He said kneeling to pray is the best way to get closer to the Lord and to 'a hard-hit ground ball.'
By CHRIS LAMB
Brooklyn Dodgers President Branch Rickey first met Jackie Robinson on Aug. 28, 1945. Rickey told Robinson that he wanted to sign the 26-year-old ballplayer and break the national pastime's color barrier. But for him to succeed, Rickey said, Robinson couldn't respond to the indignities that would be piled on him: "I'm looking for a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back."
Rickey then opened a book published in the 1920s, Giovanni Papini's "Life of Christ," and read Jesus' words: "But whoever shall smite thee on the cheek, turn to him the other also." Robinson knew the Gospel and knew what was required of him. He replied, "I have two cheeks, Mr. Rickey. Is that it?" This meeting between the two Methodists, Rickey and Robinson, ultimately transformed baseball and America itself.
The exchange is depicted in "42," the biographical movie opening this weekend with Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson and Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey. But then the movie turns to the familiar, inspiring saga of Robinson's courageous fight against racism in baseball and society.
What is often overlooked in accounts of Robinson's life is that it is also a religious story. His faith in God, as he often attested, carried him through the torment and abuse of integrating the major leagues.
Robinson grew up in Pasadena, Calif., where his mother, Mallie, instilled in her five children the belief that God would take care of them. "I never stopped believing that," Robinson later said.
It took awhile for Robinson as a young man to understand what that faith in God meant. He was involved in more than one fight, and scrapes with the law, prompted by racial antagonism. Arnold Rampersad, in his 1997 Robinson biography, describes how the teenager was rescued from the streets by the Rev. Karl Downs, the minister of Scott United Methodist Church in Pasadena. Downs became a father figure to Robinson and brought him back into the church.
Downs became the channel through which religious faith "finally flowed into Jack's consciousness and was finally accepted there, if on revised terms, as he himself reached manhood," Mr. Rampersad writes. "Faith in God then began to register in him as both a mysterious force, beyond his comprehension, and a pragmatic way to negotiate the world." From that point on, Robinson made a habit of praying beside his bed before going to sleep.
After serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, Robinson, who had been a stand-out athlete at UCLA, signed up in the spring of 1945 to play baseball for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues. Robinson openly scorned his whiskey-drinking and promiscuous teammates, once tossing a glass of scotch into a lighted fireplace to demonstrate how lethal liquor is. He also stunned his teammates by declaring that he was waiting until he was married to have sex.
As influential as Rev. Downs had been, though, no one had a more profound impact on Robinson's life than Branch Rickey, whose religious devotion was such that he didn't attend baseball games on Sundays. During their first meeting, after Rickey had read aloud the passage from Papini's "Life of Christ," he also asked Robinson to read from the section about "nonresistance." Robinson understood what was needed for him to succeed.
Nobody in sports had ever faced the sort of pressure, and abuse, that Jackie Robinson did when he took the field for the first time in a Brooklyn uniform on April 15, 1947. And yet Robinson didn't merely endure, he thrived.
In a 1950 newspaper interview, he emphasized his faith in God and his nightly ritual of kneeling at bedside to pray. "It's the best way to get closer to God," Robinson said, and then the second baseman added with a smile, "and a hard-hit ground ball."
After Robinson retired from baseball, he wrote newspaper columns for the New York Post and the Amsterdam News in New York. Many of the columns are collected in a new book, "Beyond Home Plate," edited by Michael G. Long. Writing for the Post in 1960, Robinson compared his own experience with "turning the other cheek" with the nonviolent confrontation of the civil-rights movement espoused by his friend, Martin Luther King Jr.
"I can testify to the fact that it was a lot harder to turn the other cheek and refuse to fight back than it would have been to exercise a normal reaction," Robinson wrote. "But it works, because sooner or later it brings a sense of shame to those who attack you. And that sense of shame is often the beginning of progress." Mr. Lamb, a journalism professor at Indiana University in Indianapolis, is the author of "Blackout: The Untold Story of Jackie Robinson's First Spring Training" (University of Nebraska, 2004). A version of this article appeared April 12, 2013, on page A13 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Jackie Robinson: Faith in Himself—and in God.
Published: March 31, 2013
The obligations of religious toleration and pluralism require all who care not a bit about baseball to accept that opening day
is more than the beginning of a sports season. It is a great religious festival.
