An ESPY (an acronym for Excellence in Sports Performance Yearly) is an award which recognizes individual and team athletic achievements, celebrates some of the iconic moments in sports, and honors trailblazers from all realms. It is similar in nature to awards for excellence in other fields such as an Oscar for film, Emmy for television, Grammy for music, and Tony for theatre. Jim Valvano captured the hearts and minds of a nation when he spoke at the inaugural ESPYs in 1993. “Time is very precious ago me. I don’t know how much time I have left and I have some things I would like to say,” he said while accepting the first-ever Arthur Ashe Courage Award. Jimmy talked about his fight with terminal bone cancer and his will to live life to the fullest, delivering an inspirational message reflecting both hope and wisdom. Importantly, he also announced the formation of The V Foundation in partnership with ESPN with a clearly stated goal: stopping cancer. (Note: see “The V Foundation” WINNER’s profile for more)
Since 2002, the ESPYs ceremony has been held on the day after the Major League Baseball All-Star Game which happens to be the slowest day in sports. It has been a thrill to attend numerous ESPYs with members of my family over the past 10 years. The hosts have included celebrities such as Justin Timberlake, Samuel L. Jackson, Seth Myers, Drake, and John Cena. In July 2017, the show was hosted by Peyton Manning. The ESPYs are typically less formal and more fun than other awards shows as celebrities from the overlapping worlds of sports and entertainment gather together to salute the leading athletic performers and performances. But the show consistently delivers emotional messages as well. John Quincy Adams, our nation’s 6th president, once said, “Courage and perseverance have a magical talisman, before which difficulties disappear and obstacles vanish into air.” The ESPYs relate perfectly to this quote in the form of presentations around its three pillar awards: the Arthur Ashe Courage Award, the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance, and the Pat Tillman Award for Service.
For me personally, the most meaningful and memorable ESPYs took place in 2010. It was my distinct honor and great privilege to nominate the Ed Thomas Family for the Arthur Ashe Courage Award. This award is presented to individuals who “reflect the spirit of Arthur Ashe, possessing strength in the face of adversity, courage in the face of peril and the willingness to stand up for their beliefs no matter what the cost.” The Thomas family lost their husband and father – a legendary high school football coach and community leader – when he was shot to death by one of his former players suffering from a mental illness. The faith and courage shown by the family in the face of their tragic loss was extraordinary. My nomination included the requisite background information on Coach Thomas’ career which involved coaching numerous players who went on to achieve great success in the college and professional ranks, and his being named the 2005 NFL High School Coach of the Year. It provided the details of his inspirational efforts in May 2008 to lead and help rebuild the community of Parkersburg, IA in the aftermath of a devastating EF5 tornado. Several months prior to submitting my nomination, I had collaborated with ESPN executives on the production of a special live broadcast of the Dike-New Hartford at Aplington-Parkersburg high school football game in August 2009. This game, with Rece Davis doing the play-by-play and Herm Edwards and Chris Spielman serving as analysts, marked the A-P Falcons emotional return to the field following the tragic shooting at the school two months earlier. But while it helped to have ESPN executives quite familiar with the story, it was still not an easy task to convince the ESPYs selection committee that the Thomas family deserved to have their name immortalized alongside the many outstanding and deserving individuals who had previously received the award, from basketball’s Jim Valvano in 1993 to South Africa’s Nelson Mandela in 2009. My nomination concluded with the following statement: “Courage can manifest itself in many different ways, but the courage to forgive may well be the most powerful.”
It was truly gratifying to learn that the ESPYs selection committee agreed that the Thomas family story was one of immense courage, one that transcended sports. In making the announcement, ESPN senior executive John Skipper said, “The Thomas family showed us how people can come together under extraordinary circumstances that would normally drive them apart. For that reason, we honor the Thomas family as the recipient of the 2010 Arthur Ashe Courage Award.” Aaron Thomas, Coach Thomas’ oldest son, said, “Our family is humbled and honored to be selected as the Arthur Ashe Courage Award winner. To be mentioned in the same sentence as past winners is more than anything our family could have imagined. This award is a great testament to the type of man my father was. We are merely following his example and what he would expect. Even through the toughest of times, we know how my Dad would have handled the situation. We are humbled and honored to receive this award.” It was an honor to be asked by ESPN to host the extended Thomas family party of two dozen or so people at the ESPYs in July 2010. One of the enduring images of Ed Thomas shown during the award presentation was the site of the legendary coach standing stoically on the sidelines, arms folded, and with the words he lived by: “Faith, Family, and Football.” It meant a great deal to the family that the special story of their husband, father, and grandfather could be told – and his legacy elevated – to such a wide audience.
