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Archive for January, 2013

 

I, and I assume others when they reach my age, sometimes think back over our lives and speculate about what may have been or what it is that we really regret. With me there are many things such as the death of loved ones or pain I have caused others that bring me sadness or fill me with remorse. But, in almost all of them, although I wish they never happened, I do not see how avoiding or reversing them would have altered my life all that much. There was, however, one recurring event in my memory that I am convinced may have made a difference.

It was during the early Nineties. I was visiting Rome and it was as hot as it gets in that town at the end of Summer. I was standing in line with my then wife Denise to buy tickets to enter the ruins of the ancient Roman Forum. There was only one group ahead of us, a family made up of man and a women with three or four strikingly blond pre-adolescent children in tow. The woman was about six feet tall, blond and movie star attractive. The man was even taller, sandy-haired and athletic looking. Suddenly I recognized him. It was Joe Montana, the legendary American football quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers. I guess you can say I was gobsmacked to see him there in Rome and standing so close to me.


In addition to the victories and the statistical records that most sports use to judge excellence and without which all else is almost irrelevant, what I admired most about Montana was his preternatural grace and his gamblers instincts. I recall once watching him play in one of the Superbowls, he had just thrown a pass that the receiver eventually caught for a touchdown. Nevertheless, it was the fluidity with which Joe leapt into the air and threw the ball that enthralled me. He was every bit as graceful as a ballet dancer; not tutus and en pointe ballet graceful but something more masculine and forceful.

I used to attend performance of the New York City Ballet when I lived in the Big Apple. The principle male dancer at that time was, Jacques d’Amboise. When he stood on the stage he looked a lot like a champion body builder who had just put down his barbels. When, however, he moved it was as smooth, graceful and beautiful as drops or water slowly dancing in the sunlight. Balanchine, the choreographer for the Company then, believed that the role of the male ballet dancer was little more than a mobile post upon which the ballerina was displayed. Nevertheless, when d’Ambiose lifted his partner up and carried her across the stage everything else on that stage disappeared except the image of his power and grace. So it was for me with Montana on that pass. It was as though I had achieved satori. Everything else on the field disappeared but Joe when, as though in slow motion, he pushed off with one leg, rose into the air and in perfect synchronicity arced his arm across his body as he released the ball.

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His gamblers instincts were not those of a risk-taker but of someone who knew the probabilities and above all the psychology of whatever game he was playing. At one time during an interview, I recall him describing a drive, probably in one or another of the Superbowls. He said something like, “I was driving them crazy, dinking and dunking (throwing short passes for 3 or 4 yards) them here and there, until they couldn’t see straight and began to lean forward and inch in, and then I threw it over their heads for a touchdown.”

“He possessed an almost mystical calmness in the midst of chaos, especially with the game on the line in the fourth quarter. While others saw turmoil and danger after the snap, Montana saw order and opportunity. He was Joe Cool, the unflappable king of the comeback.”
Larry Schwartz, ESPN

So there he was, in Rome, that day, standing about a foot away from me. One part of me in my excitement screamed at me to say something, something like “Joe! Joe Montana, what are you doing here in Rome?” while another part terrorized me into silence at the realization of how stupid that sounded and how embarrassed I would feel after saying it – especially if he ignored me.

I thought about mentioning to Denise that Joe Montana was in the line in front of us. Denise was a woman of legendary assertiveness and a tongue as sharp as the edge of a Samurai’s sword. She would not have known Joe Montana from Bozo the Clown, but she was much more likely than me to strike up a conversation, lacking the shyness that comes with awe and idol worship. Alas, I could see that she was already annoyed at how long it was taking them to buy their tickets and well on her way to flinging some insult at them as only she could. So, I hesitated fearing that she would offend them and I would lose the opportunity to become friends with Joe.

They eventually got their tickets and passed through the gate into the Forum. We got ours and followed. Right behind the gate we came upon them again. The children were sprawled on various broken bits of Roman History complaining bitterly, as children often do, about the heat and whining about why they had to be here and not back in the hotel at the pool. I could see that Joe Cool was at the edge of losing the legendary calmness that allowed him to bring Notre Dame from 22 points back in the fourth quarter to win in the Cotton Bowl. He snapped back at them, probably a lot like like any other parent in a similar situation would when being harassed by whining children “You can’t. You have to learn about culture. There is a lot of culture here.”

I knew that I could step in and help out. Over the years I virtually haunted the Forum. I knew more about it than any guide. I knew the history, the gossip, even what was traded in the market that was set up in the swamp between the hill on which the future rulers of the world lived in somewhat upgraded caves and the larger hill on which the more respectable Sabines lived and from which their wives and daughters were to be carried away by the Romans in the dead of night. Upon the fecundity of those wives and daughters an empire was built. I had crawled into places few are allowed to go or for that matter ever went or even would want to go. I knew which toilets were the cleanest. I knew where to find shade and the location of the coolest water. I knew I could keep the children entertained and enthralled and that Joe and his wife would like that and we would become friends.

I imagined that since I had lived in Rome for a few years and knew interesting places to go and appealing places to eat that Joe and his wife would never otherwise know about or go to, we could go out some evening and have dinner together. I knew that Denise with her bottomless reservoir of humor and behavioral oddities would amuse them and we would become friends.

But I did not do any of these things. I just stood there. Then Denise irritably called out, “Hurry up, it’s hot.” and I went on. For a while, as we made our way through the rubble of an empire, I would see them prowling through other parts of the ruins. Then they were gone.

Since that day, every now and then, I think about what could have been. Even as I write this now, I am convinced that if Joe Montana had become my friend, my life might somehow have been better, happier even. Some of my other friends might even have become jealous. I would have liked that.

 

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