Sportswriting is one of those professions that looks easy – all you do is watch a game and sling an opinion, right? – but is actually quite difficult precisely because of that apparent ease. Opinions are a dime a dozen. Being able to articulate an opinion, though, and to paint a unique and compelling portrait of a moment, a season or a sports-related personality is a rare art indeed.
Like a pinch hitter who steps to the plate at a crucial point in the game, John Schulian rises magnificently to the occasion. In "Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand: Portraits of Champions Who Walked Among Us" (University of Nebraska Press), a new collection of essays from his journalism days, the former sportswriter for the Chicago Sun-Times, GQ and Sports Illustrated, and author of numerous sports books, comes through in grand fashion. These essays are pungent and heartfelt and knowing. They come at you straight and strong. Here, for instance, is the opening paragraph to the piece on the late John Matusak, the hard-living, high-flying, maniacally tough Oakland Raider:
"He had a drink in each hand, although I doubt he knew what kind of drinks they were. Caring only that both contained alcohol, John Matusak disappeared them in a gulp apiece."
The theme of this collection is that today's athletes – pampered, protected, paid outrageous amounts of cash – don't have to allow the kind of access to their lives and their feelings as did athletes prior to the 1990s. That was the watershed moment, Schulian argues in his introduction, when athletes' salaries blew sky-high, and the idea that professional ballplayers were human beings, too, went away forever. And it wasn't just the players who changed: After that, Schulian writes in his introduction, "more and more newspaper sports columnists began giving up on writing about people and started spouting opinions loudly, endlessly, and, too often, artlessly."
Schulian's essay on the late Walter Payton's reserved demeanor is a brief gem: "And then," he writes of Payton's exit from a press conference, "it was as if he heard a snap count that sent him weaving through the crowded dressing room and out the door and into the night. He left no poetry behind, just the spaces between the words where silence dwells."
Schulian is a successful TV writer these days, but the sports columns over which he once toiled are, like many of the athletes he covered, tough and beautiful. This collection includes brilliant portraits of complicated champions such as Jimmy Connors, Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, Pete Maravich, Larry Bird and Wayne Gretzky, and coaches such as Bear Bryant and Al McGuire. "The heroes on my watch," Schulian writes, "were first and foremost human beings."
They don't make 'em like that anymore. And they certainly don't make sportswriters like Schulian – but they ought to.