So nigh is grandeur to our dust, So near is God to man, When Duty whispers low, Thou must, The youth replies, I can.
—RALPH WALDO EMERSON
Dedicated, with thanks to the poet, who surely would approve, to: Dale Murphy. Judi Brown King. Chip Rives. Rory Sparrow. Kip Keino. Bob Bourne. Patty Sheehan. Reggie Williams.
There is an old cynical expression that once a man becomes a bishop, he never again eats a bad meal or hears the truth, and if that's an exaggeration, so also is it a fact that all hyperbole flowers from a seed of truth. If, indeed, there can be that sort of effect even on a shepherd of the church, a mature man, wholly formed and presumably virtuous, imagine how easy it is to turn the heads of men-children and women-children who play games for great gobs of money and buckets of acclaim.
Imagine, if you will, being young and rich and famous and possessing a body that is better than almost anyone else's and always does your bidding. In those circumstances, you might well be, as so many modern athletes are, vainglorious, thoughtless and indulgent, even avaricious. These unattractive qualities have become so commonplace that our perception of the athlete has changed. Not very long ago, the beau ideal was a champion who was in equal measure athlete and sportsman, a hero who considered victory without integrity to be unworthy of the reward. But today: Sportsman? Sportsmanship? What a quaint notion. Sportsmanship has, in fact, been superseded by a relatively new term, gamesmanship, which is very nearly the antonym for sportsmanship—infamy to its fame, greed to its grace.
Granted, this is hardly an age when honor is a frequent flier on any of mankind's routes. But the earliest editors of this magazine were not, we can be sure, altogether naive or out-of-touch when, in 1954, they got the idea of honoring a Sportsman of the Year. By then, the Georgia Peach had been celebrated for filing his spikes, All-America boys had confessed to fixing the varsity's games and Leo Durocher had delivered his assessment of where nice guys might expect to end up. Yet nobody blinked when the award was established. In 1954 arenas and stadiums still were widely peopled by sportsmen. Imagine that.
Today it's rare even to hear the term in its pure context, except when the Sportsman of the Year issue comes out, dutifully, like Christmas spirit, each December. But for the rest of the year, a sportsman is, in common usage, usually one of two things: 1) someone of inherited wealth who invests in racing yachts or thoroughbreds or 2) someone who shoots animals. The sense of sportsman that was meant in 1954 seems, in 1987, to be heading toward extinction.
But, thankfully, notwithstanding the fact that many athletes today are self-absorbed reprobates, there remain a number who vividly defy the negative image of their breed. These stalwarts are, instead, generous and caring, charitable and devoted, responsible; they are dear hearts, noble men and women; they are, at the last, good sports.
And so, this December, as for the 34th time we salute a Sportsman of the Year—or a Sportswoman, or Sportsfolk—we have elected, more than ever, to honor the whole athlete, not simply that fabulously facile part that scores goals and wins games. On the pedestal stand together: Mr. Murphy from baseball; Ms. King from track; Mr. Rives from college football; Mr. Sparrow from basketball; Mr. Keino from track; Mr. Bourne from hockey; Ms. Sheehan from golf; and Mr. Williams from football.
In one sense these men and women are representative, vicars of all athletes who give of themselves unto others. But, as you will read on the following pages, they are not merely symbolic; they are very much flesh and blood, and this: They are the worthiest.
Still, it's always difficult to select a Sportsman of the Year, to pick one champion over the others. In the present exercise, the business of choosing is even more subtle, more perplexing. How, for example, can we overlook so many deserving individuals?