This story appears in the July 8-15, 2013 issue of Sports Illustrated, the 14th annual "Where Are They Now?" edition. Buy the digital version of the magazine here.
Even after all this time, it still amazes me. This summer marks 30 years since I left my home in Long Island for Southern California to start shooting a modest-budget film, The Karate Kid. Yet rarely a day goes by when I don't encounter some type of reference to that seminal sports movie -- a catchphrase, a punch line, a re-creation of favorite Karate Kid moments.
I am married now with two kids, both older than Daniel LaRusso was when he was introduced to the world in 1984. Yet that chapter in my life remains frozen in time. I guess it doesn't help (or hurt) that I've maintained these boyish looks. I imagine if I were bald and round, it would be easier to hide this youthful character in the wrinkles of my frame. But I honestly believe that even if I won an Oscar or discovered a cure for cancer, my tombstone would still read here lies THE KARATE KID. Oops, I meant THE ORIGINAL KARATE KID. (Thank you, Mr. and Mrs. Smith.)
I can't begin to tell you the number of times I hear "Get him a body bag" or "Sweep the leg" in a given week. I can be at home putting out the garbage, and a driver passing by will roll down the window and yell, "Wax on! Wax off!" I can promise you that if I attend any type of major sporting event, it's almost a given that either Bananarama's "Cruel Summer" or Joe Esposito's "You're the Best" will start blasting over the sound system, and then -- bam! -- there I am, up on the Jumbotron.
At this point in my life I embrace it, on most occasions, though if I'm out with the family at an Asian restaurant, chopsticks firmly in hand, and I notice a fly on the wall, even 20 feet away, I know I have exactly nine seconds to get out of the building!
All of which is to say that, as a beloved character who is part of your childhood, I lead an unusual existence. I represent a time stamp in people's lives. I have played a character that was a part of your childhood. You most likely remember where you were when you first saw The Karate Kid. You remember the theater you sat in and who you went with. I suppose this type of nostalgia is similar to definitive and iconic sports moments that have left lasting impressions on my life. Where was I when the U.S. hockey team beat Russia in the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid? Who was I with when Mookie Wilson chopped the ball down the first base line and redefined how we remember Bill Buckner? Or what about when a young Joe Montana launched his legacy with a tight spiral to Dwight Clark in the back of the end zone? (My answers: at home with my family, at Shea Stadium with my soon-to-be wife -- yes, I was at Game 6! -- and in my friend's den.)
I'm frozen in time like goalie Jim Craig forever wrapped in an American flag, searching for his dad in the stands after the Miracle on Ice. Still, when someone asks, "Did you ever forgive Johnny Lawrence?" I'm at a loss. Whaaaa? By Johnny Lawrence you mean the actor William Zabka? Dude, he was a character. "Oh, yeah, that guy. Is he an ass?" Dude, I guess you didn't hear me the first time. He ... was ... a ... character. From, like, 30 years ago!
But I get it. Not only do I get it, but I've also been guilty of it myself. These former athletes must have at least the same lower-back pain I have when I get out of bed in the morning at fifty-something years old. But I don't want to think about the Joe Montana that way, or even imagine it. I don't want to see him squinting at a dinner menu. I don't want to hear about his creaking knees or the pain in his joints or whether he has to pee more than once in the middle of the night. (Sorry, folks, but it happens.) I just want to see Montana throwing the game-winning touchdown in Super Bowl XXIII. I recently learned that Craig is an accomplished motivational speaker. Maybe he has a receding, gray hair line, but all I can say is that if I ever run into him, he had better be wrapped in red, white and blue!
So I guess I share this burden with these athletes: a responsibility to uphold a moment that has stood the test of time. I understand that I am still somebody's childhood role model. People often approach me and tell me that I changed their lives. "I was bullied, and you gave me courage," they sometimes say. Or, "I was a fish out of water, and you gave me the strength to belong." I always try to respond graciously because it's an honor knowing what I represent to them. But sometimes I just can't help but say, in the most humble way possible, "Thanks, man, but really, I was just the guy who got the part."
Then I watch the change happen on their faces as denial bleeds into realization. "You can't have kids in college. No way! How did that happen? Man, you make me feel so old!" It's always a warm, nostalgic embrace for me, but it is rough out here for us time-frozen icons of youth.
At least I'm not the "agony of defeat" persona. Seriously, I wonder how Zabka deals.