Being a legend is different from person to person and sport to sport. Jackie Robinson, Pelé, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wayne Gretzky and Brett Farve are all athletes of different sports with one unique feature in common: they are all legends. Some people may argue that one of the five players that were named above is not a legend. The term “legend” is not subjective to one sport; rather, it is universally used among every sport with a unique meaning. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a legend is “a person or thing that inspires.” This is a very broad definition, but what truly defines a legend in sports? To me, three factors come to play when discovering a legend: a play, an era and a character.
Every athlete has at least one “moment” in their career — the play that flips the momentum of a game in their favor or the sheer mastery of a technique that leaves the fans in awe. Take a perfect game in baseball where one team doesn’t have any batters reach the base. There have been 23 perfect games in the history of baseball, and only one of them has been in the postseason. Since baseball has been around for over 150 years and has 162 games in a season, the existence of a perfect game is a legendary moment. The most recent was in 2012, when Félix Hernández pitched a perfect game for the Seattle Mariners.
A legend leaves its mark on a team by helping it dominate the league for multiple years. In hockey, Ted Kennedy was a player who left Toronto as a legend. From 1945-51, Toronto won five out of seven Stanley Cups. Kennedy’s career started in 1942, and in his third season he brought home the trophy. Not making it to the finals in ‘46, Toronto then won three years in a row from ‘47-’49 and their fifth trophy in ‘51. These titles are not solely attributed to Kennedy, but he was there to help the magic happen and became the first player to win five NHL Stanley Cups.
Athletes form a character: some embrace the fame and use the popularity, developing an unappealing character to the public. Others, however, choose to stay humble and keep their lives “normal,” despite everyone being able to recognize them. Russell Wilson is an athlete with one of the most recent positive communal effects, founding the Why Not You Foundation in 2014 and even recently donating 1 million meals to Feeding America in Seattle. Wilson may be the star quarterback for the Seahawks, but he is also one who cares about the community more than the fame he gets.
Zlatan Ibrahimović is a soccer legend that has embraced all three characteristics. He scored a goal against England in 2012 and shook the world. He had a great era at Paris Saint-Germain. He had an inspiring personality and upbeat character that attracted many of his fellow athletes as they worked with him. He earned his title as legend over many years of hard work and dedication.
To some people, a legend is from a player’s performance or a stellar career, but there is much more to an athlete than their performance, and that is what separates the legends from the players. A moment. An era. A character. These are the things that make an athlete into a legend.