Writing about how great athletes talk to themselves got me thinking about my favorite athletes of all-time. Four of the individuals on my distinguished list rise above the rest because of the place they hold in my heart, and because of the influence they had on me as a teenager and young adult. And, looking at the quartet, I am struck by the similarities between the three and the common characteristics they taught me to admire and emulate. The magic foursome is: Doug Flutie, Larry Bird, Jim Barton, and Nomar Garciaparra.
Doug Flutie. I was sixteen in 1984 when he threw the hail mary pass to Gerard Phelan to lead Boston College to victory over University of Miami. His 21-year pro career was just like his college career: he was smaller than every other NFL quarterback, but he found ways to win, time after time. And he never did it the same way twice – he was the king of improv.
Larry Bird. I was 17 that spring the Celtics beat the Lakers in the NBA Finals (1986). My dad always used to say, "Remember Larry, because you won’t see anyone like him the rest of your life." It’s not Larry’s clutch shots and passes I remember first, it’s his hustle, diving to the floor to grab control of a loose ball, slamming his chin on the court. Larry was a warrior.
Jim Barton. Jim was a star basketball player at Dartmouth College in the late 1980s when I was a student there. He could catch a pass and get off a shot in one instantaneous motion — and it always went in. His heroics made me lose my voice every game. He was among the nation’s scoring leaders, and at the time, I had never witnessed a more electric athlete in person.
Nomar. As a member of the Red Sox, his love for playing baseball was obvious, and even though he was an all-star, he was humble and appreciated his success. He seemed to be hustling every minute of the game, even in the dugout (mentally). He was my first son’s first favorite Sox player, which has cemented him among my top-four favorite athletes. At the age of 5, he cried when Nomar was traded to the Cubs. He still wears his Red Sox-Nomar shirt, as well as his Cubs-Nomar shirt, and at the time Nomar signed his glove, it was probably the greatest moment of his young life.
Nice list, but why does it matter?
These great athletes were also great teachers of mine. Through countless emotionally-charged athletic performances, they helped develop my world view: the belief that anything can happen if you can imagine it; that the game isn’t over until it’s over, so you must never quit; that calm, confident focus can tame the highest-pressure moments; that spectacular results hurtle towards us when we’re "in the zone;" that the team’s goal of winning supercedes individual accomplishments; and that there is nobility in playing hurt and hustling on every play.
Who are your most beloved athletes, and how have they helped shape your world view?