In my lucky life as a sportswriter, I would say that I covered — REALLY covered — a dozen or so Hall of Fame caliber athletes. Not all of these players are in the Hall of Fame or maybe ever will be, but at their best they were at that Hall of Fame level.
Melvin Stewart, Olympic champion in 200-meter butterfly. In many ways, Mel and I grew up together. He is 20 months younger than me, and in the late 1980s he had this dream of becoming an Olympic champion, and I had this dream of becoming a successful sportswriter. We came together. The thing that struck me about Mel was his certainty. He seemed to know that he was destined to set the world record, to win the Olympic gold and to date Summer Sanders. He did the first two. As far as I know, he never asked out Summer Sanders.
Barry Larkin, shortstop, Cincinnati Reds in the early-to-mid-1990s. The thing I remember most about Larkin was that when it was a key situation, he always gave you a great at-bat, made a terrific defense play or tried something on the bases. It didn’t always work — baseball is, after all, a game of failure — but he never went down without a fight.
Deion Sanders, as outfielder with Cincinnati. I realize this is not exactly playing by the rules — Deion was nothing close to a Hall of Fame baseball player. But I did get to know him a bit (we hit it off for some reason) and in many ways seeing him as a baseball player gave a deeper insight into his greatness. He undoubtedly worked very hard as a football player, but football was easier for him. His natural talents as a cover man and a kick returner were, in so many ways, gifts from above. But baseball was hard, and it was inspiring to see how hard he worked at the game.
Rulon Gardner, Olympic gold medal wrestler. I lucked into this one. I just happened to be of the few American writers there when Gardner beat the invincible Alexandr Karelin at the Sydney Olympics. As I have written, it’s my favorite ever sporting event. A few years later, I spent some more time with Rulon when he was on The Biggest Loser. From Gardner, I learned: You should never let anyone else tell you what’s really possible and impossible. You have to figure that out for yourself.
Will Shields, as guard with Kansas City. He was just a metronome, you know, out there working his heart out every single day, out there playing at the highest level week after week, month after month, year after year, no matter the weather or the record. Will was tough, and I don’t just mean on the field. He was tough to figure. The guy had — and has — a heart of gold, and when you saw him around kids it would melt your heart. But he could also be cold and rough, would just look right through you. Teammates talked about how they never exactly knew him. There was always so much going on his head.
Jackie Stiles, as shooting guard at then Southwest Missouri State. A thousand shots. That’s how many shots per day Jackie Stiles MADE when she was in high school in the small town of Claflin, Kan. It’s funny, she didn’t make those shots in an effort to become the all-time leading scorer in NCAA women’s basketball history (though she did indeed do that). She did it because she was furious at herself over a subpar performance in the high school state tournament. She was driven to become better not for any grand goal but because she was so angry at herself not being better.
Willie Roaf, tackle with Kansas City. The first time I saw Willie Roaf, it was when he was playing at Lousiana Tech. I went to write a column about a South Carolina-Louisiana Tech game, and the Bulldogs Sports Information Director tipped me off that Roaf might become the greatest tackle IN THE HISTORY OF FOOTBALL. Yes, Sports Information Directors are supposed to hype but this I had to see, so I spent the whole game watching Roaf play, ignoring the rest of it. I was floored. Every play was like watching an artist at work. It never stopped being like that. When Roaf came to Kansas City and opened up the biggest holes you ever saw, I’d spend entire series just watching him, and it never stopped being jaw-dropping — it’s really something to watch someone who is THAT GOOD at something.
Maurice Greene, world’s fastest man. Maurice Greene was from Kansas City and, as such, I wrote A LOT about him over the years. My favorite time was after he won the 100-meter dash at the Sydney Olympics. NBC let me into their production compound and allowed me to watch the race over and over again so that I could write about every one of the 46 steps he took on the way to gold. I had never appreciated how much precision it took to be that fast. I particularly remember Steps 25 and 26.
Step 25: Now Greene begins to break free. He had always wanted to be an NFL player, a running back, like Walter Payton, and this is why, this feeling of daylight, breaking through, nobody can catch you.
Step 26: Darren Campbell in Lane 1 turns his head right, looks at Greene. He knows what all runners know. They are running for silver.
Priest Holmes, running back with Kansas City. The chess thing began as a lark. Priest was a famously difficult guy to get to know, which was inconvenient since he was the best player in the NFL at that moment. I heard he liked chess. So I suggested playing chess against him as a way to write a story about what makes him tick. He agreed and, bizarrely, it turned out that he liked it as much as I did. I was a perfect foil for him — good enough to make him sweat but rarely good enough to actually beat him. In 2002, when Priest had one of the greatest running back seasons ever, we played on home game Fridays, on road game Thursdays, and he won just about all the time, and I got to get close to an extraordinary athlete at the height of his powers. It was a pretty good deal.
