The United States women’s soccer team captured the nation’s heart as it pushed over constant obstacles to take the 2015 World Cup. On Wednesday, fans were given the opportunity to honor the USWNT by giving them the 2015 ESPY for Best Team.
The award, which was accepted by all 23 members of the gold-medal team, capped off a stirring show that transitioned seamlessly between lighthearted and tear-jerking. Hosted by Community star Joel McHale, the event began with a monologue that crossed over every possible line for the sake of comedy. McHale skewered Justin Bieber, Floyd Mayweather, Bill Cosby and the Seattle Seahawks’ infamous Super Bowl decision, among other topics, before giving way to the awards.
The big individual honors were captured by Peyton Manning, Mo’ne Davis, Stephen Curry, LeBron James and Leo Messi.
Curry took home perhaps the most coveted award of the night for Best Male Athlete. His transcendent shooting has helped revolutionize basketball, and he was the leader of a Golden State Warriors team that went down among the best in history from a statistical perspective.
James, whose Cleveland Cavaliers lost to Curry’s Warriors in the NBA Finals, took home Best Championship Performance for almost single-handedly bringing Cleveland a title. He averaged 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists over the six-game series. All of it coming in a losing performance, however, made James a little surprised he won.
Chris Fedor of Cleveland.com was one of many to point out the weird voting results:
Manning was awarded Best Record-Breaking Performance after eclipsing Brett Favre’s all-time touchdown passing record. Manning’s 530 touchdown passes are now 22 better than Favre, who was also in the audience.
Davis, who rose to stardom last summer in the Little League World Series, beat out Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr., Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones and golfer Jordan Spieth for Best Breakthrough Athlete.
Jones took the loss well on Twitter:
Some of the awards, which created some of the most touching moments, were not determined by fan vote. The Pat Tillman Award, given to an athlete who best exemplifies the spirit of the former NFL safety, was given to Danielle Green. The former Notre Dame women’s basketball player lost her left arm while serving in the Army during the Iraq War.
“If my story leaves you with one thing tonight, I hope it leaves you with a challenge,” Green said, per Mike Vulpo of E! News. “Ask yourself: What’s my purpose? What’s my passion? What do I want my legacy to be? How can I live as a full human being?”
In a similar vein, Leah Still, the daughter of Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Devon Still, was given the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance. Still’s recovery from Stage 4 neuroblastoma was one of the most touching stories of the 2014 NFL season, with the league and Bengals coming together to aid in her recovery. Leah was unfortunately unable to attend the Los Angeles ceremony, so Devon accepted on her behalf.
The lengthy, emotional speech captured the past 13 months of Still’s life. Speaking on times he nearly succumbed to alcohol abuse and profusely thanking his family for staying strong, Devon Still left the most touching thank-you to his daughter.
“I just want to thank you,” Still said, per Cincinnati.com. “From the moment you was born you molded me into the man I am today. And you know I always used to dream about how I was going to be able to show you so much about life. But in the five years I’ve been with you you’ve taught me more about life than I could ever do. I love you and I’m just proud of the way you’ve been handling yourself this past year.”
Leah also taped a special thank-you message from her home:
The award that drew the most public attention coming into the night was the Arthur Ashe Courage Award, which went to Caitlyn Jenner. Jenner, who won the 1976 Olympic decathlon, came out as a transgender woman earlier this year. She is the third consecutive LGBT winner of the Arthur Ashe Award, joining former Missouri defensive end Michael Sam and broadcaster Robin Roberts.
Presented the award by U.S. soccer captain Abby Wambach, Jenner opened up on her transition and what she hopes to accomplish going forward. She cited the dismal statistics regarding transgender individuals—specifically those bullied, forced into suicidal thoughts or even outright murdered—and said she hoped her celebrity status helped foster greater acceptance.
“Trans people deserve something vital,” Jenner said, per Alex Stedman of Variety. “They deserve your respect. And from that respect, comes a more compassionate community, a more empathetic society, and a better world for all of us.”
Division III women’s basketball player Lauren Hill, who died this year after a battle with brain cancer, and former Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter were also honored with special segments. Hill’s parents accepted an ESPY on her behalf, while Jeter was given an award for his lifetime achievement.
Darren Rovell of ESPN pointed out the special bond between Hill and Still:
Among awards given out on the pre-show were Ronda Rousey for Best Fighter, Victor Espinoza for Best Jockey, Aaron Rodgers for Best NFL Player and Curry for Best NBA Player.
Espinoza was the jockey for Triple Crown winner American Pharoah and has won the Best Jockey Award three times, including each of the last two years. Rousey added to her 2014 Best Female Athlete award by going back-to-back and also created some headlines with a pointed barb toward fellow nominee Floyd Mayweather.
Mayweather, of course, has a checkered past that includes multiple domestic violence arrests.
Rodgers and Curry are the reigning Most Valuable Players of their respective sports, though both won under different circumstances. Rodgers has long been considered the most talented quarterback in football; his MVP contention is never in question as long as he’s healthy. Curry had made only one All-Star appearance before his magical 2014-15 campaign.
As a night designed to celebrate the best in the sports world, the ESPYs certainly fit their bill yet again. You may disagree with some of the award choices or feel the segments were missing the high of last year’s “Side Pieces,” but it was nonetheless a fun diversion during the doldrums of the sports calendar.
Follow Tyler Conway (@tylerconway22) on Twitter.