As it turned out, the 2010 ESPYs had another Iowa connection as well. During that year’s NCAA Basketball Tournament, the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) Panthers upset the top-ranked Kansas Jayhawks by a score of 69-67. The win marked the first time in nearly 50 years that a Missouri Valley Conference team had beaten the nation’s No.1 team. For Panther fans, the memory of Ali Farokhmanesh hitting the clinching 3-point shot will live on in their minds forever. The monumental win also earned UNI an ESPY award for “Best Upset of the Year.” “Winning an ESPY tonight is an absolute thrill,” said UNI Coach Ben Jacobson after receiving the award. “To have this happen to a great group of guys, our university and fans makes it very special.” In addition to the Thomas family, it was a pleasure to spend time with Coach Jacobson and his wife, Dawn, along with players Ali Farokhmanesh and Adam Koch, all of whom were guests of ESPN at all the ESPYs-related activities.
Another team from Iowa was nominated for a “Best Upset of the Year” at the ESPYs in 2012. With a monumental, double-overtime 37-31 victory over No. 2 Oklahoma State, the Iowa State (ISU) Cyclones had garnered national attention back in November. It was great fun to host the contingent representing ISU which included Coach Paul Rhoads and his wife, Vickie, and linebacker Jake Knott, running back Jeff Woody, quarterback Jared Barnett, and cornerback Leonard Johnson. Woody and Knott were high school rivals and friends. “Who would have thought back in 2009 – the year we graduated from high school – that we would ever do anything that would come close to being on ESPN, let alone be going to the awards show with all those sports celebrities?” Woody said at the time. While the ESPY was awarded to the Los Angeles Kings for their Stanley Cup upset win, the ISU players nonetheless took home fond memories of walking the ESPYs Red Carpet, attending the ESPYs show and parties, and even being special guests at a taping of the Jimmy Kimmel Live! show.
There are several other ESPYs memories that also stand out. I have crossed paths with friend and network colleague, Robin Roberts, at the ESPYs on countless occasions. In July 2008 she joined ESPN’s Stuart Scott as co-presenter of the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance. The presentation was made all the more poignant by the fact that the co-presenters had recently shown remarkable perseverance of their own: Robin while beating back breast cancer, and Stuart during a fight involving a cancerous appendix that was discovered during a routine appendectomy. As life would have it, perseverance was a virtue that both Robin and Stuart would need in spades as new health crises later emerged for both of them.
In 2012, Robin was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS) that she likely contracted as a complication of her breast cancer treatments years earlier. She took an extended leave of absence from Good Morning America to receive a bone marrow transplant from her sister, before returning to the air on February 20, 2013. “I have been waiting 174 days to say this: Good Morning America!” she said at the open of that day’s show. Like the Thomas family in 2010, Robin was honored with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPYs in July 2013 with basketball star LeBron James serving as the presenter. In her moving acceptance speech, she reminisced about being backstage in 1993 when Jim Valvano gave his infamous speech immediately after being presented the first-ever Arthur Ashe Courage Award. Robin said, “I never imagined that I’d be able to be standing here 20 years after Jimmy V’s speech and say that because of everyone who has responded to his challenge, because of all the donations, research and support, mine is one of the lives that’s been saved.” She concluded her acceptance remarks with a heartfelt message for the audience in the theater and the viewers watching at home, “I draw strength from you. You give me the courage to face down any challenge, to know when fear knocks, to let faith open the door.” (Note: see the “Robin Roberts” WINNER’s profile for more)
As for Stuart Scott, his cancer returned in 2011 and then again in 2013. After joining Robin Roberts as a co-presenter of the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance at the 2008 ESPYs, it was sadly ironic that Stuart himself was bestowed that very same honor at the 2014 ESPYs. I spoke with Stuart outside the JW Marriott at L.A. Live on the morning of the awards show, and he clearly understood that he was a man facing his own mortality. Robin later told me that ESPN had put her on “stand-by” to accept the award on Stuart’s behalf in the event his lack of strength prevented him from doing so himself. But step on stage he did, and with a message every bit as inspiring as Robin’s was the year before: “When you die, it does not mean that you lose to cancer. You beat cancer by how you live, why you live, and in the manner in which you live. So live. Live. Fight like hell and when you get too tired to fight then lay down and rest and let somebody else fight for you.” Following his brave fight involving more than 50 infusions of chemotherapy, radiation, and multiple surgeries related to his cancer treatments, Stuart passed away on January 4, 2015.
