Best Sports Trailblazer 2012 | Shannon Eastin, NFL referee | Sports & Recreation | Phoenix

It's hard to imagine a woman officiating the behemoths in the National Football League. But it was hard to believe that a woman would ever officiate the freakishly tall lurches in the National Basketball Association. That was before Violet Palmer started acquitting herself well as an NBA referee in 1997. Now comes Tempe's Shannon Eastin, who's admitted she's nervous about her new role in the previously all-male world of NFL referees, but who's at the same time excited about the challenge. She got her chance as a replacement official employed by the league while a labor dispute festered with regular refs. Point being, nobody knows how long her gig will last, but like Palmer before her, she has lots of experience. Eastin's been calling BS on football players' antics for 16 years as an official, a lot of that time at the college level in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.

Palmer has taken her share of abuse from sports talking heads, some calling her the worst ref in NBA history with scant evidence to back that up except that the team in whatever town lost on a controversial call. And, of course, that she's not a guy. In Eastin's case, she's barely gotten started and already she's been declared a joke and a scab. Hang in there, Shannon — you're tough, and you're a pioneer.

Diana Taurasi is the best basketball player here. Forget about anybody currently on the Phoenix Suns roster; the Phoenix Mercury's Taurasi has surpassed everybody currently playing hoops in this city. We'll also forget about Taurasi's two WNBA titles, that she led the league in scoring in 2011 for the fourth-straight season, and her three national championships as a University of Connecticut Husky.

This past summer, she led the U.S. Women's Basketball Team to the gold medal in London's Summer Olympics. It was Taurasi's third basketball gold in as many Olympics, and the fifth gold in a row for U.S. women. Considered the greatest women's basketball player in history, the six-foot Taurasi was the heart and soul of the U.S. women's team in London. Her teammates described her as an inspirational leader with exceptional abilities. To take the gold, the U.S. women won by 36 points against previously undefeated France, and Taurasi's smothering defense was a major reason. She had nine points and six assists in the final. In Olympic play, Taurasi is second overall in free-throw percentage and fifth in three-pointers. Taurasi scored 22 in a U.S. rout of China in London. It was her tenacious play and infectious will to dominate that made the U.S. team great. Will the 30-year-old Taurasi do it again in four years? Yes, she vows to lead U.S. women basketballers in the next Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Have you seen that thing?! It's getting so large that in post-game interviews, we expect TNT's Craig Sager to ask James Harden what the key to the game was — and then ask his beard. He started sporting facial hair that would've made the most hirsute Al-Qaeda thug jealous while still at Arizona State University.

Now that Harden's a star with the Oklahoma City Thunder, we're surprised opposing teams don't scream that the shooting guard's out-of-control facial shrubbery constitutes an unfair advantage — it is a virtual sixth man on the court. Imagine what it must be like for opponents to be blinded by that wild, black thicket as they go in for layup — literally tasting hairy defeat. This isn't a joke: His beard has its own Twitter account and Facebook page. Okay, there's something more manly about Harden than his beard — his game. He scored 40 points against our Suns last April. (Thanks a lot, homie!) The former Sun Devil was NBA sixth man of the year in 2012, a member of this summer's Olympic basketball team in London, and a major reason that the Thunder made it to the NBA finals. They didn't win; his Olympic teammate LeBron James and the Miami Heat did. OKC faithful blame Metta World Peace (formerly Ron Artest) and "The Beard" for losing to the Heat. The Lakers' zany forward smacked Harden, concussing him. Harden recovered and played well afterward, but fans complain that his beard never never regained its past glory.

Okay, we're sick and tired of hearing what a nice guy Steve Nash is! Yeah, he's in the twilight of his brilliant NBA career and, yeah, he wanted to go to a potential championship team, and the Phoenix Suns sure ain't gonna be that in our lifetime. But, Steve, the Los Angeles Lakers! The Lakers of Kobe Bryant and Metta World Peace (the nutjob formerly known as Ron Artest), the Lakers that have been a thorn in the Suns' side since for as long as we can remember, the Yankees of professional basketball! Look, we could've understood your going back to your Canuck homeland — why not the Toronto Raptors, where we never would hear about you again? Well, you'd be on TV twice a year playing the Suns, but we wouldn't watch. Or what about your summertime home of New York City, also in the Eastern Conference. We'd only possibly have to look at your mop-head twice a season there, too.

