Each week Sports Illustrated's faces in the crowd column presents the pure visage of American sport. These are the athletes who perform and the coaches who teach far from the gaze of network cameras, whose talents are little known beyond their neighborhoods and towns. Their games are the ones played in high school gyms on Friday nights and in municipal parks on Saturday mornings.
Faces in the crowd sings the praises of these unsung sports-people, folks who are like the rest of us, but more talented. Or more disciplined. Or more determined. Or all those things. Like us, they try and fail and try again. Unlike most of us, they have attained a moment of triumph or a high level of performance that has set them apart.
In one format or another SPORTS ILLUSTRATED has been celebrating those moments and those performances since 1954, the year the magazine was launched. Since 1960, when FACES IN THE CROWD first appeared in its present form—six faces a week—the purpose of the feature has been to train a spotlight on ordinary sportspeople who have done something a little extraordinary, to locate them in the throng and single them out for recognition with a small picture and a few lines of text. (Each Face also receives a small silver bowl engraved with his or her name.)
Except that this week's Faces in the Crowd show up twice, both here and in their usual slot, on page 103, they are a typical selection. They range in age from 14 to 59, they are male and female, they hail from sea to shining sea, and they include a high school swim coach, a golfer, a basketball player, a tennis prodigy, a horsewoman, and a long distance runner who is not lonely at all. The possessors of these singular faces are alike only in their love of their sports. The word amateur derives from the Latin amator ("lover"), and in that sense these are true amateurs. They are also amateurs in the currently outmoded but nonetheless admirable sense that their effort is its own reward. Without fanfare, without inducement of riches or fame, sometimes without even the recognition of their friends, these faces standing out from the crowd belong to individuals who love what they do and, above all, do it well.
March 19, 1990
Gina Suh is 14 and the youngest Minnesota high school girls' tennis champion ever. To her, success is no mystery. "It just feels better not to be a loser," she says. Gina is decidedly not a loser. Her 3.7 grade point average in the eighth grade should, if she keeps it up in high school, propel her into almost any college she chooses. She would like to be a surgeon, she says, now that she is "not that grossed out by blood anymore."
Shinjae and Jai Suh, who immigrated to the U.S. from South Korea in 1969, are not pushing their daughter forward on the treacherous trail to tennis stardom. Says Shinjae, "She's a little better than average at tennis. But she has a good brain, and so it would be best to use it in some other way, to help people." Gina's father, Jai, an anesthesiologist, says, "Frankly, I don't think our family is that much dedicated to tennis." Indeed, they would prefer that their daughter devote herself to the violin (which she has dropped) and the piano (which she has not). Regardless, they support her. Among their contributions: about $500 a month for lessons, court time and other tennis-related costs.
Gina's goal is to play tennis in college. Her teacher, Brian McCoy, says she is "about at that level right now." But being the next Steffi Graf is not on Gina's itinerary. A poster of Graf hangs on the wall in her bedroom, but, she says, "I didn't put it there. My dad did. All I did was leave it up."
Last summer when a girl Gina had previously beaten turned the tables on her, Gina climbed into her mother's Saab, slammed the door and announced, "I quit. I am never playing again." That evening she was back on the practice court, but her mom says, "If it gets too much, she can quit anytime. This was her idea, not ours."
While Gina does not mind being a face in the crowd, she is ambivalent about standing out from it. One minute she says, "I don't like being the center of attention. I get embarrassed. I feel dumb when people talk about it." And the next she says, "It's kind of neat. I'd like to be famous. That would be fun."
Nor is she certain how she feels about tennis pressures. "I like being under pressure," she declares. But later she says, "I don't have pressure on me. All [hat happens is I get tense, I get scared, I make mistakes, I lose. So what?" And still later: "I hate losing. Winning is such a great reward for hard work."
Nor is Gina, who frequently rallies with boys because they hit harder, certain about her own abilities. She puts down her volley: "It's really weak." Of her serve, she says, "Sometimes it's really bad, sometimes it's really good. Well, it's never really good. It's O.K."