It can’t be an accident that baseball always starts around the time of both Easter and Passover and, thus, “elicits a sense of renewal.” For the faithful, it means that “the long dark nights of winter are over” and “the slate is clean.” All teams, the exalted and lowly alike, “are tied at zero wins and zero losses.” This, in turn, means that the fervent cry “Wait’ll next year” becomes “prologue, replaced by hope.”
If you sneer at these spiritual metaphors, John Sexton, the president of New York University and a scholar of religion, offers a sermon you should hear. His new book, from which these quotations are drawn, is “Baseball as a Road to God.”
The national pastime, he rightly insists, provides an excellent window onto the sacred, even as all that is good and holy helps you to understand baseball.
Sexton has taught a seminar on this subject for more than a decade, and his co-authors were two participants, Thomas Oliphant, the retired Boston Globe writer whose column I still miss, and Peter J. Schwartz, a former reporter for Forbes. Together, they have assembled some of baseball’s best-known tales (“the Miracle of Coogan’s Bluff,” otherwise known as Bobby Thompson’s 1951 “Shot Heard ’Round the World” for the New York Giants) as well as lesser-known episodes that illustrate Sexton’s themes, including “blessings and curses.”
Which raises my only strong objection to Sexton’s account: As a convert to the Church of the New York Yankees from the more soulful tradition of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Sexton badly misreads those of us who have kept faith with the allegedly cursed Boston Red Sox. He accuses most of us, even after our historic triumphs of 2004 and 2007, of having “an incapacity to choose hope over despair.”
Never has a learned religious scholar made such a foolish error. I have long believed that hope is the virtue on which faith and love depend, an inclination formed while I was growing up rooting for the Sox during what Sexton shamefully dismisses as “a period of boring incompetence.” How dare he say this about the likes of Pete Runnels
, Dick Radatz
— and, yes, the young Carl Yastrzemski
Beneath the yarns and the data, Sexton has a serious and controversial point to make. He rejects “scientism” and insists that there is another realm of knowing that is spiritual and religious.
Many would insist that “science captures or will capture all there is to know in any sense of the word,” he writes, and then he boldly declares: “I do not believe this.” There is, he says, “something that is plainly unknowable, ineffable, no matter how hard we try to figure it out.”
I’m with Sexton, and I think he is very shrewd in encouraging non-believers to try to understand the religious sensibility by focusing on baseball’s moments of “wonder, awe, hope, passion, heroism and community” and, especially, of “faith and doubt.”
In a lovely forward to the book, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin
— born, like Sexton, a Brooklyn Dodgers fan, she made the inspired choice of becoming a learned devotee of the Red Sox — tells of helping Gil Hodges break out of a batting slump by giving him “the St. Christopher’s medal blessed by the pope that I had won in a catechism contest by knowing the seven deadly sins.” She notes that since St. Christopher “was the patron saint of travel, I was certain that my medal had guided Hodges safely around the bases.” I’m sure it did, even though, sadly, Pope Paul VI removed Christopher’s feast day from the religious calendar.
My hunch is that professional baseball writers get impatient with intellectuals and columnists who tread on their territory. Compare, for example, Sexton’s otherworldly approach to the hard-nosed opening of “Francona
,” the new book by former Red Sox manager Terry Francona and the Boston Globe’s celebrated sports columnist Dan Shaughnessy: “A baseball life is a life of interminable bus trips, tobacco spit, sunflower seeds, rain delays, day-night doubleheaders and storytelling. There’s a lot of standing in the outfield, shagging fly balls, and swapping lies.”
But Sexton has that covered. Baseball’s central calling to us, he concludes, is “to live slow and notice.” Opening day encourages us every year to seek a path to serenity and transcendence.Read more from E.J. Dionne’s archive, follow him on Twitter or subscribe to his updates on Facebook.
Big Man of Faith
by Michael Lee
The moment will never be forgotten, because it represented a possible detour — or end — to the life and career of a man who had already overcome such hardscrabble beginnings. But the dates, the feelings, the struggle had mostly been buried into the crevices of Nene’s memory, a chapter in his life that doesn’t require any special celebrations or recognition years later.
, surviving a diagnosis of testicular cancer at age 25 only serves as a reminder of how much the Washington Wizards
forward has been blessed, and how he believes God chose him to handle yet another seemingly insurmountable obstacle to serve as an example for others.
Nene, 30, didn’t even realize that last month he had reached the fifth anniversary of his surgery to remove the tumor because he was more concerned about fighting through a stomach virus to help the Wizards defeat the Orlando Magic
that evening. Still feeling the effects of his stomach ailment a day later, Nene simply reacted with a smile and surprise when told of the milestone as he munched on a grilled cheese sandwich and sipped soup in his hotel room.
