In our special Sports Issue Jennifer Egan, Jane Mayer, David Remnick, Bob Herbert and many others wrote about their childhood sports heroes. We asked you, our readers, to tell us who your first sports hero was, and why. Dozens of readers have responded with thoughtful, powerful pieces about the role athletes have played in their lives. This is our second installment of the NationReader’s Childhood Sports Heroes. Check out the first installment and watch this space for future editions coming soon.
Gerry Larvey, Santa Clara, California
On Ted Williams
In Boston in the 1950s there was no one like the incomparable Ted Williams, my boyhood hero. He was a great hitter, an individual and a legend. He did not kowtow to anyone and he ended up hating the Boston sport writers who were often critical of him, blaming him for the team’s mediocre results. He was even fined one time for spitting towards the sportswriter’s box. He became wary of the press and the fans, irritated by the negativity. I attended his last game in a mostly empty Fenway. I saw him homer in his last at bat. Next inning, he trotted out to left field but before the inning started another fielder relieved him. As he trotted in to the dugout, the few fans in attendance cheered wildly, giving him a standing ovation. Ted refused to tip his cap. He was one of a kind and I doubt that we will ever see another ballplayer who approaches his stats and his legend.
Paul Singer, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
On Roberto Clemente
In late September 1972, my brother and I tape recorded the radio broadcast of the game in which our idol, Roberto Clemente, stroked his 3000th hit. We used a reel-to-reel tape recorder with a microphone pointed at a transistor radio, so the tape picked up both Bob Prince’s call of the game and the sound of our shrieking and jumping up and down when Roberto doubled into the gap in left-center. Three months later, we awoke on New Years Day to the news that Roberto Clemente had died in a plane crash while bringing relief supplies to earthquake victims. We spent the morning huddled and crying in our parents’ bed. I was six years old when Roberto Clemente taught me about heroism, and about loss.
Bob Brown, Roanoke, Virginia
On Ernie Davis
I was eleven the day Ernie Davis died, and I cried. My friends thought I was weird. Who, in the white, jock South of the early 1960s, could possibly care about a black running back from Syracuse University in a faraway land called upstate New York? Ernie broke down my own, personal racial barrier. How could he not? He outran almost everyone, and he would shake-and-bake those who kept up with him. He played both offense and defense. Watching the Saturday highlight shows, seeing Ernie break another big run or make a key interception, I realized that greatness comes in all colors. Ernie demolished the University of Texas in the 1960 Cotton Bowl. He was everywhere he needed to be at the moment he needed to be there. Without him, Syracuse was pretty much an average team; with him, Syracuse went undefeated and won the national championship. They beat all-white Texas in segregated Dallas. It took a strong man to do that. Ernie received the Heisman Trophy in 1963. He signed a pro contract with the Cleveland Browns. Then he was diagnosed with leukemia. He died without ever playing a regular-season game. The Browns retired his number, and I cried—cried at the unfairness, cried because my hero was dead.
John Skogstrom, Maynard, Massachusetts
On Butch Hobson
This is going to be obscure—Red Sox third baseman Butch Hobson. I was at Fenway Park on a day when the Red Sox played the Orioles and Butch dove into the Orioles’ dugout to go after foul balls, twice. If my memory serves me, and I make no claims that it does, he caught at least one of those balls. In 1978, he played through bone chips in his throwing elbow. His elbow would literally lock up in the field, and you would see him massaging it to get the bone chips into a workable place. He threw away an enormous number of balls that season and many would say he cost the team the pennant. I shared that opinion, but his hustle and determination won me over, and this was the player I wanted to be like when I was in junior high school.
Michael Tearson, Baltimore, Maryland
On Raymond Berry
I was ten and a half when the Baltimore Colts beat the New York Giants for the 1958 NFL championship in the first overtime game in league history. The Colts were a great team with a bunch of Hall of Famers. But the one who impressed me most was wide receiver Raymond Berry, Johnny Unitas’ favorite target. Neither had been pro football naturals, but they’d work together long into the night after practices on routes and timing so when they made first team they were unstoppable. Berry was the first guy to wear contact lenses in the game as far as I know. He wasn’t particularly fast. One leg was shorter than the other. He had a bad back. And he caught more passes than anybody before him ever did. And dropped just two passes in his entire career! In that ’58 championship game in the crucial drives it was Unitas to Berry over and over. The Giants knew it was coming and could do nothing to stop it. And it killed them! Later Berry became a successful coach (his Patriots made the 1986 Super Bowl). His can-do/make-do attitude and excellent preparation have inspired me my whole life.
Be sure to also check out the first installment of reader sports heroes and to read the contributions from our distinguished group of writers, thinkers and advocates on their sports heroes.