The first man to stare back at you will be the Hall of Fame linebacker by the same name who spent 13 seasons tearing it up for the Detroit Lions in the 1950s and ’60s and another seven as the franchise’s head coach.
Schmidt was on the roster in 1963 when a tall, thin string of beans by the name of George Plimpton turned up to try out for one of the back-up quarterback spots in pre-season training camp. What the coaches knew, but the players didn’t, was that Plimpton was actually a writer who was going undercover to see for himself how an ordinary Joe Schmo would fare at the summit of pro football.
It wasn’t long before the players cottoned on.
Schmidt later recalled how you didn’t have to be “a Rhodes scholar” to figure out that maybe they weren’t being told the whole truth about the beanpole with zero athletic ability who couldn’t throw a spiral 15 yards.
But it was a tribute to Plimpton’s brilliance as a writer that he could still chisel two lengthy Sports Illustrated pieces out of his experiences.
Not only that. A book, Paper Lion: Confessions of a Third-String Quarterback, followed. And then a pretty risible film starring Alan Alda of M*A*S*H fame. Plimpton, who also pitched at Yankee Stadium, took to the boxing ring with legendary light heavyweight champ Archie Moore and kept goal for ice hockey’s Boston Bruins, wasn’t the first sportswriter to insert himself into the heart of the action.
Far from it.
Zachary Michael Jack, a former newspaper editor, put together an anthology on ‘Participatory Sportswriting’ eight years ago and it featured works by men as diverse as Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, Ernest Hemingway, Paul Gallico and Grantland Rice. It’s an endangered art these days, though not quite extinct.
Steven Fatsis, for instance, published his own offering that very same year. A Few Seconds of Panic told how the 43-year old Wall Street Journal sportswriter managed to enjoy a fleeting moment in the spotlight as a back-up place-kicker for the Denver Broncos. Yet, like Plimpton, the beauty of the book was in the stories he was able to tell of the players, rather than himself.
They stand as all too rare examples of the media being afforded access into sport’s inner sanctum. So, it was enlightening to spend a morning earlier this week at Morton Stadium in Santry, under the care of Paralympics Ireland, who allowed a handful of journalists to experience for themselves what it is to try sports such as wheelchair racing and tandem cycling.
How did we do? Let’s just say Plimpton would have been proud.
You can watch elite sportspeople do their thing for decades from the comfort of a sofa, or the cold of a seat in the bleachers, but there is simply no way of understanding the abilities of these people and the pressures under which they compete unless you quite literally walk in their shoes, throw their discus or shoot their rifle. That much was made apparent to this writer almost a decade ago when, after a punishing session with strength and conditioning coach Mike McGurn, it was nigh on impossible to even throw a rugby ball five yards with any degree of accuracy while moving. That’s what fatigue does to a body and a mind.
So, to reach a speed of 22 kmph on the track on a hand cycle such as the one Mark Rohan used to win two golds in London four years ago is one thing, but then you listen to Declan Slevin recall how he escalated down Moll’s Gap in Kerry at 77kph and you realise quickly enough just what it takes for these two Westmeath men and other elite sportspeople to do what they do.
Denis Twomey, put it in perspective for us. Irish chef de mission for this year’s Paralympic Games, Twomey was the tandem pilot for Mark Kehoe at the 2004 Games in Athens. A more than decent cyclist in his day, then. Yet Twomey spoke in awed tones about how Rohan, paralysed from the chest down, was able to cycle faster though he himself had the power of his leg muscles and his colleague could only use his arms. It was a particularly illuminating anecdote for this column who, in over 15 years covering all manner of sports, has never witnessed anything like the sight of Rohan careering down the Brands Hatch slopes in 2012 or, more pertinently, how he and his fellow competitors climbed painstakingly back up the imposing gradients like spiders slowly escaping a jam jar. Writing these words with aching arms and shoulders only heightens that awe.