He’s Been Tensing Up His Arms and His Legs

The Best American Sportswriting 2009
Leigh Montville, Guest Editor; Glenn Sharp, Series Editor

I am hopelessly clumsy though not quite an oaf. If one of the seven intelligences is bodily-kinesthetic, that’s the one in which I came up short.

The basics–walking, for instance–I find manageable,  but much more than that presents a challenge. Even the sorts of things that supposedly benefit from drills or daily repetition have a minor effect on me.

Maybe that’s why I read these sports annuals.

There was a time when reading them was an act of self-preservation. I’d dutifully pick up each year’s installment and pore over it, gleaning just enough information to more or less muddle through the preferred conversational material of the American male. At least that’s what I told myself I was up to.

That doesn’t really work, though, because sports is a larger category than the organized professional leagues. What guys really want to talk about is teams–their teams. Their real subject is fandom, which I suggest is a particular form of belonging that’s almost religious in the sense that mastering your team’s catechism appears to be a requirement for entry.

Drills and athelticism are not unrelated. And, according to Coach Lois, not without benefit.

What there isn’t much room for is an aesthetic or cerebral appreciation of athleticism. More than one devoted fan has shaken their head at me when I say as much.

And yet speaking as a guy who regularly swims almost a mile using an ugly but serviceable stroke, who has cut off the tip of his left thumb more times than he can count and who cannot type the word ‘the’ correctly without slowing down to a rate of 15 or so WPM, athleticism awes me. Fandom, by contrast, interests me more as a social phenomenon.

Not that this volume, or any other in the series, lacks coverage of team sports. Let’s be practical. The sources for these collected stories include entities firmly implanted in the big business of sports: ESPN: The Magazine, Sports Illustrated and even The Washington Post, to name just a few. When such outlets ignore fandom they risk their very existence.

These books, however, invert the order of importance. To the avid sports fan, the focus should start and mostly remain on the teams and players. Here, the writing is what’s being showcased. It just happens to focus on sports as one aspect of human endeavor. So let’s turn to the writing.

There are evidently many people who run for sport or fitness. I am not one of them.
Photo by Josiah Mackenze, cc2.0

Although I don’t think it’s part of the Chinese Zodiac, the year these pieces were published (2008) might have been The Year of the Runner. Perhaps more accurately the name might be the Year of the Runner’s Story. In fact, the volume leads off with Bruce Barcott‘s story from Runner’s World about long-distance runner Tom White.

Barcott tells the tale of a gifted runner whose career is cut short by a horrific accident. Though he achieves some form of rehabilitation and remains beloved by former teammates and runners he’s coached, his inadequacy nags at him. So he has his injured leg amputated and replaced by a prosthetic. Should we view White as an example of accepting no limits? Or is his really a tale of much more fundamental human needs? Read it and ponder that question for yourself.

You may also want to spend some time with Amby Burfoot‘s recollection of winning the 1968 Boston Marathon. I spent a semester of my college years in Massachusetts and had a friend who was trying to qualify for the big race. By then, The Complete Book of Running had been published and the race was on its way to the top tier of sporting events. Ambry ran in a quieter, gentler marathon that’s worth knowing about.

Bésbol remains a big deal in Cuba.
Ramon.rovirosa, CC BY-SA 3.0

Team sports haven’t been ignored, but the possibilities of writing about the business of sports have been expanded. Michael Lewis, always a writer worth reading when the subjects are sports or money, tackles the intersection of both with the tale of Gus Dominguez, a self-styled sports agent who specializes in Cuban baseball players. Dominguez is also a convicted federal felon whose naivete lies at the heart of his purported crime and the way he runs his business.

If you prefer tossing the pigskin to whacking the horsehide don’t fret, Leigh Montville, the Guest Editor, has you covered. Paul Solotaroff tells the story of Steve Clarkson, a contemporary of John Elway, who played for San Jose State when Jack Elway, the dad of the then-not-yet Broncos QB, was coaching there . Clarkson runs what may be the most successful training program for future NFL quarterbacks.

Or consider the redemption epic of Mike Flynt . In his youth, Flynt played linebacker for the Sul Ross State University Lobos, an NCAA Division III school located in Alpine, Texas. Some contretemps–the facts depend on who’s speaking–resulted in his leaving school and the program early. Now, at age 58, he wants to finish out his season.

There’s much more here, all of it worth reading. This is the volume that contains Tracy Rosss’ Backpacker piece, about which I’ve written previously. In similar, wide-ranging fashion you can read about poker rooms in Florida and LeBron James‘ plans for building an athlete-centered business around basketball.

Did you know the medicine ball has existed for close to 3,000 years?

You’ll also find the almost obligatory story from Outside magazine, this one detailing how inattentive hijinks can have mortal consequences. From Gary Smith, in SI, we hear the story of the Fugees, a ragtag soccer club for refugee kids living near Atlanta. The Fugees are the project of Luma Muffleh, herself an immigrant from the Middle East. You’ll even have the chance to learn the history of the lowly medicine ball.

For me,  the piece that really brought it together came near the end. David McGlynn writes of an open water swimming race held annually in La Jolla. I’d say this speaks to my own threats to attempt the swim across the Great South Bay, but it’s a much deeper piece, dwelling not just on the solitariness of the swimmer, but on the formation of athletes. The phrase that sticks with me is, “To be a child without a sport is to be without a childhood.”

That, I understand. And to have been without a childhood is to forever be apart.






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