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Among the sorriest figures in contemporary society is the old athlete adrift in a world outside sports he can neither cope with nor fully comprehend. In another time, the ex-jock might be found recounting past glories in some neighborhood tavern, possibly his own, an all-but-forgotten relic revived from time to time by nostalgic stories in the newspapers.
Now, when financial security is virtually assured for all but the wastrel few, the adjustment to life after sports is more psychological than economic. How must it feel to have achieved your greatest glory by the time you're 40, an age when your non-athletic contemporaries are just beginning to rise in their chosen careers? What do you do for the next 30 years?
But there are retired athletes who have found their true calling after the cheering has stopped. The past for them is what it should be, a pleasant memory. These are the lucky ones, you say.
Ah, but luck has nothing to do with it. Ambition, hard work, the urge to do something worthwhile and in several cases recounted here, real courage have everything to do with it. Here are five athletes who have made this conversion and found their places in a world that can so often be uncaring to the once famous.
Jim Ridlon was one of the first tough-as-nails NFL defensive backs in the 1950s and '60s, a rugged tackier and, though not especially fast, a dogged pass defender. In six years with the San Francisco 49ers he played every defensive backfield position. Ridlon finished his career with the Dallas Cowboys, earning all-NFL honors in 1964 as a defensive back. Then, suddenly, at his peak, he quit, returning to his alma mater. Syracuse University, in 1965 to complete his graduate studies in fine arts. He now works as a color commentator on the Syracuse football radio broadcasts, but he is a full-time professor of art at the College of Visual and Performing Arts. Ridlon is renowned as a painter and a sculptor, and his work appears in galleries throughout the U.S. and Canada. He is also writing a novel.
The painting has bright orange borders and a heavily textured "lava flow" interior of grayish blue. Ridlon, a tall, solidly built man of 52 with thinning sandy hair and a reddish-brown mustache, steps back to examine it. "You see, when you look at it this way, you're aware of the edges," he says. "They are like twin horizons. That's the peripheral effect I was trying to achieve here." He laughs. "It's the very same view a safety has of the two wide receivers. He sees them both at once and watches them warily. Opposed to these firm and very straight edges is the layered interior. This juxtaposition represents two different types of awareness—of the random and the ordered, or, you could say, the accidental and the sophisticated. It also represents the different phases of my own life, the Jekyll and Hyde of me."
The abstract painting is but one of scores the prolific Ridlon has either stored or hanging in the ski lodge of a house he and his wife. Katherine, live in on a hill above Lake Cazenovia, 19 miles southeast of Syracuse. The artist is also a hopelessly addicted collector of "things"—toy soldiers, spools of yarn, pieces of wood, old mirrors, football helmets and cleats, bicycle parts. Ridlon's things find their way into the ingenious assemblages that occupy so much of his time these days. These are like three-dimensional collages, hundreds of different items arranged in ways that convey a special artistic message. Ridlon made one for ABC-TV to commemorate, in 1986, the 25th anniversary of its Wide World of Sports program. It was in the form of a wall, 12� by 8 feet, and it had everything on it from a Steve Mahre ski boot to a Harlem Globetrotter basketball. He is also preparing assemblages for the 100th anniversary, in 1989. of Syracuse football and the 35th anniversary, in 1990, of Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif. Earlier this year, Ridlon finished sculpting the Outland Trophy, awarded annually to the best collegiate interior lineman. The Outland award originated in 1946, but it had been 21 years since a proper trophy was handed to the winner—the original Outland, a three-by five-foot plaque, having apparently been stolen in 1967 from a ballroom in the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles. Ridlon's replacement trophy, given this year to Auburn defensive tackle Tracy Rocker, is much more impressive, a heavy (50 pounds) bronze and black African granite figure of a lineman in an ambiguous crouch with one hand open, representing defense, and one closed, for offense. The player wears the bulky uniform of the '40s, when the trophy was first awarded, a time when Ridlon, growing up in Nyack, N.Y., first became aware of football and what it might mean to him.
It is a gray day, and Ridlon looks out over the darkening lake. The duality he portrays so vividly in his art is very much a part of his own nature. The fierce defensive back is a sensitive artist; the eloquent professor whose lectures frequently command applause from his students was once scarcely able to speak intelligibly; the student of literature and burgeoning novelist was for many years unable to read the simplest words.
"I was dyslexic," he says. "I had learning problems all the way through elementary school. As a result, I developed a stuttering problem as well. Those were nightmare years for me. I learned then to trust my body, not my mind. I turned to art, I suppose, because I had no handicap there. I started painting in the sixth grade, and it was then, too, I started collecting things. Nyack was such a rural area then. You could walk for most of a day and not come to a house. You could swim in the Hudson. I'd go to this abandoned quarry and sit there by myself being very still. I could see almost every type of animal there except bears. I got so I could actually communicate with them. I was learning to explore the world not only with my eyes and my mind, but with all my senses and my heart. All of my first paintings were landscapes.
"By high school I had learned to deal with my dyslexia. By then I had conceived of some survival tactics. And the stuttering was under control. I had an excellent art teacher, and I had become a good athlete. I came from a very poor family—my father's people were all lobster fishermen in Maine—and if it hadn't been for football, I might well have become a coal miner or something like that. But I got an athletic scholarship to Syracuse, so I got an opportunity I might otherwise never have had. I'm very proud I was a good athlete. I played in the same backfield with Jim Brown, and that was an honor. But it was at Syracuse I realized that I also had a mind."