The Way They Were

We've grown accustomed to their faces, but before they became icons, they were prodigies, beguiling us with their innocence ... and grit
September 26, 2004

IT'S A KIND of immortality, isn't it, to have one's youth frozen by achievement and lit by approval. Look at these faces: innocent of infirmity, blind to corruption, the eyes still pools of purity and purpose. Not one wrinkle of self-doubt, no furrows of anxiety, nobody saddlebagged by defeat. There's merely that otherworldly calmness, the comfort of one's gifts. It's so easy, to be young and bursting with brio, to simply stare down the years to come, as if anything--or rather everything--might be right around the corner. Look at these faces: Who would tell them otherwise?

B/W PHOTOphotograph by Neil Leifer MIKE DITKA 1961 age 22 His first year in Chicago was a very good one--the tight end was the 1961 Rookie of the Year. His return to the Windy City, coaching Da Bears, culminated in a 15-1 record and a Super Bowl XX title. B/W PHOTOphotograph by Lane Stewart WAYNE GRETZKY 1978 age 17 As a minor, he spent time with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds--so the NHL record books were safe for the moment. The next year the Great One arrived in Edmonton and the rewriting commenced. COLOR PHOTOphotograph by Walter Iooss Jr. JOHN MCENROE 1977 age 18 He was a brat, but he played like an angel. And after years of gritty five-set marathons and stellar Davis Cup performances, the erstwhile bad boy metamorphosed into a tennis statesman.
COLOR PHOTOphotograph by Tony Triolo MARTINA NAVRATILOVA 1975 age 18 This was the year she defected from Czechoslovakia to the U.S., and it was also the year she won her first four singles titles. More would come: She won a record 167, including 18 grand slam events. COLOR PHOTOphotograph by Neil Leifer JOE NAMATH 1962 age 19 Before he became Broadway Joe, the small-town Pennsylvanian called signals for the Crimson Tide. Bear Bryant called the future panty hose peddler "the greatest athlete I have ever coached." COLOR PHOTOphotograph by Manny Millan DAN MARINO 1982 age 20 The Pitt Panther had to wait while five quarterbacks were taken ahead of him in the NFL draft. But 17 pro seasons later, he was behind no one in passing yards (61,361) or touchdowns (420). B/W PHOTOphotograph by John G. Zimmerman JACK NICKLAUS 1959 age 19 Young Jack was cast as the villain--the chubby upstart trying to usurp Arnold Palmer's throne. But smart fans appreciated his skill and dedication, and warmed to him as he won 70 tournaments, including 18 majors. COLOR PHOTOphotograph by Eric Schweikardt JOHNNY BENCH 1968 age 20 Seeing the Reds catcher after his 1968 Rookie of the Year season, Ted Williams gave him this autograph: TO JOHNNY BENCH, A HALL OF FAMER FOR SURE. As usual, Ted was right. COLOR PHOTOphotograph by Dave Stock FLORENCE GRIFFITH JOYNER 1984 age 24 Flo-Jo was fast, and she was flashy. She ran into our memories--and the 100-meter record book--with her long fingernails cutting through the air like claws. COLOR PHOTOphotograph by Tony Triolo BOBBY ORR 1967 age 19 Beantown was besotted with its prize rookie defenseman in 1966-67. He will live forever in the hearts of Bruins fans thanks to his 1970 Stanley Cup--winning goal. B/W PHOTOphotograph by Herb Scharfman PETE ROSE 1965 age 24 The nickname Charlie Hustle, given to the Reds outfielder for his habit of running to first after drawing a walk, had only positive connotations in those early years. COLOR PHOTOphotograph by Neil Leifer LEW ALCINDOR 1966 age 19 As a freshman UCLA pivotman, Big Lew had every form of hoops glory (three NCAA titles, six NBA titles, six NBA MVP awards) and one name change awaiting him. COLOR PHOTOphotograph by Corbis BILL WALTON 1974 age 21 The noted Deadhead and three-time player of the year at UCLA ignited Blazermania when he arrived in Portland; he won a title there three years later. COLOR PHOTOphotograph by Rich Clarkson/ MAGIC JOHNSON 1979 age 19 His first great trick was to conjure up an NCAA title for Michigan State. Then, along with his foil, Larry Bird, he brought the NBA back from the dead. COLOR PHOTOphotograph by Jodi Buren SHAQUILLE O'NEAL 1991 age 18 In his three seasons at LSU, Shaq was a rarity--a lithe 295-pounder. But after he reached the NBA, his frame and his trophy case would assume massive proportions. COLOR PHOTOphotograph by Mickey Pfleger JOHN ELWAY 1982 age 21 Critics questioned his character whenStanford's coveted quarterback forced the Colts to trade his draft rights. But Elway removed all doubts about his drive with an NFLrecord 47 fourth-quarter comebacks.