Poe himself never conjured the horror I felt one day a few years ago when, after the announcement of an indefinite flight delay, I slumped into an airport lounge chair only to find myself seated beside a woman whom I had met cursorily at a wedding the evening before. With nothing in common but a CD of the just-marrieds' favorite Barry Manilow tunes, we qualified for that particular hell where there is nothing to say, and making conversation feels like pulling Heinrich Schneidereit, the legendary tug-of-war champ of the 1906 Olympics. Given the woman's striking resemblance to Schneidereit, even the traditional fallback of flirtatious banter—"meeting cute," as they say 'round the cockfighting pits in old Culiacán—seemed out of the question. I'm sure she felt the same way about me.
In fact I know she did, because as soon as she proffered the inevitable "And so, what do you do?" and I mentioned SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, she metamorphosed into the very avatar of relief. "SI!" she practically sang. "Why, did you know I once was a FACE IN THE CROWD? August 13, 1968. Third from the bottom." Then she shot me a chilling, dead-eyed stare that I now realize was meant to be a reenactment of her head shot. It failed to jog my memory, but I heard myself say, "Do tell," and as she described the mid-20th-century Schenectady city-parks tennis scene in Proustian detail, the hours flew by like anvils.
That was the first time I realized how the experience of being a FACE IN THE CROWD stays with a person, if not in the conscious mind, then in the near subconscious, ready to be retrieved for an airport conversation, a job interview or one of those dark nights of the soul when we doubt our very existence—or that we were ever the Southwest New Jersey Age 13--15 Boys' Soccer Player of the Week.
The second time I confronted the power of the FACES experience was while working on the "catching up with" stories for this issue. Virtually all the FACES we reached out to without warning in the middle of a day, in the middle of a life, greeted our call with equanimity—as if, on some level, they knew they'd be summoned to further service. They are members of an elite fraternity, after all, and these things happen. And every one remembered the sometimes distant day when a high school coach had said, "Would you like me to submit your name to FACES IN THE CROWD?" (or, if they happened to attend the same Catholic high school I did, "You will like me to submit your name to FACES IN THE CROWD"). No one said, "If it happened, I've completely forgotten."
What was especially shocking, even to someone who has lived through the assassination of major political figures and the Giants-Titans game of several Sundays ago, was that the world-class athletes had the same attitude toward FACES as the one-hit wonders. Carl Lewis and Jackie Joyner-Kersee excelled at a sport that may have been invented by the laurel-growers of Athens as a way of boosting wreath sales, yet those multiple Olympic track and field champions could look back through a forest of medals, trophies, plaques and citations and see their thumb-sized FACES entry on a coach's desk or in their mom's hands; they can remember precisely how they felt about it, and tell you where their clipping is today. Lewis, Joyner-Kersee, Vince Carter, Bobby Unser, Joe Mauer, Billie Jean King: Those are, in their sundry ways, some of the coolest people in sports, and they tended to say the same thing about being a FACE IN THE CROWD: "It was so cool."
Central to their feeling of pride is the strange idea that someone is reading these damn items with the boring pictures and the formulaic prose. But somebody is, as Don Mattingly knows. George Steinbrenner used to tell how, in 1979, he, a man with ships to build and turtlenecks to sport and managers to fire, took the time during a plane ride to read FACES, where he spotted an item about Mattingly, and dispatched a scout to check out the kid who was batting .552 for Reitz Memorial High in Evansville, Ind. The story can't be entirely accurate, since Mattingly had been drafted by the Yankees (in the 19th round) about a month before his FACE appeared, but the kernel of truth is that the item intensified the owner's interest in a player he may not have realized he already had the rights to. Mattingly, of course, turned out to be an excellent Yankee for 14 seasons, a Yankees coach for the last three and, in 2008, if the rumors are true, he'll be Steinbrenner's manager.
You need to be careful, though: Not every FACE is a clean-cut Hoosier kid like Donnie Baseball or, like Shaun Alexander, a studious, charismatic class president. If you're drawing self-esteem from being part of this crowd, you must confront the reality that the FACES catalog includes a few future steroid users, petty thieves and, most sadly, Roberto Smalls (FACES May 15, 1987, as Roberto Ventura), a pitching phenom at Piney Woods (Miss.) Country Life High and a third-round pick of the Cubs in 1988 who six years later was sentenced to life imprisonment in St. Thomas for fatally shooting a rival gang member.
Hard cases, though, are hard to come by. If shame was the subject, there would be a wall of, not a hall of, in the FACES museum. Pride is the deadliest sin that tempts the FACES, as a group, and they are usually guilty of it only in small, touching doses that vaccinate them against anything worse. Consider Eric West, who became a FACE as a Snyder, Texas, second-grade soccer star in 1981 for, among other things, scoring "six goals in a 6--0 win over the Sneaky Snakes"; about 15 years later he and his wife started a folk-rock duo they called Faces in the Crowd. "I'm sure many of the folks [in Snyder] recognized the SPORTS ILLUSTRATED connection," West says.
At the Kansas City Bulk Mail Center in Kansas City, Kans., newcomers and temps are ushered over to meet George Yadrich, a clerk of long standing who made it into FACES in 1972 for winning the NAIA bowling championship while at Rockhurst (Mo.) College. "I ask them if they've ever met someone who was in SI's FACES IN THE CROWD," says Paul Vogel, the coworker who does the ushering, "and George usually kind of takes it from there."