Predictably, Gina also downplays her state title, saying there were at least half a dozen girls in the larger, Class AA division who would have whipped her. It doesn't matter. FACES IN THE CROWD has never insisted an athlete be best of the best, only that she or he achieve something noteworthy.
This summer Gina hopes to gain a national ranking in the top 100 in the 16-and-unders. Does she see herself in the U.S. Open? "Yes, in my dreams," she says sarcastically. Obviously, Gina has life in perspective. So much so that the night before the final day of the high school tennis championships, when her mother suggested it might be better for her to miss a hayride and rest up, she said, "Are you crazy?"
Now, Dick Rozier of Fresno, Calif., may actually be crazy. The oldest of this week's Faces, Rozier, 59, who, at 6'1" and 160 pounds, looks emaciated, didn't even take up running until he was 32. Ever since, he has been making up for lost steps. So far he has competed in six ultraendurance runs (sometimes known as ultramarathons), races far longer than the marathon's 26 miles, 385 yards. "The recovery time after one of these things is really a month and a half," he says. "You're hobbling and pretty blistered up the next day, and you can't run for two weeks. There's a saying that pain is inevitable and suffering is optional. You know you are going to hurt during one of these events. But I don't mind. It's an inner sport, I guess."
Indeed, so inner that when Rozier, an insurance agent, set his U.S. age-group record of 139 miles, 429 yards for a 24-hour run in Oakland last fall, not even his family was there. (Ultramarathons come in two varieties: races at a set distance, like 100 miles, and races of a specified duration, in which the winner is the runner who covers the most miles.) Rozier didn't care. His mind is on more important matters: "I think we all operate so far below our capacities, and I think there are still things to be explored. I want to see what I can do, and I feel a lot of satisfaction getting past the pain and accomplishing something. It's enjoyable, really. It's half and half, a physical and a psychological contest. In 24-hour runs you talk quite a bit to others, and your mind really runs the gamut of things. You think about what you're doing. You're constantly taking inventory of how you're feeling."
Sometimes Rozier hasn't felt at all well. In 1988 he entered the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run from Squaw Valley to Auburn, Calif., in spite of having a pulled groin muscle. After stumbling over rocks and falling seven times, he finally pulled out of the race at 30 miles. He plans to try again in June.
And he has made mistakes. At the ultradistance international championships in England in February, he abandoned his normal technique of running a mile, walking 50 steps, running another mile, and so on. "I simply went out too fast," he later lamented over pasta and mineral water at a London cafè. After nine hours he had to quit. Naturally, he plans to try again next year.
The Oakland race, though, was different. Rozier becomes fairly rhapsodic at the memory of it. Having never run more than 123 miles in 24 hours, he wasn't thinking much about the national record of 131 miles, 508 yards. "But I just felt really good," he recalls. At 3 a.m., he stopped for a massage, but that was his only break. He never even changed his shoes, which have 12,000 miles on them. Oddly, when he surpassed the record, he started to walk in order "to drink it in," he says, but he found "it was easier for my legs to keep running than to walk."
As a youngster Rozier was a nonathlete. In fact, his main activity between the ages of 14 and 23, he says, was smoking. When he finally quit that, he took up handball. "But handball started to wear me down. I was getting headaches. So I decided to jog around the block instead, just to stay in shape, you know." Finally, at 32, Rozier took up running and entered a few races. "I just didn't want to finish last," he says.
These days Rozier runs two ultramarathons a year. To prepare, he runs six days a week in the hills outside Fresno, including two-a-days three times a week. He covers anywhere from six to 20 miles a day. "Well, the thing is, I really love running," he explains, superfluously.
The world wasn't waiting impatiently for Rozier—or anyone else—to run 139 miles, 429 yards in 24 hours. That he did it is testimony to the indomitability of the athletic spirit. "I've found a niche," he says, "something I can excel at. I'm not a hero to anyone. Except maybe to myself. I just feel a lot of satisfaction. That's all."
Laurel Beth Capurro is clearly a hero to her dad. Wayne Capurro, a Reno attorney, says, "I don't think you can find a more responsible young woman in America." Laurel Beth agrees: "That's true. If it has to get done, it gets done."
