Lesser-Known Sports Heroes For the Win


Scene from the Iliad (Creative Commons)

The hero trope in the world of sports is nothing new: even Patroclus’ funeral games in the Iliad weren’t the first time athletic achievement was used to signal heroism. (We’re talking about heroism as defined by excellence and by striving, not just by what the Atlantic’s Rob Goodman calls “social usefulness.”)

And being a hero means getting a statue, right?

So in an interview this week with Sporting News, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar made the case that the lack of a statue of him at the Staples Center, home of the Lakers as well as several sculptures of athletes, is a major slight to his legacy.

But in the world of sports, it’s not the statue that defines the hero narrative. It’s the story.

Real life Rocky and Rudy stories are better than the movies. Plus, they can make lesser-known athletes memorable. Sports-journalism profiles are responsible for a lot of those cases. Here are a few of the best stories out there of athletes made larger-than-life by journalists—often beyond the scope of their own achievements. You may not care about wrestling stats or triathlons or statues at the Staples Center, but after you read these pieces, you’ll never forget the names.

  • The Man Who Wouldn’t Die,” by Michael Paterniti (GQ, August 2007), is the story of the many times wrestler Rulon Gardner nearly died—and even though you know he makes it, the story keeps you in a choke-hold the whole way there.
  • The Wheels of Life,” by Gary Smith (Sports Illustrated, April 18 2011), recounts a lifetime’s worth of races and triathlons, as run by a father-son pair. The catch is that the son is quadriplegic. Smith seems aware that the story is something Hollywood would cook up, but he deftly manages to juxtapose the very real challenges of their racing life and the made-for-TV motivational qualities of the fact that they keep going.
  • Still Going Strong,” by Joe Posnanski (Sports Illustrated, 27 September 2010), is another how-does-he-keep-going story, this time about 40-year-old baseballer Jim Thome, and when/whether he’s going to retire. It’s a little snapshot that shows how a good story can elevate the work of a player, even if he’s no Babe Ruth.
  • But sometimes social usefulness ain’t so bad either. “Out on the Ice,” by Mary Rogan,” (GQ, January 2010) is about former hockey star Brian Burke and his role as an advocate against homophobia in sports. It’s less movie-friendly fare—a lot of what Burke is doing is talking, not scoring dramatic shoot-out goals—but no less heroic.

And there’s hope too for those of us who lack the hand-eye coordination, upper-body strength, lung capacity, or plain-old pluck to be a sports hero! Frank Deford’s “Sometimes the Bear Eats You: Confessions of a Sportswriter” (Sports Illustration, March 29 2010) will be a comfort to anyone who wants his life story immortalized alongside those of Achilles and A-Rod, but would rather be writing about the game than playing it.

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