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Check It Out

Courier Article by David Locker
Sunday, August 4, 2002

Heroes' Stories Reveal Mental and Physical Strength

Most of us would all like to be heroes, but reality gets in the way. We all have dreams, but the majority of us get bogged down in daily living and end up compromising. A hero doesn't settle for second best. Combining talent with extraordinary strength of mind, he makes his dreams come true.

Sports provide us with many of our heroes. The legendary coach and athletes that I've been reading about this month are Bud Wilkinson, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Jim Morris (the 35 year-old rookie pitcher and subject of the recent Dennis Quaid movie, The Rookie). These heroes all have one thing in common: They were as strong mentally and emotionally as they were gifted physically.

The Undefeated: The Oklahoma Sooners and the Greatest Winning Streak in College Football by Jim Dent (St. Martin's, 2001).

You may remember Bud Wilkinson from watching television in the 1950s. He was the dapper coach of the University of Oklahoma, the team that invented the "hurry-up offense."

Wilkinson had learned discipline at Shattuck Military Academy in Minnesota. These lessons were, by the way, apparently lost on fellow alumnus Marlon Brando. From his own football coach at the University of Minnesota, he learned how to later present himself to the world. Outfitted on the sidelines in suit, tie and fedora, Wilkinson was the picture of success. He was what his poor recruits from the oilfields of Oklahoma wanted to become.

Dent recounts Oklahoma's 47-game winning streak with great style and in a manner similar to that in his popular The Junction Boys, an account of Coach Bear Bryant's first hellacious preseason football camp at Texas A&M. Dent blends local history, biographical sidebars, and sociological analysis in a winning combination.

Wilkinson retired shortly after his team's winning streak and was not as successful pursuing his second dream of entering national politics. He was a complicated man who was totally disciplined when it came to football but profligate in his personal life among the jet set with whom he socialized.

Duel in the Sun: Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus in the Battle of Turnberry by Michael Corcoran (Simon & Schuster, 2002).

Jack Nicklaus has always been one of my greatest heroes. Sure, he was a big hitter whose golf shots arched high into the heavens, but what separated him from the pack was his mental toughness and concentration.

I can remember watching the last two rounds of the British Open in 1977, when Nicklaus was paired with co-leader Tom Watson. The final round was one of the two most exciting golf matches I ever watched. The other was Nicklaus' amazing charge, at age 46, to win the 1986 Masters.

Corcoran has written a solid book that really takes wing when the big match actually gets under way. Nicklaus's efforts to catch Watson on the final hole take on an Olympian aspect when he takes a mighty swing to extricate his ball from the rough and then sinks the following 35-foot putt. It wasn't enough because Watson sank his own birdie putt a few moments later, but it was one of those golden moments when giants walked the earth.

The Rookie: The Incredible True Story of a Man Who Never Gave Up on His Dream by Jim Morris and Joel Engel (Warner, 2001).

Morris's dream was to be a major- league pitcher. He wasn't able to achieve his dream until his emotional maturity matched the strength of his pitching arm.

The first time Jim Morris tried to be a major-league pitcher, he ran into the obstacle most young ballplayers run into-himself. Only 1 per cent of drafted ballplayers reach the major leagues, and the ones who do reach it are often less talented than those who don't.

The successful ones are smart enough to know how to take care of their arms and adjust to the obstacles.

Morris learned that to be a hero, he had to be wise and resourceful, as well as brave and strong. Keeping a promise to the high school baseball team he coached to try out one more time for a major-league team if they won the conference championship, Morris found himself a member of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays facing Royce Clayton in the home stadium of the Texas Rangers. He struck him out on four pitches.

Morris' career lasted only two years, but he learned that for him the dream of a happy family was just as important as his baseball dream. This is the dream most of us can pursue, and it is probably true that this fundamental dream is the foundation for all others.

David Locker is a librarian with the Evansville-Vanderburgh Public Library. The opinions expressed in this column are personal and do not reflect policies or official recommendations of EVPL.