And he has heart too—witness his 140-yard second shot on the 18th hole of the final match of this year's U.S. Amateur. He dropped the ball to within 18 inches of the cup to clinch the championship. But in matters cardiac (both literal and figurative) no athlete in 1995 matched the 31-year-old Indurain, whose fifth straight Tour de France victory was testimony to some otherworldly conditioning. The cycling world is filled with stories of Indurain's resting pulse rate and his lung capacity, but a quick glance at his career points to a different kind of endurance. This now indomitable rider was actually unable to finish the race in his first two tries, in '85 and '86. Thereafter he finished 97th, 47th, 17th, 10th and then, finally, first, in '91. It doesn't sound so much like superior cardiopulmonary parts as just—what did Ripken call it? Stubbornness.
Jerry Rice is more endorsement-friendly in these parts than Indurain. But, like Indurain, he does not rely on accidents of talent to achieve his goals. Rice, the best receiver ever—he has more touchdown catches, 143, than anyone in NFL history—has been fine-tuning his body for years. His work ethic frightens competitors and colleagues alike, who hope—hope!—you don't have to put that much effort into the game. But to be the best year after year, you do. Rice, who last season helped the San Francisco 49ers to a third Super Bowl victory in seven years, is another Ripken, but more exciting. He didn't miss a game in four years of college and hasn't missed one in 11 years as a pro, and at 33 he hasn't been slowed by a lifetime of hits over the middle. Niner quarterback Steve Young, who delivered the ball to Rice and was not incidental to the 1994 Super Bowl championship, marvels that his wideout, who was once thought too slow to play his position in the NFL, has "speed you can't clock."
And how could we not include Pete Sampras and Steffi Graf in our group, considering that each finished No. 1 in tennis for the third consecutive year. Sampras, who last season won five titles, including those at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, and literally climbed off the clay to lead America over Russia in the Davis Cup final, had to overcome his toughest challenge in a tournament he didn't even win. He played on with tears in his eyes at the Australian Open after learning that his friend and coach Tim Gullikson had malignant brain tumors. Sampras, who has long taken a backseat to Andre Agassi when it comes to endorsements, may still be thought of as too quiet, too stolid, a little too sober. But after what happened in Melbourne and in Moscow, no one can deny that he has a heart as good and strong as his game. And what a game he possesses. Even Agassi, outclassed by Sampras in the U.S. Open, was impressed by Pistol Pete's whistling aces. "The game of the future," Agassi said.
Graf likewise had a bittersweet year, despite winning nine tournaments, including Wimbledon and the U.S. and French Opens. She had to contend with her father-manager's being jailed in Germany for evading the payment of millions in income taxes on her earnings. Her achievements on the court were virtually overshadowed by the comeback of Monica Seles. Yet, like Sampras, she seemed more human in victory.
How long has it been since the fan has had to acknowledge the athlete's give instead of his take? Since he was forced to recognize an athlete's diligence, stability, effort? It feels as if it has been ages, doesn't it, since sports was something other than a playful preamble to an advertising career? But at least the fan had this year to arrest his growing cynicism. And it could happen again. Maybe the fan just needs to know where to look: down the first base line, where in the half glow of stadium lights a gray-haired guy signs autographs into the wee hours.