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Who's (and Whose) Greatest of All Time? 11 min read

Who's (and Whose) Greatest of All Time?

Wright Thompson takes on yet another of sport's greats, plus the Super Bowl, Superb Owls, and Imposter Syndrome and more.

By Cary Littlejohn
Who's (and Whose) Greatest of All Time? Post image

Happy Day After the Super Bowl (and my sympathies to the diehard football fans out there who are now forced to settle into that long wait until next season). Here’s a little bit more football-related content before you shut things down for the next few months.

ESPN’s Wright Thompson has cornered the market on a certain demographic’s dream gig: He’s specialized, among other things, in long, thoroughly reported profiles of some of sports’ greatest athletes after their greatness is behind them.

He did it most notably with Michael Jordan. Then again with Tiger Woods. Now, he’s done once more with Joe Montana.

If there were a Mount Rushmore of my childhood sporting heroes, these men would have been three of the four slots; of this, I’m absolutely certain.

But Montana, for me, is undeniably the one who caught my attention first.

If pressed to tell you how, I don’t think I could do it. I missed his prime. Not because I was looking elsewhere but because I wasn’t yet born. I saw his final years in San Francisco and his few years in Kansas City. I dressed in a full 49ers uniform for Halloween. I had his poster on my door; it had two images of the man, dropped back and ready to throw, one in a 49ers  uniform, and the other in a Chiefs uniform.

At the time, my native Tennessee didn’t have a pro sports team, so it was easy to envision fandom as a player-focused love. I’d not have known what a hometown team felt like, even if the Grizzlies and Titans and Predators had been in the state back then, as I came from a tiny speck on the map nearly equidistant from Memphis and Nashville.

So maybe that’s why my San Francisco gear, accumulated because of my love for Montana, felt a little ill-fitting by the time he was taking snaps in Kansas City. Don’t get me wrong, I still loved the Steve Young-Jerry Rice combo in San Fran, but I was too young to understand how I shouldn’t have really cared for the team at all, for it hadn’t stood by my hero.

I think about the team-based approach to fandom, and how coming to that way of thinking so late in life might explain my relative apathy toward sports today. I’m somewhat envious of those friends who have long and deep history with a team: families who’ve always cheered for them, childhood trips to see them play, the works. Because that is a solid foundation, that is something constant and renewable.

My fandom is mostly frozen in amber, like the mosquito from Jurassic Park. I compare it to what I used to know, and I see a field of competitors that I don’t recognize. Instead of investing in the new guys, I lament the loss of the old ones.

That’s why Wright’s piece hit me so hard. Why all of these pieces he’s done over the past few years have hit me so hard. They represent a different time, a time in which my fandom felt alive, unlike now, where I hang on to the very edges of fandom. I listen to friends talk and debate the merits of this or that, and I literally have no clue what they’re talking about. I just sit there, hoping conversation might turn to the merits of the latest Oscar nominations or some other topic that I’ve chosen to give my attention.

But it’s fun to be a fan. It’s fun to talk with a certain insidery knowledge and confidence; the entire realm of sports radio is built on the average person calling in with a take they feel is important enough to be heard by the masses. It’s been a long time since I’ve had one of those, but reading about Joe Montana reminded me of why it feels so good to be a fan. As much as I miss it, I’m not sure I’ll ever get it back again. In the meantime, I can only hope for Wright to interview a few more of my heroes.

Ten Worth Your Time

  1. I told Wright that my favorite line in the story was this one: “Like a lot of children from his neck of the woods, raised on the dueling icons of the crucifix and the smokestack, he’s a complex mix of work ethic and guilt.” I’m a sucker for duality in narratives, and this line, buried deep in the story, just spoke volumes to me. Read “Joe Montana Was Here” by Wright Thompson.

  2. How I wish my apathy toward America’s most popular sport was for some principled reason, but in honesty, it’s not. But it’s not as if I don’t think about the bigger implications of the game. The damage it does to those who sacrifice so much for our entertainment, the modern day equivalency of gladiators in the Coliseum. This piece from The New Yorker reminds that the risks and dangers of football have long been known, but the likelihood for change is small. And that’s something that we all have to live with. The reality of what can be done is fairly basic and clearly not enough, despite being the most that can be done:

    The N.C.A.A. notes that, since 2014, it has provided  fact sheets , which schools may voluntarily use to educate their student athletes, that mention possible long-term problems from concussions. “Ongoing studies raise concerns,” the handout says. “Athletes who have had multiple concussions may have an increased risk of degenerative brain disease and cognitive and emotional difficulties later in life.” But it’s not known whether every N.C.A.A. athlete actually receives these materials, Casper said—and, for an eighteen-year-old, the warning should be blunt and unequivocal, along the lines of the Surgeon General’s warning on cigarette packages. Athletic facilities should post huge warning posters, Casper told me, explaining what could happen to your brain. “Put ’em up in every locker room, and make sure they’re up every year. And that’s it,” he said. “That’s the best I think we’re probably ever going be able to do.”

