So there we were, sitting at this news conference, listening to the new football coach the Detroit Lions had hired, and he was saying some funny things and we were laughing and at one point I turned to a friend of mine and casually whispered, “How old is this guy?”
“Thirty-eight,” my friend said.
I stopped laughing.
So that does it. The last wall has fallen. I am now not only older than the college players I write about, older than the rookie pros I write about, and older than the veteran stars I write about — I am now older than the coaches I write about.
Somebody get me an aspirin.
See, I began sportswriting at a pretty young age, my early 20s. Most of the players I covered were, at worst, my contemporaries. We listened to similar music. We got the same jokes. We were all single.
The veteran guys, men in their 30s, with wives and children, seemed like a whole other generation. I didn’t mind their occasional growling or bad tempers because, after all, they were entitled. They were older than I was, and I was taught to respect my elders. Even in their jockstraps.
The coaches, meanwhile — men like Sparky Anderson and Chuck Daly — well, they were virtually ancestral. Like school principals, like army generals. I would never be as old as they were.
What about the Captain?
As the years passed, I began to drift toward the more experienced corners of the locker room. I would listen to the veterans saying, “These kids, they don’t know how good they have it,” and I would nod and we’d talk about the old days, even though the old days were 5 years ago.
I remember Steve Yzerman telling me he was getting married and thinking, “He can’t get married; he’s too young.”
I remember Joe Dumars and his wife, Debbie, having a baby, and thinking, “Boy, these athletes are in a rush to start a family.”
I remember Juwan Howard, the former Michigan basketball star, getting a
$12-million-a-year NBA contract and thinking: “That can’t be. He was asking me to buy him a hamburger what, last week? Wasn’t it last week?”
One day, I read where a track star named Steve Scott was retiring from competition. I was stunned. Scott had been the first athlete I’d ever interviewed. He had been up and coming then, hoping to win an Olympic gold medal in track. Retiring?
I sent him a note. I wrote a column about his career. I dealt with it the way a soldier deals with the first of his comrades getting wounded. Pity. Remorse.
Never did I think it was natural.
What about Coaches Bo and Mo?
Then, as I hit my mid-30s, it began happening more and more. Athletes I’d known for years were cut. They moved away. They started second careers. Dan Petry, a pitcher whom I covered for many seasons with the Tigers, ran into me somewhere and gave me a business card.
A business card?
Soon there were only a handful of athletes left of my age group. Dumars, who came to this city the same year I did, was in his final season, and teammates were calling him “old man.”
Meanwhile, the guys I thought of as old men — the coaches — were leaving, too. Sparky quit. Daly retired. At Michigan, Bo Schembechler, in his 60s, was replaced by Gary Moeller, in his 50s, who was replaced by Lloyd Carr, in his late 40s.
The outer edge was closing in on me perilously, like a crushing ceiling in one of those James Bond movies. This year I looked at rosters of my NBA, NHL, NFL and MLB teams. I was older than every single player.
And now this. A 38-year-old coach. A guy I can look at and say, “Well, he’ll be smarter when he’s older….”
Come on now. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Coaches were supposed to stay crusty old men with cigars. Veterans were supposed to keep telling me stories about the old days. I was supposed to remain bright-eyed and curious, with my clean white notepad, looking up at this magnificent theater of heroes and villains.
Thirty-eight? Where did my sports world go? And please, somebody tell me, how do I get it back?
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). His show will be simulcast on MSNBC from 3-5 p.m. weekdays starting Monday.