NEW ORLEANS — Growing up, I idolized athletes.

As a young sportswriter, I put away childish things.

They say you should never meet your heroes. You probably shouldn't cover them, either.

It's not that professional athletes were bad to deal with. They were just human, replete with tempers and moods, job stress and family worries.

I learned not to correlate sports and heroism.

The year 2020 demonstrated that I may have had it right the first time.

In the midst of a pandemic and in the wake of George Floyd's killing, a remarkable number of athletes, locally and nationally, behaved like heroes.

The Star Tribune named Vikings linebacker Eric Kendricks its Sportsperson of the Year. He is deserving for his individual efforts and bravery. He is also emblematic of 2020 as the year of the activist athlete.

Thankfully, Kendricks was not alone. Every local team at least paid lip service to social justice.

Matt Dumba held his fist aloft on the Wild bench despite the NHL's seeming ambivalence toward social justice initiatives. The Twins' brain trust and many of their players held signs reading "Black Lives Matter" or knelt before games.

The WNBA and NBA led the way, the W refusing to conduct interviews about anything other than social justice — particularly the killings of Floyd and Breonna Taylor — for a stretch of the league's offseason, and continuing to bring up the killings in interviews all season.

The NBA followed suit.

This was brave.

Sometimes sportswriters are properly chided for conflating bravery, heroism and sports.

But bravery and heroism are not solely the province of the battlefield. There are different types of heroism and bravery. Black and women athletes fit the dictionary definitions.

They put themselves into the virtual cross hairs at a time when racists are emboldened by the White House. They did so knowing that they might anger or agitate their commissioner, owners and a large segment of their fan base.

Kendricks and his socially aware peers are not only honoring Jackie Robinson. They are honoring heroes of a more recent vintage.

Not long ago, Colin Kaepernick came within one pass of winning a Super Bowl against a defense featuring at least two Hall of Fame players. He was blackballed from the NFL for taking the same stances that we celebrate, and the NFL at least pretends to encourage, today.

He sacrificed a lucrative career and made himself a target to protest police brutality and the extrajudicial and unpunished killings of Black people. He's a hero.

Maya Moore was in the prime of one of the greatest athletic careers in history. She left the WNBA to work for the freedom of Jonathan Irons, who had spent 23 years in jail after being charged with burglary and assault as a 16-year-old.

Moore believed he had been wrongly imprisoned. Moore and her team persuaded a Missouri judge to vacate Irons' conviction. Irons is free today because of Moore. She is a hero.

A recent tour of the National World War II Museum in New Orleans provided reminders of what wartime bravery looks like, and how hard Americans who are not white and male have had to fight for a safe place in our society.

Amid that war's massive death tolls and leveled cities, the fascism and evil, are vivid displays of American hypocrisy.

While we were saving the world from Hitler and Hirohito, we were relying on Black and Japanese-American soldiers whose relatives were being treated as lesser humans in the United States.

Our country packed them into internment camps without evidence that they had done anything wrong, and continued to treat Black Americans as unworthy of equal rights.

We let them die for our country without letting them live as equals in their country.

A decorated Black soldier returning from World War II would not have been allowed to play Major League Baseball, not until Robinson broke the color barrier in April 1947.

Moore, Kendricks and their peers are Robinson's worthy successors. One of the saddest aspects of 2020 is that they are still so needed.

Jim Souhan's podcast can be heard at On Twitter: @SouhanStrib. •