It's an old story: the pro athlete who dreams of one day becoming
a kid. And for a lucky few, that dream comes true.
Peter Forsberg of the Colorado Avalanche endured a splenectomy,
then a joy-ectomy, while spending a year away from hockey. So
when he skated again for the first time last spring--didn't play,
didn't practice, simply skated, on a suburban Denver rink usually
wreathed by eight-year-olds--he said, happily, after stepping off
the ice, "I felt like a kid out there."
As a kid--turning lazy laps at open skating while Montovani plays
on the P.A.--you aspire to NHL stardom. It never occurs to you
that an NHL star might long to be in your skates, invariably
laced too tight by your father.
When Jeff Torborg became manager of the Florida Marlins this
season during spring training, he spoke of being delivered from
the booth after an exile in broadcasting. "It was an unbelievable
feeling to go back out in the sunlight," he said. "I mean, the
smell of the grass and the leather on the glove--I felt like a kid
Until the game is taken away from them, like a toy from a
recalcitrant child, athletes forget that it is, at its best,
exactly that: a toy, or blanket, or board game--an instant
evocation of childhood.
Some never forget it. After making the playoffs last October,
Cleveland Indians lefthander C.C. Sabathia said, "I felt like a
little kid, when my mom took me to Toys 'R' Us." Of his team
making the playoffs last January, New England Patriots linebacker
Roman Phifer said, "I felt like a little kid who waited a long
time and finally got that gift he always wanted."
Kids, you will never feel more big league than you do right now
in Little League. You will never feel more Kurt Warner than you
do right now in Pop Warner. Trust us. Professional athletes spend
entire careers chasing down, like a ball to the gap, precisely
what you have at this moment. When Detroit Tigers rookie Brandon
Inge hit his first major league home run this season, he said, "I
felt like a kid playing his first Little League game, I was so
happy to be in there." It doesn't get bigger than Little League.
So while your kid is turning the driveway into RFK Stadium,
professional stars are turning RFK Stadium into your driveway.
"Oh, it was fun," said Steve Ralston, the New England Revolution
midfielder, of a game-winning goal after a thunderstorm in
Washington this summer. "I felt like a little kid, running around
in the puddles."
Think the NBA is fun? You'd rather be a kid than Jason Kidd, a
child than Chris Childs. Honest. There is scarcely a bigger star
in the last century of sport than Jack Nicklaus. Yet, when a
brief respite from back pain permitted him to play in a
tournament last April, two weeks after missing the Masters,
Nicklaus said, "I felt like a kid in a candy store. I told
Barb"--his wife--"to grab her bags and leave your worries at home:
We're going to play golf."
It isn't just the innocence of childhood that sports can
recapture but its insecurities, too. Days after winning the U.S.
Open last month, Serena Williams met sumo grand champion
Takanohana, of whom she is a great admirer. "I felt like a kid
standing next to Takanohana," she said, speaking not just of
stature but emotions. "I wanted to ask him for his autograph,
but...." The top-ranked tennis player in the world chickened out.
Jeff Weaver felt the same way when he was traded, in midseason,
from the Tigers to the New York Yankees, and arrived on
Old-Timers' Day at the Stadium. "I felt like a kid," the then
25-year-old said while surrounded by giants. "I wanted to find a
corner to hide in."
The scent of a pastry set Proust off on a recollection of
childhood three volumes long, each the size of a breeze block.
Likewise, the distinctive odor of the Metrodome--of concrete and
Raid and grill disinfectant--had me instantly feeling 16 upon
inhaling it again last week. Sports can do that to you better
than anything else. Just touch the pebble-grain of a football.
Quarterbacks Mark Rypien, 39, and Rodney Peete, 36, said exactly
the same thing this season after returning from long layoffs: "I
felt like a kid again."
In other words, they felt like they did when the end zone was two
coats, and out-of-bounds was Mrs. Cleary's yard next door, and
night games were klieg-lit by the back porch light. "I felt like
a little kid," Patriots running back Patrick Pass said of his
team's victory over the Oakland Raiders in that playoff blizzard
last January. "I would look up, returning kicks, and with the
snow and the lights, you could hardly see the ball."
While your kids were turning the backyard into Foxboro, the
Patriots were turning Foxboro into your backyard. Remember, when
it was over, what New England long snapper Lonie Paxton did?
He fell onto his back in the end zone and made a snow angel.
COLOR PHOTO: PETER GREGOIRE
Athletes forget that the game, at its best, is like a toy or a
board game--an instant evocation of childhood.