The older we get, I think, the more the idea of “legacy” enters our everyday thoughts. The legacy we leave for our families, our workplaces and industries, or our communities – the closer the end gets, the more we wonder what we’ll leave behind.
The Best American Sports Writing 2015 is the 25th entry in Glenn Stout’s annual anthology series. The forward from Stout, who at 58 has spent nearly half his life on this series, is much longer than it typically is, and “legacy” runs throughout.
BASW 15 then segues into an introduction by ESPN writer Wright Thompson. Thompson dovetails Stout by writing about the impact BASW has had on him since his days at the University of Missouri, and how honored he is to be part of its legacy, which is clearly the through line for the ensuing 21 stories.
Very few of the BASW volumes I’ve reviewed to date establish a running theme, but here it works. Seth Wickersham’s “Awakening the Giant,” about NFL Hall of Famer Y.A. Tittle, makes Tittle’s severe dementia something that’s robbed him of any awareness of his own legacy, as he no longer recalls almost any of the moments that make him so beloved.
Tommy Tomlinson does the exact same thing with former North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith in “Precious Memories.” These two nearly identical tales reinforce and amplify each other’s sadness over how hard it would be to lose your own past, your own legacy.
Chris Jones’ “One Thousand Two Hundred and Fifty-Eight Pounds of Sons” is a much happier look at Gordy Gronkowski, whose five children went on to have tremendous athletic success at the collegiate and professional level, especially Rob Gronkowski of the New England Patriots. It’s a fun, optimistic story about how a father can create a legacy of success for his children to continue.
There are two more stories about the legacy between fathers and sons. Joel Anderson’s “The Two Michael Sams” is about the dark, caustic relationship between Michael Sam Sr. and his son, who made headlines as the first openly gay player drafted into the NFL. Elizabeth Merrill’s “Being Tommy Morrison’s Son,” on the other hand, is about a boxer trying to live up to his father’s “colorful” boxing career.
And then there’s Christopher Beam’s “The Year of the Pigskin,” about the creation of an American football league in China. If most of these stories are all about preexisting legacies, this one is about a new one’s earliest stages. It’s fun, the characters are lovable, and when finished I went to the league’s website because I had to know what’s happened since.
Of course, not every story is about legacy. Brian Phillips’ “The Sea of Crises” is a beautiful story about sumo wrestling – a sport of such importance, you wonder why it hasn’t appeared in more BASW volumes. Phillips deftly weaves between a feature on superstar Mongolian yokozuna Hakuhō Shō and Phillips’ own sense of aimlessness while on assignment in Japan. The result is a dreamlike ambiance that feels absolutely appropriate given the setting.
Chris Ballard’s “Haverford Hoops,” by contrast, is a goofier, lighter look at the Haverford College men’s basketball team that narrowly avoided setting an NCAA record for consecutive losses. It gets a little saccharine at the end, but it’s hard not to root for the Fords to finally get a win.
Still, legacy can’t save some of the weakest stories. Dan O’Sullivan’s “Money in the Bank” is about the legacy of corruption in pro wrestling, but O’Sullivan makes the mistake of telling the story of the WWE in chronological order.
It’s not until the second-to-last page that O’Sullivan delves into the price pro wrestlers pay for what they do to themselves – a price that includes chronic pain, mental instability and degeneration, violence and often death. Starting with that would’ve rammed home how horrible the system is.
Instead, the opening pages discuss price-fixing, blacklisting and union-busting – bad stuff, to be sure, but harder to relate to on an emotional level.
And finally, there’s Dan Wetzel’s “Peyton Manning Leaves Crushing Super Bowl Loss with Reputation Intact.” Basically, Wetzel says Manning is a champion because after losing XLVIII, he still signed some autographs.
Seriously, that’s all there is to this story. Wetzel might honestly believe the premise of his story, but to me the only clear message is that no matter what he actually does, Manning’s legacy is as someone the national sports media will fawn over until the end of time.