National Columnist

Athletes aiding Sandy victims is a reminder of the power of sports at its best

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Something like Sandy happens, and it puts things into perspective. Sports? Into perspective. But bear with me, because this isn't one of those hand-wringing stories about sports just not mattering, not in the grand scheme of things, not when something like Sandy happens.

Sports, not mattering?

Try telling that to Eileen Levis, who lives in Point Pleasant, N.J. Her community was hammered by the superstorm Sandy. Her home was destroyed. Nearly a week later she was still trying to dig out of the rubble when the local football team showed up Saturday morning. Offering to help. The Point Pleasant Beach team went from house to house, literally walking through town (cool picture here), asking residents what they could do to help. Some of the residents did what Eileen Levis did.

They dissolved into tears.

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Sports don't matter? Maybe the sporting event itself. I'll grant you that. The idea of running the New York City Marathon on Sunday, diverting all the resources required of such a massive undertaking when the city itself remained in shock from Sandy, was inappropriate. The race itself, as great an annual event as the New York City Marathon is, didn't matter. Not this year. Not this weekend. So the mayor finally called it off -- and then we learned just how cool sports can be.

When more than 1,000 marathon runners showed up anyway.

The race starts on Staten Island, so that's where the runners went Sunday morning. They dressed in orange and they jogged through Staten Island -- not for themselves but for the people of a borough where 19 people had been killed by the storm. Sandy was ruthless up and down the Eastern seaboard, but what happened to Staten Island was unspeakable, symbolized by the rising waters that ripped two young boys from their mother's arms, killing the children.

Start a race here? On Staten Island? Unthinkable. But runners had come to New York anyway -- after Mayor Michael Bloomberg initially announced that the race would go on as planned -- so they stuffed backpacks with essentials like food, water, batteries and prepaid mobile phones and they trotted through town, handing those items out.

How does a movement like that start? It starts with one person, in this case a sports medicine doctor named Jordan Metzl who created a page on Facebook called New York Runners in Support of Staten Island. That happened Saturday night. By Sunday morning, more than 4,000 people had "liked" it. Go read that page. Check its status updates through the day. Unbelievably moving, what sports was doing Sunday on Staten Island.

Sports matter, you know? It can be us at our worst, beating into a coma a stranger wearing the wrong baseball hat or killing century-old trees because they're on the wrong campus, but sports can be us at our best. Sandy showed us, though we've seen this before.

After tornadoes last May killed at least 158 and did more than $2 billion in damages to Joplin, Mo., sports teams came to Joplin's aid. The Francis Howell Central football team in St. Charles, Mo., drove 300 miles to spend a few days helping out -- and then came back a year later, this past July, to spend two more days in a city still is in need. The St. Louis Rams completely filled a bus last spring with employees headed for Joplin, so the Rams got another bus and filled that one, too. The Arkansas women's basketball team spent a day gathering donations and loading a truck for Joplin.

And the runners? They helped Joplin, too. The city's annual Boomtown Run Half-Marathon was set for June 11, 2011, three weeks after the tornado, and the race happened that day much like the New York City Marathon happened Sunday: with more than 300 runners gathering at the starting line before heading all over town to give whatever help they could. That idea came from the runners themselves, scores of them, who emailed race organizers shortly after the tornado saying they were coming to town, race or not, so please find them something to do -- some way to help.

Races were organized all over the country -- I found events in Grand Rapids, Mich.; Lakeland, Fla.; and Laconia, N.H. -- to raise funds for Joplin.

Because sports are the best. This is us, at our best. After nature at its worst hit the Southeast in April 2011 with tornadoes that killed hundreds -- including more than 200 in Alabama -- Crimson Tide football coach Nick Saban urged his players to get out into town and do something. Saban himself showed up at a community center in Tuscaloosa, volunteering like everyone else. At Auburn, coach Gene Chizik was joined by more than a dozen football players at a shelter in Pleasant Grove.

That was April 2011 in Pleasant Grove, Ala. And this was Saturday in Point Pleasant Beach, N.J.: a high school football team, having one of the best seasons in school history at 8-0, experiencing one of the worst things in town memory and rising up to meet the demand. As Steve Politi reported in the Star-Ledger, the players are like so many others in town -- some suddenly homeless, living in shelters or with friends. Linebacker Quinn Kusma might go a year before being able to return home.

These are people -- victims -- with their own problems, but at the suggestion of coach John Wagner they met on Saturday morning to help others. When the school's cheerleaders heard what was happening, they joined the effort too.

Hundreds of miles away, outside of Boston -- New York's "hated" sports rival, you know -- marathoner Greg Soutiea returned from NYC after the marathon was canceled and started taking donations for Sandy's victims. He pledged to run one mile for every $10 raised toward the Red Cross.

Within hours, Soutiea was looking at almost 150 miles. He started running Sunday.

This is how sports can be nothing -- and everything.


Gregg Doyel is a columnist for CBSSports.com. He covered the ACC for the Charlotte Observer, the Marlins for the Miami Herald, and Brooksville (Fla.) Hernando for the Tampa Tribune. He was 4-0 (3 KO's!) as an amateur boxer, and volunteers for the ALS Association. Follow Gregg Doyel on Twitter.
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