Capurro, who is a senior at Colorado State, has been putting herself through college. She will graduate next December, after just 3½ years, with a degree in equine sciences and, at her current pace, a 3.4 grade point average. She also works from 25 to 35 hours a week at a western-wear store and spends another 20 to 25 hours caring for her horses. In addition, she is looking for a job after graduation in the horse-training business. She whirls efficiently and nonstop. "I've always been a go-getter," she says, as she brushes Modeling, the quarter horse mare with whom she won the world showmanship-at-halter championship in Oklahoma City. (Showmanship-at-halter means the horse is put through its paces by someone on the ground rather than by a rider on its back.) "Horses teach you that you have to be there for them. They are completely dependent on you."
This was Capurro's first year of eligibility for adult competition; as a youth competitor her best finish in the worlds was fifth. After winning the world title, the first thing she did was write individual letters to the eight major sponsors of the event, thanking them for their participation. Be proud, Emily Post.
Last fall, Capurro worked for Rick Lanning, a quarter horse trainer in Fort Collins, Colo., as part of a university-related internship. One morning she showed up for work to learn that a family emergency had called Lanning away for an extended period. During his five-week absence, Capurro took over the running of the stable, adding another 35 hours to her workweek. At the same time she was in the midst of intense preparation for the world championships. "I did it," she says, "because it had to be done."
As a youngster growing up near her grandmother's eight-acre ranch in Sparks, Nev., Capurro would walk from her house to her grandmother Evelyn's, carry in the morning paper and put up the American flag. Then at noon she would return from school for a ham and cheese sandwich (toasted) and conversation with her grandmother. "She's a neat lady," says Capurro. "She used to ride a horse to school."
Capurro, who is 5'3" and 115 pounds and fixes others with a steady gaze, is a neat lady herself. Back at Reed High in Sparks, she wore jeans and boots while the other girls "wore their pumps and their little fashion pants." But when she arrived at Colorado State, one of the nation's preeminent agricultural and veterinary universities, she looked around at the other students and thought to herself. Cool. They're just like me.
Out at the stable with Modeling, who recently has been retired to life as a brood mare, Capurro is reflecting on her situation: "I do have natural talent, drive, and a love for horses. And I feel I've done something that makes me stand out in a crowd. But most of all, Modeling is the best friend I have. She doesn't talk back, and she doesn't expect much more out of me than food."
A mile inland from the rocky coast of Maine and two thirds of a continent away from the Rocky Mountains' purple majesty, Donald Richards, 52, swim coach at Cape Elizabeth High, is alternately cajoling and kidding his teams of boys and girls, just as he has been doing for 28 years and 717 dual-meet wins. Even Richards says, "I'm just as much of a kid as a coach."
Richards has no coaching secrets, but he does have singular ways. Sometimes, when the situation seems to call for it, he can be silly, climbing onto the diving board fully clothed and plunging into the pool. This convulses his team. He can also be hospitable. Once a year he invites each team, about 30 kids at a time, over to his house for breakfast and cooks for them—pancakes, waffles, "whatever they want." Or he can be sentimental. He sends roses to each senior at season's end, win or lose.
His formula, if it can be called that, has enabled Richards to succeed on a grand scale in a small-scale arena. From 1968 through '86, for example, he coached his girls' teams to 272 consecutive dual-meet wins. In 22 of his 28 years at Cape Elizabeth, Richards has had either a girls' or a boys' team, or both, in the state finals. No wonder the school pool looks like the Boston Garden of natatoriums, its walls covered with maroon-and-white state championship banners. Not bad for a school whose student body of 423 is the smallest among the 14 schools in Maine's Class A category. Actually, Cape Elizabeth is small enough to participate in Class B but chooses the tougher competition of Class A.
But does Richards run around the pool yelling, "We're Number One," as well he might? Of course not. Richards is a Face in the Crowd, and, typical of this week's Faces, he is modest. He says, "I never got into the business for the glory. I got in it for the kids." Nor, presumably, did Richards get into it for the money; he makes $6,000 a year from coaching, earning the greater part of his income from teaching math at Cape Elizabeth.
