His name was John McKay (1923-2001), architect of the USC juggernauts in the 1960s & 70s (1959-75) and original guru of the expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1976-84).
It’s a name you rarely see today. John falls into that cobweb-covered category known as historical sports figure, a classification relegated to the deepest, darkest, dankest recesses of the sporting scene by those who set the type on today’s virtual sports page.
But in his heyday he was known in football circles as much for his charisma and quick wit as for the vastness of his coaching knowledge and trophy-laden mantel.
During his long, storied career John was the definition of a character. A figure in sport whose zeal for the game goes beyond job-title and is often conveyed in vivid expressions of humor, individualism and great emotion, whether high elation or fiery frustration.
Celebrity doesn’t make a character…and characters aren’t always celebrities. As great a golfer as Tiger Woods was, if public persona were spirits, his wouldn’t fill a shot-glass.
Same holds true for browbeaters (Woody Hayes / Bob Knight / John McEnroe / Frank Martin / Bo Pelini / Serena Williams) and poseurs (Randy Moss / Barry Bonds). Their legions love the wins but their anger or aloofness leave confusion & emotional pain in their wake.
Baseball skippers are a mixed-bag. On one hand, the dugout musings of men like John McGraw, Leo Durocher, Earl Weaver, Billy Martin, Bobby Cox and Ozzie Guillen while holding court with reporters can be a treat; on the other, their verbal assaults on umpires would be a crime on Main Street, USA.
On happening upon McKay’s name recently I got to wondering: Where are the characters on today’s sporting stage? Those men & women who’d walk away from some black-tie affair with shiny statuette in hand as recognition of their contribution to the lighter side.
McKay was unique, to be sure. A star on the gridiron alongside Norm Van Brocklin at Oregon in the 40s, he’d display that rare mix of on-field success combined with a rapier sharp wit. But he was by no means an anomaly. Personalities played nearly as big a part in his time as the competitions on the playing field and in the ring.
Characters have been around since the early days of organized sport, long before micro-chips, TV & radio built a bigger stage and broader audience.
This is just a smattering of the many names who made national news with their wit, wisdom, wild & wooly ways or just by having big yappers.
Baseball was center stage until Walter Camp inflated a pigskin. Diamond dandies of the handlebar mustache days included King Kelly, Cap Anson and future cleric Billy Sunday; there was Ty Cobb, Dizzy Dean, inventive owner Bill Veeck; Negro League sage Satchel Paige, Casey Stengel, Jimmy Piersall, Yogi Berra and bigger than life Babe Ruth of whom writer Jimmy Cannon penned, “was a parade all by himself.”
More recent memorables include scribe Heywood Hale Broun, golfer Lee Trevino, Billie Jean King, George Steinbrenner, Harry Caray, Denny McClain, Bobby Riggs, Don Meredith, Bill Walton, Howard Cosell, Joe Namath, Hank Stram, Dennis Rodman and the incomparable Muhammad Ali, fka Cassius Clay.
Even officials got in on the act, adding charm to their routines. Two notables: NBA ref Jake O’Donnell (‘67-95) with his court gyrations and talky umpire Ron Luciano (‘69-79).
Having a classic one-liner isn’t a prerequisite to character status, but it helps.
Ruth: When asked whether he could’ve batted .400 if he’d not swung so for the stands, Ruth confidently replied, “Hell, kid, I coulda’ hit .500 (Baseball Digest).” And Ruth could have.
McKay: “(After a tough loss) I told my team it doesn’t matter. There are 750 million people in China who don’t even know this game was played (Wikipedia).”
Ali: “I’m fast, I’m pretty and can’t POSSIBLY be beat (ESPN)!” Ali’s greatest line. Oh, the beautiful arrogance of it.
Yogi Berra: “It ain’t over till it’s over (Wikipedia).” America’s most famous sport quote.
Joe Frazier: After winning the Fight of the Century (71): “That shot I hit Clay with in the last round, Oh my God. I went back home, back to the country for that one (Time / 3-71).”
Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh): “Fiddle dee dee! War, war, war, this war talk is spoiling the fun at every party this spring. I get so bored I could scream (Imdb.com)!” Why Scarlett? She lost everything, except Tara. A good sport if there ever was one.
Today’s list of characters might fit onto a Post-It note. Why so few? Maybe tougher times fostered a more colorful, engaging, philosophical breed. It’s a theory.
Not that baby-boomers didn’t bear burdens in the turbulent 60s, but c’mon. WW I & II, Korea, Jim Crow, Mr. Volstead & the Depression. We’re talking ice boxes, Model Ts, horse-plows, rural outhouses and pre-penicillin. Consumerism was the Sears Catalog.
Here then are 2012’s cavalcade of characters, sport personalities who make an impact beyond wins, loses, tweets, fantasy stats and the corporate sales pitch.
Brett Favre: When the Vikes’ QB laid a downfield block on 49ers’ All-Pro Pat Willis in their memorable 2009 match-up, putting the star linebacker flat on his back, I knew then what Green Bay had so admired. So did Pat, for he helped him up, straightened his pads and gave Brett the all-clear nod.
Joe Maddon: Discussing a division rival’s new anti-beer policy, Joe quipped, “We’re not the Boston Red Sox (“Maddon” / FOX / DS / 2-27).” Enough said.
Jared Allen: When asked by reporters of a so-called “schism” in the Vikes’ locker-room due to the newly-arrived Favre in 2009, Jared’s response: “I didn’t know what that word meant. I thought it was an STD and we don’t go for that in these here parts (ESPN).”
Terrell Owens: His popcorn-grab in Dallas Cowboys’ garb was his best.
Rickie Fowler: In my Dad’s day they used to say ‘The cloths make the man.’ Either this guy’s got a screw loose or style with moxie to burn. I vote the latter. Go get ‘em, Rick.
Danica Patrick: “(T)he honey badger, he doesn’t give a ****, he takes what he wants. And that’s how I’m going to be this year, like a honey badger (“Patrick” / FOX / LS / 1-13).” Even if she never takes a Sprint Cup trophy, that line was cuter than all get out.
Some of the rest: Charles Barkley, Dick Vitale, Chad Ochocinco, Rex Ryan, writer Woody Paige and city bicyclist LeBron James.
There are more characters out there. Some will make headlines, others will simply make their teammates stop & listen. All can breath fresh air into a sometimes predictable or suffocating coverage of today’s wonderful world of sport.
Ahead of the Curve
About the Author
Written by Steven Keys
A native of the old Northwest Territory (IL), my wife and I have lived in four Midwestern states and Arizona. Today we live in Duluth, Georgia. I have a history / legal background.