We watched only a few minutes more, then I drove him to his apartment and returned home to my wakening wife. "Where have you been all this time?" she asked. "Nowhere," I said.
During the past 20 years Americans have steadily become a nation of participants. Inspired, perhaps, by President Kennedy's plea for physical fitness, Americans have been jogging, hiking, bicycling, skiing and playing tennis and golf. The Kennedys set an example with their family touch-football games. Sales of sports equipment, according to a National Sporting Goods Association survey, are up more than 600% since 1955. More than 100 million Americans now swim regularly, the same number ride bicycles and 20 million play tennis. The emphasis has been on participation for its own sake as opposed to the win philosophy long espoused by the powers in big-time college and professional sport.
A newspaper columnist I know wrote not long ago about how mature he had become in his approach to competitive athletics. He told how he had been such a bad loser for so many years and how, now that he was nearing 40, he had seen the light. His wife and he can play as tennis doubles partners these days without a single slurring remark about backhands or double faults. They can play, he insisted, without even caring whether they win or lose. He can leave the court, he wrote, feeling comfortable in the knowledge that he had done his best and if that had not been good enough, well then, c'est la vie.
Bully, I say, for him. It is just that I have not run across many people who can put this philosophy into practice, including me. What happens in real life is that when most of us turn to playing children's games—and what game is not a children's game?—we tend to behave like children. I envy my columnist friend his newfound maturity. At the same time I mourn the blandness that seems to have crept into his sporting life, such as it is. Take the infantile out of sport and you have taken the joy out of it. The playing field is an unlikely place to discover maturity. And exercising for exercising's sake is an exercise in boredom. What, after all, is so keen about being grown up? People who fall in love are not grown-up.
When I was a boy, I read somewhere that Elroy (Crazy Legs) Hirsch learned to be such a neat broken-field runner by dodging weeds and shrubbery in vacant lots. From then on, I could not pass a vacant lot without dodging through its flora crazy-leggedly. The temptation, alas, is still there, although now I content myself with walking briskly down crowded metropolitan streets, head-faking a lady shopper here, giving the hip to a messenger boy there, utilizing my "quick feet" to elude a street vendor over there, all the while giving free reign to a fevered imagination. "Fimrite has the ball on the 10, he's up to the 20, the 30. He makes a great move...There's only one man who can stop him now and that's the great Glenn Davis...He is outrunning Davis...He scores for California!"
I was pleased, incidentally, to learn some time ago from a onetime great broken-field runner, Hugh McElhenny, that the process can be reversed. McElhenny told me that when he was dodging tacklers on NFL gridirons he imagined himself a little kid hurrying home from a scary movie. He knew there were monsters in every doorway ready to leap out at him, and though he could not see them, he would anticipate their moves and elude them instinctively.
When President Kennedy advised us all to get off our duffs and start working out, I, as a loyal Kennedy man, dutifully obliged. Jogging was both boring and painful, and I had long since abandoned golf and tennis as too hard on the nervous system, so I took up what was then known as paddleball and is now called racquetball. My physical condition has not improved much, but I have at least reached a d�tente with my bad habits.
I will also play a little softball from time to time, reciting, predictably, a familiar litany: "It's a fast ball high and inside. Fimrite swings and there's a long, high fly ball to deep center field. Mays goes back, but that ball is going, going, gone"—all that before popping up to second base.
Touch football is something else. This is a game I should definitely give up, as any number of pulled muscles and deep bruises will attest. I will not give it up, of course, simply because it affords an opportunity to indulge those childish fantasies. "The hand off is to Fimrite.... He's swinging wide around left end...." There yet remains the chance that I will cut back against the grain of taggers, pick up some blocking and "break one."
Several weeks ago I was asked to play in a game of touch with a number of men, most of whom were only slightly younger than I. Naturally, I accepted, flattered that they should think the old boy still had something left. I had a pretty good day out there, hitting on three of the four passes they allowed me to throw and intercepting another. I must confess, though, that late in the going I was over-taken by a certain inexplicable fatigue. Dead game to the last, I refused to be taken out.