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Youth Sports Heroes of the Month

Darius McNeal and Dave Rohlman (DeKalb, Ill.); Manuel Madrid and Randall Bispo (Carmel, Calif.); Thamail Morgan and Jon Bradley (Cave City, Ark.)

Doug AbramsIn 1989, Spike Lee earned an Academy Award nomination for his drama, "Do the Right Thing."  More than 20 years later, the command perfectly describes the noble split-second decisions made by this month's heroes, who set a standard for athletes and coaches by following their best instincts by doing what was right.

"For the guy who lost his mom"

In early February of 2009, Milwaukee Madison (Wis.) High School senior forward Johntell Franklin was taking his ACT college entrance exam when his mother died of cervical cancer at the age of 39. Franklin decided not to play in that night's basketball game against DeKalb (Ill.) High School, but changed his mind near game time because he concluded that his mother would have wanted him to suit up. "I'm a captain," he explained, "I set an example."

Franklin's name was not listed when he left the hospital so, when he arrived at the gymnasium during the second quarter,  the referees assessed a two-shot technical foul against his team. The score was close, but DeKalb coach Dave Rohlman immediately told the referees that he and his players did not want the free throws because they arose from a family tragedy. When the refs said that they had no choice, DeKalb's Darius McNeal volunteered to take the shots.

"You realize you're going to miss, right?," Rohlman asked his player, who readily agreed. When the ref tossed him the ball at the foul line, McNeal shot it only two or three feet ahead and watched it bounce a few times and then roll on the floor under the basket. He did the same thing on the second shot.

McNeal later told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he intentionally missed both free throws "for the guy who lost his mom. It was the right thing to do."

Providing a "special moment"

In the sixth inning of baseball game against Carmel (Calif.) High School in early May 2009, Gonzales High School third baseman Manuel Madrid fielded a grounder and saw the pinch runner on third base bolt for home. The runner would have been an easy out, but Madrid turned instead and threw to first as the run scored.

The grounder was hit to the right player. "During a basketball game last fall," the San Jose Mercury News reported, "a special-needs player came off the bench from the opposing team. Madrid was supposed to guard him. He backed off just a tad and the kid nailed a three-pointer."

This time the special-needs player who came off the bench was pinch runner Will Rudolph, a senior whose mild cerebral palsy affects his motor skills, balance and speech. With the Rudolphs' approval, Carmel High coach Randall Bispo showed an educator's empathy by putting Will, the team manager, into the game.

"I was going to throw home, but then I realized who it was," said Madrid, who explained to the Mercury News that providing Will a "special moment" in his first game was "the right thing to do."

"Scoring was not the right thing to do"

In September 2010, two-time all-state running back Thamail Morgan raced toward the end zone for what appeared to be an easy  touchdown. His Cave City (Ark.) High School team led 34-16, with seconds left on the clock against Yellville-Summit, a weaker team formed from two small rural schools without enough players for separate squads. Even with the combination, Yellville-Summit's roster was barely deep enough to field a team.

Not only that, but the underdogs were also grieving for a teammate killed in a truck accident just two weeks earlier. When death at a young age intervenes so suddenly, said Cave City coach Jon Bradley, "you go into the game wanting to win, but then, you feel bad doing it." To keep the score down once his team took an early commanding lead, Bradley began substituting for his first-stringers.

With an unimpeded opportunity to run up the score and pad his personal statistics still further, Morgan heard his coach and teammates yelling at him from the sidelines not to score. As he sped downfield, Morgan had an idea - he chose to stop on the two-yard line, step back, and take a knee on the five. Echoing Darius McNeal and Manuel Madrid, Morgan later told ArkansasVarsity.com that "scoring was not the right thing to do."

The lesson of these stories: Do the right thing

DeKalb coach Dave Rohlman got it right. "They may not remember our record 20 years from now," he said after the basketball game, "but they'll remember what happened in that gym that night."

The memories will endure because, by instinctively deciding "the right thing to do," these three athletes and their coaches showed respect for teammates and opponents, and indeed for the game itself. Their sportsmanlike decisions did not diminish their desire to win and, if anything, enhanced it. Gonzales High and Cave City High won the games without letting up, and DeKalb High fought to the end before losing.

To overcome many of the troubles that plague youth sports these days, we must first recognize that fidelity to sportsmanship and respect does not indicate softness toward opponents, or a lack of passion to win. Without lowering their guard or ignoring the scoreboard, this month's heroic sextet showed how sportsmanship and respect can make athletic competition more stimulating, victory more fulfilling, and defeat more acceptable.

[Sources: Darius McNeal's story is told in Art Kabelowsky, Out of Tragedy, Shining Case of Sportsmanship, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Feb. 17, 2009, p. 1, and Yahoo Sports, Amid the Grieving, A Rare Act of Sportsmanship, http://highschool.rivals.com/content.asp?CID=914609 (Feb. 18, 2009); Manuel Madrid's story is told in Daniel Brown, A Great Day For Baseball, San Jose Mercury News, May 9, 2009; Thamail Morgan's story is told in Luke Matheson, ArkansasVarsity.com, Ark. Player Ends Game With Noble Gesture, http://arkansasvarsity.rivals.com/content.asp?CID=992976 (Sept. 24, 2009).]

Posted February 1, 2011