“Wow. I don’t keep track,” he said. “I don’t keep track.”
But when the Wizards made a surprise visit to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital
in Memphis a few weeks later, Nene was forced to confront his toughest physical challenge as the players walked through the patient care center and medicine room, where children received cancer treatment. There, Nene was suddenly overwhelmed by the sensations of his own chemotherapy treatments — the burning in his limbs, the goose bumps, the taste on his tongue that he described as “salty and spicy,” and the fear that his organs would eventually shut down.
“It was like, amazing. A long time I don’t feel like that,” Nene said, before reflecting on that difficult period. “For four weeks, I was sick, I was weak. I could feel the liquid moving in the veins. I feel like a science fiction movie, where the liquid comes all over your body. It was like that.”‘God is going to provide’
Nene credits his deep faith for helping him become the first player from Brazil to be drafted into the NBA and for giving him the strength to get through the many physical and emotional hurdles that have followed.
Before cancer, there was the torn anterior cruciate ligament, sprained medial collateral ligament and torn meniscus in his right knee suffered two minutes into the 2005-06 season. Before the knee injury, there was leaving tiny Sao Carlos as a teenager and adjusting to a different culture while speaking little English. And before moving away from all he knew and loved, Nene had to prove himself as a worthy basketball talent, playing in cheap shoes covered in duct tape after they had completely splintered and surviving on what little scraps his poor family could provide.
“I always remember what I’ve been through to be here,” said Nene, who was born Maybyner Rodney Hilario before having his name legally changed to the Portuguese word for “baby” in 2003. “I have no shoes, I have no clothes, but I was blessed. I remember my mom. She have money to buy the food or give to God like you’re supposed to, because we’re Christian. She give to God and say, ‘You know, we don’t have food today, but God is going to provide our future.’ ”
Nene’s future is set financially: He has earned more than $70 million in his first 10 seasons in the NBA and is in the second year of a five-year, $65 million contract. Those riches were a fantasy for Nene when he first began playing professional basketball at age 15. He was motivated by a trading card of former NBA great Shawn Kemp that was given to him by a friend, and by a former coach who told him that a man of his size would have a career as a nightclub bouncer or grocery store bagger if he didn’t stay committed to the game.
Notre Dame's Holy Line By KEVIN HELLIKER
Getty Images The mural known as Touchdown Jesus on Notre Dame's campus. South Bend, Ind.
Before Monday night's national championship game, a University of Notre Dame football captain will lead the team through a prayer called Litany of the Blessed Virgin. "Mother of our Savior," a captain will say. "Pray for us," the team will respond.
It's a ritual familiar to Catholics. But most players on the Notre Dame squad aren't Catholic. So participation in that ritual is voluntary. And should any concern arise about praying to the Virgin Mary—a concept some non-Catholic Christians find objectionable—team chaplain Father Paul Doyle stands ready to respond. "We're not praying to our blessed mother," he says. "We're asking her to pray for us."
At the heart of Notre Dame's legendary football program is a careworn balancing act. The team is unapologetically Catholic. Before every game, the Fighting Irish participate in a Mass overseen by one of the team's two appointed Catholic priests, a tradition dating back to the 1920s. At the end of that ceremony, each player receives a priest-blessed medal devoted to a Catholic saint—a different saint every game for four years. Also during the pregame Mass, players can kiss a reliquary containing two splinters that Notre Dame believes came from the cross of Jesus. "Most of the non-Catholic players are Christian, so when you tell them these splinters came from the actual cross of Jesus they are humbled to reverence," Doyle says.
Yet Notre Dame is so nonpromotional that players of other faiths feel welcome on the team, never receiving so much as an invitation to convert, let alone pressure to do so. As a result, many feel comfortable participating in distinctly Catholic rituals. As a Notre Dame football captain during the 2002 season, Gerome Sapp had no qualms about leading the team in the Hail Mary, a prayer utterly alien to his Southern Baptist upbringing. "That prayer was just one tradition in a school rich with tradition," says Sapp, now a retired NFL player launching his own business in Houston.
Catholic high schools across America maintain a rich football tradition, but there are only two Catholic universities in the ranks of major-college football (the other being Boston College). Given its affiliation, and its long and glorious football history, Notre Dame garners support nationwide from Catholic fans, donors and players, giving it the sport's only truly national, if not international, fan base.
