“The glory of God is a man fully alive.” — Irenaeus
“When I run, I feel his pleasure.” — Eric Liddell, Chariots of Fire
Troy Polamalu played football like we all wish we could play anything: all-out…and effectively. He played safety for the Pittsburgh Steelers with a fierce joy in every aspect of the game: tackling, yes, but also catching interceptions, deflecting passes, and just hurling himself over the line to try to stop goal-line runs. You know that if he could have been sent in to pass or kick, he would have leapt at the chance. He played football, even at its most demanding, painful level, even when injuries hurt and slowed him. He played.
He’s announced his retirement, and upon reflection, I think of a very few other top-level athletes who seemed to truly play their games.
My favourite football player, the late Walter Payton of the Chicago Bears, seemed to have the same fierce joy. And “Sweetness” really did get to do everything: run, catch, and block, sure, and among the very best who ever did those things. But #34 also got to show us some crushing tackles, beautiful passes, and even a kick or two.
For all of his exploits on the field, however, it was Walter Payton’s smile as he came off it that we all remember best. “Love of the game” meant something to him.
You look at lots and lots of excellent football players, and they don’t look like they’re having much fun out there. I hardly blame them: NFL football is shockingly violent.
But even when things are going well…the great Payton Manning frowns, while his talented and successful younger brother mostly scowls. First-round Hall of Famer Tom Brady made news this year because he did actually seem to enjoy this past season of football, one quite late in his storied career. (Among top quarterbacks, the “having fun” prize has to go to Aaron Rodgers.)
What about other sports? Everyone smiles after a terrific play, of course, but Magic Johnson truly seemed to be having a blast on the basketball court almost all the time.
And what a player. A Hall of Fame guard, with five NBA titles to his credit and the all-time assist-per-game record.
Astoundingly, however, in his rookie season Magic played every position during a single game for Los Angeles…an NBA final game…which they won.
His Airness Michael Jordan, by contrast, seemed to be having as much fun as a shark while he piled up glory after glory. Sure, the blood in the water was exciting and the thrill of victory never got old. But Michael seemed all about winning, especially after his rookie season and his realization that he had to carry the Bulls pretty much by himself. No Kareem to dish to. (Sorry, Scotty: I know you’ve never gotten the respect you deserved, but I’m looking at it from Jordan’s point of view.) So Michael just looked intense: “I’m going to beat you, and you, and you, and you, and everyone else…again.”
Larry? Kareem? Impassive and relentless most of the time. Wilt? A shark like Michael.
No, it was Magic who lit up the Forum and pretty much everyplace else he went.
In the greatest sport of all, the clown prince has to be Alex Ovechkin. Fabulously talented, breathtakingly inventive, and constantly successful, Ovey seems perpetually 12 years old.
He has even offended self-appointed guardians of the game by apparently having too much fun out there.
To that, I say, Pish-tosh. How wonderful to be feeling that good at the top of that game!
The Great One, by contrast, always seemed so terribly earnest, the weight of huge and constant expectation driving him to record after record without any sense that “Okay, wow. Another amazing feat. That’s enough now, Wayne. Good boy. Time to have fun.”
Mario was virtually a recluse. Sid seems still to pout and snarl more than he grins.
You have to go ‘way, ‘way back to Gordie Howe for a top player who loved every bit of the game: smacking an opponent into the boards as much as feeding a teammate a pass, stopping his man cold with a hip check as much as firing up the crowd with a slap-shot. (For you youngsters, a “Howe hat trick” was a goal, an assist, and a fight all in one game.)
I’m sure there are parallels in soccer. Maybe in baseball, too—although how a sport that generally moves so slowly can evoke much more than an occasional slight twitch of a smile (“Hey! Wake up! Double play!” “Cool!” “Okay, back to sleep”) is beyond me….
So here’s to the players.
Yes, Howe apparently was an arrogant so-and-so. Johnson was a player in more ways than one. Payton’s choice of performance enhancers seemed to have extended beyond his famous gruelling workout routines. And who knows what skeletons lurk in the closets of Ovechkin and Polamalu?
But never mind all that today. Today is about goal-scoring with gusto, passing with panache, defending with delight.
Congratulations, #43, and thanks for lifting us out of our seats as you went airborne one more time.