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Tag Archives: Joe Posnanski
Derrick Thomas was inducted into the Hall of Fame this weekend. His was the first athletic jersey I ever owned, and he was the only reason I woke up one Sunday morning and went to Arrowhead Stadium, not for a football game, but to run in his 5K charity run because they told us we’d get to meet him. His death on a highway ice patch, at 33, was enough for my 7th grade teachers to take us to the cafeteria where we watched the funeral, together, all of us. I revered him, more than any athlete I ever had, and probably more than any I ever will. He was impossible to stop in the field, his smile was impossible to miss on television, and to me, a tiny 10-year old, he was impossibly god-like.
The problem was, unbeknownst to me, Derrick Thomas also had seven kids with five different women.
Joe Posnanski is leaving the Kansas City Star. His level-headed take on sports will be missed, as he blesses the nation with it as a staff writer at Sports Illustrated. Posnanski eulogizes Thomas twice upon his induction, here and here. I prefer the former, where he makes this point:
Derrick Thomas did not get to live that full life. And so … the feelings about him are amplified and they stand at harsh extremes. Whenever any of us write or say something good about Thomas — such as this weekend when we celebrate his remarkable football career — we are inundated with angry e-mails and phone calls and rebukes from those who want to yell about the irresponsible way he fathered seven children with five different women. Whenever we talk about all the good he did — and he did a lot of good; he was always generous with his time and he was chosen the NFL Man of the Year in 1993 — we are furiously reminded of his bad habits and wild nights and marathon parties.
Whenever we try to honor the memory of a man who brought a lot of happiness to a lot of people, we are told by many that he was deeply flawed and his memory does not deserve to be honored.
Some will see him only as a symbol of a famous athlete who did not have any self-discipline. Some will see him only as a great football player who cared deeply about people. The truth is, Derrick Thomas was neither of those things. And both. He was complicated, just like everyone else. And he died before we really got to know him.
When writing about sports – or music, or movie stars, or even politicians – must journalists and writers emphasize each and every blemish? Do the blemishes, really, matter? Devotion to the truth sometimes skews devotion to the truth that matters. Sports are a deathly unserious endeavor, and to force them and the athletes who compete in them to become things they are not, to live up to expectations beyond touchdowns and goals – well, what’s the point?
Derrick Thomas made me happier as a child. He made a lot of adults happy too. He did some stupid, shitty, unforgivable stuff – stuff that, once I knew about it, I knew was bad. Am I better for knowing? Nope. I just hope I can watch this video without someone saying, “Yes, but…”
I watched the Wimbledon final in the Minneapolis airport last Sunday, sitting at the Houlihan’s bar just outside security next to an older woman who was certain that if Andy Roddick could just get his first serve in every time, he’d have no trouble with Roger Federer. Roddick managed an envious 70%, and lost.
Roddick entered the tour at age 18 as the heir to Pete’s throne, but was more Canon Rebel Andre. He wore his hat backward, yelled at chair umpires, broke rackets. And he was good, very good. But not great, and someone for only firm patriots and 14-year old junior players to root for.
Roger Federer had turned pro two years earlier as the epitome of grace. He knew who Bill Tilden and Pancho Gonzalez were, he never cursed or tossed his racket (of course, he rarely had occassion to), seemed humbled when he won, showed reverence on the rare occasions he lost. He didn’t show off, didn’t boast, didn’t party. He simply played the most beautiful tennis the carbon racket era has ever seen.
Then, he wore this:
It should have been a signal. We all should have known better. We should have known not to expect Invincibility from anyone, perhaps especially an athlete. Success, money, fame, glory: they go to anyone’s head. But Invincibility is another beast altogether. It drives a man to wear white pants, white shoes, a white blazer – monogrammed – and a white headband just big enough to contain his expanding skull.
The white blazer was the first sign. But this interview with Dick Enberg, after Federer won a Nadal-less French Open, that blew away the facade (Enberg’s question at 3:50, Federer’s jaw-droppingly cocky answer peaks at 4:50). It was now clear:
Roger Federer may be the cockiest athlete of this generation.
This is not to say he isn’t deserving of some self-aggrandizement, or even a lot. Anyone able to coax this out of David Foster Wallace has done many things right. Federer is a genius, a master, a legend, or as Wallace’s bus driver puts it, a “bloody near-religious experience.” In the mind of a tennis purist, there was no question: there was Federer the artist, Nadal the powerful brute, and everyone else.
Which brings us back to Wimbledon. Roddick had turned his cap to the front. He was not cursing, and his racket stayed in his hands all match. He had the cold look of an assassin, with none of a teenagers snark. Federer, meanwhile, had added gold trim to his white warm up. Suddenly, as Joe Posnanski notes, Andy Roddick was oddly compelling:
I have never had many feelings about Andy Roddick…All of that changed on Sunday, though.
He wanted to win Wimbledon. I mean, yes, of course he wanted to Wimbledon, but you could see from the first point on that he WANTED to win Wimbledon, that it was hugely important to him, that it was everything to him.
On Sunday at Wimbledon, he offered that rare fan feeling: He made me feel like we had been through something together.
Andy Roddick will be – will only be – the greatest American men’s tennis player of his generation. The greatest since Pete and Andre. Perhaps one of the five best of the past decade. Roger Federer will go down as probably the greatest in history, with the records to justify it. He could certainly be considered among the greatest athlete in history, perhaps only topped by his friend Tiger – an athlete who can be called “immortal”, yet whose blood red attire and boisterous celebrations come off not as cocky but as simply doing business.
At Wimbledon, as Roddick joked through what was clear pain in his post-match speech, and Federer told Roddick how terrible the loser must feel, it was clear that their career trajectories had crossed. Andy had matured beyond the expectation of Invincibility. Roger had embraced it (Tiger, for his part, never seemed to acknowledge it).
Perhaps Federer has always been like this. Perhaps it is, as it seems, a recent transformation. Regardless, the Aura of Roger Federer could do to hire an image consultant before he completely engulfs Roger Federer the Tennis Player.
Good friend Kevin Armstrong writes at SI.com about the “best” newspaper sports department of all time: the 1970s Boston Globe. I can’t really argue with this, particularly given the names that come up on the list: Gammons, Ryan, McDonough, etc. But I can offer one alternative: the 1990s Kansas City Star.
The columnists: Joe Posnanski and Jason Whitlock. If you’re a sports fan, you know them. Can you say that about any other small-market’s sports columnists?
The reporters: Wright Thompson (ESPN.com’s best writer), Jason King (Yahoo’s college football and basketball guy), Dick Kaegel (now with MLB.com), Mechelle Voepel (women’s bball at ESPN), and Ivan Carter (Wizards beat reporter for the WaPo).
That’s my vote. Any other nominees?
And a related note: it appears SI just redesigned its site today. Take a look, and compare to, say, ESPN or Yahoo Sports. The biggest difference? When I load up SI, I have to scroll down before I get any actual news. Hopefully they change that…