Among the sorriest figures in contemporary society is the old athlete adrift in a world outside sports he can neither cope with nor fully comprehend. In another time, the ex-jock might be found recounting past glories in some neighborhood tavern, possibly his own, an all-but-forgotten relic revived from time to time by nostalgic stories in the newspapers.
Now, when financial security is virtually assured for all but the wastrel few, the adjustment to life after sports is more psychological than economic. How must it feel to have achieved your greatest glory by the time you're 40, an age when your non-athletic contemporaries are just beginning to rise in their chosen careers? What do you do for the next 30 years?
But there are retired athletes who have found their true calling after the cheering has stopped. The past for them is what it should be, a pleasant memory. These are the lucky ones, you say.
Ah, but luck has nothing to do with it. Ambition, hard work, the urge to do something worthwhile and in several cases recounted here, real courage have everything to do with it. Here are five athletes who have made this conversion and found their places in a world that can so often be uncaring to the once famous.
January 9, 1989
Jim Ridlon was one of the first tough-as-nails NFL defensive backs in the 1950s and '60s, a rugged tackier and, though not especially fast, a dogged pass defender. In six years with the San Francisco 49ers he played every defensive backfield position. Ridlon finished his career with the Dallas Cowboys, earning all-NFL honors in 1964 as a defensive back. Then, suddenly, at his peak, he quit, returning to his alma mater. Syracuse University, in 1965 to complete his graduate studies in fine arts. He now works as a color commentator on the Syracuse football radio broadcasts, but he is a full-time professor of art at the College of Visual and Performing Arts. Ridlon is renowned as a painter and a sculptor, and his work appears in galleries throughout the U.S. and Canada. He is also writing a novel.
The painting has bright orange borders and a heavily textured "lava flow" interior of grayish blue. Ridlon, a tall, solidly built man of 52 with thinning sandy hair and a reddish-brown mustache, steps back to examine it. "You see, when you look at it this way, you're aware of the edges," he says. "They are like twin horizons. That's the peripheral effect I was trying to achieve here." He laughs. "It's the very same view a safety has of the two wide receivers. He sees them both at once and watches them warily. Opposed to these firm and very straight edges is the layered interior. This juxtaposition represents two different types of awareness—of the random and the ordered, or, you could say, the accidental and the sophisticated. It also represents the different phases of my own life, the Jekyll and Hyde of me."
The abstract painting is but one of scores the prolific Ridlon has either stored or hanging in the ski lodge of a house he and his wife. Katherine, live in on a hill above Lake Cazenovia, 19 miles southeast of Syracuse. The artist is also a hopelessly addicted collector of "things"—toy soldiers, spools of yarn, pieces of wood, old mirrors, football helmets and cleats, bicycle parts. Ridlon's things find their way into the ingenious assemblages that occupy so much of his time these days. These are like three-dimensional collages, hundreds of different items arranged in ways that convey a special artistic message. Ridlon made one for ABC-TV to commemorate, in 1986, the 25th anniversary of its Wide World of Sports program. It was in the form of a wall, 12½ by 8 feet, and it had everything on it from a Steve Mahre ski boot to a Harlem Globetrotter basketball. He is also preparing assemblages for the 100th anniversary, in 1989. of Syracuse football and the 35th anniversary, in 1990, of Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif. Earlier this year, Ridlon finished sculpting the Outland Trophy, awarded annually to the best collegiate interior lineman. The Outland award originated in 1946, but it had been 21 years since a proper trophy was handed to the winner—the original Outland, a three-by five-foot plaque, having apparently been stolen in 1967 from a ballroom in the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles. Ridlon's replacement trophy, given this year to Auburn defensive tackle Tracy Rocker, is much more impressive, a heavy (50 pounds) bronze and black African granite figure of a lineman in an ambiguous crouch with one hand open, representing defense, and one closed, for offense. The player wears the bulky uniform of the '40s, when the trophy was first awarded, a time when Ridlon, growing up in Nyack, N.Y., first became aware of football and what it might mean to him.
