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TRACK US ALL BACK, EVERY ONE OF US, BACK PAST THE WHEEL and the horse and language and fire, further back than civilization or history itself, back so far into buried time that even the scientists can't guide us, back into the original mystery. And there, before anything like history or glory or sports, a million years ago, or two million, or three, beneath an unconcerned sun on a buzzing savannah, something nearly human swung down one day from a baobab tree, put a foot to the earth and ran.
ORGANIZED SPORTS ARE THE perfection of the unnecessary. The goal of which is to do something that doesn't need doing better than someone else can do it. We're faster now, stronger, and can throw and whack things farther than at any time in our history. It's one of the rare areas of human endeavor that have shown any measurable improvement through the years.
The number of world-class athletes among us--those for whom the whacking and the throwing and the roaring glory of having done so become a life--is the tiniest fraction of a fraction of the world's population. But how vital they've become to the rest of us, how much they mean. And how much we ask of them.
How must it feel to be Michael or Tiger or Lance, Navratilova or Schumacher, DiMaggio or Zatopek, Keino or Mays or Zaharias? How must it feel to be, to have been, Muhammad Ali? Pick a name chiseled in any wing of the sports pantheon--exalted, dominant, so briefly unbeatable--and consider the privilege and the burden of being the best of the best of us. What must it be like to shoulder the weight of the world's dreams, to suffer humanity's fevered enthusiasms, to cause and then bear forward our disappointments?
For the rest us, there's some long-gone instant of childhood glory, then the realization that we're too slow or too small or too ordinary. Then comes the lifetime spent harmlessly jogging or coaching the Tballers; buying our season tickets, running through the morning sports section and doggedly whacking the remote. Because to watch, to simply see it, is a kind of necessary and loving witness to whatever human excellence is.
IF IT IS IN OUR NATURE TO MAKE SPORTS IMPORTANT, THEN it is our bad habit to make them too important. Organized sports rise and fall on the tide of human fortune certainly, a function of economy and class and circumstance and the availability of leisure time. Not a lot of hours for sports in the Dark Ages, of course, what with all that famine and plague on the family calendar, and every waking minute devoted to grubbing in the mud for roots and tubers with a pointed stick. Free up half a day a few hundred years later though, and call the same thing golf, and the world is bathed in sunshine.
Whenever and however sports arose in any particular age, they were usually said to be central to the development of human character, and they seemed to accrete to themselves all sorts of reverential higher ideals like purity of purpose and nobility. Which was great p.r. for the nobility, many of whom wanted their quirky horseback pastime of hunting rats with small dogs to be better thought of.
Still, there's that human truth at the core of it all, however you choose to express it.
DOWN FROM THE TREES, AT LEAST ACCORDING TO DARWIN and my local school board, I ran. I hit him just as the ball got there. They were running a little counter screen, a weakside flare to the right behind play action left, but his blockers never got there. I was an outside linebacker then, heavy and awkward, 12 or 13, crouching eight or nine yards upfield, too slow to bite on the fake. When I saw that he was alone, waiting with his hands fanned open and anxious at his chest, I ran at him.
It was some sort of Pop Warner regional playoff game. I don't remember anything else about that game or that long ago day, but I remember the moment I hit that boy, and I remember it as if it happened this morning. Some nights I still dream it.