(Reader advisory: What follows is not about Lance Armstrong or Manti Te’o.)
Though we live to become old-timers, we still see our sports heroes, as my college friend Roland Swardson once mused, through pre-adolescent eyes; which, I guess, is why some sportswriter with a sociological bent (or a sociologist with a sports bent) came up with the term Role Model.
A Role Model, by definition, is an athlete who in his conduct both on and off the field sets a standard for young people to emulate. The standard in my antediluvian youth was exemplified by those athletes who were game-centered rather than self-centered. They didn’t boast, didn’t taunt, and let their on-field (or in the case of Joe Louis, in-ring) performance do the talking for them.
All of which, for many athletes who came of age after what Tom Wolfe called “the Me Generation,” made for a standard of conduct best ignored or in some cases scorned. NBA star Charles Barkley, for example, let it be known that he had enough on his plate in terms of salary caps and product endorsements without being burdened as a role model for other people’s kids.
Fortunately there are others – even in an age when ESPN exalts a new generation of swaggering I-Am-the-Greatest athletes – who don’t share Prince Charles’ (as Barkley calls himself) view.
In my time I’ve come to personally know two Role Models who fill the bill on standards you’d want your kids to emulate. One is Larry Brown, the Washington Redskins’ great running back, who won the NFL’s Most Valuable Player award in 1972 – a player remembered not only for his hell-for-leather running style but the fact that after crossing the goal line he didn’t spike, didn’t dance, didn’t point to himself or the heavens (as if he were God’s Chosen Halfback). He simply handed the ball to the referee.
The other gifted Role Model I’ve been privileged to know was Stan Musial, the nonpareil St. Louis Cardinal outfielder/first baseman of the 1940s and ’50s who died last week at the age of 92. All I might say in praise of Stan – his gift, his modesty, his humanity – was summed up in the headlines run by the New York Times on Jan. 20, reporting his death. The first read, “Stan Musial, Gentlemanly Slugger and Cardinals’ Stan the Man, Dies at 92”; the second, above an obituary by George Vecsey: “The Star Who Stood Out by Not Standing Out.”
A cherished memory of Stan: Some years ago, after Frank Mankiewicz and I organized the Stan Musial Society, a Cardinals fan club in the national capital area, we traveled to St. Louis for dinner and a baseball game with The Man. All went smoothly until we approached the entrance to Busch Stadium where a crowd of youngsters – my estimate was between 30 and 50 kids, both boys and girls – swarmed in, asking for autographs.
We live in a time, understand, when celebrity signatures go for $25 a shot at autograph sessions organized and promoted by sports stars and their agents. That thought ran through my mind as Frank and I stood by and watched – for 15, 20 minutes – until every kid in that crowd went away happy.
Stan the Man. He remembered, he said, being a kid like that himself, back in Donora, Pennsylvania. Allow a nostalgic old-timer this well-worn cliché: They don’t make them like that anymore.