspended for four games for taking a banned substance in the offseason. It was the lowest point in Haden’s career—if not his life.
The saying goes ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’ That was certainly the case for Haden. The suspension caused the former Florida Gator to examine his life and make some tough decisions. In Haden’s words, he grew up. He proposed to his long time girlfriend and settled down. His new outlook gave him focus and drive.
In 2013, Joe Haden took his game to another level. His four interceptions were among the league leaders before his injury. Despite covering the top receivers in the league week after week, opposing quarterbacks have only a 76.7 QB rating when throwing into Haden’s coverage.
Here’s how some of the top wide receivers did against Joe Haden in 2013:
In two games, Cincinnati’s A.J. Green caught six passes for 44 yards and no scores with Haden covering him. Detroit’s Calvin Johnson was battling injury, but was held to one catch for seven yards against Haden. Green Bay’s Jordy Nelson, Kansas City’s Dwayne Bowe and Miami’s Mike Wallace COMBINED for six catches, 51 yards and one touchdown. Chicago’s Brandon Marshall grabbed four balls for 61 yards and a touchdown.
The best game (statistically) that a receiver has had against Haden this year was Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown. Brown caught five passes against Haden for 80 yards, the majority of which came on a 41-yard touchdown.
Jacksonville’s Cecil Shorts had a rough day against Haden until he made a double move and caught the game winner against Haden in the back corner of the end zone. That touchdown and loss to the Jaguars, or should I say his reaction to it, may have helped solidify his case for me. In the locker room after the game Haden was distraught about giving up the winning score. He took it personally. He owned it. He wore it. You can say a lot of things about Joe Haden, but you can’t say that he doesn’t care about the team or winning. He isn’t in it for personal stats or accolades. Those may come, but Haden wants to be the best he can be so that he can help the team win.
He does it all with respect for the players he goes up against. He also has respect for the game and the players that came before him. Not only that, but he enjoys interacting with the fans. He is a must follow on social media platforms. Haden has been known to go out of his way to make a fan’s day. And yes, he supports the other teams in town. He can frequently be seen in the offseason cheering on the Cavaliers and Indians. He isn’t one of these guys that only stays in Cleveland during the football season.
That, to me, is a Sportsman.