F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.” In my experience in the Celebrity Industrial Complex, I can say the same about professional athletes. I’ve interviewed a bunch, and met many more, and yup, they’re different. They have been their whole lives: since these folks were little kids they’ve been exceptional, superlative – the adjectives about their skills go on and on. They can do stuff the rest of us just can’t do, and that separates them from other humans…they CAN leap over tall buildings, while the rest of us can only cheer.
Think about that for a second. A lifetime of having super powers would tweak anyone’s head -
There is one place, however, where the majority of pro athletes are notoriously lame: in interviews. Cliche-ville! (Sometimes purposefully: check this out.) The thrill these guys inspire on the field almost always blows away, like a tire leaking air, when they are asked to describe their artistry. “Hey Michael Jordan, How did you land that clutch basket when four guys were covering you and only one second remained in the game??? Telll us!!!” And dripping sweat and breathless, he’ll say, amid the stunned cheers and screams of the overwhelmed fans – wait for it – something like, “I focused and gave 110%.” Wa waaaaa, game over.
I heard the same over-used phrases so many times when reporting on these guys that I finally came up with a theory. Pro athletes aren’t dull. It takes a lot of acuity to make it to the top. They just don’t have words for what they can do. Who can describe magic? Who has words for ridiculous reflexes and nerve impulses that fire at hyper-speed and brains that can process angles and options before you can snap your fingers? I think the truth is professional athletes “think” with their bodies, or they are synced with their bodies, in a way we can’t appreciate or replicate – game information flies from their eyes to their brains faster, their muscles twitch in response before ours do, their bodies are so capable that seemingly unreasonable requests like JUMP HIGHER or SPRINT FASTER are carried out with confidence and faith where the rest of us would buckle and falter. And, finally, maybe most-importantly, the plays we’d experience as frantic chaos they read like Bobby Fischer looking at a chess board. SNAP. GOT IT. BAM. Score.
That, my friends, is genius. I’m talking mystical, don’t-know-how-I-did-that, tap-into-another-part-of-the-brain intelligence. Professional athletes’ grace, their abilities, are spiritual and subconscious, just as an artist’s are. I think that is why so many top athletes (and singers and dancers and on) pray to God to win, to perform, to maintain their magic. And that’s because there’s no better explanation for what they can do than being blessed by a Higher Power – they have slipped off the scale of the scientific and reasonable. Movement and power at that level is creativity, is art – and studied as athletes may be for technique and strength and body composition etc, at the core, what they do is ultimately UNKNOWABLE both to us and to them. And so, again with words limited, they thank God. Seems as reasonable as any other explanation. Who knows – maybe assuming their gifts are from God makes them feel a little less freaky – they are different, and we as a culture worship them, because they have been touched.
So there, that’s my theory. I’m exhausted now This is definitely the most metaphysical Tuck Takes Off post to date…
And so, let’s circle back to the pro-athlete who has been singled out since he was 10 and has inspired “that look” in the eyes of fans, the heightened daze of hero worship, since, say, high school and imagine how easy it is to get derailed by a huge ego. We’ve seen this a million times. Bad behavior. Entitled attitudes. As Spidey says, “With great power comes great responsibility,” and lots of guys blow it (I’m talking to you, O.J, Ty Cobb, Kobe, Ben Roethlisberger… )
And so I must give the HUGEST high five to the NFL players I helped to assemble for a recent event in LA for 4th and Forever, a new tv docu-series. The show is about Polytechnic High School in Long Beach CA and its amazing football program. (Shameless plug but it’s on Current TV, the Keith Olbermann/Al Gore network – I’ve been consulting there and loooove it.)