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When athletes had honor...

Posted: July 14, 2011 2:29 p.m.
Updated: July 15, 2011 5:00 a.m.

On the Maine island where Wife Nancy and I spend time, I come in contact with lots of tourists -- over the course of a season, thousands of them who visit Acadia National Park.

These people have come from throughout the country, and whenever I encounter residents of St. Louis or Pittsburgh, I always have a question for them:

 “How is Stan Musial doing?” or “How is Bill Mazeroski doing?”

If you’re under 40, or if you’re not a baseball fan, you might be thinking, “What the heck’s he talking about?”

Stan Musial is one of the great baseball players in the history of the game. He played for the St. Louis Cardinals for 22 years, retiring in 1963, and is in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

His statistics are amazing. But he’s supposed to be even a better man than he was a baseball player. He’s continued to live in St. Louis and a couple years ago, a profile of him in his 80s in Sports Illustrated told how beloved he is in the that city and how much time he donates to others.

Mazeroski was a solid second baseman for the Pittsburgh Pirates, not a world-class player, but in 1960 he hit what’s been called the greatest home run in baseball history -- bottom of the ninth, World Series, a shot over the left-field wall to beat the Yankees in the seventh and deciding game.

Like Musial in St. Louis, he’s spent the rest of his post-baseball life in Pittsburgh.

And here’s the thing you might find odd: everyone from those two cities – everyone -- knows about Musial and Mazeroski. Even teeny kids and little old ladies.

It reminds me of how we often hold sports legends in awe.

They thrill us with their exploits on the playing field. But too often in this era, their off-the-field behavior isn’t the greatest.

Just the other day I was noticing with regret the death of John Mackey, a terrific end who played with Johnny Unitas on those superb Baltimore Colts football teams of the late 1950s.

I recalled a story about Mackey which spoke about the character of that team, which might even have surpassed its skill level. I told you a version of this story a long time ago, but it’s worth repeating.

A few years ago, Mackey, the great tight end, was suffering from dementia when the Baltimore Ravens -- owner Robert Irsay had sneaked the Colts out of Baltimore, literally in the dead of night and moved the team in Indianapolis, and the Ravens later took their place -- held a ceremony honoring the Colts championship teams. All the former stars were on the field at halftime, sitting in chairs.

Even Johnny Unitas, perhaps the best quarterback ever, was there.

Each of them was presented a football commemorating the date of their signature victory, the 1958 win over the New York Giants in what is often called the greatest football game ever played

When Mackey was to receive his ball during the ceremony, the public-address announcer intoned, in proper, dramatic, NFL fashion “And now, number 88, at tight end, John Mackey.” With that, the aging Mackey jumped out of his chair, confused and obviously transported back in time, and ran 50 yards into the end zone and held the ball up to the people, just as if he had scored a game-winning touchdown.

It could have been an embarrassing moment. But Lenny Moore, a superb running back who played with Mackey, made sure it wasn’t. When he was introduced seconds later -- “number 24, halfback Lenny Moore” -- he, too,  jumped out of his seat, took the ball which was to be given him and duplicated Mackey’s run exactly, fending off the same imaginary tackles, stiff-arming the same perceived threats, in a perfect display of grace. And at the end, he joined his old pal Mackey in the end zone.

And that, friends, is a true football story which will not be topped by any of today’s most talented athletes -- and perhaps not even by Stan Musial and Bill Mazeroski.

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