At a time when much of the United States was still racially segregated, Jackie Robinson smashed the color barrier to become the first African-American player in Major League Baseball. Born in 1919 to a family of sharecroppers, Robinson excelled in sports throughout his school years. After serving briefly in the army during WWII, he briefly played ball in the Negro Leagues. At about the same time, a handful of all-white Major League teams paid lip service to trying out black players. But it was when Robinson played his first game for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 that he became a part of what would be called "The Noble Experiment." Outspoken in the past when it came to racial injustice, Robinson endured racist jeers from fans and players, and even death threats, with dignity and composure. His historic feat of crossing baseball's "color line" became a symbol in the American civil rights movement in the decades that followed.
Throughout his life, basketball superstar Earvin “Magic” Johnson has met both challenges and opportunities with perseverance and leadership. Dubbed "Magic," Johnson blazed a spectacular career in basketball. His play with the Los Angeles Lakers as point guard alongside center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, as well as his epic rivalry with the Boston Celtics’ forward Larry Bird, marked a legendary era in the NBA. In 1991, Magic announced he had tested positive for HIV, a virus that can lead to the life-threatening disease AIDS, and was retiring from basketball. Little was known then about HIV/AIDS and its prevention. His declaration shocked the public but succeeded in putting a familiar and much-admired face on a disease that was shrouded in fear and prejudice. Magic Johnson's legacy includes his inspirational work as an advocate for the prevention of HIV and the still-incurable disease AIDS through his own foundation, which provides programs for HIV/AIDS education and prevention, including testing and safe sex practices.
Muhammad Ali was born as Cassius Clay in Louisville, Kentucky. Early in his life, his skills developed from those he needed to stand up to a playground bully into the championship form that earned him a gold medal in the 1960 Olympics. As a professional fighter, Ali became known not just for the speed and agility with which he won three world heavyweight championships, but also for his charm, wit, and showmanship. Outside the ring, the courage of his stand against the military draft made him both a revered cultural hero and a lightning rod for the issues that divided Americans during the Vietnam War. In the decades following his boxing career, Ali has become regarded as one of the most recognized people on the planet. He has lent his name, influence, and generosity to a host of humanitarian causes. Today, having earned the affection of billions of people worldwide, the peoples champ is, as ever, The Greatest.
In the days before performance-enhancing substances, the great Hank Aaron hit a career-record 755 home runs, a mark he held for 33 years. Hammerin' Hank began his baseball career in the Negro Leagues when black players were still banned from Major League Baseball. Hank played for 23 years in Milwaukee and Atlanta and made the All-Star team in both the National and American Leagues for 20 straight years.
Wayne Gretzky, known to millions of hockey fans as "The Great One," wasn't the biggest, fastest, or strongest hockey player ever, but he was without a doubt the best so far. When he retired from play in 1999, the National Hockey League retired his jersey number as well and inducted him into the NHL Hall of Fame immediately, without the customary waiting period. Wayne's great talent was his ability to read the game and consistently make the right moves, earning him records for scoring year after year. The Great One started playing hockey on an ice rink in his backyard as a little boy in Canada, practicing before and after school and even after eating dinner with his skates on! His life tells the story of how far hard work and smart thinking can take a kid from Brantford, Ontario.
Born in Romania in 1928, Eliezer (Elie) Wiesel had a childhood steeped in the traditions of his Orthodox Jewish family. From the moment of his familys deportation to the death camp at Auschwitz and the horrors that awaited there, the teenaged Elie focused all his energies on staying alive. Elie has dedicated his life to the pursuit of peaceful, humanitarian goals as a writer and activist. He is a Holocaust survivor, Nobel Laureate and the author of 57 books, including the Night trilogy, based on his experiences as a prisoner. In 1986 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and called, a messenger to mankind.
Imprisoned for 27 years, Nelson Mandela became a symbol in the fight against the oppression of the black majority by South Africa's apartheid government. The first in his family to attend school, Mandela was given the English name Nelson by his teacher on his first day. As Mandela moved up the educational ladder, he became more and more involved in social justice. When he became a lawyer, he joined the African National Congress (ANC), an organization whose purpose was to increase the rights of black South Africans. In 1961, Mandela helped found a military branch of the ANC that used guerrilla attacks against the government. His imprisonment became a rallying point for black South Africansand eventually the world. International pressure against the government helped bring about the end of apartheid and Mandela's release in 1990. Mandela was elected president, serving from 1994 to 1999, and remains a figure revered and loved by his grateful nation.