It is a gray day, and Ridlon looks out over the darkening lake. The duality he portrays so vividly in his art is very much a part of his own nature. The fierce defensive back is a sensitive artist; the eloquent professor whose lectures frequently command applause from his students was once scarcely able to speak intelligibly; the student of literature and burgeoning novelist was for many years unable to read the simplest words.
"I was dyslexic," he says. "I had learning problems all the way through elementary school. As a result, I developed a stuttering problem as well. Those were nightmare years for me. I learned then to trust my body, not my mind. I turned to art, I suppose, because I had no handicap there. I started painting in the sixth grade, and it was then, too, I started collecting things. Nyack was such a rural area then. You could walk for most of a day and not come to a house. You could swim in the Hudson. I'd go to this abandoned quarry and sit there by myself being very still. I could see almost every type of animal there except bears. I got so I could actually communicate with them. I was learning to explore the world not only with my eyes and my mind, but with all my senses and my heart. All of my first paintings were landscapes.
"By high school I had learned to deal with my dyslexia. By then I had conceived of some survival tactics. And the stuttering was under control. I had an excellent art teacher, and I had become a good athlete. I came from a very poor family—my father's people were all lobster fishermen in Maine—and if it hadn't been for football, I might well have become a coal miner or something like that. But I got an athletic scholarship to Syracuse, so I got an opportunity I might otherwise never have had. I'm very proud I was a good athlete. I played in the same backfield with Jim Brown, and that was an honor. But it was at Syracuse I realized that I also had a mind."
Ridlon locks the back door of the house and climbs into his car for the drive to the university and his office in the Greek Revival building that is Crouse College, the art school. He slips a cassette into his tape deck. "It's strange, or maybe it isn't, but all four of my sons were also dyslexic and all of them went to college and are doing well today." The tape is not playing music. "It's Kafka." he says. "I listen to books on my way to and from school and while I'm working on a painting or a sculpture. I love Kafka's The Castle. You know, to me, with all of the problems I had as a kid, there is nothing quite so beautiful as the spoken word, and I can't believe how beautifully this man writes. Listen."
Craig swan's 12-year major league pitching career, all but two games of it with the New York Mets, was more significant for what it might have been than for what it was. After setting school records at Arizona State for wins (47) and strikeouts (459), he was drafted by New York in 1972 and was pitching in the big leagues, if only briefly, a year later. But from the beginning, his brilliant prospects were dimmed by a bewildering succession of physical problems. In 1973, he had an appendectomy that was followed by peritonitis. In '74, he suffered a stress fracture of his pitching elbow. In '78, he had a stomach disorder the Mets called gastroenteritis, but which Swan now says was a duodenal ulcer. In 1980 and '81, he was plagued by a tear in his rotator cuff, as well as, in '81, by a fractured rib. And in 1982, he was treated for a boil under his right armpit that eventually resulted in torn tissue there. This last injury ended his career in 1985. He had won only 59 games, but his medical history had opened his eyes to unforeseen possibilities. The year he quit playing he enrolled in the Rolf Institute in Boulder, Colo.
Rolfing, as defined in the Rolf Institute literature, "is a technique for reordering the body to bring its major segments—head, shoulders, thorax, pelvis, legs—toward a vertical alignment. Generally speaking, the Rolfing technique lengthens the body, approaching an ideal in which the left and right sides of the body are more nearly balanced."
All this is achieved by manipulation of the connective tissue—or fascia—between the muscles, as well as by educating the Rolfee to the importance of carrying himself properly. It is a system developed by the late Dr. Ida P. Rolf, who had been an organic chemist at the Rockefeller Institute. There are only 641 Rolfers practicing throughout the world. Craig Swan of Greenwich, Conn., is one of them.
