“A trophy carries dust. Memories last forever.”
Mary Lou Retton
You know time is moving too fast when you see athletes and entertainers whom you held in high regard in younger days have died. For whatever reason, celebrity deaths get our attention. Heroes who have punctuated our younger days with forever memories are special.
It seems there are at least a couple of phases along these lines in life.
First are those legends from long ago, people you knew were important but didn’t have a real connection to. For me, examples are Milton Berle, Frank Sinatra, Joe DiMaggio and Vince Lombardi. Big, big deals, but I never really appreciated their profound impact across several generations.
Then there’s the people who make their mark while we’re paying closer attention to the world around us. These are folks, who from the outside looking in, seem to do things the right way and are also the best at what they do. As the awful year known as 2020 continues to roll on and the pandemic, election and social justice dominate news cycles,, I’m noticing we’re quietly losing people I admired from afar for their craft and accomplishment.
Which should remind us of our own mortality.
Maybe losing Kobe Bryant in such a sudden, tragic way early this year should have been a harbinger of what was to come. The outpouring of grief, amplified through social media, was incredible. If Kobe, one of the few people on the planet known by one name, could be taken without warning, then so could anyone else.
And that has been the case.
Like many others of a certain age, I came to an appreciation of professional athletes not just through seeing them on television. Back then, options were limited with three networks and a game-of-the-week mentality. Televised sports was mostly the stuff of weekends.
To a young person thirsting for athletic knowledge, sports-card collecting helped fill the knowledge gaps. I still have most of my cards, tucked away in a closet, hopefully headed to one or both of the kids some faraway day from now.
Most of the collection is baseball cards spanning 1969-79. It was a glorious time for baseball, which makes the passing of players from that era tough. This year, we’ve lost two of the game’s greatest pitchers in Bob Gibson and Tom Seaver. Those guys knew how to get it done on the mound, and the bigger the game, the better they were.
Gibson’s former St. Louis Cardinals teammate, Lou Brock, also died this year. In many ways, Brock was the heart of some very talented teams. He was a consummate leadoff man who knew how to manufacture runs in his team’s home park. On more than one occasion, he’d work a pitcher for a walk, steal second, steal third and then score on a groundout, staking his team to an early lead.
Speaking of steady performers, Al Kaline was a real throwback, playing his entire 20-plus-season career with one team, the Detroit Tigers. Like Brock, Kaline also reached the rarefied air of the 3,000-hit plateau. One other former baseball player to mention here is Bob Watson, famous as the first Black general manager to win a World Series (Yankees, 1996) and the answer to a trivia question as the man who scored the 1 millionth run in the game’s history.
Of course, baseball isn’t the only sport to say goodbye to some of its greats. Gale Sayers, among the most talented running backs of all time, passed away this year. Sayers’ career was cut short by injuries, and he will forever be remembered by me and many others for his book, “I Am Third,” and his friendship with teammate Brian Piccolo, captured in the made-for-TV movie “Brian’s Song” (the first film to make me cry).
In the basketball world, we lost Wes Unseld, who, as a young wannabe basketball player many moons ago, was someone I looked up to. He was quiet and wonderfully effective on the court. Undersized in the post, his rebounding ability was equal parts art and science, and no one has ever thrown the outlet pass better.
In fact, we had a “Wes Unseld drill” in practice where we’d toss the ball off the backboard, rebound it, pivot and throw a two-hand overhead pass to a guard ready to start the fast break. Done like Unseld, it meant the ball might hit the floor twice before someone scored at the other end of the court.
I’m also going to miss the legendary Curly Neal of Harlem Globetrotter fame. No one could handle a basketball better than Neal, whose dribbling antics were a cornerstone of Globetrotter exhibitions. He was a pleasure to watch, probably because I never could dribble more than a couple of times before it bounced off my shoe.
Talk about admiration. How about Phyllis George, who also died earlier this year? Long before someone thought it would be a good idea to make pre-game shows stretch on ad nauseum and include marching bands, hot-air balloons and numerous other gimmicks, it was a simpler time. An hour before games began Sunday, you could turn on “The NFL Today,” which included in its weekly lineup Phyllis George. It is in part because of her pioneering work that sports journalism is much better off today thanks to the many women who were inspired by her and followed in her footsteps.
Obviously, this isn’t an exhaustive list of athletes, just a few who spark special memories for me. I haven’t even gotten to Tom Dempsey, who once kicked the longest field goal in NFL history, or Willie Wood, the ferocious defensive back of the Green Bay Packers.
Heck, it’s been equally devastating for coaches. We’ve lost Miami Dolphins legend Don Shula, and college basketball coaching greats Lute Olson and John Thompson. We’ve even lost my favorite baseball manager from a film: Wilford Brimley, who portrayed the long-suffering Pop Fisher of the New York Knights in the magnificent Robert Redford movie “The Natural.”
As I look back at these names, and so many others, I think it only fitting to sum this up with a paraphrased nod to the trademark song of a hero from another age, Bob Hope: Thanks for the memories.
Doug Hensley is associate regional editor and director of commentary for the Globe-News.