“I will continue to keep fighting — sucking the marrow out of life, as the marrow sucks the life out of me.” In what was another passionate acceptance speech, those were the words spoken by renowned “NBA on TNT” sideline reporter Craig Sager while accepting the 2016 Jimmy V Award for Perseverance. He had been diagnosed with leukemia in 2014. Despite his battle with the disease and throughout the course of his many treatments, Craig continued to work. ESPN had made the announcement of the Jimmy V Award in May 2016. In a further cross-network expression of support and admiration, Craig was invited a few weeks later to work Game 6 of the 2016 NBA Finals on ABC in which the Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Golden State Warriors, 115-101, to even up the series. It was the first time he had ever worked an NBA Finals game in his storied 44-year career. In an email to ESPN Exec VP John Wildhack just moments after the game, I wrote “Game 7! Sager’s post-game interview with LBJ was perfect. Any chance he’s healthy enough for an encore? Again, congrats to you and TNT on the classiest of moves.” In response, Wildhack told me “Ray, this was the only game he could do due to his medical schedule. Was great to have him be a big part of tonight…Hope he makes it to the ESPYs. He’s in rough shape.” It was only then that I fully grasped the seriousness of Craig’s condition. But much like Stuart Scott had done in 2014, Craig summoned the energy needed to appear on stage wearing one of his patented brightly-colored jackets following an introduction by Vice President Joe Biden. “Time is something that cannot be bought, it cannot be wagered with God, and it is not in endless supply. Time is simply how you live your life,” Craig said during his acceptance remarks. He ended his speech with inspiring words of about hope: “I see the beauty in others, and I see the hope for tomorrow. If we don’t have hope and faith, we have nothing. I will never give up, and I will never give in…I will live my life full of love and full of fun. It’s the only way I know how.” There were but a few dry eyes in the room by the time he said “Thank you and good night.” Craig passed away on December 15, 2016.
Executive produced by Maura Mandt and MaggieVision Productions, I would occasionally “lobby” my friends and colleagues at ESPN to consider scheduling the ESPYs on its sister broadcast network, ABC-TV, to widen its potential audience. In 2015, it was announced that for the first time the show would, in fact, be presented live on ABC with re-broadcasts on ESPN. “The ESPYs attracts celebrities from the movie, television, sport and music industries. This is an opportunity to celebrate the playmakers and share in the emotional connection they have with their favorite sports on the network that is their home away from home,” said Robert Mills, ABC Entertainment programming executive. “We can’t think of a better way to celebrate the show than to offer it a larger landscape for more people to participate in the celebration.” It was a relief to see that year’s show go on to deliver record ratings, and nice to see the ESPYs return to ABC again in both 2016 and 2017.
The ESPYs play a vital role in supporting ESPN’s partnership with The V Foundation that was announced by Jim Valvano at the first-ever ESPYs in 1993. The number and variety of activities held around the ESPYs continues to grow. ESPY Day – a special day-long fundraising drive across multiple ESPN platforms – raised more than $3.9 million in 2016 for cancer research, including $1.4 million that was directed to the Stuart Scott Memorial Cancer Research Fund which encourages cutting-edge research for minority populations suffering from cancer. In 2017, activities included an ESPY Day Auction in conjunction with eBay for Charity which gave shoppers the opportunity to bid on once-in-a-lifetime experiences at some of the world’s most famous sporting events, including Wimbledon and the Super Bowl. John Skipper, President of ESPN said, “Through the lasting words of Jim Valvano, Robin Roberts, Stuart Scott and so many others, the ESPY Awards have always provided a wonderfully inspirational forum. In turn, these meaningful events held during ESPY week have a lasting impact by strongly supporting The V Foundation and the critical fight against cancer.”
So while the ESPYs recognizes winners, it is itself a WINNER for the special way it celebrates the emotional connection fans have to their favorite sports, players and teams – all the while raising funds for The V Foundation and the best and brightest cancer research. Jim Valvano would no doubt be proud of how the partnership between ESPN and The V Foundation has grown since 1993, and the manner in which their efforts have led to breakthroughs and discoveries. But he would be the first to point out that the game isn’t over yet, and there’s still a lot of time remaining on the clock. A great deal of work remains to be done before a final victory over cancer can be declared.
ESPN’s iconic Sports Anchor Chris Berman talks about Jimmy V and the first ESPYs