  3. Tom Brady was a looming shadow in Wright’s Joe Montana piece. A not so subtle interest of the piece was the lingering question: How does Montana feel about Brady, who’s now widely described as the GOAT. It was an interesting hook for the story of a past great who was dealing with the reality of the erosion of his greatness by both time and Brady’s own accomplishments, but not that long before the story was to post, Brady announced, in a rather anticlimactic video shot from the beach, that he was retiring, this time for good. And you know what? I didn’t care. Not even a little bit. But then again, he was never one of my guys. For me, it was the same feeling as the friend who got married a made a big fuss about it, went on and on about how it was the greatest love story that world has ever known, only to get divorced and then re-engaged to another and somehow lack the self-awareness of why you weren’t over the moon for this new love story. It’s like, “Uh, well, bro, we’ve kind of done this all before.” Brady’s first messy retirement was kind of that way for me, although, again, cards on the table, I didn’t care all that much. So I wanted to care when Mark Leibovich wrote about him for The Atlantic, not so much because I care about Brady but because I care about Leibovich and trusted that he might make me care. But you know what? He really didn’t, with his article being about the essential emptiness of Brady’s life when you took away the football of it all. Kevin Van Valkenburg, he of the recent departure from ESPN to a new home as editorial director at No Laying Up, wrote about Brady (not because it’s golf content but because KVV has spent so many years writing about just this sort of thing for ESPN), and his version of Brady’s retirement announcement felt a little more recognizable to me:

    The great ones rarely care about narratives. Most don’t ride into the sunset, they limp in the general direction of the sunset, frequently pausing and turning around several times, uncertain if they’re truly ready to let go. We often want the best athletes to go out on top because it provides a beautiful coda to everything we’ve invested in them emotionally. But it’s hard for them to wrap their brains around such silliness.

    To us, Tom Brady’s career is a story, something with a natural arc, but to Tom Brady, it’s his life, his passion, and football is his addiction. He wanted to suck every last bit of marrow from the bone. When people debate his legacy one day, no one will spend more than a few seconds mulling the ups and downs of his final year in Tampa, when he seemed adrift, frequently angry and unhappy, demanding perfection from those around him but unable to meet the same standard with his own play.

  4. Back to Wright Thompson’s Joe Montana piece for a second. I’d been looking forward to the piece dropping since I’d heard Wright on The Press Box podcast the week before, making mention of the story. The fact that it had actually published was announced to me by yet another podcast, this time ESPN Daily, which featured Wright talking about the story. But when I went to ESPN’s site, it was a long way down the page before I found this kind-of-big-deal article. The reason? News stops for no man, not even the great Joe Montana, and the night before, LeBron James had broken Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s all-time scoring record. I told Wright how fitting it seemed that I’d have to look so hard for a story that centered on my GOAT reckoning with being upstaged in that regard by the accomplishments of yet another (perhaps truer) GOAT that I did not claim as my own. So it was with the news, but just a different sport now. Even though it was Kareem’s record LeBron had broken breaking, LeBron plays second fiddle to Michael Jordan in my mind. But Kareem took to his Substack to write about the feeling of being surpassed, and it’s an incredibly reflective and gracious read when it would be so easy for any effort of this type to fail. Read The Captain’s thoughts about losing the scoring record, in his own words.

  5. OK, back to the Super Bowl. This year, I opted for pizza and other various snacks, but it’s definitely not hard to have imagined a less lazy version of me cooking the one food that’s somehow become synonymous with football and beer: the chicken wing. But would I have actually cooked a chicken wing or would I have cooked what amounts to a chicken nugget for grown up and simply called it a boneless wing? This lighthearted take on boneless wings from the Associated Press has a serious question at its core: Has America’s willingness to allow boneless wings to be branded and sold as wings contributed to an overall willingness not to call bullshit when we see it?

    Could they be a microcosm of the national willingness to accept things that aren’t what they purport to be? And isn’t that something that this country struggles with mightily, particularly in the misinformation- and disinformation-saturated years since the “boneless wing” entered our world?

  6. Did you say Super Bowl? Are you sure? I could have sworn you said Superb Owl. A bit I first saw on What We Do in the Shadows has spurred The Atlantic to compile a wonderful slideshow of owl-centric photograph that reminds what incredible — nay, superb — creatures owls really are.