Yet the school's Catholic identity hasn't always been an advantage. In the early part of last century, Notre Dame was three times rebuffed in efforts to join athletic conferences, including a 1926 bid to join the Big Ten, in part because of its Catholicism. "At that time in the Midwest, the Ku Klux Klan was very powerful, and since there weren't many black people in Indiana, Jews and Catholics came to the top of the list," says Murray Sperber, a University of California-Berkeley visiting professor and author of "Shake Down the Thunder," a history of Notre Dame football.
Simon Chun Manti Te'o, Notre Dame's star linebacker, receives a blessing from Father Theodore Hesburgh. Te'o is a Mormon.
Instead of diminishing or eliminating its religious affiliation—as many Christian colleges did—Notre Dame instead abandoned the bid to join an athletic conference, and took to establishing rivalries coast to coast with universities such as the United States Naval Academy and the University of Southern California. Eventually, the school's national appeal led to a highly lucrative contract with NBC to air its games nationally; at other schools, such deals are negotiated through their conferences.
By the 1990s, when the Big Ten—in a historic reversal—issued an invitation to Notre Dame, the university saw little benefit to giving up its independence. "Does this core identity of Notre Dame as Catholic, private and independent seem a match for an association of universities—even a splendid association of great universities—that are uniformly secular, predominantly state institutions and with a long heritage of conference affiliation?" Rev. Edward A. Malloy, the University president, asked in a statement at the time. "Our answer to that question, in the final analysis, is no."
The school's appeal also derived from dramatic improvements in its academics. Back in the 1920s, its faculty consisted largely of priests and nuns, largely without doctorates, and its academic offering was lighter on scholarship than on Catholic theology. By the 1990s, however, Notre Dame had broken the ranks of the top 20 academic institutions in America, giving it an edge in recruiting high school players who also wanted a top-notch education.
"The value of the education at Notre Dame was something you had to consider," says Derek Brown, who obtained a marketing degree while playing for the school's 1988 national championship team.
As a Southern Baptist, Brown says he knew little about Catholicism when he arrived at Notre Dame. Though he valued the saints medals he received—"I think I still have them," he said—he added that he questions the value of services consisting heavily of memorized prayers. "Does it come from the head or from the heart?" he asks.
Even so, he said, the overall message he heard at Notre Dame was no different from what he'd heard growing up in Baptist churches: "Do the right thing."
Players arriving at Notre Dame enter an extraordinarily Catholic environment—compared with Boston College and Georgetown University—fellow Catholic schools embedded in large multicultural cities. Notre Dame is a monastic outpost in largely rural north-central Indiana, its campus decorated with Catholic iconography and populated with the statues of saints. About 85% of the Notre Dame student body is Catholic, compared with a national average of 65% at Catholic colleges. In every classroom at Notre Dame hangs a crucifix, a tradition long ago dropped at many Catholic colleges. And unlike many universities, Notre Dame doesn't house its athletes in a special dorm, spreading them among the largely Catholic student body. But it isn't as though the Catholic students at Notre Dame necessarily radiate holiness and piety. "Don't tell my mother, but there were Protestants at Notre Dame who went to Mass more often than Ned Bolcar did," says Mr. Bolcar, a Catholic member of the 1988 national championship team.
In the 11 years that Father Doyle has served as head chaplain of the Notre Dame football team, one player ever declined to participate in the pregame Mass, choosing to remain in a confessional outside the chapel. "He had his reasons. I didn't ask why," says Father Doyle, whose upbringing prepared him for a ministry to non-Catholics: His hometown in Virginia was only 2% Catholic.
Notre Dame isn't the only team featuring chaplains. The other national-title contender, the University of Alabama, will bring to Monday's game a minister and Catholic priest.
Many of the 30 men who have served as head coach at Notre Dame have not been Catholic. Its most famous coach, Knute Rockne, won one national championship as a non Catholic, then converted and won two more, according to Sperber, the Notre Dame historian. Although the pregame Mass is a tradition beyond the power of any coach to scrap, each coach is free to choose its timing. For many years, the Mass took place just ahead of the game. Current coach Brian Kelly moved the Mass several hours before kickoff. Kelly, Doyle said with a laugh, "wants a little more distance between me talking peace and love to the players and him talking smash mouth."
