A party atmosphere enveloped Benaroya Hall on Wednesday night for the 77th Annual Sports Stars of the Year banquet. That fun around the games quickly turned dramatic early in the night.
Former Washington quarterback Jake Locker presented fellow Ferndale resident Jake Finkbonner with the Seattle Children’s Inspirational Youth Award. Finkbonner’s speech brought everyone to their feet, many with damp eyes.
Finkbonner nearly died when he was five years old when a flesh-eating bacteria attacked his face. Now 16, he’s endured 29 surgeries.
He thanked Locker, his plastic surgeon and the hospital. Finkbonner equated the hospital staff pulling together to a team uniting. Though, the stakes superseded any sporting event.
“They pulled all their knowledge, skill, dedication and God-given talents together, and they won the game, and saved my life,” Finkbonner said. “Had it not been for their team effort, I would not be standing here to receive this award.”
He also announced the following:
“I decided I would like to be a plastic surgeon, just like my doctor,” Finkbonner said. “And my goal is to help children the way he has helped me.”
It was a gracious, heartfelt way to start the evening’s celebration.
To close the show, former Sounders goalkeeper Kasey Keller was honored as the Pro Athlete of the Year. Keller will be transitioning to the Sounders’ announcing booth this season.
After accepting the award, Keller thanked his sponsors, then recounted a journey to Portland last year.
Keller went to a Trail Blazers game and his mug ended up on the jumbo screen.
“There was a pause in the play, and there was this little bit of rumbling in the crowd, and everybody starts booing,” Keller said. “As you know, there’s this little bit of a rivalry between Portland and Seattle when it comes to sports.
“I know this is the Sports Commission, we’ve got a lot of sports people, somebody please bring back the Sonics so I don’t have to go to Portland and get booed at the games.”
In a stunner, the crowd roared at the thought.
A native of Olympia, Keller led the Sounders to their third consecutive U.S. Open Cup victory in 2011. Keller also earned the MLS Goalkeeper of the Year award and Best XI honors.
Prior to joining Seattle Sounders FC, Keller played in Europe while accumulating U.S. National Team goalkeeping career records for most caps (102), wins (53) and shutouts (47).
Keller played in three of the world’s top leagues: England’s Premiership, Spain’s La Liga and Germany’s Bundesliga. During his European career, Keller spent four years with Millwall (1992-96), three years with Leicester City (1996-99), four years with Tottenham Hotspur (2001-05), and two years with Borussia Monchengladbach (Germany).
Keller is a graduate of North Thurston High School and the University of Portland. He received his first professional experience in 1989 when he played for the Portland Timbers.
Keller beat out Mariners closer Brandon League, Dallas Mavericks guards Jason Terry, Seahawks safety Earl Thomas and hydroplane driver Dave Villwock.
Washington Huskies running back Chris Polk was named the Male Athlete of the Year.
He finished as the No. 2 rusher in Husky history with 4,049 yards, just 57 behind 1994 Star of the Year Napoleon Kaufman, joined Kaufman as the only runners in school history to post three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, and set a UW record by rushing for 100 or more yards in 21 games.
Polk is the only back in school history to average more than 100 rushing yards per game in a single season.
Washington quarterback Keith Price accepted on Polk’s behalf. Polk beat out fellow Huskies Isaiah Thomas and golfer Chris Williams, Washington State track star Jeshua Anderson, and swimmer Nathan Adrian.
Female athlete of the year went to Gonzaga guard Courtney Vandersloot, who is playing professionally in Istanbul, Turkey.
A graduate of Kentwood High, Vandersloot led the Gonzaga women’s team to a 31-5 record and a trip to the Elite Eight in the 2011 NCAA Tournament. Much decorated, Vandersloot is the only player in West Coast Conference history selected league Player of the Year three times (2009-11) and the only player in the history of the conference named WCC Tournament Most Valuable Player three times (2009-11).
Sports story of the year went to the FCS National Champion Eastern Washington football team. Quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell led the Eagles to a 20-19 championship game win over Delaware.
