Much of my career I have spent covering athletes, professional and amateur, some whose glory days come in their teens or their early twenties, and many more who reach the highest of all levels as professionals or Olympians and find themselves done doing what they do by their mid-30s or, if remarkably fortunate, their early 40’s.
What is about sports – and the term “athlete” – that appeals? I speak personally here, but it has always been the way I can relate to the energy of competition. The game, whatever it is, has always been the thing to me.
Whether playing wiffle ball against my brother Bob as a kid, competing in adult baseball as an adult, running in a half marathon in my 40s, it has all been about the same things: connecting to a community, pushing my self as an individual, simply feeling better. As a birthday passes and I realize I have let my fitness level slip to arguably the most disappointing of my life, I seek inspiration… and I share these with you now. These are people I know, have covered, have seen… there are countless others that belong on this list, and hopefully I can add to them as I think about it. I am adding them in as they come to mind, and for no scientific reason they fall in this order. There is only one woman on this list, not because I don’t admire female athletes (and you KNOW I do) but because I am not a female. The one who made the cut will be obvious to you when you read it. So with no further to do since I am getting older as I write this)…
Herschel Walker (b. March 3, 1962-): The former University of Georgia great is a year or so younger than me, and has always amazed me with the simplicity of his approach to fitness. No matter what, he does his sit-ups. no matter what, he does his push-ups. He was, in my experience, the best college football player I have ever seen. We found out in recent years, Herschel has had serious emotional and mental wars to wage. He has overcome with heart and focus and determination. He is now focused on an MMA career in his 50s. He is serious, and he will, barring injury or concussions, likely succeed. (I am not, for the record, a huge MMA fan, but that is a blog for another day.) I recommend the ESPN Film about Herschel as well as this SEC video if you want to learn more.
Jack Lallane (b. September 26, 1914- d. January 23, 2011): Only know him as the “juice machine guy”? Then you are too young to understand that Jack Lallane brought fitness into the homes of the first (and second and third) generations of American couch potatoes. He taught us to get up off of our asses and to never, ever quit. He was working out strongly into his 90s.
Andrew Harvey (b. 1961-) I must put Andy and Jack Lallane in the same sentence. He is one of my oldest and dearest friends and when he set his sights on something, he achieves it. One of those goals was a world record for bench press in the California Senior Games to celebrate his 50th birthday. He crushed it.
Phil Niekro (b. April 1, 1939-): Nucksie (also spelled Knucksie) was one of the first professional athletes I grew up watching as a kid and then covered as a young professional sportscaster. He pitched until he was 48-years-old, taking the mound one last time as an Atlanta Braves pitcher in 1987 (I was there covering it for WMGT-TV). He was a knuckleball pitcher, and many doubted his athleticism. He used to even joke about it, paraphrasing here – saying that his off-season workout routine included mowing the lawn and walking to the mailbox and back. But he pitched more innings in his career than any major leaguer in the live ball era, mostly for poor teams, and his numbers put him in the Hall of Fame. He was also one of the first athletes I ever covered who i saw smoking a cigarette in the clubhouse (they used to do that) and it floored me, since i couldn’t imagine a professional athlete doing such a thing. Boy, have I learned some stuff since then. And maybe, just maybe I love Knucksie because my dad threw a great knuckleball, too, and in my heart, I feel like he was every bit the Hall of Famer as anybody – including Knucksie.
Gordie Howe (b. March 31, 1928-): I never actually covered Gordie Howe when he was officially playing, but I did when he appeared in a National Hockey League Heroes of Hockey game at the All-Star week in San Jose in January, 1997. I was working for CNN Sports and CNN/SI. Howe was 70 at the time and when he took the ice with some old cats and quite a few who could still skate, everyone, and I mean EVERYONE gave him room. His elbows were still heavy and he used them. Mr. Hockey played professionally until he was 51-years-old, playing in every game his final season as a professional hockey player.
Bill Leach (b. April 5, 1946-): You may not know Bill, but he was an Olympic rower and later in life an Ironman triathlete. An inspiration at any age, Bill taught me that getting up on the bike or in the water at any age is cool – there’s always another category you can medal in as long as you sign up. Here’s a profile of him. I also highly recommend his book Circle of Success.
