By the time you read this, the 2016 Olympics will be over.
When I was young, I thought the Olympics were a big thing. Maybe it was because it was the height of the Cold War, and it was us against the Russians and their flunky Eastern Europeans. Those guys did drugs and cheated and it was up to the good old USA to save the world.
Things are different now. The Russians still take a lot of drugs, but they’re not so good at most sports anymore. Their Eastern European flunkies are now our Eastern European flunkies. It takes all the joy out of winning.
Yes, I do think it’s impressive that Michael Phelps has won a bazillion medals and Simone Biles won every medal in sight and got to meet Zac Ephron all in the same week, but it’s just not all that inspiring anymore.
So am I just getting old? Well, yes, but other than that I started thinking about athletes that I consider heroes. I guess the qualifications to make my list are different than most.
Here, in honor of the Olympics and all those highly paid and highly trained athletes, is my list of athletic heroes:
• The “Agony of Defeat” guy from Wide World of Sports. If you grew up when I did, every Saturday you saw this ski jumper get absolutely wiped out at the beginning of every Wide World Sports show.
His name is Vinko Bogotaj and he’s from Slovenia. His famous tumble resulted in a concussion and broken ankle.
If this were a Disney movie, he would have come back and won the Olympics and married a beautiful skier from Switzerland. Alas, life is seldom like a Disney movie, but Vinko did all right for himself. He knew when to quit, which puts him in front of a lot of athletes, became a ski coach and artist, got married and has two daughters. He pretty much has had a happy life, which makes him a winner in my book.
• John Tsitouris of the Cincinnati Reds. I had to look up how to spell his name, but I remember the story. Tsitouris pitched for parts of 11 years in the Major Leagues, but won only 34 games. In 1964, when I was eight years old, Tsitouris was a starting pitcher for the Reds. I don’t know why, but he was one of my favorite players.
With the season on the line in a late season game against Philadelphia, the Reds decided to pitch Tsitourus. He lost 10-0. In future years, when I would ground out to end a baseball game or miss an important free throw, I would remember John Tsitourus. It could always be worse.
Tsitourus died in 2015. Rest in peace, John.
• Donnie May. I spent a lot of time in back yard trying to be like Don May. The only problem was, he was a muscular 6-foot-four, and I was a scrawny little kid with skinny arms. He played basketball for the University of Dayton and had this way of spreading his legs when he jumped to rip down a rebound. Somehow it lost in the translation when I tried it, maybe because I didn’t jump so well.
May once made 13 straight shots in an NCAA semifinal game. I was so nervous that night I could hardly watch the game on our black-and-white TV. He played for seven years in the NBA, even averaged 20 points one year for Buffalo and won an NBA title ring with the Knicks. But I remember him because of all those times in my backyard when I tried to be like him. I guess neither of us jumps so well anymore.
• Randy Walker. I had to throw a local guy in. It wasn’t because he was a big football star and track star at Troy. It was because one day one summer, when he was a hero on a team that went undefeated, he walked up to me and talked to me while I was getting something to drink at the swimming pool. There I was, a little freshman with not much confidence and two legs that put together wouldn’t be as big as one of his, and he walked up to me and talked to me. Even knew my name! Told me to keep playing basketball all summer, that people were watching.
I don’t know if anyone was watching or not, but it sure made a difference to me. Randy went on to play at the University of Miami and eventually became coach at Northwestern University before dying of a heart attack. That was a real surprise, because he always had such a big heart.
So there you have it. Maybe your athletic heroes have to come from when you were young. I’m sure I could think of a few more, but I’m out of space. Maybe I’ll take it up again four years from now when the Olympics are in Tokyo and everyone else is talking about Michael Phelps coming back to win another bazillion medals.
David Lindeman is a Troy resident and former editor at the Troy Daily News. He can be reached at [email protected]