I have loved sports for as long as I can remember. Quickly, I also learned that playing sports wasn't necessarily an option for me past early high school. I was a much better actor anyway. But even through the rejection on the field, my love for professional and college sports endured and flourished. I've never been one to pick out favorite athletes, but a few always seem to stand out to me. Without further ado, here's how four athletes have shaped my understanding and love of sports.

1. Jay Williams, Duke Basketball

The best basketball player you have to be older than me to know about. As a five-year old forced into a love for college basketball by an obsessed father, I chose my Maryland-loving dad's arch nemesis, Duke, as my favorite team. And through the Blue Devils' winning ways, I experienced the true joys of sports fandom. Jay Williams happened to be one of the finest point guards to lace up shoes in a gym, and he happened to be the first great guard I ever watched. In 2001, the year Duke won their third national title, my dad and I were watching a Duke-Maryland game at my uncle's house. Maryland led Duke by ten points with under a minute to go, and a seven-year old me sat stone faced on the couch, staring into the television. Then, Jay unleashed a rampage of eight points in about 10 seconds, the likes of which have never been seen before or again in college basketball. Duke tied the game and forced overtime, where they would improbably win by two points. I still give my dad crap about it to this day. And, due to a #FollowFriday plea some months ago, Jay now follows me on Twitter. 

2. Matt Hasselbeck, Seattle Seahawks

In 2002, my family moved cross-country from Maine to Seattle. This meant that instead of considering the Red Sox or Patriots my "local team," I would actually have professional sports teams within my metropolitan area for the first time. Coincidentally, the Seahawks were on the rise right about when we moved to town, thanks to a brash and popular young quarterback named Matt Hasselbeck. Matt never was quite an elite QB, but he consistently delivered and helmed the Hawks for ten years before bowing out to Tennessee last year. In 2005, he led the Seahawks to Super Bowl XL, where the refs handed the game to the Steelers. But perhaps the best Matt moment came when he called a touchdown in the 2002 playoffs against the Packers. The Hawks lost, but this clip is a gem.

3. JJ Redick, Duke Basketball

Simply put, JJ Redick is my favorite athlete of all time. As humans, we crave a feeling of invincibility, and nothing quite made me feel as invincible as a sports fan than when my team had JJ jacking up threes. As a middle school, medium-sized, white basketball player with a so-so jumpshot, I tried to model my game after JJ. He set the ACC scoring record in 2006, a year in which he also was the best player in the country. There was no shot he couldn't make, and he played all four years, something rarely seen for top players in today's game. Simply put, he was a cold-blooded killer from beyond the arc.

4. Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners

Eventually, a member of my favorite team had to sneak in here somewhere. I really have never truly had a favorite Mariner besides Felix. I never liked Ichiro much, because he was selfish, soft and didn't like speaking English. But for all of the mediocrity the Mariners have experienced, Felix has been the one bright light for all of baseball to see. He won his first of hopefully many Cy Young Awards in 2010, despite his team only helping him to 13 wins. And this year, he cemented his legacy by throwing a perfect game. On top of that, he has his own cheering section that I've been a part of called the King's Court at every game he pitches. He is Seattle's one true superstar, and even when our teams stink it up, we can fall back on Felix as something to hang our hats on.

I love sports, and these four athletes truly make my experience of them richer and more meaningful. 

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