When I was a kid, my hero was Jimmy Greaves. He was a striker for the Tottenham Hotspurs soccer team in London, and you can still see in grainy black and white film clips what a dynamite dribbler he was. The 1966 World Cup should have been his triumph, but he was replaced by Geoff Hurst, who went on the score three times in the final.
In the years after, his fans, me among them, mounted a campaign to get him recalled to the England team. We'd stand in the stadium at White Hart Lane every home game chanting incessantly, frantically, fervently, "Jimmy for England," every time he scored a goal. I was totally emotionally invested in the cause. I felt personally aggrieved by the injustice. But he never did win his place back.
Greaves wasn't my only sporting hero. I loved the dashing Romanian tennis star Ilie Nastase who had several fantastic Wimbledon runs but never won the title. And there were others too. I would fantasize about being them -- about being able to do the things they did, about exulting in the cheers of the crowd. I suspect this is very common among adolescent and post-adolescent males.
Jimmy's 70 now with 10 grandchildren and one great grandchild. And I caught sight of Nastase recently on TV. He's kept his long hair, now gray and straggly, and has become quite stout.
At some point -- it's hard to pin down a specific moment -- I stopped having sports heroes. Today, watching the players in the World Cup, I admire their grace, their skills, their efforts, their deeds -- but in a dispassionate way. Actually, I feel a little sorry for them. Their time on the stage is so brief and what awaits many after they retire from the game is a lifetime of sore limbs, broken down bodies and dreams of yesteryear -- decades of anti-climax.
I don't mean to disparage retired athletes, many of whom go on to live perfectly respectable, indeed useful lives. Some will forge new careers as coaches or TV pundits. Others perhaps will own restaurants or pubs, or run car dealerships or be in demand as after-dinner speakers. A few will drift into alcohol or drug addiction Some may take up golf and live off their millions. Some will reinvent themselves as spokespeople for worthy causes. Whichever path they take, it has to be emotionally tough going through life as a former sports hero. Growing old, watching one's physical gifts slowly erode and finally wither, is difficult enough for the rest of us. For elite athletes, who once bestrode the world stage and basked in the cheers of millions, it has to be even more challenging.
I look at Wayne Rooney, the England striker. He's 24 but he played like an old man in this World Cup, broken down by repeated injuries and a season that never ends. Or Fabio Cannavaro, Italy's captain four years ago when he was the rock at the center of their defense. This year, not even aged 33, he was clearly too slow, too ponderous, too old! Or take Michael Owen who sprang to fame in the 1998 World Cup aged 18. Now, not even 30, that lightning speed that quickened our hearts is long gone, worn away by injury after injury. In tennis, Roger Federer has been inspirational but it appears, a month shy of his 29th birthday, that his best days are behind him.
As Shakespeare writes:
Time doth transfix the flourish set on youth
And delves the parallels in beauty's brow,
Feeds on the rarities of nature's truth,
And nothing stands but for his scythe to mow.
I've lived long enough now to know that most sporting heroes are just people who happen to be good at sports. We should enjoy and admire their feats -- without idolizing them. They don't need our veneration. For all their money, the rest of their lives are going to be hard enough as it is.
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