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Remembering the greatest

A few months back, my daughter, Monica, and I were lunching with friends when the inimitable Joe Epstein interrupted the grey-beards’ football tales, turned to my daughter, and asked, “Do you have the disease?” Monica does a lot of theater work, which usually renders her immune to conversational eccentricity. But this one floored her. “The disease?” Yeah,” Joe replied. “Sports.”  To which the only honest reply was, “Yes. I’ve got it.”

She got it from her father. I’ve had it since 1957, which is as far as my sports memory takes me. By the end of 1958, though, I was completely hooked, the bait having been merely the greatest pro football game ever, the 1958 sudden-death NFL championship in which John Unitas, Raymond Berry, and the Baltimore Colts took down the New York Giants of Frank Gifford and Sam Huff.

In fifty-plus years of the disease, I’ve watched my share of glorious thrillers, in person and on the tube. Thanks to my sainted grandfather Weigel, I was at the fourth and final game of the 1966 World Series and saw the Orioles’ Paul Blair, in full flight, leap majestically at the center field fence to rob the Dodgers’ Jim Lefebvre of a game-tying home run. I remember Carlton Fisk’s body-language, willing fair the shot he had hit into the dead of the Fenway night, the ball ricocheting off the foul pole to send Red Sox Nation into temporary ecstasy in 1975. I remember Team USA beating the wicked Soviets in the 1980 Olympic ice hockey semi-final, and I remember Duke’s Christian Laettner hitting an impossible buzzer-beater to finish Kentucky in the 1992 NCAA east regional.

And I remember the disasters. In 1969, for example, I hit the trifecta of Big Apple-induced catastrophes: first, the “irresistible” Colts (as Sports Illustrated described them) lost Super Bowl III to the Jets (January); then the top-seeded Baltimore Bullets were skunked by the New York Knicks in the first round of the NBA playoffs (March); after which the heavily-favored Orioles lost the World Series to the Mets (October); and there was no joy in Bal’mer. I remember staring, stunned, as Bill Buckner’s imitation of a croquet wicket cost the Red Sox the ‘86 Series. I can still see, in the slow-motion of my memory, a Gregg Olsen wild pitch that cost the Orioles a desperately needed game against the Blue Jays in 1989, thus effectively ending a miraculous season in which youthful enthusiasm seemed poised to beat the big bucks. (My older daughter’s tear stains are still visible in the scorebook.) And I remember the aforementioned Monica, in deep distress, calling me after Mike Mussina abandoned Baltimore for the dread Yankees: “Dad, Mike’s gone over to the Dark Side!”

Thus my mental hard disk runneth over. Still, sifting through the detritus of the disease, one moment stands out above all the rest. It was thirty-five years ago: June 9, 1973, the Belmont Stakes. There hadn’t been a Triple Crown winner in a quarter-century; but hopes rode high, resting as they did on the giant chestnut shoulders of Secretariat, who had taken the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness in record times. For the first six furlongs, Secretariat battled it out with old rival Sham. But then something happened that no one had ever seen before—or since.

On the back stretch, Secretariat shifted into a hitherto-unknown higher gear and pulled away from the field as if on equine afterburners. As the others dropped back, Secretariat went faster and faster still, seemingly inexhaustible, an unprecedented combination of  majesty, power, and grace. The glow of those two minutes and twenty-four seconds, still the fastest mile-and-a-half ever, remains undimmed today.

Last summer, I visited a friend who had bred one of his horses, an Appaloosa, to a son of Secretariat. The resulting filly was rather small, where her grand-sire had been huge. But when you looked into her eyes, and marked how she held her head, there was an unmistakable sense of self. Don’t tell me that filly didn’t know she was the grand-daughter of the greatest. Whispering it in her ear was for me, not for her.

George Weigel
George Weigel is a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. His column is distributed by the Denver Catholic.
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