Of the four captains of this season's team, two aren't Catholic, including star linebacker Manti Te'o. Following practice a few days ago, Te'o did something highly unusual for a devout Mormon: He sought and received a blessing from Father Theodore Hesburgh, president emeritus of Notre Dame. Te'o couldn't be reached for comment. But Doyle said he has talked with the young man about religion. "This is not a place where you have to apologize for your spiritual interests, whatever they are, and Manti has said he feels supported here in his Mormon religion," Doyle said.
One night every December, students at tiny Taylor University pack the school's gymnasium and participate in a phenomenon that's completely out of place in modern sports: silence.
The fans in the standing-room-only crowd are as loud as a library for as long as it takes Taylor's basketball team to score 10 points. But once that happens, there's no shushing them. As soon as Taylor hits double digits, the students erupt into bedlam, and they don't stop screaming and dancing until it's time for the post-game Christmas party on campus.
Friday's racket known as "Silent Night"—the game ends with a student singalong of the Christmas carol—is very, very quietly a tradition unlike any other. What began as a lark is now a holiday in its own right at this evangelical Christian school about two hours and a world of college sports away from Indiana's top-ranked hoops team.
"Other than a game-winning shot," said former Indiana player and coach Dan Dakich, "I think it's the coolest thing out there."
Silent Night is so admired that the concept recently spread to big-time college sports. When Illinois hired Taylor alumnus John Groce as its basketball coach this season, the student section normally known as the "Orange Krush" welcomed him by briefly renaming itself the "Orange Hush" and keeping quiet for the first four minutes and two seconds of his Nov. 9 debut. "It's a little bit of an eerie feeling when you're waiting in stone-cold silence and could hear a pin drop," Groce said.
Timothy P. Riethmiller The Taylor University basketball team huddles in front of a quiet crowd before last year's Silent Night game.
The novelty of Silent Night, which falls on Friday when Taylor plays Akron-Wayne, goes beyond just attending a college-basketball game and not uttering a peep. Silent Night drew 2,265 fans last year, by far the most of the season for the Upland, Ind., university with fewer than 2,000 undergraduates that competes in the NAIA, a rung below the NCAA. Taylor coach Paul Patterson celebrates Silent Night by going barefoot to raise money for charity. Afterward, the wild rumpus continues in the school's dining hall, where Taylor students sing carols, eat holiday cookies and make ginger-bread houses. And this unorthodox tradition belongs to a deeply conservative school where students agree to abstain from drunkenness, gossip, premarital sex, "homosexual behavior" and "social dancing," according to Taylor's student code of conduct.
Taylor officials trace Silent Night back to 1995. Steve Brooks, an assistant coach at the time, was previously the men's basketball coach at Houghton College, and he recalls coaching on a snowy night against Geneva College's version of Silent Night, which he says included pennies and milk jugs. "It wasn't done like it is at Taylor," Brooks said.
Former Geneva coach Jerry Slocum, who now coaches at Youngstown State, remembers the crowd standing until Geneva scored but not remaining quiet. Either way, Brooks brought the concept to Taylor as a way to increase attendance at games.
Silent Night was combined then with the school president's annual Christmas bash—now called Habecker's Holipalooza after current president Eugene Habecker—as a way for students to unwind on the last day of fall-semester classes. The game's sponsor is similarly wholesome: Silent Night coincides with the Ivanhoe Classic, a basketball tournament put on for the last 29 years by Ivanhoes, an Upland restaurant with 100 types of ice-cream sundaes and shakes.
Over time, as Taylor students settled on 10 points as the tipping point for chaos, Silent Night festivities took on a life of their own. In the last two years, as videos and photos of Silent Night went viral through social media, the rest of the world noticed Taylor's little ritual. Now what happens around the court is a bigger deal than the basketball. "It's almost like the Leviathan," said Taylor spokesman Jim Garringer. "You're just waiting for the thing to come to life."
The student section during Silent Night, after it finally erupts, is a moving mishmash of neons, pastels and Christmas colors. Underneath the baskets are elaborate nativity scenes. Some people dress up in pajamas and togas, others in penguin costumes and elf regalia. Last year, a pack of gorillas chased a banana during a timeout. At halftime, a flash mob from a women's dormitory line-danced to "Drummer Boy," Justin Bieber's version of the holiday classic, and the teenage heartthrob tweeted a link of the YouTube clip to his millions of followers.
Taylor University Taylor fans break their silence during the 2010 game.
Taylor's players admit they rewind the Silent Night film—not to watch the game and break down their performance but to spot the wackiest getups around the gym. Patterson, the Taylor coach, doesn't notice the shenanigans, either.
"I'm two heartbeats away from a stroke most of the time during a game," he said.