His office is on the top floor of a modest, white three-story building in downtown Greenwich. Swan's clients vary in age from 10 to 80. Most come to him because they are suffering, as he once did, from specific pain. In the end, says Swan, the suffering will be alleviated because the subject will be healthier, more energetic and walking taller. "We can't take a person's arthritis away, but we can stop it from getting worse," he says. Swan was first Rolfed when he tore his rotator cuff. The treatment, he claims, allowed him to pitch for another two years, and he became so fascinated with the procedure that he decided to make it his career.
At 38, he looks young and fit enough to go nine, even leaner than when he was cranking it up for the Mets. He is dressed this day in khaki pants and an orange polo shirt. He will go through several of these shirts in a working day, because Rolfing can be as strenuous as pitching. Each session of manipulating muscle-connecting tissue lasts from an hour to 90 minutes.
"One of our jobs is to make people take responsibility for their own body structure," he says. "I will tune you up, but you are responsible. People become more aware of their bodies after they've been Rolfed. It's an advantage to have this knowledge, because you know how to relax your muscles. It may involve nothing more complicated than changing the way you hold the steering wheel or the way you sit in a chair, but you can make yourself feel better. There's no doubt in my mind now that my injuries could've been avoided if I'd been more aware of my body. I'm not quite ready yet to take Rolfing into sports, but I can envision a time when every team in all sports will have a Rolfer."
Swan sits down on his own Rolfing table. "To be able to help people this way is something I've always wanted in life," he says, smiling brightly. "It's just fortunate I found Rolfing. I didn't even have time to dwell on the fact, as some do, that, God, I'm no longer a baseball player. I guess I started thinking about the end the first time I hurt my arm. I don't have to wonder anymore what I'm going to do. I've really found my niche in life."
Madeline Manning Mims was on four U.S. Olympic track teams, the gold medalist in 1968 at 800 meters and a silver medalist in '72 on the 4 X 400-meter relay team. In 1976, she became the first American woman to break two minutes in the 800 (1:59.8), and later that year, in the U.S. Olympic Trials, she lowered the American record to 1:57.9. In 1980, at age 32, she again made the Olympic team but did not compete because of the U.S. boycott. She raced one more year, and then retired. Almost as well known by then for her gospel singing, she gave concerts, made recordings and sang the national anthem at various sporting events. She had been singing and sharing her faith in prisons since 1975, and in 1982 she was ordained a minister of the Faith Christian Fellowship International. That same year she founded Friends Fellowship, Inc., a religious organization that counsels women who are incarcerated in the Mabel Bassett Correctional Center in Oklahoma City and the Indiana Women's Prison in Indianapolis.
She is a tall, graceful woman, so regal in bearing that she looks chic in blue jeans and red sweater and with her hair swathed in a bright kerchief. She, her husband (and business manager), Roderick, and their 13-month-old daughter, Lana Cherelle, live in a pleasant home on busy 51st Street, about 10 minutes from downtown Tulsa. She also has a son, John Jackson, 18, from an earlier marriage; he is a student at Ohio Dominican College. Mims herself was born in a Cleveland housing project.
She was raised by her mother, who worked as a domestic, and a stepfather. "My mother had four older children, but they were all grown by the time I was nine or 10," she says. "I had spinal meningitis when I was three. The doctors told my mother I'd die. She began to pray for me, and the next day the doctor came back and said that now I had a 50-50 chance, but that if I survived I'd be mentally retarded and physically handicapped. My mother prayed some more, but until high school, I was an anemic and sickly child. I was so shy I wouldn't talk to anybody. I didn't understand who I was, and I didn't much like myself. I was tall, thin and uncoordinated, and I thought I was just about the ugliest thing in the world. When I was six and going to Sunday school, I saw this picture of Jesus holding a little black lamb. I went up to the teacher and asked her if Jesus could hold me like that. The teacher said, "Why yes, he loves you so much he'll hold you.' She said all I had to do was close my eyes. I did, and that teacher—she was so wonderful—just started talking to me, asking me if I could feel Jesus holding me. Well, I really did start to feel this. The next Sunday I got all spruced up, and when the pastor asked me if I'd accepted Jesus as my savior, I said, 'Yessir,' in such a loud voice the whole church cracked up. 'I think she really means it,' the pastor said. He was right. I did.