You did provide some excitement in your years here, Steve. You gave us hope. But, despite your two league MVPs, you never brought home the Canadian bacon. They say you did all you could, that it wasn't your fault — it was penny-pinching owner Robert Sarver's and his giant, foam hand. Maybe, but you are dead to us! We hope you suffer a career-ending groin injury in a collision with "Superman" Dwight Howard (proving that the rich get richer, the Lakers have managed to grab him, too). Steve, get oooout of town, ya hoser!

Mike Smith's a big, lanky guy for a goalie — 6-feet-4, 220. The Canadian's wingspan makes him hard to score on, and this was a major reason the Phoenix Coyotes made it to the NHL's Western Conference finals last season. Many believe Smith was the main reason, Coach Dave Tippett and forward Shane Doan aside. Because of his 2.21 "goals-against" average and his .930 save percentage last season, he should have been a shoo-in to win the Vezina Trophy for best goalie, but he wasn't even nominated. This is reminiscent of the longstanding bias against this desert franchise; NHL general managers decide this honor. The Valley repeatedly is derided as the blazing Siberia of NHL hockey. Which means that nobody takes Phoenix that seriously, even in a Pacific Division-title year. Another reason Smith wasn't taken seriously, despite his phenomenal season, was that he came out of nowhere. The season before, he was warming the bench as a backup for the Tampa Bay Lightning. But goalies often appear out of the mist at about Smith's age, 30. It takes them a long time to learn their craft. What Mike must do now is have a second star-studded year so that he moves to the top of the goalie pack.

We feel sorry for Larry Fitzgerald — which is hard. Fitzgerald is considered the best wide receiver in the National Football League, he's been a pro for eight seasons, and already he ranks fourth all-time in receiving yards per game; he's been selected for the Pro Bowl six times, and he signed an eight-year, $120 million contract extension in 2011. No, it's not because he continues to wear dreadlocks (maybe they're hair extensions) after cooler celebrities have abandoned them as passé. It's because, since the famed Kurt Warner retired, Fitzgerald has been left to run around on the football field with nobody at quarterback who can consistently throw him the pigskin.

As great as he is, without a good quarterback, Fitzgerald can't get 'er done. Not that he's been any slouch, even with the Arizona Cardinals' signal-caller struggles. He had his second-best pro season last year with 1,411 yards (and eight touchdown catches). Imagine what he could've accomplished even with Chandler's aged Donovan McNabb (now retired) throwing to him. His number of receptions, though, were down to a five-year low of 80 last season (from 90 to 100 in the Warner years), which is testament to the QB stench. That is, Fitzgerald made the most of what he could get. Anybody still wondering why we feel sorry for the NFL's greatest receiver?

John Skelton is the best quarterback in Phoenix. Which, granted, ain't saying much. Problem being that the Arizona Cardinals have to put somebody under center, and there's no reason to believe — based on this preseason, his limited performance with Arizona last season, or even his time with the Philadelphia Eagles — that much-touted Kevin Kolb can power the team. The Cardinals must start John Skelton, who would be a great backup behind somebody like, um, Peyton Manning, who spurned Arizona for the Denver Broncos because he's always loved some guy named John Elway, who runs the Denver franchise.

