TRACK US ALL BACK, EVERY ONE OF US, BACK PAST THE WHEEL and the horse and language and fire, further back than civilization or history itself, back so far into buried time that even the scientists can't guide us, back into the original mystery. And there, before anything like history or glory or sports, a million years ago, or two million, or three, beneath an unconcerned sun on a buzzing savannah, something nearly human swung down one day from a baobab tree, put a foot to the earth and ran.
ORGANIZED SPORTS ARE THE perfection of the unnecessary. The goal of which is to do something that doesn't need doing better than someone else can do it. We're faster now, stronger, and can throw and whack things farther than at any time in our history. It's one of the rare areas of human endeavor that have shown any measurable improvement through the years.
The number of world-class athletes among us--those for whom the whacking and the throwing and the roaring glory of having done so become a life--is the tiniest fraction of a fraction of the world's population. But how vital they've become to the rest of us, how much they mean. And how much we ask of them.
How must it feel to be Michael or Tiger or Lance, Navratilova or Schumacher, DiMaggio or Zatopek, Keino or Mays or Zaharias? How must it feel to be, to have been, Muhammad Ali? Pick a name chiseled in any wing of the sports pantheon--exalted, dominant, so briefly unbeatable--and consider the privilege and the burden of being the best of the best of us. What must it be like to shoulder the weight of the world's dreams, to suffer humanity's fevered enthusiasms, to cause and then bear forward our disappointments?
For the rest us, there's some long-gone instant of childhood glory, then the realization that we're too slow or too small or too ordinary. Then comes the lifetime spent harmlessly jogging or coaching the Tballers; buying our season tickets, running through the morning sports section and doggedly whacking the remote. Because to watch, to simply see it, is a kind of necessary and loving witness to whatever human excellence is.
IF IT IS IN OUR NATURE TO MAKE SPORTS IMPORTANT, THEN it is our bad habit to make them too important. Organized sports rise and fall on the tide of human fortune certainly, a function of economy and class and circumstance and the availability of leisure time. Not a lot of hours for sports in the Dark Ages, of course, what with all that famine and plague on the family calendar, and every waking minute devoted to grubbing in the mud for roots and tubers with a pointed stick. Free up half a day a few hundred years later though, and call the same thing golf, and the world is bathed in sunshine.
Whenever and however sports arose in any particular age, they were usually said to be central to the development of human character, and they seemed to accrete to themselves all sorts of reverential higher ideals like purity of purpose and nobility. Which was great p.r. for the nobility, many of whom wanted their quirky horseback pastime of hunting rats with small dogs to be better thought of.
Still, there's that human truth at the core of it all, however you choose to express it.
DOWN FROM THE TREES, AT LEAST ACCORDING TO DARWIN and my local school board, I ran. I hit him just as the ball got there. They were running a little counter screen, a weakside flare to the right behind play action left, but his blockers never got there. I was an outside linebacker then, heavy and awkward, 12 or 13, crouching eight or nine yards upfield, too slow to bite on the fake. When I saw that he was alone, waiting with his hands fanned open and anxious at his chest, I ran at him.
It was some sort of Pop Warner regional playoff game. I don't remember anything else about that game or that long ago day, but I remember the moment I hit that boy, and I remember it as if it happened this morning. Some nights I still dream it.
I can't hear anything but the air going in and out of me and the dull concussion of my feet on the turf as I run. Just as the ball gets there, I put my head down and get my right shoulder into him. I wrap my arms around him, and the ball pops loose, and I hear the wind go out of him. My momentum takes us down the grass a few yards, him folded neatly over my shoulder as if I'm hauling him out of a burning house, until I finally collapse forward and plant him clean. I'd seen Nitschke do it on television, and Butkus and Huff. He goes down flat on his back, and I can feel his weight against the ground, and then mine, our pads clattering, and then the silence. It felt good to hit him. Electric. No higher consciousness, no intellect, no self--only muscle and fat and bone and an effervescent brain stem. That's what I remember: how good it felt to hit another human being as hard as I could.