"The only thing that gave me confidence as a child was singing," Mims says. "When I was singing, I became another person. I can remember even as a young girl singing along with Dionne Warwick and Nancy Wilson on the radio. Actually, I was singing louder than they were, and when people would say to my mother. 'Say, isn't that radio on kinda loud,' my mother would say, 'That's no radio. That's my daughter.'
"I went to John Hay High School in Cleveland. There were only three sports a girl could go out for there—volleyball, basketball and track—and I went out for all three, and we won the state championship in every one of them. They had me run the 440 because I had the longest legs, and I looked like an ostrich out on that track. But Alex Ferenczy, who coached a city team for girls, took an interest in me. He and my mother were both strong disciplinarians, so she approved of what he was doing. He groomed me to become a world-class athlete. I went to Tennessee State University, Wilma Rudolph's old school, and I finally met her in 1967 at the Pan Am Games."
As rewarding as her career in track was, Mims felt she had a higher purpose. At the urging of Bill Glass, a minister who once played for the Cleveland Browns, she started visiting men's prisons, overcoming both terror and embarrassment at her first appearance. "I was wearing this long creamy gown, and as I walked down the aisle, I heard this fellow call out, 'Hey, mama, what's happenin'?' There was a dead silence, but I just walked over to him and shook his hand, and from then on, I had that crowd in my hands. By the time I left there, I was getting standing ovations." In time, she found that women in prison were even more in need of spiritual help than men. "So much attention is directed to men that women prisoners just get what's left over," she says. "No one was getting to their root needs. There are older women in prison who have just plain given up. My group addresses their needs. We have classes in personal improvement, in art, in dance, in home-making. And I see these women responding to us. All of our volunteer workers are women, because these prisoners have learned to distrust men. We're trying to teach them self-esteem and, at the same time, to enhance their faith. And it's working. I had one woman prisoner come up to me and say, 'I never trusted God before. Now I do.' It's wonderful to experience this, to see these women, once so bitter and depressed, changing before your eyes."
All of the prodigious energy she once put into sports Mims is now applying, at 40, to her work and to her family. "It's ridiculous, but I'd forgotten what it's like being a mother," she says. "My baby daughter has changed my life. When I was competing, all of these things—home, baby, my ministry—were on a back burner. Now they're out front. I love to sing and speak and to see people's lives change. That's what keeps me going, people counting on me. I know now that the purpose of my being born was to touch the lives of other people. I feel at peace."
Dr. Bill McColl was a supreme student-athlete, a man of character, a man of conscience. A two-time All-America end at Stanford, in 1950 and '51, he later balanced a professional football career with the Chicago Bears with medical school at the University of Chicago, where he received his M.D. in 1955. He continued to play with the Bears while interning in the off-season at Stanford University Hospital and while serving his residency in orthopedic surgery at the University of Illinois Hospital in Chicago. With the Bears he was the forerunner of the modern tight end. a 6'4", 230-pound blocker-receiver, whose best season was 1958. That year, in 12 games, he caught 35 passes for 517 yards and eight touchdowns.
But he quit football after the 1959 season to devote all of his energies to medicine, and in 1962, he moved with his wife, Barbara, and their six young children to Taegu, South Korea. There he worked as a medical missionary at Presbyterian Hospital and at Ae Rak Won Leprosarium, where he did pioneer work in reconstructive surgery on leprosy patients. He also produced, directed and narrated a film. Highway of Hope. on the rehabilitation of the victims of this debilitating and misunderstood disease. In 1965, he was selected as one of the country's Ten Outstanding Young Men by the U.S. Junior Chamber of Commerce, an honor he shares with such illustrious previous winners as John F. Kennedy, Leonard Bernstein, Nelson Rockefeller, Dr. Tom Dooley and Orson Welles.