Too bad Skelton got hurt in the Cardinals' season opener in early September against the Seahawks. Sigh. If the Cardinals didn't have bad luck, well, you know . . . And the quarterback situation is just more bad luck for the team — for which things were looking up for a minute when Coach Ken Whisenhunt came here from Pittsburgh, Kurt Warner was still at quarterback, and the Birds made it to the Super Bowl. Not anymore: With neither Kolb nor Skelton seemingly able to hang on to the starting QB position, we've got a lesser-of-two-doofuses situation. And Whisenhunt must face that, no matter what goes on in the first few games of the regular season, Skelton is less doofy. With him calling signals last season, the Cards were 5-2. With Kolb at the helm, 2-6. On the downside, Skelton threw 14 interceptions, and his largest margin of victory was six points. Touchdown passes? He had a respectable 11. Can he develop into a consistently good pro quarterback? No. Will he be better at keeping the team from sucking than the oft-injured Kolb? Yes. Truth is, the Cards have what could be a great team, a contender, but when your weakest position is QB, you're fucked in the NFL.

It's been a while since any Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher's been in the National League Cy Young discussion. As Diamondbacks, Brandon Webb won the best-pitcher trophy in 2006, and Randy Johnson won it four years straight from from 1999 to 2002. Now comes slow-talking, happy-go-lucky, Louisiana left-hander Wade Miley, Arizona's only contribution to this year's NL All-Star team. Miley's unlikely to win. He's a rookie. The only rookie to ever win the Cy Young was Fernando Valenzuela in 1981, and nobody really knew how old Fernando was (some joked that he was 30-something before he reached the majors from deep in Mexico). Valenzuela also won the NL Rookie of the Year award in '81, and guess what? Miley's in that discussion, too.

The 25-year-old is 12-8, with a 3.02 earned-run average, and it's not that farfetched to think that he could win both honors (Webb won the Cy with a 16-8 record and a 3.20 ERA). Miley's in the same neighborhood statistically as Washington Nationals hurling golden boy Stephen Strasberg, and his primary competition for the NL rookie award is Cincinnati Reds infielder Todd Frazier. How does this small-town boy (who's been good-natured about being the butt of hayseed jokes in the team's locker room) do it on the mound? His best pitch is a low and away, hard slider that confounds the hell out of hitters. The guy may be corn-pone, but he's in the championship zone.

J.J. Putz is no putz. The name is pronounced Puts (as in he puts away hitters), thank you very much! And you'd think you wouldn't want to mix that up if you were interviewing him after a Diamondbacks game. Putz is a giant at 6-feet-5, 250 pounds, with that imposing glare from the pitcher's mound. A guy that big throwing that fast terrifies batters: His fastball doesn't hit the upper 90s much anymore, but it still clocks 94 miles per hour routinely.

But he'd sooner give you a bear hug than kill you. The jovial D-backs closer is the life of the team's locker room, a joker who puts a smile on everybody's face. Also, he's very good at his job, which is keeping the lid on games in the ninth inning. No easy feat, because no lead is ever safe in the majors. This year, he has 23 saves out of 24 opportunities; last season, he had 45 out of a possible 49; and career in the majors, he has 172 out of 209. He ranks 15th among closers this season and isn't that far from the top all-time, at 60th. An American League All-Star for the Seattle Mariners in 2007 (he was 40 of 42 that season), Putz will never reach all-time saves leader Mariano Rivera (of the New York Yankees) at 608, but at a durable 35 years old, he will have a long career and climb much higher on that closers' list. And all the while, he'll keep his teammates in stitches.

Miguel Montero has one of the hardest jobs in sports, certainly the hardest on a baseball team — catcher. Not only must he direct the pitcher, which includes a professional intimacy with each hurler that probably makes his family jealous, and help oversee the position players, he must do it wearing a mask and squatting for the better part of two hours a game. From that position, he must leap up to catch foul balls with a mitt shaped like a pancake and throw out speedy runners trying to steal — something that Montero has learned to do extremely well. These are his defensive duties. In Montero's case, he's also a solid, middle-of-the-order hitter with a .282 batting average, 13 home runs, and 66 runs batted in. At 29, all-arounders like him are extremely hard to find — which is why it didn't surprise us when he beaome the highest-paid player on Arizona's roster at about $60 million over the next five years. If the Diamondbacks manage to contend in the off-season, it will be because of his on-field management and grace under pressure.

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