Buck O’Neil: Lessons? Yeah, there were a few lessons.
Zack Greinke, pitcher for Kansas City. I suppose I’ve written more stories about Zack than any other athlete. Each one is joyous in its own way.
Tom Watson, golfer. I’ve often told the story about Tom calling me in the office of the Kansas City Star one day, not too long after I started as columnist there. At the time I was writing a silly weekly lists column, one of those places to dump all the scraps, tidbits and one-liners I couldn’t squeeze into any other column. He called me and asked what my goal was in life. Did I want to be a sports columnist or did I want to be a GREAT sports columnist? For Tom, if you’re not trying for greatness, honestly, you’re not trying. I don’t know if I believed it, but I told him, sure, I was going for greatness. “Then stop writing those damn list columns,” he said.
There are other Hall of Fame type athletes, but that seems a good place to stop.
Well, actually: One more, the guest of honor this week.
From the day he was drafted, I wrote A LOT about this year’s Hall of Fame inductee, tight end Tony Gonzalez. Here’s an updated version of my favorite Gonzalez story (well, two stories really):
No tight end in the history of the NFL ever worked quite as hard as Tony Gonzalez to be glamorous. Oh, there had been great tights ends -- John Mackey was this uncompromising mix of power and speed, and Mike Ditka was harder to bring down than Rome, and Ozzie Newsome was a circus acrobat, and Kellen Winslow was unrelenting and indomitable, and Dave Casper picked footballs out of the air and grass out of his helmet and linebackers to free up teammates.
But glamorous? No. Tight end always was a guts position, a bloody and muddy space for receivers who were a too big and not quite fast enough, for offensive linemen not big enough who had delusions of grandeur. Tony Gonzalez meant to do something about that. He did not come into the NFL to be a gritty stagehand, and he did not come to the NFL to blend into the background. He came to the NFL to be a star.
Check that: Tony Gonzalez already WAS a star when he got to the NFL. He had been a star all his life. He could do anything as a California kid. Basketball? Best in the neighborhood. Skateboarding? Best in the neighborhood. Biking? Best in the neighborhood. Surfing? He held his own. Good looks? Yeah, he had those too.
Football? Heck, in football it wasn’t even FAIR … he didn’t even like football that much, but he was so much better than everyone else, he had no choice but to keep on keeping on. When he was a senior in high school, he shared the award as the best high school athlete in Orange County.
Shared the award? Yeah. Well, the other guy, Tiger Woods, was a star too.
At Cal, he was a basketball star for a Sweet 16 team, a football star obviously, a young man people wanted to put on the cover of magazines. The Chiefs traded up to get him in the draft, and he showed up in Kansas City with the proclamation: “I like to have fun.” He didn’t have too much fun at the start. His rookie year, he didn’t start a game, but he caught 33 passes and the Chiefs had the best record in the AFC. The Chiefs lost their playoff game to Denver by flailing around with the worst two-minute drill you ever saw, but Gonzalez caught a touchdown pass and was controversially ruled out of bounds on what would have been a second. The future looked impossibly bright.
Then it went bad for a while. Coaches grumbled about his blocking or lack thereof. There was talk that he was too Hollywood, too interested in glory and less interested in doing all the little things right. But the big thing was this: His second year, he dropped ball after ball. It got bad enough that he heard some boos from the home fans; those cut him to the core. He had begun journaling, and one day he wrote down this question: “What kind of person do you want to be?”
There are two Gonzalez stories that come to me now — one is pretty famous, and we’ll get to it in a minute. The other though is less a story and more an observation. I never saw a player catch more passes than Tony Gonzalez. I don’t mean catches in NFL games, though that’s basically true for Gonzalez too — he caught 1,325 passes, second only to Jerry Rice all time (Larry Fitzgerald will pass Gonzalez this year).
But I mean in life. After every practice, every one, Gonzalez would catch 100 or 200 passes from the ball-throwing machine. I’d watch him do it on many days; he had a whole routine; he’d turn the ball machine up to 11 and then move in closer and closer, it was like a duel at 10 paces. When the ball hit his hands, you could hear this hard pop, like the sound of a fastball hitting a catcher’s mitt.
