These days I don’t really have favorite athletes as much as favorite people, some of whom happen to be athletes. And usually it’s because I’m impressed more by what they do on their days off than by how they perform on the field or court.
That brings us to Brandon Phillips of the Cincinnati Reds and J.T. Thomas of the Chicago Bears.
Phillips is the fiesty second baseman who sparked a brawl with the St. Louis Cardinals last year. That might have been inspirational to his teammates, but not necessarily what you’d call role-model behavior.
No, it’s what Phillips chose to do on a rare in-season day off recently that made me a fan. He asked his followers on Twitter for ideas on what to do with his free time. When 14-year-old Connor Echols suggested he come watch him play baseball in West Chester, Ohio, Phillips thought about it, and decided why not.
He showed up and saw Connor go 3-for-5 at the plate. Of course, everyone at the park that day was thrilled.
Phillips might have gotten the most out of it of all.
"I think it was the best thing that could have happened to me, going to that game," he said in an article on MLB.com. "The look on his face just showed me how important we are to the young community."
We’ve seen a lot of athletes and other celebrities say some things they later regretted on Twitter. Here’s a shining example of a big-time athlete getting it right.
Some people use social media to replace real life. Phillips uses the technology to enhance it, building and maintaining a bridge to his fans.
"To tell you the truth, I don’t really see myself as a Major League Baseball player," Phillips said. "I’m just me. When I’m in uniform, then I feel like I’m a Major League player. But when I’m on Twitter, I’m just a normal dude."
Thomas’ good deed didn’t have anything to do with social media, but rather, having a social conscience. And the former West Virginia linebacker proved that chivalry isn’t dead; it’s alive and well in Morgantown, West Virginia.
Thomas has a little brother with autism. He rides to school on the same bus with Joslyn Levell, an eighth-grader who spends much of her time in a wheelchair because of Spina bifida.
Thomas befriended Joslyn, who also happens to be a Bears fan. In chatting, he learned that several boys turned down invitations from Joslyn to the end-of-the-year school dance.
After gaining approval from her school and family, Thomas asked Levell if he could escort her to the event. Joslyn accepted, and became the star of the prom.
Those who know Thomas say he didn’t do it to get positive publicity. It’s just the kind of guy he is.
"This was Joslyn’s night," Thomas said on NFL.com. "It wasn’t about me."
Perhaps the best thing about stories like those of Phillips and Thomas is their power to inspire others. And you don’t have to be a wealthy pro athlete to bring some happiness to young people and those with special challenges.
Most of us in Hawaii already know and live this. It’s a real part of our culture.
Lloyd Harano and Roy Mizushima are two of my softball friends from when I used to play a lot back in the 1990s. Every year they organize a team to scrimmage against a squad of athletes as part of its preparation for the Special Olympics tournament (which is later this week). I learned about this only recently because they don’t go around talking about the good they do in the community. They just do it because, like Brandon Phillips and J.T. Thomas, that’s the kind of people they are.
"It’s just good to give them the opportunity to play," Harano said. "Teamwork, competition. They’re very competitive.
"Our series is about even."
Actually, everyone comes out ahead.