I picked up the most recent copy of Sports Illustrated a couple of days ago. I rarely pay much attention to the cover, but this particular one enticed and would not let go. It was a picture of Yogi Berra taken in his prime as a New York Yankee catcher, highlighted with the singular American beauty of a Rockwell portrait. One knee scraped the ground, the other one upright. The chest protector was paper-thin with the faded mark of “Spalding” in the top left hand corner. The leg guards were equally humble. So was the face mask.
I don’t know why the picture got to me. Maybe I was just in a mood of syrup-stricken nostalgia, but what I saw was the portrait of a hero who not only played the game with relentless competitiveness but was also one of sport’s greatest characters with the witticisms that floated out of his mouth.
It was Sports Illustrated’s “Where Are They Now?” issue, so some nostalgia was permissible. But the athletes they chose all stood for something. They were characters—maybe naughty such as Joe Namath and Sonny Jurgensen, maybe fiercely proud such as Jim Brown, maybe tough as nails such as Jim Taylor and Sam Huff. Beyond their capacity to play the game, they went beyond the game. They weren’t afraid to show their personalities, what made them more than flesh and bone.
Each of the athletes in the issue was featured in two pictures, one taken during their playing days, the other one in the modern day taken by Walter Iooss Jr. In a short interview in the magazine, he mentioned that he went to the players directly for the project as opposed to the method that is pretty much universal today, endless negotiation with the agent. Bypassing the agent, said Iooss, now “seems like a novel approach.”