The patron saint of Silent Night is Taylor guard Casey Coons, who had never heard of the tradition before he arrived on campus and only learned about the pandemonium when Patterson made his players watch film of previous Silent Nights. The 10th point in the last three Silent Nights came the same way: with Coons at the free-throw line. "It's not like a pressure where you win or lose on the free throw," Coons said. "But there's definitely some added pressure."
Coons wasn't the only one taken aback by his first Silent Night experience. It can also be disorienting for the visiting team—especially when the opponent has no idea an impromptu carnival is coming.
Last year, Ohio Mid-Western College coach Ricardo Hill couldn't figure out why Taylor's gym was so mobbed and so muted. He had even less of an idea how long the blissful silence would last. "I definitely went in blind, so it was a real eye-opener," Hill said. A year later, despite losing the game, Ohio Mid-Western players still tout videos of their opponent's ritual to visiting recruits.
"Out of all the places I've played or coached," Hill said, "that was by far the most electric atmosphere I've ever been in."
Silent Night is a one-night-only affair. Taylor inevitably plays its next game in front of a small crowd unconcerned with how loud it cheers. All is calm. All is bright. "Saturday is almost 180 degrees different," Patterson said.
But that next game is part of the Silent Night routine in a way. There's a reason why Patterson's team always makes it to the championship round of the Ivanhoe Classic on Saturday: Taylor has never lost on Silent Night. Write to
Ben Cohen at firstname.lastname@example.org
A version of this article appeared December 7, 2012, on page D4 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The Quietest Tradition in Sports.
London Olympics: Spirit of ‘Chariots of Fire’ echoes among hosts of 2012 Games By Mike Wise
, Published: July 26 “Let us now praise famous men and our fathers that begat us. All these men were honored in their time and were a glory of their days.” — Opening Scene from “Chariots of Fire”
LONDON — Three weeks before the Olympic Games
began, the Best Picture of 1981
was re-released here. Crowds of Londoners filled theaters as the lads in white churned the beach in St. Andrews again, a Vangelis synthesizer pulsing through their legs.
With Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps
now in town, less than a day away from the Opening Ceremonies, really, who pays to see a three-decade-old movie set in 1924 Paris?
Or the companion “Chariots of Fire” stage play now showing at the Gielgud Theater in London, where Eric Liddell, the Scottish Christian, and Harold Abrahams, the English Jew, run under the same Union Jack once more?
“I’m not exactly sure all the reasons people are still interested in my father and men like him,” said Patricia Liddell Russell, 77, from her home in Ontario, Canada. The eldest daughter of Liddell added, “But I’d like to think it’s because they see principles in him they wish they had in themselves.”
Sue Pottle, the daughter of Abrahams, in a phone interview from North Wales, said, “Their world is gone but something about what they represented remains, doesn’t it now?”
All of Britain is teeming for the Opening Ceremonies
Friday night, a grand gala said to feature David Beckham, Harry Potter, Mary Poppins, James Bond, Sir Paul McCartney and every other real or imagined prominent soul in British pop culture. Beneath the excited wait, though, there is this get-on-with-it-already attitude among the Brits.
Londoners don’t need Jacques Rogge and his IOC VIPs
puffing their chests out and clogging traffic to give them their sense of history; that’s the Queen’s job. They aren’t gullible, either, when it comes to these Games’ most inspiring human-interest stories — because long ago they had the original.
Two weeks ago, Sir Roger Bannister, cane in hand at 83, returned to the track where he broke the four-minute barrier for the mile in 1954, the year he became Sports Illustrated’s inaugural “Sportsman of the Year.”
“No longer conscious of my movement, I discovered a new unity with nature,” Bannister said of his historic run. “I had found a new source of power and beauty, a source I never dreamt existed.”
Here, in their great champions, human majesty lives on.
Did we mention who the timekeeper was for Bannister that day? Abrahams. He later gave Bannister his Omega stopwatch that timed his 3:59.4. (“Of course,” Sue Pottle says, chuckling, “I believe that’s after my father had bought another.”)
On the baton passing went in the U.K. Sebastian Coe, among the world’s greatest middle-distance runners in the 1970s and 1980s along with rivals Steve Ovett and Steve Cram, remembered Abrahams “actually handing me an award at an athletics event one year. It’s something I often look back to because he was an extraordinary figure in our sport.”
Now the head of the London Olympic Organizing Committee, he’s simply known as “Seb Coe.”