  7. Much to my chagrin, the bit didn’t originate with the vampires from What We Do in the Shadows. Here’s a quick history of a hoot of a meme.

  8. Talk of owls, superb or no, brings to mind an essay I read in Slate this week. It’s about the toll euthanasia takes on veterinarians. As someone who just saw his sweet dog (who now lives with my parents, living the spoiled life of a grandchild) narrowly escape a cancer diagnosis with a surgery that was able to remove the tumor, I’ve thought a lot about putting down a pet in recent months. I think it’s always terrible, and often necessary, and know it’s tragic for an owner to reconcile those two truths. But I've given very little thought to what it might do to the vets tasked with carrying out the task. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s hard for many vets to deal, and many of them turn to suicide. This account is from a vet faced to put down a pet that did not need to die, except by virtue of the fact that the owner said it should.

  9. Leslie Jamison wrote in The New Yorker about imposter syndrome, which apparently had originally been called imposter phenomenon, and a parenthetical said the following: (Although men do report feeling like impostors, the experience is primarily associated with women, and the word “impostor” has been granted special feminized forms—“impostrix,” “impostress”—since the sixteen-hundreds.) Ohhhh, so the experience is primarily associated with women, you say? Well, in that case, you can call me—Cary, I guess. You can call me Cary. No need to change it. But in all seriousness, Jamison explores the history of the concept and its popularization in the mainstream consciousness (and whether it should be popular at all in its current understanding). She asks at one point: If everyone has it, does it exist at all? Or are we simply experiencing a kind of humility inflation? Maybe the article makes a good case for why it shouldn’t exist at all, even as a concept, but for me, it’s hard to shake the notion that it’s real. If it is humility like she suggest, then it’s a particular subset of humility. I know I felt it in the journalism world, when hands-on practical experience afforded by a very reputable journalism program at a state school wasn’t nearly as revered as more generalized journalism education at more prestigious j-schools (or worse yet, non-journalists at all from various Ivy League schools), and the feeling was immediately: Should I even be applying? It was even more complicated when you actually got accepted to what you’d applied but then started second-guessing yourself and wondering why they’d let you in at all. For all the other things it might be, it certainly seems like an insecurity that is bred from not feeling worthy or that you belong. Those who know that feeling are unlikely to say it’s not real.

  10. The Last of Us on HBO dropped its latest episode early, to avoid the Super Bowl (and Superb Owl) crowds, and the show continues to invest viewers in the lives of its two main characters, Joel and Ellie. A recent piece in Vulture takes a closer look at the art that can come out of video game adaptations.

    ONE EXTRA RECOMMENDATION: Richard Brody’s reviews can often border on cantankerous, but his review of M. Night Shyamalan’s Knock at the Cabin is interesting not because it’s some biting takedown of the film (in many ways it is), but it’s more interesting in what it has to say about the greater “outside” movie-watching culture.

    Spoiler alert: the climactic event of “Knock at the Cabin” is a book burning. I’ll spare you the details, but suffice it to say that, lest anyone deem Hollywood a solid front of liberal messaging, this new film by M. Night Shyamalan provides yet another hefty counterexample. In a year that has delivered such models of illiberal retrenchment as “Top Gun: Maverick,” “ Tár ,” and “ Avatar: The Way of Water ,” “Knock at the Cabin” has the virtue of being the most daring, brazen, imaginative, and radical of them. It’s starkly posed as a conflict of faith against reason—and it presents a faith-based order that’s ready and willing to use violence in pursuit of its redemptive vision. So far, so apt. What’s jolting about Shyamalan’s film is its call to capitulation. The director puts the onus on the liberal and progressive element of American society to meet violent religious radicals more than halfway, lest they yield to even worse rages, lest they unleash an apocalypse.

More From Me

Over on  my blog , I’ve been writing about various topics of interest to me.

What’s a Seat in the Middle of the Movie Theater Worth to You?

James Fallows Annotates the Austin Airport Near-Miss and It’s a Riveting Read

Culture Diary

Here’s a collection of what I’ve been consuming in the past week.

The legend for my list was stolen from Steven Soderbergh, where ALL CAPS represents a movie, Sentence Case is a TV show, ALL CAPS ITALICS is a short film, and Italics is a book. A number in parentheses after a TV show highlights how many episodes I watched. An asterisk after an entry means it’s a rewatch. The source of the movie or show, whether streaming service, physical media, or in theaters, is shown in parentheses as well.

2/7: KNOCK AT THE CABIN (Theater)
2/11: LA LA LAND* (Netflix); MAGIC MIKE (HBO Max)
2/12: Super Bowl LVII; The Last of Us (HBO Max)