McColl, now 58, has orthopedic practices in his native San Diego and in Baldwin Park, Calif. Still vitally interested in leprosy research and treatment, he is chairman of the board of American Leprosy Missions, Inc. He is also vice-president of San Diego's Hall of Champions, a museum in Balboa Park devoted to the sports heroes of that city. He is a member of the college football Hall of Fame and was selected to the NFL Hall of Fame for his outstanding "service to humanity."
One of his sons, Milt, has followed almost exactly in his father's impressive footsteps. He is in his eighth season as an NFL linebacker, currently with the Los Angeles Raiders, and he has his M.D. from Stanford and is currently interning at the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center. Last summer, Milt accompanied a group of plastic surgeons to Peru to treat villagers, primarily for burns. He is leaning toward specializing in orthopedics. It is one thing to inherit a father's athletic ability, quite another to share his social conscience.
The airy McColl home in La Jolla on a bluff above Tourmaline Beach, with its spacious deck overlooking white sands and the blue Pacific, is hardly the place one expects to watch a film on leprosy. But McColl, who looks and sounds somewhat like Charlton Heston, is justifiably proud of this film, which shows how individuals crippled by the disease can, through prosthetic devices and human understanding, regain a place in a society that has historically rejected them. The voice-over is McColl himself, urging viewers to cast aside irrational preconceptions about an affliction that for centuries has condemned its sufferers to isolation and neglect, and instead to reach out to those brave souls traveling what he calls "the Highway of Hope."
As the credits wind down, McColl stretches his large body across a chair next to the fireplace. "The years we spent in Korea were absolutely the two best years of our lives," he says. "Medically, it was an unforgettable experience. And I think it brought us even closer together as a family. I was one of three American doctors working with 18 Korean doctors. About a third of our time was spent with lepers, another third with orphans and the rest with the general population. I had never been exposed to leprosy before—actually we call it Hansen's disease here because the very word 'leprosy' is part of the stigma that attaches to the disease. What is not commonly known is that now with drug therapy it is curable and it is probably the least communicable of all communicable diseases. Ninety-four percent of the spouses of leprosy sufferers do not get it. Leprosy is a disease of the nerves caused by bacteria that under a microscope look like those that cause tuberculosis. Our job was to rehabilitate those who had endured its devastating effects and to help integrate them into society. I think we made dramatic progress. And we are still making progress.
"When I quit football, I was only 29 and at the peak of my career. I was healthy and uninjured [he never missed a game because of injury in his eight years with the Bears], but I was in my orthopedic residency and I knew I was taking football one year at a time. George Halas told me he still wanted me to play, but I thought it was a good time to get out. As it turned out Halas didn't lose much, because the Bears were without a tight end for only one year. Then they got Mike Ditka, and I don't think they missed me at all."
One entire wall of the McColl house is filled with family photographs. All six of his children, three sons and three daughters, are Stanford graduates, and the three boys were athletes at the school. Duncan, now 33, was an All-America defensive end who played briefly with the Redskins, and John, 30, was a star volleyball player. Milt, 29, his father's mirror image, insists that he and his brothers felt no pressure. "I think maybe some of the good things came genetically, but Dad's philosophy at home was laissez-faire," Milt says. "All of us made our own decisions."
McColl steps outside onto the deck. It is a breezy day, and the ocean waves are white in the bright sunshine. "My own father was a doctor here in San Diego, and I was always led to believe he was the greatest athlete who ever lived," he says. "His athletic achievements, I later learned, were four: 1) he was a substitute fullback on the University of Idaho freshman team; 2) he was captain, quarterback and coach of the Wisconsin Medical School intramural team; 3) he won the broad jump at a 1918 track meet at Fort Greenleaf, Georgia; and 4) he once played in a basketball game against Honus Wagner. I never saw any of those feats, and Milt was too young to see me play.
