Fans vote return of Rutgers football player Eric LeGrand the Best Sports Moment of the Year for 2011

After a voting campaign that engaged influencers with an audience of more than 78 million Facebook users and Twitter followers, the fans have spoken. The return of Rutgers football player Eric LeGrand—one year after he was paralyzed from the neck down in a game vs. Army at Giants Stadium—is Sports Illustrated’s 2011 Moment of the Year. LeGrand will appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s year-end issue—the first time in the 57-year history of Sports Illustrated that the choice for the cover of the magazine has been made by fans. The issue is dated Dec. 26, 2011, and hits newsstands on Wednesday.

For one week, from Dec. 9–16, fans could visit a custom tab on Sports Illustrated’s Facebook page to rank the top five choices, knowing that the winning moment would appear on the Dec. 26 cover. The project produced votes from 178 countries and led more than 6,000 users to post comments on Facebook. In the end, LeGrand beat out two of the world’s most well-known soccer stars (Lionel Messi and Abby Wambach), a record-breaking surfer (Kelly Slater) and a milestone for the captain of the Yankees (Derek Jeter’s 3,000th hit), among 15 iconic moments that fans could choose from. Below is a list of the top five first-place vote getters and top 10 highest-voting countries.

Candidate % First-Place Votes   10 Highest-Voting Countries
1. Eric LeGrand’s return 29.3 1. United States 6. United Kingdom
2. Lionel Messi/Barcelona 19.2 2. Canada 7. Morocco
3. David Freese/Cardinals 16.1 3. Serbia 8. France
4. Kelly Slater’s 11th title 10.6 4. Germany 9. Brazil
5. Abby Wambach’s goal 7.5 5. Spain 10. Russia

The voting results underscored how global and how social-media-based sports fandom has become. When F.C. Barcelona posted mention of its candidacy on its website and its Facebook page, votes poured in for the Champions League winners from around the world—not just from Spain but also from Syria, Kazakhstan, Peru, Latvia and Indonesia, to name a few.

Others with a direct stake in the voting results took to Twitter to galvanize their fan bases, including LeGrand, Wambach, Slater and Michigan State receiver Keith Nichol (he of the dramatic Hail Mary catch vs. Wisconsin). Like F.C. Barcelona, Jeter and Clippers forward Blake Griffin alerted fans to their candidacies on their official Facebook pages. Support for the candidates came from across the sports world (Wambach received Twitter support from many of her U.S. teammates as well as men’s national team mainstay Jozy Altidore) and beyond (musicians Eddie Vedder and Ben Harper tweeted on behalf of Slater).

During the final two days of voting, a surge of support—highlighted by tweets from two of New Jersey’s most prominent politicians, Governor Chris Christie and Newark mayor Cory Booker—nudged LeGrand over the top. Since his injury the upbeat LeGrand has used the same digital tools that helped galvanize voters to put his story on the cover to not only survive his injury but also thrive. Senior writer Alexander Wolff writes in this week’s cover story: Voice recognition software helps him text and tweet. His wheelchair is Bluetoothed. He takes classes via Skype and updates his Facebook page regularly. Indeed, the very digital technology that helped put LeGrand’s story on this week’s cover has normalized his life as much as that’s possible. ‘He can control his Twitter, he can control his Facebook,’ says LeGrand’s mother, Karen. ‘It helps him have a sense of independence. It’s something that he can do himself without anybody’s help.’ ”

Wolff concludes: When Eric LeGrand walks again—not if he does, as he’ll hasten to tell you—he knows exactly what he’ll do. ‘I’ll go to Giants Stadium and find the exact spot on the field where I went down,’ he told SI’s Jon Wertheim in October. ‘I’ll lie there for a second. And then I’ll get up on my own power and walk away.’ It would be quite a moment. A moment made for a reelection campaign.”


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