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THE LIVES THEY LED
MARK BECHTEL
December 27, 2010
Whether they simply felt larger than life (a fireballing phenom, an imperious owner) or were literally so (a 7'7" social activist, a gentle giant), the figures the sports world lost had impacts that are sure to endure
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December 27, 2010

The Lives They Led

Whether they simply felt larger than life (a fireballing phenom, an imperious owner) or were literally so (a 7'7" social activist, a gentle giant), the figures the sports world lost had impacts that are sure to endure

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Manute Bol, 47

A 7'7" Dinka tribesman from Sudan who came to the U.S. with few hoops skills and no knowledge of English, Bol parlayed shot-blocking and three-point shooting into a 10-year NBA career. He constantly aided his war-torn homeland, even boxing William (the Refrigerator) Perry for $35,000, which he donated to Sudanese orphans. "When I was younger I was bothered [about being tall]," he said. "But not now. My height is a gift from God."

Bob Probert, 45

One of the NHL's most notorious enforcers, Probert did it all in 1987--88: He tied for third on the Red Wings with 62 points, made his only All-Star team and led the league with a whopping 398 penalty minutes, the sixth most in NHL history. But his bad-boy ways extended to his off-ice activities: Probert missed most of the next two seasons after being arrested and serving six months in prison for cocaine possession.

Don Coryell, 85

In the words of his Hall of Fame quarterback, Dan Fouts, Coryell's approach was simple: "We're going to throw the ball, and we don't care who knows it." The coach made a habit of turning teams around—San Diego State, the St. Louis Cardinals, Fouts's Chargers—by airing it out. Said former Rams coach Mike Martz, "Now, 40 years later, you're seeing the second and third generations of coaches running Coryell's system."

Bob Feller, 92

There are none of them left now. Feller was the last of the great athletes who made their mark before the war, so sports' connection to the Depression is severed forever. It is difficult to comprehend what a significant figure Rapid Robert was before he enlisted in the Navy two days after Pearl Harbor. He was the most fascinating player of the time, the rare one who bestrode his game.

In 1936, Feller was like some vision come to life—a 17-year-old out of Van Meter, Iowa, signed by the Indians, striking out 15 in his first game. It wasn't just that he was so good. He was a human marvel, able to throw a baseball over the plate faster than anybody alive.

Yet he was forever grounded in that Midwest soil—direct, loyal, hopelessly honest and notably un-PC. Feller, who won 266 games in 18 seasons, was as unabashedly proud of his life as he could be. I remember, during a visit with him in 2005, how determined he was to show my wife and me an old landing strip where he'd once put down the plane he loved to fly. It mattered to him for us to see. "I flew till I was 75," he said. The strip was outside Cooperstown. His plane brought him back there, but his fastball took him in.

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