by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

GRANDPA’S HOUSE, THE YEAR 2035 — The old man put his grandson on his knee and opened a dusty scrapbook.

“Who’s that, Grandpa?” the child asked.

“That’s the greatest quarterback I ever saw,” the old man said. “His name was John Elway.”

“Where’s his rocket booster?”

“Heh-heh. They didn’t play with rocket boosters back then, kiddo. The players got by on speed and strength. And Elway was as strong and elusive as any quarterback in football. Why, I saw him knocked down more times than I can remember, and he always got back up. I saw him trapped by armies of linemen, and somehow, he escaped. He won more games than any player of his position. They called him the ‘Miracle Man’ — because he marched losing teams downfield in the final minute and made them winners.”

“But he’s not wearing a protective plastic airbag suit.”

“He didn’t have one.”

“Wow. He was brave. I bet he won championships every season.”

“No, son. To tell the truth, he didn’t win anything for his first 14 years.”

The boy looked at the old man as if he were crazy.

“But, Grandpa, everybody knows if you don’t get a trophy in your first year, you take your billion dollars and quit.”

“Well,” the old man said, grinning, “that’s how it is today. But back then, there were actually men who played because they loved the game, and they waited to win.”

“Did Elway ever win a championship?”

“Yes, he did. When he was 37 years old.”

“And then he jumped to another team for a billion dollars, right?”

“No. He stayed where he was, in Denver — the only team he’d ever played with
— and he won another championship the following year. Finally, after that, he retired.”

The old man sighed. “The year was 1999.”

The boy gave a quizzical look.

“Grandpa, are you making this up?”

The story of the Great One

They flipped the pages until the hockey section appeared.

“Who’s that?” the kid asked.

“Well, that’s the greatest hockey player I ever saw. His name was Wayne Gretzky.”

“Where’s his eyelid tattoo?”

“Players didn’t do that back then. Besides, he was famous by the time he was your age.”

“Did he hire an agent?”

“No. Grade-schoolers didn’t have agents. Wayne Gretzky was famous because he was so good, even as a child. Why, by the time he was 18, he was an NHL All-Star. And when he was 21, he scored 92 goals in one season.”

“And then he was arrested.”


“For drugs, prostitutes and gambling?”

“No! He was never arrested for anything.”

“Come on, Grandpa. He must have stolen a spaceship or something. All athletes do that when they’re young. That’s why sports has the ‘Six Strikes And You’re Out’ rule.”

“Not back then. In fact, Wayne Gretzky was never in a whiff of trouble. He was considered one of the nicest guys in sports.”

The boy made a face. “Why didn’t he change that dumb name, Gretzky, to something cool, like Destroyer, or Bone Eater?”

“He didn’t need that. The way he skated circles around people, the way he passed the puck, the quick shot — he was just so good.”

“I guess he won championships every year he played, huh?”

“No. He won four Stanley Cups with his first team, but he played another 11 seasons without winning a title. Finally, he knew it was time to retire.”

The old man sighed. “The year was 1999.”

The kid rolled his eyes.

“You sure you’re not making this up?”

The story of His Airness

They flipped more pages and studied the photos. They came upon a tightly muscled, leaping giant wearing a red-and-black jersey.

“I’ve seen him before, Grandpa.”

“Yes,” the old man said. “He also retired in 1999. His name was Michael Jordan. The best basketball player ever.”

“Better than Man Child Warrior? Better than Sheriff God?”

“Better than all of them,” the old man said. “Michael Jordan could do anything with a basketball. He soared over other players. He dunked backward and forward. He made the hardest shots and the longest shots, and he was always there when the game was on the line. He won six championships.”

“Oh. So he played with six teams and got a billion dollars more from each one, right?”

“Actually, he played for one team his whole career.”

“One team? No way!”



“Sorry. That’s how we used to talk.”

“But, Grandpa, nobody plays for one team his whole career. Next thing you’re gonna tell me is Michael Jordan went to practice.”

“First to arrive, last to leave.”

“Grandpaaaaaa,” the kid moaned. “Only scrubs have to practice.”

The old man sighed. “Sports weren’t always the way they are now, son. When these three played, the best players were the ones who worked the hardest, and kept themselves away from trouble. They led by example. And they retired with respect.”

The kid hopped off his grandfather’s lap, grabbed his electronic hockey stick, gas-powered sneakers and virtual reality helmet.

“It sounds like they’re from another century,” he said.

“They were,” the old man whispered as the boy sped away, “in more ways than one.”


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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