It was the kind of tackle you'd roar for if you'd come to watch 12year-old boys play football, but if there was cheering I couldn't hear it. I just remember running and breathing and that impact, helmet ringing, and the weird sense it gave me of being real, of being something other than an idea I kept in my own head. It was a ferocious sensation of being actual.
DO WE ASK TOO MUCH OF SPORTS? OR DO THEY ASK TOO much of us? We ask that sports not only reveal our character but create it. We ask that athletes not just entertain us but transform us. That they make us somehow better. And not just here in Fortress America, either, as is often asserted by the critics, but on every continent. The cults of Schumacher or Beckham or Woods respect no borders, and fanaticism of every kind makes its home everywhere. Man United? If only.
Even those few of us indifferent to sports are surrounded by them, by the stunning ad campaigns and by the criminal trials, by the cult of celebrity and by our worship of the zero-sum result. We are a competitive species, sure, but sports have infected our accounting of nearly everything. Why else the presidential horse race, the weekly box score of box office "winners" and "losers"?
We swim in the language of sports, in the business-school rhetoric of up-by-the-jockstrap metaphor, in the wrongheaded militarism of the halftime pep talk; the "slam-dunk" masquerading as foreign policy, the game-as-war self-importance and the war-as-game reductionism.
It is a commonplace among the eggheads that athletes are a society's surrogates, the gladiators for our pitiless alter egos. I'm not so sure I buy that these days, or the notion that sports, contact sports especially, offer us any kind of healthy collective release of our cultural aggressions.
Look around at the parents screaming at their tiny Pee-Wee Leaguers and ask yourself this: If we had more football, would we have less war?
SPORTS BELONG ON THE NEWS CONTINUUM SOMEWHERE between the headlines 1,000 now dead in iraq and DOCTOR FINDS $650 WORTH OF COINS IN PATIENT'S BELLY.
For 50 years that's where Sports Illustrated has tried to make sense of things, making its own small place in history by sorting and cataloging the sublime and the ridiculous, by taking the work seriously but never the subject, by finding the sacred moment in the ongoing vaudeville and letting some air out of the pomp and pretension.
I'm only three years younger than this magazine, and it has been in my house from the day I was old enough to read it. I am old enough now to know that there is no making sense of sports, or society, really. There is only the endless hunt to uncover the small truths about who we think we are.
There's something a little hopeless in that, at least for those of us who work at SI, because to write the profile of an athlete is an exercise in futility, an attempt to reverse engineer the ineffable. We circle that gifted person as best we can, trying to get near the center of something, asking on the readers' behalf, Where do you live? Where were you born? What do you drive? What do you eat? How do you train? What are your dreams?
We ask the ridiculous because we know there can never be an adequately sublime reply to the question that brought us to this athlete in the first place, the Maximum Unanswerable: How do you do it?
The awkward, inevitable follow-up to which is a question that has stumped the novelists and the poets and the philosophers since we dropped down out of that tree: What does it feel like to be you?
WE DON'T PLAY THE GAMES JUST FOR GLORY, OR EVEN FOR money, although that's hard to see these days--we play, as we always have, to remind ourselves that we're here, that we're present in the present and part of the larger life of the world.
Insulated from virtually every physical experience but the ones we choose, sheltered and fed by our technologies, we cling to sports more desperately than ever. The packaging and the payouts have changed, the delivery systems are slicker, but the essence of it, the tug and grunt and struggle, remains the same.
Whatever sports were and whatever they become, at the faraway beginning and the impossible end of everything is only the hammer of a beating heart, that pulse drumming and the lungs bellowing, all the deafening, defining racket of life roaring in your ears, that syncopation of blood and wind, legs working and you running, down at last out of the trees, fully alive and feet on the earth, racing for glory or simply for joy, racing for history's bright and unattainable horizon.