There are always plenty of candidates for top sports celebrity bad guy: LeBron, Tiger, T.O., Roger Clemens, and on and on.
But what about top sports good guy? Those names don't come to mind quite as easily. Even beloved athletes such as Tim Tebow and Derek Jeter have detractors.
But by one important measure, there is a runaway favorite.
The pro wrestling superstar granted his 300th Make-A-Wish request to a 7-year-old Pennsylvania boy named Jonny Littman earlier this week. That's far and away tops among sports celebrities.
(Pause here for those who don't think pro wrestling is a sport. It's not. But tell that to a sick child. And, by the way, throwing a 250-pound man across a ring 300 nights a year constitutes athleticism of some sort.)
Only a few other sports stars have granted more than 200 wishes, including Hulk Hogan, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Michael Jordan is in the 200 neighborhood and Kobe Bryant has granted more than 100. (More than 50 wishes will be granted at the London Olympics.) Cena raced past 300 and he fully intends on getting to 1,000.
How popular is Cena with Make-A-Wish? There's a conference room dedicated to him at the company headquarters in Arizona.
"Overall, I get 100-140 WWE wish requests a year," said Shaina Reeser, sports program manager at Make-A-Wish, "and the majority is for John Cena. He probably does two or three kids every week. It's crazy."
Cena never says no. Even though his schedule is tougher than most stars – there are no home games and there's no off-season – he unfailingly builds in time for Wish kids. WWE rep Kevin Hennessey even says Cena's 300th wish was so important that his bosses rearranged his entire schedule for it.
It's not that other athletes are cold-hearted. Pretty much everyone says yes to Make-A-Wish every time. (In fact, LeBron, Tiger, T.O. and Clemens have all done over-the-top wishes for kids across the country.) But sometimes schedules conflict or an athlete can't be in the area where his wish kid lives. And, sadly, because of illness and the course of treatment, wish kids don't always have a lot of time to wait for their favorite athletes to become free. One of the big myths about Make-A-Wish is that children pass away from their illnesses; many make a full recovery. The only requirement for a wish kid is a life-threatening condition. But that usually entails severe hardship not only physically but financially. Families spend so much on care and medical bills that they can't afford over-the-top presents. That's where Make-A-Wish comes in. And that's where celebs like John Cena come through.
"He has been a big supporter of us forever," said Make-A-Wish national communications manager Mark Hiegel. "By this time next year, he'll have 400."
And while some heroes do a simple meet-and-greet, Cena turns the Wish into an experience. He usually invites the child to Monday Night Raw, where he takes the entire family backstage, gives them all signed memorabilia and introduces them to other WWE stars. That's what he did for Jonny Littman on Monday in New York. But then Cena followed up with a surprise visit the next day on Good Morning America.
That's by far the best part of the Make-A-Wish day – the surprise. Kids sometimes get shy and sometimes beam for hours, but they all forget for a while about the next hospital visit or the next round of chemo.
"He gets the kids out of their shells," Reeser said of Cena. "He's every good at asking questions, pulling information out of them. There's always a huge smile and their eyes light up. The more outgoing kids will say Cena's phrase, which is 'You can't see me.' "
But that's just it. A sick kid can see Cena. He makes sure of it.
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