Top 10 Athletes of 2008

With just two weeks to go, it’s time to take stock of those stars who got fans and collectors interested in 2008.

Pressure and expectations come with any athlete competing on a national or international stage, but with his scintillating performance in the 2008 Summer Olympics, Michael Phelps redefined what it means to succeed under those conditions.

Phelps is a runaway choice to head up a list of the Top 10 Athletes of 2008.

1) Long before the Games began, the national spotlight fell on the Baltimore native. Could he break the record of seven gold medals set by Mark Spitz in 1972? It seemed impossible–except for Phelps who burst upon the scene four years earlier as a teen prodigy. Unfathomable as it may have been to compete under the weighty expectations that anything less than multiple golds would be a failure, Phelps attacked the pool with a vengeance. He swam seventeen times in nineteen days, not only winning eight golds, but breaking a world record in four of his five swims. He was a part of three US relay teams, all of which won gold in record time. His thrilling chase of American sports history captivated a nation which watched the Olympics on TV and online in record numbers. Phelps would end his year with a career total of sixteen medals, fourteen of them gold.

During his mystical week in the pool, eBay was hopping with sales of Phelps memorabilia. A 2004 Fans of the Game autographed card, produced by Donruss, was selling for hundreds of dollars. Phelps memorabilia and cards are still selling on eBay months later.

2) Second on our top ten list is another international star. Rafael Nadal, who turned 22 years old during 2008, played and won perhaps the most memorable tennis match of the era–maybe of all-time. After nipping at the sizable heels of top-ranked Roger Federer for a couple of years, Nadal won the French Open, then turned his sights on Wimbledon. It had been Federer’s domain and the Swiss ace was not about to give it up without a fight. The two battled into the twilight at center court before Nadal finally prevailed 9-7 in the fifth and deciding set. He would end the year ranked number one, ending Federer’s 4 1/2 year reign. But that wasn’t all Nadal accomplished. He added Olympic gold in Beijing and a Davis Cup victory over the United States for his native Spain.

Nadal autographed items, especially those co-signed with Federer, are hot–and not just among tennis fans.

3) Youth was served in college football too. Tim Tebow, the All-American boy with the All-American game, led the Florida Gators to the Capital One Bowl on New Year’s Day. His 2007 season was among the best of any player in history. It would be impossible to match in 2008, but Tebow led Florida into the national championship hunt again. Tebow scored his 37th rushing touchdown on November 1, breaking the school record held by Emmitt Smith. He’s already in the rare air of being a collegiate legend.

The quarterback’s popularity even caused the school to send a message to fans instructing them not to send anything to the Gainesville campus in hopes of securing an autograph. Tebow is as hot as ever on eBay as the Gators prepare for the BCS national championship game.

4) Our fourth standout speaks several languages and used many of them during his trip to China. But first, the Los Angeles Lakers’ superstar had perhaps his finest NBA season. Finally out of the shadow of Shaquille O’Neal, Bryant played in all 82 games despite a painful finger injury on his shooting hand. He led the Lakers with 28 points per game and was named the NBA’s MVP. Bryant had no real off-season. He travelled to the Games as the leading man for the Redeem Team, charged with winning gold–and nothing less. America’s men’s basketball team was led by Bryant, who turned 30 years old during 2008 and brought poise and maturity to the young squad. Bryant’s determination fueled the U.S. in the gold medal game with Spain.

Bryant has always been big with basketball collectors and he’s getting a Beijing bounce this season with a bounty of Bryant items selling.

5) While Bryant represents basketball’s present, Derrick Rose is the future. Fifth on our list, Rose had one of the greatest freshman seasons any college player has ever enjoyed. The Chicago native took the Memphis Tigers to a 38-2 season and a berth in the NCAA championship game. He averaged nearly 15 points, 4.7 assists and 4.5 rebounds per game for the Tigers, then declared for the NBA draft. Taken #1 overall by his hometown team, Rose has proven worthy of the honor. Just 20 years old, he was the NBA’s Rookie of the Month in November, averaging 19 points per game over his first five weeks as a pro.

Rose jerseys and rookie cards have been white hot thus far this season.

6) Washington D.C. sports teams hadn’t seen an MVP since Joe Theismann was quarterback of the Redskins in the 1980s. Alexander Ovechkin changed that. The Russian native exploded as the calendar turned to ’08. He finished the season as the league’s top point man, scoring 65 goals and earning 47 assists. He won the Hart, Ross and Richard trophies and at age 22, was presented with a 13-year, $124 million contract after the ’07-08 season. Ovechkin stands sixth on the list of top athletes in 2008.

Ovechkin rookie cards and memorabilia are pushing the hockey market.

7) Not since Nellie Fox in 1959 had an American League 2nd baseman won the American League MVP award. Dustin Pedroia’s season as certainly worth. He won a Silver Slugger and a Gold Glove Award, disproving the "sophomore slump" myth after his Rookie of the Year campaign in 2007. The 25 year-old Pedroia batted .326 with 17 home runs, batting in 83 and scoring 118 runs for the Boston Red Sox, becoming a fan and collector favorite. In two years, Pedroia has become one of the hottest players in the baseball card and memorabilia market.

8) Like Tebow, Eli Manning was a college star but it wasn’t until early 2008 that the critics began backing off his NFL career. Manning matured and led the Giants to upset victories over Dallas and Green Bay, then in early February helped New York knock off previously unbeaten New England in Super Bowl XLII, spoiling the Patriots’ perfect season in the process. Manning was named MVP just a month after his 27th birthday. His effort created a huge market for cards and autographs. In 2008, he refused to rest on his laurels and again has the Giants in the chase for a championship. Eli’s comin’… to #8 on the list.

9) Usain Bolt was the Phelps of Beijing’s two-week run. And run he did. The speedy Jamaican became the first man in history to set a world record in each of the his three Olympic dashes. He clocked a 9.69 100meters, a 19.30 200 meters and helped Jamaica to victory in the 4×100. He was the first to win all three events in one Olympic Games since Carl Lewis in Los Angeles 24 years earlier.

10) CC Sabathia saved one team’s season–and likely earned himself a record contract in the process. Sabathia had spent his entire career in Cleveland, but with the Indians faltering and Sabathia set to become a free agent after the 2008 season, they shipped him to Milwaukee in a trade for minor league prospects. The Brewers began faltering down the stretch, but Sabathia kept him alive. He was 6-8 in Cleveland; 11-2 in Milwaukee, winning his first four starts–three of them complete games. He finished with ten–the most since Randy Johnson in 1999. Sabathia almost singlehandedly pushed the Brewers into the National League playoffs before recently signing with the Yankees.