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Road Swing
Steve Rushin
October 19, 1998
For a year the author cruised the highways and byways of America in search of the soul of sports, and he found it in shrines hallowed and profane, packed stadiums, retro bars and gloriously greasy food
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October 19, 1998

Road Swing

For a year the author cruised the highways and byways of America in search of the soul of sports, and he found it in shrines hallowed and profane, packed stadiums, retro bars and gloriously greasy food

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Lumberton, North Carolina
The south was an alien land. The athletic director at the University of Alabama was Hootie Ingram. The president of the Charlotte Motor Speedway was Humpy Wheeler. The football coach at Lumberton (N.C.) Senior High was Knocky Thorndyke. These were grown men in positions of authority. And yet, if they were to meet, a mutual friend presumably would introduce them to each other by saying: "Humpy, Knocky. Knocky, Humpy. Humpy, Hootie. Hootie, Humpy...."

Tupelo, Mississippi

The king's Munsingwear pajamas were laid neatly across the back of his brown Barcalounger. Next to his chair was a table, and arrayed on the table were an ashtray, a lighter, two pipes, a reading lamp and a pair of reading glasses. The entire display looked like something from the Eisenhower estate sale. But in fact all of these items were recovered from Graceland and moved here—to the Elvis Presley Museum in his hometown, Tupelo. My eyes fell to Presley's favorite book, which lay unopened for all eternity on the armchair. It was Great Running Backs of the NFL, by Jack Hand. Its cover bore the circular seal of the NFL Punt, Pass & Kick Library. I recognized this book. I had read it when I was eight.

"Oh, Elvis loved his football," said a sweet old woman who caught me admiring the book and who had offered to answer any questions when I arrived. "He loved all sports. He played some football in high school, when he moved to Memphis. He warn't too good, mind you, but he always joined in. You know, to be one of the fellas."

Several minutes passed in this fashion, the woman leading me around by the elbow as she pointed out the portrait of Mr. F.L. Bobo, who, she said, sold Elvis his first guitar, until at last I applied a sleeper hold to her neck, and she slumped over in a temporary and harmless blackout. I tiptoed out of Tupelo, passing the Tupelo Hardware Co., where the King really did get his first guitar from a Mr. F.L. Bobo, whose name you thought I made up.

From Tupelo I drove to Graceland, 107 miles to the northwest in Memphis, where I learned that Elvis built a one-court racquetball pavilion in his backyard in 1975, at the height of the nation's racquet-ball boom. There is, predictably, a wet bar and a piano in the viewing gallery, making the King's primary workout facility look like the racquetball-themed piano bar of a Holiday Inn. This is the penultimate point of interest on the Graceland tour—the last stop before visiting the grave.

Alas, it was also E.'s last stop before visiting same. Or very nearly so. To paraphrase the tour audiotape, in August 1977 Elvis had recently returned from weeks of touring, the road having left him tragically out of match shape, when he was seized in the middle of the night by an irrepressible impulse to play racquetball. He rallied with friends for a couple of hours, then repaired to the piano to play what is poignantly called his "last concert"—Unchained Melody and Blue Eyes Cryin' in the Rain—before retiring upstairs around dawn, at which time he passed away peacefully on the bathroom floor.

The implication was unmistakable, a revisionist revelation that I wanted desperately to believe. It wasn't drugs or alcohol or fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches that killed the King. On the contrary.

Racquetball killed Elvis.

Irving, Texas

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