The Seattle Sports Commission had previously announced the recipients of five special awards. Each candidate was selected by the Sports Star Committee.
Keith Jackson Award: Bob Robertson, WSU football — This award is presented to a member of the media for excellence in communicating the sports stories of Washington. At 82, Robertson has been the voice of Cougar football for 44 years. His sports broadcasting career spans six decades with teams throughout the state of Washington.
In addition to Robertson’s long association with Washington State, he spent 25 years calling Pacific Coast League baseball games in Seattle and Tacoma; broadcast professional soccer in Seattle, Tacoma and Portland; and served as a television sports anchor in the Seattle market for 25 years. Robertson’s signature line: “Always be a good sport, be a good sport all ways.”
“It's taken me to New York, Bourbon Street, and New York … I never had to work a day in my life after I got out of Blaine High School . . . I look sometimes in the newspaper at the jobs available, I realized I can't do anything else now,” Robertson said. “I'm not qualified."
Robertson broadcast the first sports event in the Kingdome in 1976, the Sounders vs. New York Cosmos.
"Little did I know I would outlive the building," Robertson said.
Sports Executive of the Year: Gary Wright, Seattle Sounders FC — This award is given to an individual for contributions to the success of the regional sports industry. Wright helped launch two Seattle sports franchises.
An original employee of the Seahawks, Wright was the team’s vice president of administration when he left in 2008 to become the Sounders’ senior VP of business operations.
Wright currently oversees all business operations for the Sounders, including ticket sales, corporate sponsorships, community outreach, charities and communications.
Prior to joining the Seahawks, Wright served as publicity director of the California Sun of the World Football League. Upon his retirement from the Seahawks, the team named the press box at the football stadium in his honor.
Sports Citizen of the Year: Detlef Schrempf, UW basketball/Seattle SuperSonics — The Sports Citizen of the Year is given to an individual who has made a significant or compelling contribution to the local community.
Schrempf, who starred for the Huskies and Sonics, started his namesake foundation in 1996. Since then, the Detlef Schrempf Foundation has raised more than $9 million for Northwest charities.
"When the committee called about this award, I thought maybe they were going to reverse the 1985 Star of the Year Award and take it away from Steve Largent,” Schrempf said.
Schrempf was an All-Pac-10 guard/forward under Marv Harshman (1975 Man of the Year) in the early 1980s, then embarked upon an NBA career that took him to Dallas, Indiana, Seattle and Portland.
Schrempf played in three NBA All-Star games and retired following the 2000-01 season.
Royal Brougham Legend Award: Bob Houbregs, UW Basketball — Introduced at the 75th Sports Star of the Year banquet two years ago, this award is given to an individual for a lifetime of achievement in sports.
“As I approach my 80th birthday, I realize age sometimes works in your favor,” Houbregs said. “This award proves it for me.”
A 6-foot-7 hook-shot specialist, Houbregs led the UW to its only Final Four appearance in 1953, when he was named the NCAA Player of the Year. Houbregs averaged 38.4 points per game in the 1953 NCAA Tournament.
Houbregs played five years in the NBA with three teams from 1953-58. Houbregs entered the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1987, and was inducted into the Canadian Basketball Hall of Fame in 2000.
He is also a member of the Washington State Sports Hall of Fame and Husky Hall of Fame.
“What a great evening and what a great award to receive.,” Houbregs said. “To be alongside (previous award winners) Marv Harshman and Don James is truly high praise. I talkd to Marv on the phone. He needled me, and I needled him. Then he said, I love you,' and I said 'I love you.' What a dear friend.”
Seattle Children’s Inspirational Youth Award: Jake Finkbonner, Assumption Catholic School — This award is given to an inspirational student who has overcome major medical obstacles and returned to the sport he/she loves.
The Ferndale youth nearly died when he was five years old, his face ravaged by flesh-eating bacteria.
Now 11, after years of recovery, “his indomitable spirit is an inspiration to all,” according to the Seattle Sports Commission.