Two weeks later, the issue subtly spilled over onto the pitch in South Africa, where the U.S. national team played a win-or-go-home match against Algeria. Segura flipped on the game and saw her country reflected like never before in the faces of its team: Jewish Mexican-American Jonathan Bornstein, Jersey boy Michael Bradley and Nigerian-American Oguchi Onyewu placing their hands over their hearts during The Star-Spangled Banner even as the Obama Administration announced plans to use drones along the southern border that the relatives of U.S. players José Torres and Herculez Gomez had crossed. Just as the Americans looked doomed, goalie Tim Howard, who had overcome Tourette's syndrome, launched the ball midfield to California kid Landon Donovan, who passed to Jozy Altidore, born of Haitian parents, to Dempsey, back to Donovan... . Goal!
While politicians argued in Washington, 23 men from backgrounds as diverse as the country they represented showed what an inclusive America could be. "It was sports prefiguring politics," Segura says. "The team never addressed issues of immigration or inclusion; it simply played the game—together—with regard not to origins but to abilities, the way Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson demonstrated decades earlier how much better we can be when we see America's differences as a bounty instead of a burden."
GARY SMITH, WHO HAS chronicled the diversity of sports experiences like no one else, will tell you that the two most striking things he has ever seen were the most fundamental and solitary—Carl Lewis running and Mike Tyson punching a heavy bag. Fluidity and power, both stripped to raw essence, without a competitor or fan or camera in sight. "Two very complicated men, but neither conscious that in that moment he's living what he's seeking: purity," Smith says. "Sports as a private reckoning place for psychic energy and tumult—those with no eyes or ears for that will experience only half of sports' wonder."
Then, if you widen the lens, as Smith always does, "if you bring in the teammates, the arena, the audience, the noise, that's where you encounter sports' other sacred power, its primal ability to connect, to merge, to create community."
For Smith, that encounter came in the leftfield bleachers of Busch Stadium in St. Louis in 1998, shoulder to shoulder with 50,000 people standing on their seats and roaring every time Mark McGwire came to the plate to try to break Roger Maris's home run record, an entire city—oblivious to McGwire's steroid use and deceit—melted into one. Then there was Smith's encounter with a bus full of refugees, lost children from war-ravaged countries and shattered families, forged into a soccer team and made to feel that they mattered by a Muslim woman on the outskirts of Atlanta. And on a Friday night in a South Carolina town, his encounter with a mentally retarded black man doing everything a human being could possibly do at a high school football game—greeting the crowd, providing radio commentary, delivering the pregame pep talk, running water bottles to the players, cheering with the cheerleaders, leading the halftime marching band and racing across the field with the school flag after touchdowns—everything except actually playing, and basking in his town's love every mad minute of it.
That was Smith reporting.
For SI's July 26, 1999 issue, managing editor Bill Colson asked Smith to choose and then write about his favorite sports photograph of the 20th century. Smith spent days looking at the thousands of pictures in books and portfolios the magazine sent him, finally deciding on one taken by the brilliant shooter Marvin E. Newman (opening spread, page 68).
There is no sports action in this photo of the TCU locker room before the Cotton Bowl against Syracuse in 1957, but Newman captured what SI's editors described as "the essence of sports" in a roomful of young men about to go up against the best football player in history, Jim Brown, in his last college game. You can walk around inside this picture... . [The players'] boxer shorts are hanging right there, on the hooks behind their heads, but their faces are showing something even more personal than that. Almost reminds you of a painting by Norman Rockwell.