Mark Story

Bender best of bountiful year

This is the 19th year in which I've cast a ballot for the Herald-Leader's Kentucky Sportsman of the Year.

In all that time, I don't ever remember a year in which Kentucky sports figures achieved at such a high level as 2008.

Yet I found myself looking for more than athletic success.

Be it the moment(s) that brought chills to my skin or the stories that moved my emotions, inspiration is the theme of my 2008 Kentucky Sportsman of the Year ballot.

10. Bill Keightley. This was a lifetime achievement nod to the venerable Mr. Wildcat in the year he died.

I thought the immense popularity of the longtime Kentucky men's basketball equipment manager owed to more than his association with the Wildcats.

Whether you were the president of the University of Kentucky or Joe UK Fan from Pine Knot, Keightley treated you exactly the same way: Well.

9. Ty Rogers. The 26-foot bomb that Rogers hit at the buzzer in overtime to lift Western Kentucky past Drake in the first round of the NCAA tourney was one of the most electrifying moments in our state's basketball history.

That it was supplied by a small-town Kentucky product (Eddyville) who is a former Lyon County High School valedictorian only made it better.

8. Angel McCoughtry. The Louisville basketball star has almost single-handedly made women's hoops matter at U of L. Last year, McCoughtry (23.8 points, 8.9 rebounds and 4.1 steals) took the Lady Cards to the finals of the Big East tournament and the round of 16 of the NCAAs for the first time ever.

7. Brandon Webb. After winning a career-high 22 games for the Arizona Diamondbacks, I thought the Ashland product should have won the National League Cy Young Award.

6. Tayshaun Prince. The classy former UK basketball standout was a contributing member of the Redeem Team that brought dignity and the gold medal back to USA Basketball at the Beijing Olympics.

5. J.B. Holmes. Speaking of chill bumps, I had them when the ex-UK golfer hit that putt on the 17th hole to win his singles match (against Europe's Soren Hansen) on the final day of the Ryder Cup.

4. Rajon Rondo. Many mocked Rondo's decision to turn pro after a disappointing sophomore year at UK in 2006. But the Louisville product laughed last, becoming a solid point guard as the Boston Celtics marched to the NBA title.

3. Chris Lofton. In my lifetime, I don't remember a Kentucky high school product, who left the commonwealth to play in college, looming over basketball in our state like Lofton did in his four years at Tennessee.

Speaking of inspiration, we found out after the ex-Mason County star's senior year that he had played his final season at UT after having been treated the summer before for testicular cancer.

2. Kenny Perry. At the advanced age (for an athlete) of 48, the Franklin native wrote a movie script to cap his career.

With the Ryder Cup scheduled to be played in Kentucky, the former WKU golfer rededicated himself to his sport, won three PGA tournaments and played his way onto the team at Valhalla.

At the site where Perry lost the 1996 PGA championship in an agonizing playoff, he was a stalwart, going 2-1-1, to help the U.S. regain the Cup.

1. Adam Bender. Last summer, a story by my colleague Mike Fields with video by Herald-Leader photographer Charles Bertram of the Lexington 8-year-old — who lost a leg to cancer — playing youth baseball as a catcher on his remaining leg became an Internet sensation.

Bender got to throw out the first pitch at a Cincinnati Reds game and catch the first pitch at Chicago White Sox and Houston Astros games.

His story wound up on ESPN and in People magazine.

Thrust into an extraordinary circumstance through no doing of his own, a little boy's drive to be ordinary touched the nation.

That's why Adam Bender got my vote as Kentucky's 2008 Sportsman of the Year.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader