Joe Throwback: I Really Didn't Need That Stew
Originally ran: May 2008.
OK, so I’ve probably told this story in front of an audience hundreds of times. It’s basically my “Freebird.” If I were ever given five minutes on The Tonight Show — which, obviously, no, why would they give me five minutes on The Tonight Show — I would tell this story. It is and always will be my favorite day in sportswriting.
I’ve added a couple of new thoughts to spice it up:
OK, this happened at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. I should begin by telling you that covering the Olympics is like nothing else in sports journalism. This is because the Olympics are actually very weird. At home, on television, it makes some sense because they show the events separately, and there’s some order to it, and when the event ends you just go on with your life, like normal.
At the Olympics, though, there is only the Olympics. Everywhere you turn, there are people fencing and swimming and playing table tennis and cycling and wrestling and jumping and shooting and speed walking and swimming in synch and rowing and hitting each other (sometimes underwater) and kicking each other and canoeing and riding horses and playing badminton (but REALLY fast) and playing volleyball on the beach and all of it is SO important, these athletes have dedicated their entire lives to be here, and there’s a sense of enormity in the air. The diving medal round is like the World Series. The water polo final is the Super Bowl. Rhythmic gymnastics is bigger than the Masters.
When you’re there, in the heart of it, you’re blinded to perspective. You’re bumping shoulders with reporters and fans from pretty much every country in the world. You’re surrounded by feverish sellout crowds. You’re constantly seeing athletes breaking down in tears, either because they’ve achieved the dream that they’ve spent their whole lives dreaming … or they’ve failed to achieve it.
When you’re at the Olympics, nothing else matters. Nothing. You live, breathe, drink and sleep Olympics. It’s everything.*
*I’ve always thought that after three weeks of Olympic immersion, reporters would blindly kill after being shown the Queen of Diamonds.
So, with that as background, it was the day of the gold medal baseball game. Tommy Lasorda was manager of that team, so it was kind of a big deal. But I wanted to go somewhere else. It wasn’t personal. The paper already had someone going to the game, and I had already written about Lasorda and that team, and anyway — I don’t love baseball at the Olympics. I don’t love tennis at the Olympics. I don’t love golf at the Olympics.
I like it when the Olympics are CLEARLY the most important event in your sport.
So, I went looking for something cool to write about. The Olympics are so vast that finding your next assignment is a constant challenge. There are too many choices and too often you find yourself at one disappointing event when the coolest thing in the world is happening a few miles away.
As I searched for my assignment, my friend Chuck Culpepper told me about the unbeatable Russian wrestler. He said there was this Russian wrestler who had never lost an Olympic match. Ever. He had won like three gold medals already and, if I’m remembering correctly, he had not given up a single point in years.
Now, as someone raised on the pro wrestling stylings of Ivan and Nikita Koloff and as someone who had seen “Rocky IV” at least 12 times, this story definitely appealed to me. An unbeatable Russian wrestler? So I looked him up. His story turned out to be even better than I expected. His name was Aleksandr Karelin. And he trained by carrying refrigerators up stairs. That was all I needed to know.
This Karelin guy was so good, there were many scalpers outside the arena. For Greco Roman wrestling. He was so good, the president of the IOC was there to give him some sort of special Olympic medal.
Chuck and I showed up to the arena, and like I say, it was absolutely packed. And it was loud. It was like Boston Garden hockey crowd loud. Now, I should say at this point that I did not understand the rules of Greco Roman wrestling then … and I do not understand the rules of Greco Roman wrestling now. There are no turnbuckles. There are no figure-four leglocks. Nobody hits anybody with a chair.
In fact, from what I remember, almost nothing happens. The two men, Karelin and whoever he was fighting, just kind of stood there, locked together, and I guess they were doing things, but I couldn’t tell what they were doing …
… and then, all of a sudden, without warning, everyone in the crowd all at once shouted “OOOOOOOOH!”
“What the heck just happened?” I asked Chuck.
“I have no idea,” Chuck said.
“Something happened,” I said.
Then we looked up at the scoreboard. Yes, there was a scoreboard. It turned out the other guy, whoever he was, had gotten a point. I didn’t know how he had got the point then. I don’t really know how he got the point now. Apparently he broke a hold or something.
Whatever — even I understood this was a big deal. The Russian had not given up a point in forever. I thought I heard Rocky’s trainer saying, “You see? He’s not a machine! He’s a man!” So, I now expected the Russian to pick up this poser, fold him up into one of those paper fortune tellers and be done with it.
Only … that didn’t happen. The Russian couldn’t budge this guy. And the crowd sensed that something magical was happening. They were getting louder and louder, and the clock was draining (though, I wasn’t sure what that meant, either — was this just the first period? The first half?) and the Russian was trying to move this kid but was getting nowhere. and the sound roared even higher, and people started stomping and clapping and going crazy, and the score was still 1-0 unknown guy, and the clock kept going down.
And then I saw what to this day is one of the most emotional sports things I’ve ever seen in my life. I saw Jeter hit the homer after midnight. I saw the Rams tackle a receiver at the 1 as the Super Bowl expired. I saw Tiger Woods chip into a spot of sunlight on the 16th green at Augusta and then will the ball back into the hole. I saw a young girl land on one leg to help America win a gold medal. I saw Mario Chalmers make a three-point jump shot to tie the national championship game in the final seconds. I saw a journeyman from Japan throw a perfect game (for eight innings, then the closer finished it off) to clinch the Japan Series.
This moment belongs with all of those and more. With the clock running out, the great Russian wrestler bowed his head and held out his hand in defeat.
Mayhem. Madness. Insanity. I turned to Chuck and asked, “What the heck did we just see?” But he couldn’t even hear me. Chuck and I started working our way through the crowd, to the press room, and we kept just looking at each other in sheer disbelief. This American — it turned out the opponent was an American! — had beaten the unbeatable Russian.
The only thing I knew about this American was his name — because I had just looked it up.
His name was Rulon Gardner.
We got into the press room, sat in the front row, and Chuck whispered to me, “This is amazing. I hope this guy’s a good story.” Then Rulon Gardner walked up on the podium, and he turned to the guy running the show, and he said: “Wow, this is pretty cool. I’ve never done a press conference before.”
Chuck and I looked at each other. Holy cow. This thing was getting better.
The first question came, and it was something like: “So, did you think you had it in you to beat the great and unbeatable Russian?”
And Rulon Gardner said: “Well, when I was growing up, I used to wrestle cows on our dairy farm …”
Um. Yeah, Guy wrestled cows. Seriously, sportswriters DREAM of moments like this. I mean that literally. You go to sleep after having interviewed another boring golfer who started playing because his dad was a member of the local country club or some bland pitcher who was the star of his high school team, got drafted high, got paid a sweet signing bonus, played two years in the minors and then got called to the show — and you DREAM about an American farm kid who wrestled cows and ended up winning a gold medal by beating an invincible Russian.
“He mumbled something in Russian at the end,” Rulon said. “I think it was, ‘I give up.’”
So Chuck and I were dizzy when we left that press conference. It was flat incredible. The kid was funny and charming and modest and he had wrestled cows. The story could not get any better. We wanted to race back to our computers to get this story on the screen while it was still madness in our minds.
But as we walked out, we ran into this woman. She was Rulon Gardner’s mother. I cannot even begin to describe how unlikely it is to be covering an extraordinary sporting event and just HAPPEN to run into the star’s mother. We asked her the most obvious question in the world: When did you know that your son had a chance to become an Olympic champion?
And she told us that she knew when, at a very young age, she saw Rulon carry four milk buckets at one time.
