Somewhere off the southern coast of Mindanao there may be a cross-handed albino dwarf with pinkeye who can shoot peas, fillet a fish, dance a bolero or fool the seat-belt buzzer better than Kyle Rote Jr. But surely there is nobody anywhere who can do all these things better, practically at the same time, during two days of cold, wind, commercial interruptions and financial pressures. And there is nobody in this wide world who can pray better, either.
At least there were not many contestants able to mount a serious challenge to Rote in Rotonda, Fla. the other day when land developers, oil-filter representatives, one TV network and at least 87 PR guys combined to stage their second "Superstars" competition.
Rote soundly defeated the famous expectant father, toothpaste shill and defending champion, Bob Seagren; the balding, blithesome bard of the bicycle, Dick (No Spokes) Anderson; the one black golfer certain never to be invited to the Masters, Franco ("Get me out of here") Harris; and a fine sportsman, gentleman announcer and prince of a bowler, the Already Legendary Orange Juice Simpson, to win more than $50,000 in prize money, or approximately 35 times what Rote made last year while playing soccer for the Dallas Tornado.
During his week of destiny Rote kept saying how terrific it was to be in "the presence of greatness" and that he understood from all the guys how "being nice was part of getting to the top." And he said, "This is just preliminary stuff to doing the work of God." He was not an unexpected winner (in his seven events he took first places in tennis, swimming and bowling; seconds in golf and bicycling; second to last in the half-mile run and last in baseball hitting) but it was fun to watch someone of relative anonymity, inexperienced in competing for vast sums of money, come in and knock off the $80-trillion-a-year boys. As Austrian skier Karl Schranz said after being asked what he knew about his fellow Superstars: "I know all zese guys except Rrrowt Juneeor, suppo-zed soccer fellow. Who ees zis Rrrowt Juneeor?"
March 10, 1974
Well, Kyle Rote Jr. is a 23-year-old theology student who is slight of build, fair of complexion, soft of voice and hard as nails. He is also kind, brave, humble, reverent and everything else the Good Book says a man ought and ought not to be—except maybe avaricious. He is about to ask his boss, Lamar Hunt, for a salary that he can eat lunch on. But that's O.K., too. Rote says he will give a lot of his winnings to charity.
Kyle Rote Jr. also has orange sneakers, a cute wife named Mary Lynne, a father who played a little football for SMU and the Giants and a nice sense of humor that bore up well when the real superstars called him Super Baby and kidded him about religion. He was the antithesis of the big names from baseball, football, basketball, tennis, track, skiing and speed skating. Stan Smith, recent winner of a World Championship Tennis event, arrived in a long rabbit-fur coat from Torremolinos, Spain. The Already Legendary O.J. Simpson came from the set of a movie in which he is appearing with Richard Burton. Speed skater Ard Schenk, from Holland, exposed flowing blond locks, a bronze Thor of a body and looks that, if he were a singer or a quarterback, would oblige him to hire the National Guard to keep the groupies away.
Rote meanwhile arrived from St. Michael's and All Angels Episcopal Church in Dallas with his Bible. "What's a Bible?" said shotputter Brian Oldfield.
Rote didn't smoke, swear, drink much, chew or avoid autographs. Not only did he sign his name, he inscribed a biblical verse for little Donald Reninger. "Praise the Lord, what a beautiful person," said Donald's mother.
This happened midway through the second day of the two-day competition, after Rote had piled up such a lead that ABC must have considered sending in Robert Stack from The American Sportsman to blast Rote with a rifle lest the viewers at home get bored. But nobody is bored with Superstars. A year ago excitement was rampant when Jim Stefanich, running backward, tried to beat John Unitas in the half mile and when Joe Frazier came out smokin' for the swimming race and nearly drowned.
This year the sponsors—take note, Billie Jean—invited 48 men (including, one press release said, "Football Great, Bobby Bonds") to four preliminary competitions to find 12 who would meet in the finals for the "Coveted Title of 1974 Superstar." Technically, it was competition in 10 events: sprinting, running, swimming, tennis, golf, bowling, cycling, weight lifting, baseball hitting and negotiating an obstacle course. The athletes competed in any seven of the 10 events, except their own specialties.
That's what it was, technically. Actually, Superstars was Pete Rose saying, "Where else could a humble singles-hitting MVP dream of meeting a six-time Rodeo King?" It was six-time Rodeo King Larry Mahan falling backward into a water pit on the obstacle course. It was Motorcycle King Gene Romero scoring exactly zero points in his seven events (the only man in history to do so) and earning the name "Broken Legs." It was Tug McGraw watching from the stands as Reggie Jackson puffed his way to last place in the bicycle race and screeching, "Hey, Reggie, trow me a pay-puh." Bill Toomey, the finest athlete in the world in the 1960s, made a crusade out of preparing for Superstars and lost. Bob Seagren, whose wife Kam wears her name in rhinestones on her shirt, has made a career out of it and won. No golfers—tremendous athletes that they are—dare show up.