"As for his living in my shadow...well, here's a story for you. Two or three years ago Milt was scheduled to be the speaker at a banquet in Sacramento. The master of ceremonies gave him this long introduction, detailing his career at Stanford and with San Francisco, and then, as an afterthought, he said, proud of his own powers of recollection. 'Oh yes, and Milt's father, Milt Sr., also played football.' So I ask you, who's in whose shadow?"
Bob Love was called Butterbean for his fondness for that southern staple. In eight seasons with the Chicago Bulls of the NBA, he developed into one of the league's premier forwards, leading his team in scoring for seven straight seasons. He was named to five NBA All-Star teams before finishing his career with the Seattle SuperSonics in 1977. Now 46, he is corporate director of health and sanitation for the 35 restaurants in the Nordstrom department store chain, headquartered in Seattle.
Love removes his jacket and rises to his full 6'8". He is a formidable presence in the tiny office of his speech therapist, Susan Hamilton, but he seems more like a school kid called on to recite. "Life after sports was really tough," he begins.
Hamilton interrupts. "Bob, you blinked, and there was an 'uh' in there, which is a signal you're going too fast. And don't forget about eye contact."
Love is rehearsing a talk he will give on "career awareness" to students at Seattle's Nathan Hale High School. He starts over. "Life after sports was really tough. It was doubly tough for me because I was a stutterer.... I am a stutterer." He interrupts himself this time. "Susan, I want to say I am a stutterer here because that will take the pressure off right away." "Good," says Hamilton.
"I was born in Bastrop, Louisiana," Love continues. "We were a poor family. There were 14 children, and we made our living doing odd jobs. But I had a great imagination. The one thing that held me back was my stuttering...."
Love is on a bus headed back downtown to his office at Nordstrom's. "I feel so good about myself now," he says. "Susan's given me a lot of confidence. I'd been to therapists before, but nothing seemed to work. It's so good to be able to talk after you've had all these words bundled up inside of you for 40 years."
The bus drops him off a block from the store. "When I retired, I was just another ex-jock who needed a job," he says, hurrying down Seattle's bustling Fifth Avenue. "Even though I had a degree in food and nutrition, my speech kept me from getting a good job."
He presses the elevator button. "Jim Dickinson, my boss here at Nordstrom's, said he didn't mind that. He said he wanted to see first of all if I really wanted to work. Then, he said, we'll do something about the speech problem. It was the first time anybody had ever expressed any interest in me as a person, and that gave me extra motivation. I knew they were pulling for me."
Love is in the kitchen of the store's busy little cafe. "I started right here. As a busboy four years ago. I was 42 years old. I could see people laughing at me. That hurt. What kept me going was that I had faith in myself. I went from busboy to dishwasher to sandwich-maker to working the cash register. Then Jim told me I'd proved myself, but he couldn't promote me unless we did something about my speech. He said the company would pay for a therapist. I found Susan, and we started in May of 1986. Within a month, I could tell a difference. I got my promotion a year and a half ago."
Love is wearing a dark gray pin-striped suit. Before the students arrive, he rehearses, standing before the empty chairs, smiling and gesturing, mumbling the words. It will be his fifth speech since he achieved fluency.
Love stands before this small assemblage of restless young people, a towering black man smiling heroically.
"Life after sports was really tough. It was doubly tough for me, because I am a stutterer...." He has captured his audience, and though he stumbles a few times, he handles the rough spots and finishes strongly.
He assesses his performance as he returns to his car. "Well, it wasn't perfect," he says, working his way into the front seat, "but, before, I could never have gotten up in front of a group like that. And now I look forward to it." He starts the engine. "Life after sports? I guess I'd have to say it's really great."
Tight End, NFL
1968, '72, '76
Defensive Back, NFL
Pitcher, Major Leagues