What the heck was this story? You’ve got an American beating an unbeatable Russian in the most absurd upset in Olympic history, and he wrestled cows, and his mother saw greatness in the way he carried milk buckets. It was getting to be too much, and then she invited Chuck and me up to her part of Wyoming to go fishing because, “that’s where Wilford Brimley fishes — you know, the Quaker Oats guy?”
The Quaker Oats guy.
OK, now we had to get back and write. We said goodbye, and we raced back to our chairs, and sat behind our computers, and looked at each other, and Chuck said, “How the heck do we even write this? It’s too great.”
It really was.
“Hold on,” I said, “I need to find out a little bit about Rulon’s town … see if they’re excited back home.” Rulon was from Afton, Wyoming. It was morning in Afton. I didn’t know who to call, so I called an Afton radio station to find out what the mood was like.
And here’s what happened — the DJ picked up the phone, but he did not answer it. Instead, he put it down right next to him. He was on the air and could not talk.
And here’s what I heard him say: “OK, well, it’s time for the birthdays. Happy birthday to Steve Johnson over there on Coventry Road, he’s 41 today. Way to go Steve! Happy birthday to little Timmy Wilkins, can you believe he’s already 11 …”
And then, suddenly: “We’re going to have to dispense with the birthdays. We have some breaking news …”
This was the sort of town where every morning on the radio, they read off the birthdays.
I wobbled back to Chuck. Cows. Russians. Refrigerators. Milk buckets. Birthdays. I was dizzy. Chuck said, “What did you find out?”
I said: “You wouldn’t even believe it. We have wandered into the middle of Bedford Falls.”
How do you write this? All those years, all those stories we had written, we never had enough. Now it was too much. Chuck and I were laughing like we were drunk, and then we’d try to write and then we’d laugh some more … we’d never had a story like it in our lives.
People often ask me how I handle writer’s block. Well, thankfully, I’ve never had it. My thought about writer’s block is basically that my Dad worked in a factory almost his whole life, and he never had “factory block.” Sometimes the words don’t come as easily as others, but you do what you have to do.
But this wasn’t writer’s block. This was a writer’s overdose. How do you sum up a Wyoming farm boy who wrestled cows in a small town where a disc jockey reads the morning birthdays near Wilford Brimley’s fishing pond and grew up to defeat the indestructible Russian in perhaps the greatest Olympic upset going back to the days when Greeks ran naked through the …
“Excuse me,” a man said to me.
Oh boy. Who was this guy? “Yes,” I said. “Can I help you?”
“I was looking for the Gardner party,” he said. “Do you happen to know where they went?”
“Yes,” I said, because I actually did know. “I think they went to celebrate at the Hard Rock Cafe.”
Yeah, I forgot to mention: They went to celebrate at the Hard Rock Cafe.
“Oh,” he said. “I have to catch up with them. I’m Rulon’s father.”
I stared at him and thought: No. That’s how far it had gone. In my entire life as a sportswriter, I have never once had a father walk up to me. It’s like a sportswriter’s fantasy. And now …
“Well, sir,” I said. “You must be very proud.”
“Oh, absolutely,” he said. “I’m just so happy to be here. I didn’t think we were going to make it.”
No. Don’t ask him. Just point him toward the Hard Rock …
“Really?” I said. “Why’s that?”
“Well,” he said. “You know, we don’t really have a lot of money. So in order to raise enough money to get here I had to sell my world-famous sausage stew at the Lincoln County Fair.”
And that broke it. That’s when my head exploded. The father then started telling us about someone who saved him in Korea, but I wasn’t even listening anymore. I couldn’t hear at that point. It was like being in the chocolate factory and having to eat your way out.
And this is the beauty of sports. My greatest day in sportswriting was a match between two men I had never heard of before, in a sport with rules I did not understand, in a place 9,000 miles away, the other side of the world.
“Can you believe this?” Chuck said to me as we hysterically tried to finish up our stories.
“I’ll tell you one thing,” I said. “I really didn’t need that stew.”