“I think ‘Chariots of Fire’ was one of those films that really did broaden people’s understanding of our own Olympic history,” he said when we spoke a few months ago. “It showed who we were and why.”
They don’t merely embrace sporting history in London; they hold it up as the seminal example of what competition was, what it could be again if the money and the corruption would just go away.
A missionary in China like his parents, Liddell famously declined to run in the 100 meters in Paris on a Sunday, his Sabbath. He died of a brain tumor, at just 43, in a prisoner of war camp in 1945.
“When people heard he wouldn’t run on a Sunday, they immediately began to think of my father as rigid, stiff and moralistic,” Russell said. “He was not that at all. He simply wasn’t about to change that rule for himself, is all.”
In an interview with London’s Guardian newspaper this week, Abdul Karim Aziz, Afghanistan’s top track official, acknowledged that “most of the runners [on his team] don’t even have standard [running] shoes, just ones they buy from the bazaar.”
“I was thinking as I read that story that we have a host nation with everything,” said Pottle, whose father died in 1978, three years before “Chariots of Fire” was released. “Then other nations, our more deprived colleagues, can’t afford training shoes? We have a responsibility to provide for them, don’t we?”
The more the Games evolve, the more the contradictions grow. The IOC pines for the purity of sport, but there are so many tripwires now in an Olympics that includes a Kabul miler without proper training and equipment as well as LeBron James and the Team USA multimillionaire basketball players.
In a speech honoring Liddell at Edinburgh University in May, Lord David Puttnam, the producer of “Chariots of Fire,” said, “I’ve long believed there should be a fourth [place] in every victory ceremony reserved for athletes in each discipline who have exceeded their previous personal bests by the greatest margin.
“I believe they should have their own medal. And the really intelligent way to begin to unhook ourselves from our present, rather juvenile conception of success would be for an official medal table to be created that illustrates which country is delivering the best performance, in terms of the percentage of their competitors who are in turn achieving their individual personal bests. Because that’s the country that’s truly succeeding.”
He added, that “better should not be confused with bigger or grander.”
Bannister became a renowned neurologist and a Master at Oxford University. Though he never won an Olympic medal, he is regarded as a national treasure, still very much the persevering young man who spent 10 years devoted to eclipsing the four-minute barrier.
“Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up,” he once said. “It knows it must outrun the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning in Africa, a lion wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the slowest gazelle, or it will starve. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a lion or a gazelle — when the sun comes up, you’d better be running.”
Pottle can see how stodgy it all sounds — reminiscing over men long dead and gone, trotting 83-year-olds out for torch-lighting ceremonies, dwelling on a different time with different ideals.
“Oh, I suppose it’s all mollycoddle — a time long gone that no one can identify with today,” she said. “My father’s idol was Jesse Owens. He was the most fantastic athlete he’d ever seen. And Jesse once said he had hoped he could win so he could make a few pennies like Johnny Weissmuller. In that way, it’s good men can earn a living with their talent now.”
Neither daughter of the Paris gold medalists said they would attend the London Games. For one, they haven’t been invited as guests. And besides, the daughter of 100-meter Olympic champion Harold Abrahams said, “I’m not paying hundreds of pounds to see a race that lasts nine seconds.”
For Mike Wise’s previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.
Redskins’ Roy Helu is a different sort of running back By Rick Maese
, Published: October 13 Rookie Roy Helu
is the least known of the three running backs who split time in the Washington Redskins
’ backfield. There’s apparently a reason for that.
“He’s very different,” said New York Giants cornerback Prince Amukamara
, one of Helu’s closest friends and a former college teammate at Nebraska.
Helu has flash, but he’s not flashy.
“I don’t know how to describe it. You have to be around Roy to experience him,” said Redskins safety DeJon Gomes
, another college teammate. “He might seem dingy, but that’s not it at all.”
Helu is set in his ways, but he’s hard to pin down.
“He has a unique spirit about him,” said Matt Penland, the Nebraska team chaplain.
As coaches decide whether to start Ryan Torain or Tim Hightower
at running back in Sunday’s game against the Philadelphia Eagles
, Helu has been the backfield constant through four games. He’s a change-of-pace back who is averaging 5.3 yards per carry. He’s elusive and quick, and though he’s just 22 years old, coaches say they’re impressed with his focus.
“He’s a guy who lives without cable and television and Internet,” Amukamara said. “He doesn’t need that. He’s such a simple guy. He doesn’t really need much. He’s not someone who’d ever need to spend a lot of money on anything.”
