BOSTON — Meb Keflezighi strode alone down Boylston Street, past the patched-up sidewalks and re-opened restaurants that line the path to the Boston Marathon finish line. On his race bib he had the names of those killed there by a pair of homemade bombs, and on his shoulders he would soon drape an American flag.
An Eritrean by birth, Keflezighi came to the United States to escape war and poverty in his African homeland. He did more than that: A year after the terrorist attacks shattered a scene of so much joy, Keflezighi became the first American man to win the world's most prestigious marathon in more than three decades.
Keflezighi crossing the finish line, to the chants of "U-S-A!" and a few moist eyes, was one of the feel-good sports moments of 2014. In a year that included reports of corruption and the arrest of athletes, there were plenty of inspiring moments in sports.
Like Division III basketball player Lauren Hill, diagnosed with terminal brain cancer before her first game, who summoned the energy to play a few games. Philadelphia 13-year-old Mo'ne Davis brought her braids to the Little League World Series. Boston College baseball player Pete Frates inspired us all to dump ice water on our heads.
Other stories brought cheers within the world of sports: LeBron James returning to Cleveland and Derek Jeter leaving Yankee Stadium for the last time with a game-winning hit; American fans chanting at the World Cup, "I believe that we will win!"; Dale Earnhardt Jr. winning the Daytona 500 at the track where his father died, and then winning Martinsville to claim one of the prized grandfather clocks his dad had scattered around the house.
Here are some other stories that helped remind us why we watch:
Throw like a girl
Davis broke one barrier after another when she helped her inner-city team get within one victory of the U.S. championship in the Little League World Series. After making the cover of Sports Illustrated, Davis had her jersey displayed in baseball's Hall of Fame and threw out the ceremonial first pitch at the World Series.
"You knocked it out of the park for girls everywhere," first lady Michelle Obama told her on Twitter.
Lou Gehrig's legacy
Like Hill, Frates had more that he wanted to accomplish while fighting a terminal illness. Diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease, Frates helped the ice bucket challenge go viral in a trend that stretched from Kermit the Frog to ex-President George W. Bush and is credited with raising more than $100 million to combat ALS.
When Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett was injured in the fourth quarter of the annual game against archrival Michigan, some of his teammates gathered around him to offer support. So did Wolverines quarterback Devin Gardner, setting aside one of college football's biggest rivalries to deliver some words of encouragement. "It's like having a little brother get hurt," the Michigan QB said. "I didn't like to see that at all."
Baseball and hot dogs
A stray and injured dog who wandered into the Brewers complex at spring training became an instant celebrity with the team and the fans back in Milwaukee. When no one came forward to claim Hank — named for Hall of Famer Hank Aaron, he broke camp with the ballclub and a Brewers executive took him in back in Milwaukee. The team began selling merchandise with his likeness — including his own bobblehead, with some of the proceeds going to the Wisconsin Humane Society.
In sickness and health
Dominic Moore took a year off from hockey after his wife was diagnosed with liver cancer. She died just nine months later. He returned as a fourth-liner on the Rangers and scored the Game 6 winner against Montreal to put the Rangers in the Stanley Cup Finals.
"I've had a lot of good examples of perseverance over the years, and none more so than my wife, Katie," Moore said after winning the NHL's Masterson Trophy for perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey. "So this award is very meaningful, and I'm very grateful."
On the night a Canadian soldier was killed while guarding the national war memorial in Ottawa, Pittsburgh fans sang an emotional rendition of "O Canada" before the Penguins game against Philadelphia.
The sports world also rallied around Chad Carr, the 4-year-old grandson of former Michigan football coach Lloyd Carr, who had the same kind of inoperable tumor as Hill. The Carrs said this month that the tumor, which had been expected to kill him within a year, had shrunk by 90 percent.
Lacey Holsworth, an 8-year-old girl who with a football-sized cancerous tumor in her abdomen, was befriended by Michigan State forward Adreian Payne and the rest of the Spartans basketball team. She took the court with Payne on senior night and helped the Spartans cut down the nets at the Big Ten tournament, less than a month before she died of cancer.
"I learned so much, just seeing her fight every day," Payne said after being honored at the John R. Wooden Award gala. "She taught me to preserve through anything and just be strong."