I’m sure other receivers have done something similar — as Gonzalez himself has said: “You don’t get an edge by practicing hard. EVERYBODY practices hard” — but the ball-machine thing was just a start. In down moments during practice, he would get someone to throw him passes. Before games, he would get someone to throw him passes. When the defense was on the field during games, he would get someone to throw him passes. His teammates grew tired of Gonzalez saying, “Wanna throw?” He would drive you absolutely crazy,” his longtime teammate, Tony Richardson, said.
See when Gonzalez asked himself, ‘What kind of person do you want to be?” he came up with a real answer. And then he worked obsessively to become that kind of person. This was true off the field too. But on the field, he wanted to be the kind of person who NEVER dropped a pass, and I suspect no one ever worked harder to achieve that impossible goal.
Every so often as a sportswriter, you hear a story and you immediately realize: “Oh, man, that story is going to become a classic. They will be telling that story forever.”
I was having dinner with Tony Gonzalez and his family, and the food was great, and the conversation was wonderful, and then he hit me with the Bill Belichick story. It’s perfect because it sums up two breathtaking careers. The story wouldn’t be as good if it was someone other than Gonzalez. And it wouldn’t be good at all if it was someone other than Belichick.
This happened at the Pro Bowl, the real Pro Bowl, back when it was in Hawaii every year. Gonzalez loved playing in the Pro Bowl because it wasn’t a game. It was a celebration of football and the beach and … mostly the beach.
The AFC coach that year was Belichick. And Gonzalez was curious: What makes this guy different? Sure, he was tough. Lots of coaches are tough. Sure, he prepared. Lots of coaches prepare. Sure, he was a perfectionist. Lots of coaches are perfectionists. All during the week, Gonzalez didn’t really pick up any differences. Were preparations a little more serious than normal Pro Bowls? Eh. Maybe. He didn’t really see it.
The game began, and Tony Gonzalez went out to play special teams on the opening kickoff because that’s what you do at the Pro Bowl. There are no grunts there to do the grunt work. It goes without saying that Gonzalez had no interest in being out there for special teams — none of the stars did — but that’s OK. You didn’t really DO anything on special teams in the Pro Bowl anyway There were only two priorities — have fun and don’t get hurt, not necessarily in that order.
So he went out there, and the ball was kicked off, and Gonzalez made what you might call a “Pro Bowl Block,” which is basically the hug that you give someone you haven’t seen in a few months. He happily jogged to the sideline, ready to have some fun.
“Why don’t you [bleepin’] block somebody, Gonzalez!” Belichick barked as Gonzalez jogged by.
Gonzalez froze. What did he say? What did that man say? Why don’t you [bleepin’[ block someone? Was that a [bleepin’] joke? He turned expecting to see some sort of grin on Belichick’s face, but there was no such grin. There was nothing resembling a grin. What Tony Gonzalez saw was a man who was most definitely not joking.
Wait a minute … wait a minute … wait a minute: Was Bill Belichick RIPPING him for not blocking on SPECIAL TEAMS at the PRO BOWL? This couldn’t be right. Did this [bleepin] guy have any idea how hard Gonzalez had worked to reach the Pro Bowl? To become the best at his craft? Did this [bleepin’] coach have even the slightest clue at how long the season was, how many hits he had taken, how many undercover jabs and shoves and bumps and gut punches he’d endured when the official was turned the other way … all so he could get HERE, to Hawaii, to play a fun game in the sun with the best of the best? Did Belichick think Gonzalez had come here to block someone on SPECIAL TEAMS?
Why don’t you [bleepin’] block somebody???
Gonzalez wandered to the bench, and he sat down, and he steamed. He stewed. Acid bubbled in his stomach. How DARE that guy! Why don’t you [bleepin’] block somebody? That question echoed and echoed in his head, and he was as mad as he could ever remember being, and soon there was another kickoff, and Gonzalez was on the field again, and he was just pulsing with rage. The ball was in the air, and Gonzalez found his man, and he LIT THE GUY UP. Oh yeah, knocked him right to the ground, stood over him a second, and the shocked guy looked up at him like, “Dude, what gives?”
Yeah. Why don’t you block [bleepin’] somebody? How was that Oh Mighty Premier of the Pro Bowl? He jogged to the sideline now, and you better believe he made SURE to go by Belichick, made sure he got REAL CLOSE to the Supercoach, and what do you have to say NOW, pal?
“Nice block,” Belichick said.
And what was that? Was that a smile on Bill Belichick’s face?
“That’s when I knew,” Gonzalez said. “That’s when I knew that SOB had gotten me.”