Regretting the athletes who weren’t seen

by Gary Shelton on February 26, 2022

in general

Warren Sapp made you look./TIM WIRT

Saturday, 4 a.m.

I saw Joe Montana lead his team to a comeback win in a Super Bowl, calm as Sunday morning. I saw Michael Jordan drive to the basket, his tongue hanging out of his mouth. I saw Hank Aaron hit a home run.

But I never saw Muhammad Ali.

I hate that.

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I saw Bobby Bowden, dadgummit. I saw Bear Bryant. I've seen Joe Paterno, back when his reputation was intact.

But I never saw Jackie Robinson.

I am poorer for it.

I saw John Havlicek sink a game-winning basket when the entire arena knew he was going to shoot. I saw Wayne Gretzky cut through defenders who were stuck in place. I saw Martina Navratilova win a title.

But I never saw Babe Ruth hit it or pitch it.


I saw Bo Jackson win his Heisman. I saw Herschel Walker win his. I saw Emmitt Smith and wonder why he came up short.

But I never saw Jim Brown except for a movie theatre.

I am poorer for it.

That's the thing about writing sports for a living. You have your own time element. Even if you travel a lot -- and I was forttunate enough to do so -- you are trapped in your own era.

I saw Derek Jeter, but I didn't see Ernie Banks.

I saw Willie Mays, but I didn't see Ty Cobb.

I saw Michael Phelps, but I didn't see Mark Spitz. (I did interview him once, however).

I saw Warren Sapp, but I never saw Merlin Olsen (live).

I saw Lawrence Taylor, but I never saw Dick Butkus.

I saw Tom Brady, but I never saw Otto Graham.

And so it goes.

At major events, there used to be a handful of columnists from around the country, and we would get in these long into-the-night discussions. Who's a good guy and who, despite his publicity, isn't? What's the best event you've seen? Who would you like to see?

I saw Bjorn Borg. I never saw Rod Laver.

I saw Carl Lewis. I didn't see Jesse Owens.

I saw Kobe Bryant. I never saw Oscar Robertson.

I batted against Whitey Ford. I didn't see Sandy Koufax.

I've seen Bill Belichick. I never covered Vince Lombardi.

Again, I've been lucky. Pete Maravich? Saw him. Shaq O'Neal? Saw him. Dan Marino? Saw him. I saw Barry Sanders and Derrick Brooks and Chris Evert. I saw John McEnroe and Cal Ripken and Serena Williams.

But I would have loved to have seen Johnny Bench turn on a fastball. I would have loved to have seen Joe DiMaggio when he played go from first to third. I would have loved to have seen Deacon Jones peel around an offensive tackle. I would have loved to have seen Josh Gibson after all the stories I've read about him. I would have loved to have seen Wilt Chamberlain rebound.

And that's the thing. The games evolve, a great player then would probably be a great player now. And seeing them perform would have been a moment in time.

I saw Tim Tebow. I missed Doc Blanchard.

I saw Jack Nicklaus. I missed Ben Hogan.

I saw Flo-Jo. I missed Babe Didrikson.

I saw Ozzie Smith. I missed Honus Wagner.

I saw Pete Rose. I missed Shoeless Joe.

But I've seen some things. Mickey Mantle, in his golden years. I interviewed Nelson Mandela once, who told me about his days as a boxer. I've gotten to know Phil Esposito fairly well; I would have loved to have watched him play.

Tiger Woods. Usain Bolt. Roget Federer. LeBron James. Magic Johnson. Peyton Manning. Walter Peyton. Larry Bird. Pete Sampras. Greg Maddux. Hundreds of others. Good memories.

Ah, but juss once, I'd love to look at Ted Williams, walking toward the plate.

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