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Saturday, June 7, 2008

Jim McKay...The wide World of Wonder

Big long exhale...
I was working out this morning and the bulletin came across the TV monitor that the great Jim McKay had passed away at age 86.
It is really and truly difficult to put into words what an enormous and integral part of my life Mr. McKay was.
He was there for virtually every single great sporting moment of my childhood. Not the obvious ones like baseball and football and the like, but the more obscure sports that me and my friends would eventually try to emulate in the summer heat and the icy blast of winter.
Jim McKay introduced me and my generation to cliff diving from Acapulco, and barrel jumping from some frozen lake in Wisconsin. He really and truly invented "up close and personal" as a method of delivering the story and so I learned about guys who toiled in garages or drove trucks by day and then piloted ice sailboats on frozen weekends. I knew about the guys who braved the elements and real danger to race motorcycles on tracks formed in the ice of lakes in Minnesota with spikes on their tires for grip. I saw him and Jackie Stewart, (faaymuss scawtish rrrace cairr drrrriverrr) go to England and document Jackie getting fitted for a custom made Purdee shotgun. I knew who Al Oerter was, (I would bet not ONE 10 year old kid in America right now could name a single discus thrower, much less a decathlete) I knew about the great Vasily Alexiev but more importantly, I learned about his tiny wife who cooked him the prodigious amounts of high protein food that fueled the energy it took to become the greatest power lifter of all time. He made me want an Alexiev poster on my wall. I knew about the special, shrimp laden diets the Sumo wrestlers ate and McKay made me want to try some of it. Heck...I knew about Sumo at all because of Jim McKay.
Arm Wrestling, Iditirod, curling...long before it was fashionable because of the blonde hottie at the last Olympics, target diving from Marineland, flat track racing, (He introduced me and my generation to Jay Springsteen) motocross, before the X games found it (remember Roger DeCoster, The "Flying Dutchman"?) you name it...if it was a competition Jim McKay would cover it and had the supreme knack for making it very interesting. He accomplished this not because he sold me on the sport itself, but because he went just a little deeper beneath the surface and introduced me to the people who threw javelins, and hurled hammers, and tossed cabers, and dove off of cliffs in Acapulco.
He made jockeys interesting and turned target divers into heroes. Guys who drove to the events in the family station wagon, paid more to participate than the sport was ever going to pay them, and went home thrilled that Jim McKay had asked them about themselves and their sport and now the world knew that you actually could jump 17 industrial drums on ice skates if you gained enough speed. You went home essentially anonymous afterward but somehow you were immortalized the next frozen Saturday by thousands of little boys like me and my friends who would strap on ice skates, find something to jump over and, with one guy playing the part of sportscaster, the others would try to jump it and be that anonymous guy we had watched last weekend. Jim McKay did that for us.
This sounds strange to say I guess, but if Jesus had chosen to come to earth as a sports journalist instead of a carpenter, He would have been Jim McKay. Jesus spent His time on earth seeing the people and not the world spinning around them. Five minutes with Him and you forgot that they dragged that woman to him out of her adulterous lovers bed and you saw deep inside the woman.
Thats what Jim McKay did every time he reported on a sporting event. You no longer noticed how silly it was that a small Mexican guy was jumping off a cliff with a rock jutting out far enough that if he missed his mark he'd splatter. McKay made the guy so darned interesting, so darned human that you rooted for every last one of them. Yeah that towel thing those huge sumo wrestlers wore around their waists was really silly looking, but once McKay introduced us to them, those guys were cool. Alexiev may have dispatched his competitors with ruthless surgical precision, but at home with his tiny wife and kids, with Jim McKay eating potato soup, he was a big lovable teddy bear and, hammer and sickle aside, he was a heroic giant and you just had to love him. Jim McKay could have broadcast a report about real, to-the-death jousting, and it would have become compelling human drama. Sure, these guys are about to risk being impaled by a 3 inch thick shaft with a spear head on the end that could gaff a whale...but you should see them with the kids at the orphanage.
If the NHL could find a guy like McKay to do journalistic essays on the players and the game and the traditions and the special language we hockey players all speak...the game would quickly move up in viewership.
Of course, there were plenty of more mainstream sports covered by Jim McKay. I was 9 when the tragedy unravelled at the 1972 summer Olympics in Munich. Honestly, it was the first I had ever even heard of The Holocaust. McKay had done a brilliant piece, only days before the tragedy, about the concentration camps, the death, and the healing that had begun.
As the events unfolded, there was Jim McKay, looking tired and weary and unshaven, refusing to relinquish his role as our host for the games, even in this horrible hour. He had a sense of history and a sense of journalistic responsibility and I will never ever forget his famous words; words which became the headline for a thousand newspapers when the announcement came in about the shootout at the Munich airport..."They're gone...they're all gone". He delivered the news with the same somber tone that your dad might have done if it was a family member, and he was telling you in your living room.
Wide World of Sports was Jim McKay's domain. make no mistake. Without him it was just another sports show. "The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat" was their byword. Jim McKay knew full well the truth about sports. That the athletes who compete would gladly trudge through the agony of defeat 99 times if it meant tasting the thrill of victory even once. He was the poet laureate of dog sledders and beer league softball players and ice boat racers. He made me want to try every sport. And he introduced me to a collection of interesting people that spurred me to adventure and imagination.
He was a giant and a giant part of my life.
The bible occasionally mentions the death of a saint in the following way..."and he died old and full of years". I think Jim McKay was very very full of years. What a magical wonderful life...and what a gift he gave us.
Rest well Mr. McKay

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