Richards came to swimming quite by accident. He was Cape Elizabeth's junior high boys' basketball coach when he was asked to fill in temporarily as the high school swim coach. He liked the job so much he asked to be made permanent and has been swim coach ever since. However, a decade or so ago Richards experienced an identity crisis: "I asked myself, 'Why am I teaching? Why am I coaching?' I sent letters to colleges and larger high schools. I didn't get a lot of positive responses. I asked myself if I really wanted to stay in Maine. But after much soul-searching, I decided it's really not bad here. I became at peace with myself."
Richards's loyalty to Cape Elizabeth has been rewarded in kind. He is an institution in the town (pop. 7,838). While it has been observed that a celebrity is a somebody who is often a nobody who is well-known to everybody, Richards, make no mistake, is a celebrity who is a somebody on the coast of Maine. "Everybody wants to do well and everybody wants to be recognized," says Richards, "whether it's the principal coming into your class to tell you that you're doing a good job or a parent writing you a note at the end of the school year."
Above all, though, Richards delights in little things, which of course add up to big things: "What I take pride in is seeing a kid do better than the day before. And what I really like about swimming is that the parents don't know anything about it."
The winter snows of upstate New York are legendary. In Buffalo they are deep enough to bury the tallest dreams. But it has never snowed enough, even in Buffalo, to bury the dreams or the talents of Felice Mann, 18, a 5'9" senior guard-forward for 500-student Burgard Vocational High. With an astonishing 73-point performance against Traditional High—on an afternoon made even more remarkable by her 17 rebounds, eight steals and six assists—Felice finished the basketball season with a 43.8 average. Her 73 points broke by one point a state record set nine weeks earlier by Katasha Artis, who plays for Brooklyn's South Shore High (page 4).
But the story is better than that. Burgard was 22 points behind Traditional with four minutes left to play. The game was over, of course. Burgard was doomed. It was time for the losers to start crying and making excuses. And then Felice took over. She made baskets when she was off-balance and when she was on, she hit shots when she was fouled and when she wasn't, she scored when she was close to the hoop and when she was far from it. She had six—six!—three-pointers. It seemed that Felice just could not miss. And Burgard won in overtime, 96-89. Felice says, "I was as shocked as everybody else."
Felice is not one of those athletes who keep telling us—and telling us—what they are going to do. She shows us. And shows us. Burgard, a school that specializes in aviation and auto mechanics and air traffic control, has only 103 females in a student body of 473. The school didn't even have a girls' basketball team until Felice arrived. Ron Pugh, the football coach, who was pressured into coaching the girls, says, "We created the team for her. We pack the gyms. We draw fans." Then he wisely corrects himself: "She packs the gyms. She draws fans."
As Faces in the Crowd tend to do, Felice demurs. "I didn't come to Burgard to get all the limelight," she says. "I came because I wanted to be in on the start of something. I'm the same person I always was. My mother always told me if you get a big head, you'll fall."
These days the five basketball courts just beyond the leftfield wall of Buffalo's half-razed War Memorial Stadium lie buried under snow. The steel rims of the baskets are twisted, bent or missing altogether, a rag of net hanging on only a few of them. They are the courts where Felice and her younger sister, Dee Dee, learned to play. Their mother, Judith, says her daughters played "mostly with the fellas—grown men. They used to come home every day with bruises and scratches, and I'd say, That's tough.' I was happy they were playing because I always knew where they were."
But Felice liked the men's game. She says of the fellas: "They'd tell us to go away or we'd be hurt. But after a while we earned their respect. They cut us no slack."
Dee Dee is almost as sensational as Felice. She is a junior at Buffalo's McKinley High, where she averaged 36.4 points this season. Now Dee Dee is being wooed by the same crowd of schools that earlier courted Felice. (Felice, for the record, chose St. John's of the Big East.)
Felice's life hasn't always been this glamorous. At various times in high school she has worked the counters at McDonald's and Hardee's and she has cleaned offices—"and some mansions"—from 6 p.m. to 1 a.m. "I'd get home and fall asleep with the lights on and the books in my bed," she says.
