The Sweet Swing of Success

If you’re as obsessive as the rest of America, or me, you now know who Ken Jennings is.

The thirty-something from Salt Lake City, who looks like a cross between a generic CNN reporter and the long-lost brother on “Fraser,” ran the table on “Jeopardy!” in the past month or so, accumulating over a million dollars by answering, roughly, every question.  Until the show went on hiatus for the rest of the summer, during which time I suspect they will be busy changing the rules and/or pouring maple syrup into his buzzer thingy.  No one likes a smarty-pants.

I have a question, now, for Ken, and you, in the category of “Sports Sayings.” It’s this: “He wrote, ‘It’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.’”

No fair using the Internet.

Ha!  I win.

Because it was a trick question.  I did it on purpose.

Although undoubtedly many people have used that particular phrase, what they are misquoting is a line from the pen of Grantland Rice.  “When the One Great Scorer comes to write against your name/He marks- not that you won or lost – but how you played the game.”

Rice was a truly Modern Man, born during the American Industrial Revolution and living into the Atomic Age, but he also was a prototype, leading the way for Bob Costas and Howard Cosell (not in that order).  He was the first superstar sports journalist, elevating the games people play by (mostly) purplish prose and a fan’s devotion.  If you ever find yourself using football, say, as a metaphor for life (and please don’t), you owe a debt to Grantland Rice, because he invented the idea.

Rice’s most famous writing is about the “Four Horsemen,” a column referring to the 1925 Notre Dame backfield, but he was also responsible for legends that live on, particularly Jim Thorpe and Bobby Jones.

I’m writing today about Bobby Jones.  Sort of.

Bobby Jones in the Twenties was to golf what today Tiger Woods is to…well, golf.  He had the same preternatural ability, but without the bucks, and he may (Tiger still working) have been the greatest golfer of all time.

I know next to nothing about golf, actually.  I watch it on TV when I feel the urge to take a nap.  I tolerate my wife’s passion for this game, a little ball and a little stick.  Come on.  We’ve got BASEBALL.

But I can admire it, admire the skill and the precision, and admire the ones who do it best.

I played golf once, only once, 22 years ago, early in the morning, nine holes on a public course in Phoenix,Arizona, with my dad and Allen O’Reilly.  My dad was 45, and Allen and I were in our early twenties.  None of us resembled Bobby Jones, or Tiger.  But it was early.

Dad eventually gave up golf.  Me too.  I don’t know about Allen.  But he was my friend, a college roommate who passionately wanted to be a good actor.  He eventually left school and moved to Atlanta, where he married a lovely woman from the Carolinas and fathered a couple of boys, and now is in his sixteenth year at the Georgia Shakespeare Festival, currently the Education Director.

John Kennedy once said that mothers across America want their children to grow up to be President, but not politicians.  This is true of actors, too.  You might not complain if your son-in-law is Tom Hanks, but if he’s scrabbling along the streets of Manhattan, looking for work, I can see where you might have questions.  So the actor who perseveres requires respect, at least from me.

I haven’t seen Al in nearly 20 years, although we stay in touch through Christmas cards and email.   But wasn’t I writing about Bobby Jones?

Bobby Jones died in 1971, nearly completing his three score and ten but living the majority of it in pain from a degenerative illness.  He found the time after his retirement at 28, though, to found the Masters Tournament at Augusta.  And last year, a movie was finally made about his life.  “Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius” may have slipped under your radar.  It was released in March and is coming to a video store near you, probably soon.

I’m going to buy the DVD.  Not because I care about golf, but because I love stories of talent and perseverance.  It stars Jim Caveizel (“The Passion of the Christ”) as Jones, but that’s not the attraction.  It’s because, in this film, the small but pivotal role of Grantland Rice is played by my friend Allen O‘Reilly.

So much of life is timing.  There are smarter people than Ken Jennings who never make the cut on “Jeopardy!”  There are certainly better actors than Tom Hanks who never get their break.  When I heard from Allen the other day, it reminded me of all of this.  Chance, and luck, and devotion to dreams.  We’d talk, twenty-plus years ago, he and I, of the future and what might happen.  Life is funny, of course, and there are roads not taken and courses not played, but it was sure nice to find out that sometimes wishes come true.

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