Karch Kiralyi (b. November 3, 1960-) The best men’s volleyball player in history, Karch is an icon and his brash style, competitive spirit and long career were always in the face of his opposition. I covered him when he was training for the Atlanta Olympics, rode along with him in his early morning workouts and saw that, despite painful shoulder injuries, he was determined not to let the calendar beat him. He played on the AVP tour until he was 47.
Jack Provost: Jack, I’m guessing, is pushing 70 now, and probably still getting some swings in. He never (to my knowledge) played professional baseball, but when I played for him with the Mud Hens in the Men’s Senior Baseball League in the LA area back in the 1990s, he put together teams that competed – weekly – against top college and pros of the over-30 set. And we won, a lot. I argue that I played the best baseball of my life for Jack, and during that time could have earned a check playing at a higher level (like, Australia or Russia, hahaha). But what I have never forgotten is how Jack approached getting a little older. He learned to play first, he played second, and he took his hacks. He never, ever got cheated at the plate, and he always showed me that, despite younger guys on the team, he wanted and deserved to play. He was named an MSBL Hall of Famer in 2001.
Bob Feller (November 3, 1918 – December 15, 2010): Ted Williams called him “the fastest and best pitcher I ever saw during my career.” Enough for me. I faced Bullet Bob when he was barnstorming through Minor League cities, doing autograph signings back in the late 1980s. I was working in Chattanooga, and thought I was hot stuff, stepping in at a media batting practice event to face Feller, a fierce competitor who in his day was one of the first to clock 100 mph. He was also never afraid to dust someone off the plate, especially a smart-ass TV sportscaster who was determined to show up the Hall of Famer even if Feller was probably 70-years-old. First pitch I saw I hit a liner back through the box. Feller didn’t laugh. He told me to get back in the box. The next pitch was at my chin. I went down. I laughed. He didn’t. He told me to get up. The next pitch was at my feet. I went down. I laughed, nervously. He didn’t. Then he cracked a smile. I think he might have called me a name or two. I got a couple more pitches, and hit a soft ground ball to the right side. Feller was in my head and I was done. That’s what great pitchers do, even at age 70.
Chuck Schroeder: I got to know Chuck when he worked at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. He was an inspiration to me, shared books and insight to getting better, not older. And he told me that in his 50s and 60s he is a better rodeo cowboy than he’s ever been in his life.
Doc Paskowtiz: (B. March 3, 1921-): Dorian Paskowitz is a waterman. He raised his family, his philosophy of healthy living, his legend, on the beaches of Hawaii and southern California. I got to know him when I worked at the Orange County Newschannel, and my daughter (and I) attended the Paskowitz Family Surf Camp every year. We were welcomed as part of the tribe, and I couldn’t be prouder to have experienced those times of growth. I even got into a movie about Doc called “Surfwise”. There’s so much more to Doc than words can tell, so I recommend you look at the interviews we taped in the late 1990s with him here. And here. Let’s just say, paddling out and living life is a choice made daily. Surf’s up, Doc!
Don and Eleanor Weber (b. nunya-*): My mom and dad never failed to take us where we needed to go, no matter what a burden it was. I was not a great athlete, but I greatly wanted to be athletic. When I started lifting weights, I found I had some control of my destiny. Looking back, I know my dad was a good softball player and athlete as a young man as well, attending a major league tryout when he was a teenager alongside a Hall of Famer, whose name escapes me. (I am sure I just want him to tell me the story again.) My mom always tried to exercise, but this is about what they have done into their 80s. They get up off of their asses almost EVERY DAY and they walk. Some times they walk slowly. Some times they probably walk a shorter distance than others. But they exercise. They have done this for the past quarter century and I believe it is why they are so strong and sharp, and it is one of many reasons why they are my favorite athletes of all-time. You don’t have to be an Olympian or a Major Leaguer to be admired. That’s what this list is all about.
*nunya: “None ya damn business!”