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January 24, 2013

Sportsman of the Month: 2012 in review

AUBURN, Ala. – Once again, my favorite magazine in the world got it all wrong.

I’ve been setting Sports Illustrated straight since my college days, taking names and kicking … off the new year by breaking down exactly who should have been named Sportsman of the Year.

But it’s no fun without some kind of build-up. Let’s go month by calendar month, revisiting some of the top performances throughout the year before revealing who should have been the top honoree of 2012. And no, it’s not LeBron James. Not in my mind.

January: Kyle Williams, WR, San Francisco 49ers

Everybody makes mistakes. The ones that are physical, accidental, are even more inevitable than mental or personal screw-ups. Sure, Williams’ punt return fumbles probably cost the 49ers a shot at the Super Bowl a year ago. But in the wake of receiving hate tweets and, even worse, death threats, Williams proved himself a champion by owning up to his actions and swearing to make himself better, leaning on his teammates to get through the tough times. That’s what it’s all about, in life and in sports. 

Hats off to: Blake Griffin | Novak Djokovic

February: Eli Manning, QB, New York Giants 

Do you realize that Eli Manning’s career passer rating (82.7) is tied with Brian Griese? Do you realize that 16 active quarterbacks have a better mark – including Matt Schaub, Andy Dalton and the immortal Shaun Hill? Do you realize the list of NFL QBs with a top-40 all-time passer rating and multiple Super Bowl rings without a championship game loss starts with Joe Montana … and ends with Eli Manning? Do you realize that the 49ers were a favorite in all four of Montana’s Super Bowl wins … and Manning was an underdog in both of his, only because he was going against Tom Freaking Brady? Eli’s hardly a Hall of Famer for his lack of stats or consistency, but his career’s fascinating factor is a top-five all-timer.

Hats off to: Jeremy Lin 

NorfolkState

March: Lehigh & Norfolk State men’s basketball teams

Sorry, Duke and Mizzou. That’s what March is all about. Even though we should have come to expect this in a land of Gonzaga and Butler and VCU, oh my.

Hats off to: Peyton Manning 

April: Stephen Strasburg, P, Washington Nationals

In September 2010, Stephen Strasburg had Tommy John surgery, an injury which takes 12 to 18 month to rehabilitate.

In September 2011, Stephen Strasburg started five games, pitching 24 innings. 1.50 ERA. 2 walks. 24 strikeouts.

In April 2012, Stephen Strasburg started five games, pitching 32 innings. 1.13 ERA. 6 walks. 34 strikeouts. The Nationals finished with the majors’ best record, before falling in the first round of the playoffs … in part since Strasburg was shelved in September. Imagine when they take the kid gloves off this guy.

Hats off to: Brittney Griner | Anthony Davis 

Kevin DurantMay: Kevin Durant, SF, Oklahoma City Thunder

It’s almost enough that Durant currently holds the “Cute and Cuddly Superstar Impossible Not To Root For” belt. (Sorry, Russell Wilson, Gabby Douglas and Alex Morgan.) He averaged 28.5 points on 51.7 percent FGs, 7.4 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.2 blocks and 1.5 steals in lifting the Thunder to the NBA Finals. And he does all this without sounding a peep despite playing in OKLAHOMA CITY with a ballhog for a point guard. You think Kobe would put up with Westbrook for more than 24 seconds? Chances are Durant would’ve been SI’s pick if OKC beat the Heat. Maybe next year.

Hats off to: Josh Hamilton | Clayton Kershaw | Bryce Harper

June: LeBron James, SF, Miami Heat 

OK, fine. You get one month, King James. Even your biggest Decision detractor has to give props for shaking that eight-ton gorilla off your back and winning the big one.

Hats off to: R.A. Dickey | Tiger Woods | Jonathan Quick 

July: Andy Murray, British tennis player

Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have already been spoiling tennis fans with the greatest era of elite athletes playing one sport at one time … maybe, ever. Then Andy Murray has to enter the frame. And he’s honored this month not for winning, but for losing. Just watch the first minute http://youtu.be/XL5Ls4GDm2M, after coming so close to giving England its first Wimbledon winner in 76 years. It helps that Murray finished off his first Grand Slam victory in New York City a couple months later.

Hats off to: Pat Summitt | Roger Federer | Serena Williams | Mike Trout

August: Missy Franklin, Team USA swimmer

Let’s see: five medals, four gold, three Swimmer of the Year awards, two world records and one iconic ‘Call Me Maybe’ parody. Yeah, somebody had herself a month in London. Throw in her resistance to accepting a dime in endorsements so she can keep her commitment to swim for Cal, and shoot, she’s got to be a top contender for the SI award.

Hats off to: U.S. Gymnastics squad | Usain Bolt | Michael Phelps | Kayla Harrison | The Blade Runner | Alex Morgan

September: Robert Griffin III, QB, Washington Redskins 

You may have heard of him. In his first four professional games, RGIII scored eight touchdowns – four passing, four rushing – while completing nearly 70 percent of his passes and winning at New Orleans and Tampa Bay. Football Gods, please grant this man a decade of mostly good health.

Hats off to: Geno Smith | Brandon McCarthy | Andy Roddick | Rory McIlroy

October: Chuck Pagano/Bruce Arians, coaches, Indianapolis Colts

Arians, for suddenly and unexpectedly taking the reins of a team that went 2-14 last year and leading it to an 11-5 record. Pagano, for vowing to dance with his daughters at their weddings. http://www.nfl.com/videos/nfl-game-highlights/0ap2000000090160/Chuck-Pagano-s-emotional-message. 

Hats off to: Pablo Sandoval | Miguel Cabrera

Johnny ManzielNovember: Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M Aggies

Four games in November. Four wins in November. 12 TDs in November. 76.3 percent completions in November. Beat Alabama, the eventual national champ, in November. We had a chance to catch Manziel before our eyes on Halloween weekend at Jordan-Hare Stadium, and honestly, we saw this coming. Alert the hyperbole police: he’s got a chance to become the greatest player in college football history.

Hats off to: Sam Gordon | Calvin Johnson

December: Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks & Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota Vikings

Too close to call. Wilson went 5-0 in December – you know, when it counts and such – including crucial wins over the Bears and 49ers, and became the most likely figure to someday supplant Durant as Captain Uni-Liked. (Seriously: his Google search image is of him and his wife dancing at their wedding. Cute. And. Cuddly.) Meanwhile, Adrian Peterson was mildly impressive as well. He only rushed for 861 carries in five games – which all alone would have trailed just 17 other backs, plus beating out LeSean McCoy and Michael Turner’s regular season production. He garnered 6.4 yards per rush, even though everybody in the building knew he was getting the rock. It wasn’t just stat-padding, either: the Vikings went 4-1 and snagged a playoff spot. Call it a draw.

Hats off to: Manti Te’o | Victor Cruz 

The Whole Year: My Sportsman of the Year could have bolted school early, but stuck around for another year – bucking all conventional wisdom that states if you could be a top pick in the draft, you leave, no questions asked.

My Sportsman of the Year not only was asked to turn around a 2-14 team. He was asked to replace a living legend in his new city.

My Sportsman of the Year’s head coach battled cancer this entire season.

My Sportsman of the Year’s teammates were, like him, largely rookies.

My Sportsman of the Year has a 10-5 record and playoff-bound team despite the odds.

My Sportsman of the Year would be a horrible garbageman. Because he’s incapable of talking trash for any of these accomplishments.

Sorry, SI. LeBron’s great and all. But can the 2012 Sportsman of the Year really be anybody but Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis Colts?

Andrew Luck

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