The ESPY Awards recognize excellence in sports, but this year’s show also showcased moments of excellence in humanity.
From overcoming tremendous obstacles, to creating environments for kids to find belonging, to turning tragedy into triumph, many of the honorees at Wednesday night’s ESPY Awards brought as much heart as they did might.
Here are some of the night’s most inspirational moments.
Coach Rob Mendez
Rob Mendez said he never thought he would be sitting backstage with retired basketball superstar Dwyane Wade as he was at the award show.
The head coach for the junior varsity football team at Prospect High School in California — who was born without arms or legs and was never able to play the game himself — recently brought his team to the league championship. On Wednesday, he was honored with the Jimmy V Perseverance Award.
Mendez said onstage that he hopes his accomplishments serve to show others what is possible, even when presented with an obstacle that might seem insurmountable.
“When you dedicate yourself to something and open your mind to different possibilities and focus on what you can do instead of what you can’t do, you really can go places in this world,” he said.
He said the game has given him so much, and the most rewarding part is seeing someone else’s potential even before they do.
“You’ve got to be passionate, you’ve got to work at it, but it can happen,” Mendez said. “And I’m not done yet. I’ve made it this far, and who says I can’t go further?”
Coach Jim Calhoun
Jim Calhoun was once the head coach of a Division I college basketball program at the University of Connecticut.
But after retirement and a battle with cancer, he got back into coaching with a brand new Division III program at the University of St. Joseph staffed with only 11 freshmen, according to ESPN.
The coach of more than 50 years received the Best Coach award on Wednesday.
Assistant Head Coach Glen Miller said Calhoun treats his Division III players with the same drive and competitiveness as his Division I players.
Calhoun says it is all about making a difference and working with the young adults.
“Those guys give me the ultimate feeling of being a part of their lives. Being a part of their lives. How incredible is that?”
Kirstie Ennis, recipient of the Pat Tillman Award for Service, said she wanted to be a Marine to fight for those who couldn’t fight for themselves. And at the ESPYs she showed that even though a 2012 injury ended her military service, she hasn’t stopped fighting for others.
Ennis was injured in a helicopter crash while deployed to Afghanistan. She lost her leg and suffered emotional turmoil from the incident.
But with a prosthetic leg, Ennis learned to climb. And now instead of serving in the Marines, she serves her country and communities by raising money through climbs of the tallest peaks on every continent.
So far she has climbed four of the seven.
“Now when I don’t have the fight within to continue putting one foot in front of the other, I remind myself of the people who may be watching. The young ones who need someone to be a pillar of hope, the men and women looking for some inspiration to keep going, and the nonbelievers waiting for me to prove them wrong,” she said on Wednesday as she accepted her award.
“I am one of the lucky ones who came home. Broken, but I’m still here and I still can. So I will continue every day for those who can’t.”
Among the other ESPY winners were Milwaukee Bucks player Giannis Antetokounmpo, who took home the award for best male athlete, and US Women’s National Team co-captain Alex Morgan, who won best female athlete.
The soccer team also took home the award for best team after winning its fourth World Cup title on Sunday.