My two first sports heroes, in a long and ever-expanding gallery, were oddly matched, though both wore the number twelve: Joe Namath, the great quarterback of the New York Jets, and Yvan Cournoyer, the speedy right-winger of the Montreal Canadiens. Both brightened my largely lonely and isolated but imaginatively vital Canadian adolescence.
I recall precisely the moment I fell in love with Broadway Joe. In those days the imagery of pro football was controlled by NFL Films, which had the instinct to glorify the game not by showing it as the violent blue-collar thing it really was then (George Plimpton’s books are good on that reality) but by making it seem epic, and above all by grasping—OK, squeezing to death—two visual devices. One was the slow-motion fall of the ball, spinning with impossible-seeming regularity toward the open thrust-out hands of the receiver and then coming to rest there—religiously, as it seemed, rather than being merely snatched athletically. The other device was the strange power of steam-breath, emitted by giant men in capes. Both, set to orchestral music, with the Dr. Doom voice of a Philadelphia broadcaster, John Facenda, made the game matter. I happened to catch one such highlights show, featuring the Jets, on a Saturday afternoon in 1968, and that sight—the ball flipped from Namath’s hand, the camera rushing to follow its long, long arc, the ball settling down at last in Don Maynard’s hands—converted me. Namath had a unique throwing motion—or semi-unique, as Dan Marino, another West Pennsylvania boy, the only passer who was as beautiful to watch, shared, or rather borrowed, it—of holding the ball by his ear and flipping it forward with a decisive single twist of his upper body. He didn’t plant and throw; he looked and fired. It was such a beautiful, such a firmly fixed thing to see when he was “on.” The worst—the most disloyal—thing I’ve ever done was to have missed a legendary hockey game, Team Canada’s 3–2 victory over the Russians in Moscow in 1972, which set the pace for their comeback in the famous “Summit Series,” in order to watch Namath against Unitas in what became a legendary six-touchdown-pass game. Twice Unitas—still very much the canny field general, with his own insouciant pigeon-toed drop; Unitas and Montana were the two best QBs to watch run backward—led the Colts to touchdowns. And twice the ensuing drop, as Curt Gowdy liked to say, was instantly answered by Namath throwing another scoring bomb to the still-underrated tight end Rich Caster. It was the coolest, most knavishly assured thing I’ve ever seen in sports. (Namath made the cover of Time magazine, a very big deal in those days, for that one game.) Joe was cool, but what stirred me about him was not the playboy stuff, which I was already wise enough to know was naff and embarrassing, but the image of poise under pressure and the thrill of a last-minute decision zipping home. Like George Best in British football, he had a genius that was too short-lived and too quickly drowned in drink, but he gave a too-inward-turning teenage boy confidence in the authority of action.
The other great hero of my youth was a local Quebec boy, Yvan Cournoyer. In those days, when the Habs won a Stanley Cup every second year—they would turn the corner toward a true dynasty only in the later '70s—to say that we Montrealers were spoiled was to understate the case, save that, unlike Yankee dynasties, there was never a note of tycoon-contemptuousness in their play. The minority team in a majority country, they were always underdogs, even when they were on top. (I suppose FC Barcelona, representing Catalonia, plays a similar role in Spanish football.) Cournoyer embodied speed. Tiny and fire-hydrant squat, he had, in those prehelmet days, a perfectly round face on constant display, with the eager look of a spaniel chasing a ball in the park. Maurice Richard, the legendary predecessor, had a dark and stormy, fire-eyed note; Cournoyer was a child of the Quiet Revolution, and he exuded easy delight in his skill, his impossible moves, his home-run slap shot. In the greatest of all hockey upsets, the 1971 Ken Dryden–led victory over the “big, bad” (i.e., goonish and dumb; the Bruins never change) Boston team, Cournoyer was really the leader, though not yet the captain. He led the Habs again to a Stanley Cup in 1973, setting what was then a record for most goals in a playoff series. As it happened, my family had swept away on sabbatical to Paris, of all places, right in the middle of that final series, and one of my still-keenest memories in life is walking that early morning down the Boulevard JFK, the Eiffel Tower in the background, to find a copy of the Herald Tribune and discover, with a shout of glee, that the Habs had won the Cup in six. I’ve rarely since, sex aside, had so fully integrated a moment—the tower, Paris, the Habs victory, a Stanley Cup, Cournoyer—and I cherish it still. When I watch hockey now in the stands I still wear a Habs sweater bearing the number twelve, and though I honor Yvan, if a ghost of Broadway Joe in his glory claims a small piece of the number, I don’t mind.