Everybody – well, just about everybody – loves a redemption story.
For whatever reason, some take true enjoyment in watching famous athletes fail in their professional and/or personal lives. Perhaps it’s because so many of us can relate to an underdog. Maybe, as Cristiano Ronaldo once so famously put it, fans are simply jealous of the fame, fortune, talent and looks possessed by so many sports superstars.
In that same light, an athlete redeeming himself warms the hearts of even the most cynical of fans. That has been the case during the summer of 2014, as a man once jeered in arenas located throughout the country is now, according to at least one source, America’s most beloved athlete.
Here are the 10 most popular American male athletes of 2014 according to a Harris Poll via espn.com.
10. Aaron Rodgers
Quarterbacks are the big superstars of the NFL. They are front and center during televised games, and QBs are the CEOs of offenses. It’s for that reason that so many quarterbacks are used in advertisements, featured on the covers of magazines, and loved by the general public.
Rodgers is just the first of several quarterbacks to make this year’s list. It’s understandable. He is, in the eyes of many NFL analysts, the best QB in the game today. At just 30 years old, the Green Bay signal-caller could raise the Vince Lombardi Trophy a few more times before he retires.
Rodgers may not be a cover model a la Tom Brady, but he is certainly an advertising gem. Don’t believe me?
You should take a “Discount Double-Check” on that take.
9. Drew Brees
It’s somewhat funny, so many years down the road, to examine Brees‘ scouting report coming out of college. Brees was undersized. His decision-making was questionable. He didn’t do enough to avoid would-be tacklers.
Seems like Brees has done well to overcome such hurdles.
A first-ballot Hall-of-Famer for the future, Brees has thrown for over 50,000 yards during his career. He is a Super Bowl champion, and Brees also has a reputation for being one of the good guys in professional sports.
8. Tiger Woods
Both Woods‘ reputation and the man himself are not what they were years ago. People forgive and people forget, and the fact of the matter is that Woods being in contention on Sundays is what is best for golf. Just ask television stations and advertisers if you need to be sold on the matter.
Woods is the type of athlete that fans take for granted until he is no longer in the public eye. Whether tuning in to watch him potentially succeed or fail, casual fans who more often than not ignore the sport tune in when Woods is in the final group of a tournament.
We’ve missed you, Tiger. Hope you’re back at 100 percent sooner than later.
7. Tom Brady
All jokes and cynicism aside, Brady continues to overcome obstacles. Not picked until the sixth round of the NFL Draft? No worries. Losing Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, the latter gone forever, in the same season? Brady still leads the Patriots to twelve wins and a division title.
Brady is an advertiser’s dream. He is a professional on and off the field. He has model good looks. Just as important, Brady wins and he wins every single year. Fans love a winner, and Brady fails to disappoint.
5. (tie). Dale Earnhardt Jr.
It’s often difficult to replace a man who was a living legend. That task becomes just about impossible when that legend is your father.
Dale Jr. will never come close to flirting with matching the feats accomplished by his father. The Senior Dale wasn’t just a great driver who won seven championships. He was far and away the most beloved figure in all of American racing.
Junior will be NASCAR’s beloved son even if he never wins another race. The Earnhardt name is synonymous with racing, and it is at least as big as NASCAR itself.
5. (tie). Kobe Bryant
Time is cruel.
Having had the pleasure to watch Bryant since his high school days, I am confident in saying that the LA Lakers all-time great is one of the best overall athletes of his generation. Bryant could, when in his prime, do it all on the court, and he sacrificed his body time and time again in regular season and playoff contests.
Bryant has, over the years, become under-appreciated because of all that LeBron James has accomplished. It’s pro basketball’s loss that Kobe is in the twilight of his career. He has been an absolute joy to watch.
4. Peyton Manning
Manning was the best quarterback in the NFL in 2013. He and the offense of the Broncos put up historic statistics. While Denver was blown out by the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl, there are 15 other teams in the AFC that would have loved to have had the honor.
Oh yeah. Manning achieved all of that when he was 37 years old.
“The Sheriff” will, when he does retire, go down as the greatest regular season quarterback in NFL history. Manning’s fame has a grown even further due to his being the star of some hilarious television ads.
“Cut that meat! Cut that meat!”
3. Derek Jeter
The Captain is walking off into the sunset.
Fan or not a fan, Jeter unquestionably deserves all of the respect being given to him by opposing teams and fans during what is his farewell Major League Baseball season. Whether it involved diving into the stands to catch a foul play, making a flip-throw toward home in a playoff game, or hitting a “Mr. November” home run, Jeter has, throughout the years, left us with memories that will live on long after he retires.
Just as important is that Jeter (seemingly) did it all the right way. He never failed any drug tests. His reputation around the league is unblemished. He was the Mr. Yankee of his day, and baseball will be worse off without him.
2. Michael Jordan
MJ is truly the Muhammad Ali of his generation. Jordan, like Ali, remains adored even as a retired pro athlete, and both are still two of the most recognized faces on the planet.
Youngsters born after Jordan last wore a Chicago Bulls uniform know the retired legend more as a figure of the past, an unlockable video game character, and as a silhouette featured on basketball shoes.
That Jordan remains so high on this list tells you just how special of a player he was.
There can only ever be one “Greatest of all time.” For those of us who grew up in the 80s and 90s, the GOAT will always be Jordan, regardless of what superstars take the court in the future.
1. LeBron James
Think back to the year following “The Decision,” the ESPN special James used to announce to the world that he was leaving Cleveland and the Cavs for the Miami Heat. James became a reviled character, and not just when he played at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland.
He was booed in Portland. Jeered in New York. Fans in Los Angeles and Indiana and Chicago hurled insults toward LBJ whenever he took possession of the ball. James couldn’t even be found on the 2011 version of this list.
The king is now America’s favorite athlete.
James, through an emotional and classy letter posted on SI.com, announced on July 11 that he was returning home to northeast Ohio. His popularity has since soared, seeing heights that it has never before experienced.