- Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand: Portraits of Champions Who Walked among Us
Gathering pieces from his forty-year career as an acclaimed sports journalist, John Schulian presents an anthology of sixty-four portraits of athletes, including football, baseball, and basketball players, jockeys, and boxers, and even other influential sport reporters and writers. With diverse content, Schulian portrays athletes as human, approachable, sometimes fragile, reminiscent, and much more complex than the sum of their season or career statistics. As a former syndicated columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and later Philadelphia Daily News and freelance writer for an array for magazines, including Sports Illustrated, Schulian comments about his craft, “I wrote about the last heroes who at least gave the impression that they walked among us” (p. xviii), thus revealing his desire to take the reader on a sentimental journey to a time when athletes and sports seemed less defined by money and scandal and more by their interaction with and acknowledgment of their fans. In fact, he sees the early 1990s as marking a shift in professional athletes, with their enormous salaries, paranoia, and separation from fans; consequently, his collection concentrates primarily on athletes from the 1950s through the 1980s. Above all, the pieces in this anthology stir memories of not just the athletes but of ourselves. [End Page 365]
Organized into five sections, “Hundred-Yard Warriors,” “Legends of the Box Score,” “Hoops and Horses and Everything in Between,” “Arts and Letters,” and “Sweet Scientists,” the anthology contains immediately recognizable names, from Terry Bradshaw and Bear Bryant, Stan Musial and Pete Rose, Larry Bird and Muhammad Ali, to those less familiar to the casual sports fan, such as the baseball player Steve Bilko, the jockeys Ron Turcotte and Buddy Delp, or even the highly successful sports journalists Red Smith and Mark Kram. Save for a few longer portraits originally published in GQ or Sports Illustrated, most of these pieces are just three or four pages long yet take the reader where most sports journalism does not go, namely into the athlete’s emotional and personal realm. As a reporter, Schulian had first-hand access to athletes, and many of the pieces recount his interaction and discussions with them.
Fellow sports journalist William Nack refers to Schulian as a “literate observer” (p. xi), and in order to fully appreciate Schulian’s style and approach, a closer look at a few of his many portraits may be helpful. Some of them concentrate on the athletes in their prime, yet reveal them as something more than exceptional athletes. He describes Walter Payton’s “large, starling eyes that give away his innocence and uncertainty” (p. 23) during a press conference in 1977; John Riggins, after his Super Bowl exploits in 1983: “he was pro football’s unrepentant dropout” (p. 44); Joe Montana as “just a thin, slouchy figure who doesn’t blossom in bright lights” (p. 52) after the 49er won the Super Bowl in 1985; and solicits the following in an interview with George Brett in 1980: “If I hadn’t made it in baseball, I’d just be working for my brother John’s construction company” (p. 145). This is the seduction of sports, or at least how it once was: the athletes are like the fans and the fans can aspire to be athletes. Schulian brings the reader closer to the athletes off the playing field and provides glimpses of what he sees, thereby revealing internal contradictions and conflicts in athletes as performers and “everyday people.”
Other portraits reveal athletes at the end of their careers when they could no longer perform at a level for which they were known. Schulian writes about Johnny Bench weeks before he retired, “He was the first proof a lot of us had that time waits for no one” (p. 91); describes a forty-four-year-old Carl Yastrzemski in his last season as “the suddenly fragile, undeniably graying figure who slumped in front of his locker in the Red Sox’s...