Felice did all this because she is almost as proficient at shopping as she is at hoops, and she needed the money. "I love to shop. Clothes, clothes, clothes," she says sighing. "I have mega sneakers. I went up for a rebound in one game and came down with a streak on my shoe. I can't wear that pair again." Judith merely rolls her eyes.
Reflecting on Felice, Pugh says. "She doesn't like the game. She loves the game. She just loves to be in the gym. When she isn't playing she's watching. It doesn't matter who's playing.... After the Traditional game a little girl came up and just wanted to touch Felice. It's funny to us. To us, she's not this super player. She's just Felice Mann—a great person who's a great player."
Steve Reiter, 17, of Brandon, S.Dak., is no mean player, either. He made the Brandon Valley High varsity golf team as a seventh-grader and has been MVP each year since eighth grade. Now a junior, he is the best Class A high school golfer in the state.
In the division championships in Watertown last October, Steve was better than just good. He had started the last day of the two-day tournament with a comfortable four-shot lead, but he blew his edge on the front nine by shooting 39. At that point, Steve told himself, "O.K., you're not going to win. But at least play respectably." Whereupon he birdied five holes in a row, 11 through 15, and won the tournament by three strokes with a final round 72.
Asked what is the biggest weakness in his game, Steve says, "Being from South Dakota." It is, he says, "too hot in the summer, too cold in the winter, too windy all the time, and bugs."
South Dakota's weather is, well, character-building. Its golf season usually lasts from May to September; some years it's even shorter. But because golf, more than most games, measures one's ability to cope with adversity, Steve's climatic handicap is also his strength. No matter how horrendous the playing conditions he encounters in his golfing future, he will have experienced worse in South Dakota.
Steve's father, Jim, who was a golfer at Towa State in the 1970s and was the Cyclones' Most Valuable Player when he was a sophomore, says, "Even the people who live here wonder why. We're a hardy group."
South Dakota has a special grandeur of its own. The rolling plains around Brandon, which is five miles northeast of Sioux Falls, are majestic in their sweep. The cottonwoods down by the Big Sioux River and the bur oaks everywhere provide a stark winter beauty. And inside the Brandon Steak House the men sit around with their hats on and talk about the soybeans and the drought and the fact that the walleye limit has been reduced from six to four. They blame government bureaucrats who wouldn't know a walleye from wallpaper for the decision. They cut holes in the ice and go fishing in the winter and play Softball in the summer, and, says Jim Reiter, they "go watch the kids play sports, because it's something to do."
The only professional golfers of current note from South Dakota are brothers Curt and Tom Byrum, both of whom won a PGA Tour event in 1989: Curt, the Hardee's Golf Classic; Tom, the Kemper Open. Is Steve Reiter likely to join them? Says Jim Reiter, who recently turned his 40-acre sod farm into a nine-hole par-3 golf course because the sod business really wasn't much fun, "Well, being in South Dakota, you have to be pretty realistic."
The odds are that Steve will not make it to the PGA Tour, because few players do, even if they're not from South Dakota. However, Paul Johnson, his high school coach, says, "I wouldn't count him out. I do know he will reach his peak, whatever that may be."
Unassuming ("It's hard to think of yourself as the best golfer in the state"), polite, a solid B to B+ student, Steve says, as he surveys his dad's golf course: "I like the fame, the popularity, I guess. It's nice to be recognized because you are the best. Even in the pros, you don't see them making five birdies in a row. And I do find people treat you different than if you're average. They kind of stare at you."
In spite of ourselves we stare at our Faces—at a girl who scores 73 points, a coach who has won more than 700 meets, a golfer who wins the state title with a spectacular birdie run. We look at their ordinary faces and wonder what goes on inside that makes them special. Blind luck, we say, a little envious. But in our hearts we know better. We watch TV and eat popcorn while Reiter hits three-woods in the blowing snow.
In 24-hour runs you talk quite a bit to others, and your mind runs the gamut....
She doesn't talk back, and she doesn't expect much more out of me than food.
At various times...she has worked the counters at McDonald's and Hardee's.
Golf, more than most games, measures one's ability to cope with adversity.