The idea has gone over so well that Superstars competitions are being planned in Europe. A Celebrity Superstars might be held at Rotonda this fall. Women and father-and-son competitions are in the works. Last week's Superstars was covered by everybody from the BBC to the Lemon Bay Junior High Manta News; from Neue Kronen Zeitung of Austria to the Red Clay Video, a traveling band of crazies from Virginia in a ramshackle trailer. Asked what angle they were covering, a spokesman for Red Clay Video said, "Angle? Man, we're just always ready to boogie."
On the dope sheets the smart money was on either Rote or Seagren, with the Dolphins' Anderson the dark horse and the Already Legendary O.J. Simpson up there for sure on charisma alone. But the hits of the show were Schenk and Rose. Nobody in Florida had known what the Dutchman looked like, and when the women discovered him it was too late; his wife was along. That did not deter one bold lass who came up to Schenk and stood gaping and gasping for air. "I just want to stay and look," she said.
Rose was hustling around. When it was suggested that the only way he could beat Schranz in tennis would be to provoke the Austrian by asking him for his papers, Rose said, "I'll whip him and his translator, too." And he did, despite diving face-first on the court and cracking his Mickey Mouse watch. Rose almost upset Jim McMillian, the basketball player, too, but lost when he became confused in the sudden-death tie breaker. "Damn umpire should have showed me where to stand," he said.
Rose also was bothered by the baseball competition, from which he was barred. "They make a farce of my game," he said. "Don't they know those 'home runs' are outs? When I saw Smith give it the girlie half-swing and pound it out of the park, I gave up." Stan the Man won the event, topspin-lobbing home runs far and wide.
In golf, Franco Harris nailed a spectator 10 yards away with his dribbling drive from the first tee, but the spectator survived and Harris scrambled for a bogey. On the second hole, Harris bounced four balls into the water, knocked seven more out of bounds, hit a house and finished with a 24. Since scoring was limited to a maximum of 12 strokes a hole, Harris edged Brian Oldfield 68 to 74—for nine holes. "A Pyrrhic victory," said Oldfield. Anderson won with a 40, which under the circumstances and over Harris' spike marks on the greens may have been one of mankind's finest rounds.
Chances for the Coveted Title ended for the A.L.O.J, in the very first tennis event when Rote began lobbing into the wind and came from way behind to win 6-4. They began to end for Seagren when he messed up his turn on the last lap of the 100-meter swim; Rote beat him by a stroke. They diminished for everybody when Rote made six strikes and bowled 214 at Cyro's Venetian Moon, a nifty establishment that had a sign saying NO TOPLESS ALLOWED. Even though Rote finished last in baseball (he popped up in his final appearance as a Superstar), the points he already had were enough to withstand Seagren's first in the obstacle course. Rote beat Seagren by six points and Anderson by seven.
For all the righteous satisfaction of Rote's triumph, it was the earlier bicycle race that provided the purest drama. Would Rote pick up enough points in bicycling to offset Seagren's certain points in the obstacle course? Would Anderson score enough to pass them both? Would Jim McMillian kill himself?
The answers came just before the halfway mark in the race, with McMillian failing in an exceptionally fine shot at suicide. Rote and Schenk were running one-two when McMillian tried to move up by cutting around Anderson. Their bikes touched, and the wing nut on McMillian's front axle neatly sheared spokes off Anderson's rear wheel. McMillian's bike went down and he left quantities of skin on the surface of the track. Anderson's bike limped along for a while before he dismounted in disgust and threw it away. "I bet Kyle Rote Jr. wouldn't throw his bicycle away," a spectator said.
What happened then was Superstars at its contrived, cockeyed and lunatic best. McMillian was rushed to an "emergency car." Howard Cosell, reliving his role in Bananas, ran toward McMillian, crying, "Hey, Jimmy, wait a minute, I've got to do an interview."
"Boo," roared the crowd.
"They're only abrasions. I'm the nurse," said a woman nearby.
"I'm filing a protest," said Anderson.
While McMillian's wounds were being patched up, Meet Director Barry Frank slipped away to ponder the protest. Cosell stood around signing autographs and muttering about the plane he had to catch. Schenk and Rote kept pedaling around the track. Seagren went to look for the nearest mirror. The Already Legendary O.J. Simpson rushed onto the scene saying now he might be able to beat out Anderson. The Gentlemen of the Press were saying McMillian's coach was on the phone threatening a lawsuit.
Frank emerged from his hiding place. "It was nonpurposeful interference by McMillian," he said. "Anderson is awarded fourth place."
"That's racing luck for you," A.L. Simpson said.
"Hold my cigar, O.J.," Cosell said.
Everybody thought: man, Howard Cosell is gettin' ready to boogie. Where was Red Clay Video when we needed them?