- Scoop Jackson, ESPN.com columnist
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Now that all of the 2012 awards have (for the most part) been handed out: LeBron James got his love from SI (Sportsman of the Year), Michael Phelps and Gabby Douglas got their love from The Associated Press (Athletes of the Year), Usain Bolt backed up his 2011 World Athlete of the Year from the IAAF with another one for 2012, etc., let's begin 2013 by playing it forward.
Who's going to be the athlete/sportsperson of this year?
Picking an MVP for a particular sport or predicting which team is going to win a championship or (in an Olympic year) who is going to win the gold medal in a specific sport or who has a shot at winning a golf or tennis major or the Premier League is often as simple as narrowing down the short list of five or so names to one. Sometimes it's even easy.
But who saw Gabrielle Christina Victoria Douglas coming? Who in January 2012 said, "A 16-year-old black gymnast from West Des Moines, Iowa, via Newport News/Virginia Beach, Va., is not only going to win the individual all-around gold medal in London, but is going to be the AP's female athlete of the year?" Contrast her with LeBron, whose less-than-artistic departure from Cleveland and Finals near-misses may have been held against him by some people, but not the oddsmakers. He collected rings, trophies, medals and MVPs, got engaged and validated his "King" appellation, all in a 12-month period.
So, my question to begin 2013: "Who got next" this year? Not ESPN The Magazine "Next" (Kyrie's got that locked already), but who, 11 months from now, is going to be the athlete recognized as having the year in sports that no other could match?
See, it's easy to say that Mike Trout is going to win the AL MVP this year. Want to do the near-impossible? Predict that he'll be the Sporting News' Athlete of The Year and then end up being right about it in December. Go ahead, try it. See how easy it is not.
At this early date, we know that DeMarcus Cousins, anyone associated with the NHL, Jerry Jones and A-Rod are out. And unless there's a major reversal of both fortune and respect, Roger Goodell probably won't be getting votes for any year-end awards either.
But the rookie QB -- Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck or Russell Wilson -- who takes his team the farthest in the NFL playoffs has a leg up on everyone else in the 2013 conversation.
(All due respect to Alfred Morris, but even if he runs for 200 yards every playoff game and the Redskins win the Super Bowl in February, RG III is going to be hailed as the reason these Skins became who they became.)
Then there's Peyton Manning, who not only should be the front-runner of all front-runners with the comeback season he's had, but also is due for the AP award, seeing that he has yet to win one, and Tom Brady, Brett Favre and Drew Brees have each won in the past eight years. So if the Broncos win the Super Bowl
But wait: That other "comeback" phenom will have something to say about this. Especially if he walks away with this season's NFL MVP, as everyone is expecting. Let Adrian Peterson put that trophy on his shelf alongside a Super Bowl victory and, say, a SB XLVII MVP award, and he'll make Bobby Petrino's year look like me going up against Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker for a Pulitzer in commentary.
And these names are foremost in our minds because they're in play right now. This isn't the Academy Awards, where you benefit from having a film released around the time the nominations are being announced. The list will only grow as the different sports seasons unfold.
Rory McIlroy, Johnny Manziel, Miguel Cabrera, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly (already the winner of four national COY awards, including the Walter Camp Award for work done in 2012), Nick Saban (if his team beats Kelly's and wins Alabama's third BCS title in four years) and Lionel Messi (FIFA World Soccer Player of the Year 2009, FIFA Ballon d'Or winner in 2010 and 2011; and a finalist in 2012 -- his best year -- for the award that will be announced Jan. 7 ), all have legitimate shots at ending the year crowned if they duplicate in 2013 what they did in 2012.
Jimmie Johnson (if he comes back and wins another NASCAR Sprint Cup Series), Maria Sharapova or Caroline Wozniacki (if either wins at least two majors and Woz gets back to No.1) and Josh Hamilton (if his joining the Angels becomes baseball's "taking my talents to Orange County" and he stays clean) should not be ignored. Or Tim Tebow, if a miracle (like some team or coach allows him to play) were to happen.
Then there are the long shots: Cain Velasquez or Junior dos Santos, if they have a rematch -- or two -- in UFC155 and put the sport on the mainstream map. Or the duo of Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke if they can bring the Dodgers back to the prominence they last had in the 1980s. Or Carmelo Anthony if he can just keep doing in the second half of the NBA season what he's done thus far. Or Manti Te'o if ND wins the BCS and he is a top-three pick in the NFL draft and somehow has the same instantaneous impact on the team that selects him as those three QBs above have had on the organizations that went all-in with them.
For that matter, what about the entire state of Indiana? Think about it: From a sports perspective, name another place that has had the kind of surge, that's had a better comprehensive sports story going into this year? The Irish are back to being an elite program in football, the Hoosiers and Cody Zeller more than likely will have something to say in March and possibly early April if they go deep in the tournament, the Colts have damn near done the impossible by just making the playoffs, and Chuck Pagano is the feel-good/pull-for story so far in 2013. The Pacers are right now the best team in the NBA Central Division and one of the four best teams in the East (and that's without their best player, Danny Granger), and I'm sure there's an IUPUI story floating around that would help validate the state as a whole and uniquely qualify it as the Sportsjurisdiction of 2013.
Then again, if the 49ers win the Super Bowl and the San Francisco Giants repeat, and the Golden State Warriors keep shocking the NBA and beating teams the way they just beat the Clippers, I'm sure the Bay Area will stake a claim.
Then again, what if the USA finds a way to win the World Baseball Classic in March? Being the underdogs that they will be going into the WBC, that whole team is an Al Michaels moment away from forcing us to recognize it as the single most important sports figure/story of the year just as SI did the Red Sox in 2004 or as SI and AP did the women's soccer team in 1999. As a collective.
Then again, maybe in the end it'll all come back to LeBron.
Since there are no Olympics this year and the people who shared the awards with him were all Olympians, LeBron could just win another MVP, win another championship, get married and (finally) make the Michael Jordan comparisons justifiable.
That would make life a little easier for those of us who are about to spend 2013 excogitating about who's going to be recognized for having a greater year than the one he just had.
My pick? Whom would I put my ESPN check on to walk away with sports' overall honor of honors in 2013? I'll say this much: Don't be surprised if I'm writing a column about Serena this time next year saying I told y'all so.
In January 2012, nobody had Gabby Douglas on a list of athletes who would dominate the headlines. Who will be the top performer in sports this year?