In fact, earlier this month Helu texted Redskins wide receiver Niles Paul
, another Nebraska teammate. Helu was shopping for his first pair of Nike sneakers but was shocked to learn they would cost more than $100. “Get them, Roy! Get them!” Paul told him. But Helu didn’t. “That’s just Roy,” Paul said.
“You only can describe him as Roy Helu,” Paul continued. “He is Roy. He is his own person. He’s not embarrassed; he’s not ashamed of anything he does. He takes it all with a smile and goes about his business.” A father’s influence
Helu credits his father for his football ability, though Roy Sr. didn’t even know about football until he moved to the United States from Tonga in 1974. Roy Sr. grew up playing rugby, eventually earning his way onto the U.S. national team.
Living in California’s Bay Area, the Helus had six children. After three girls, Helu was the first boy. He started in soccer at a young age but began playing football when he was 8. His father’s skill set translated nicely to the football backfield.
“You have to have speed, vision, cutting ability and quickness,” Roy Sr. said of rugby. “It’s just like football.”
With his father helping teach him footwork and running, Helu eventually earned a scholarship to Nebraska. The Tongans are a tight-knit, family-oriented people, and Helu had to adjust to life away from home.
The football team was struggling as well, and Helu says he lacked a sense of direction. He called the team chaplain, who arranged to have breakfast. “The day I gave my life to the Lord, everything changed,” Helu said. “It gave me more purpose. Not more purpose, but purpose.”
His career took off, too. Helu totaled 803 yards as a sophomore and 1,147 as a junior. Roy Sr. still followed his son’s games closely. Watching Nebraska play Texas on television, he saw his son miss holes right in front of him. He flew out to Nebraska and sat down to study film with Helu. Roy Sr. was no football expert, but he knew running.
“Running is running,” Helu said. “Period.”
They studied the film and spent several days talking about the upcoming game. The next Saturday, Helu ran for 307 yards and three touchdowns against Missouri. Nebraska is known for its history of talented running backs, but no one before Helu — not Roger Craig, Calvin Jones, Mike Rozier, Lawrence Phillips, Ahman Green nor anyone else — had posted so many yards in a single game.
“After the game, he knew he was going to be a hot commodity for the media,”Amukamara said. “They’d want to ask him and talk about it. He said, ‘Watch, I’m just going to talk about Jesus. Let them hear about Him.’ ”
Former teammates say Helu shied away from any celebrity attached to his athletic prowess. He prays in practice and says his play on the field is an “opportunity to glorify God.” Football is merely a platform.
“We’d go into these retirement homes on team visits,” said Penland, the Nebraska chaplain. “A lot of the kids stand around and don’t know what to do, Roy just walks over, sticks his hand out and starts asking questions. He has so much charisma. And he’s not trying to promote himself, he’s genuinely interested in other people.” ‘You have to work hard’
Helu left Nebraska fourth on the school’s all-time rushing list. At the NFL Combine, he posted top-10 marks in six of his seven drills, including the best times among running backs in both the 20-yard dash and the 60-yard shuttle drill.
“He called me before the draft,” Roy Sr. said, “and he asked me, ‘Dad you never told me I can make it to the NFL. Why?’ I said, ‘No, I never told you that. I didn’t want you to think it’s easy to get there. You have to work hard.’ ”
During the NFL draft, when Helu’s name hadn’t been called through the first three rounds, the Redskins jumped, trading their way to the 105th pick. The Redskins saw a raw talent, a player with great one-cut ability. The same skills that made Roy Sr. one of the nation’s top rugby players had been passed on to his son.
“Once you have to teach a running back how to run, you have the wrong running back,” Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan
said. “When you get a guy like Helu, you don’t know why guys make plays, but the great ones do. I think Helu is giving people the idea that he does have some skills. . . . Hopefully, he just continues to grow.”
With both Hightower and Torain more likely to serve as a lead back, Helu knows his rookie season is one designated for growth. In the Redskins’ second game, against Arizona, Helu strung together 112 all-purpose yards, including 74 on the ground. After the game, he discussed his faith, then praised his offensive line before finally discussing his own play.
In the next game at Dallas, though, he had only 15 yards on five carries. Roy Sr. flew to Northern Virginia the following week, and once again, father and son spent several days watching tape, talking about footwork and identifying holes.
“I never interfere with any coach. I just talk to him,” Roy Sr. said. “The idea is to get better. And that takes a lot of work. This is what I’ve been telling him since he first started.”