Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Human Connection

Bull riding
Watching speed skater Apollo Ohno last night, I thought about how few sports heroes I had as a child. Part of it is context. If one or both parents are into sports, you're going to be exposed to what they enjoy. Mine weren't and it wasn't until fourth grade in a country school that I had physical education. By then the die was pretty much cast. I idolized rodeo cowboys, though, like seven time world champion bull rider Jim Shoulders.

Some guys memorize baseball statistics -- I knew the RCA (Rodeo Cowboys Association) championship statistics, who had been All-Around Cowboy or Saddle Bronc Champion, how often, and so forth. The afternoon I encountered Shoulders, my father had arranged to take me behind the bucking chutes at the National Western Stock Show -- it was like having access to the locker room of your favorite pro football team at half-time. While he visited with a friend, I wandered, looking for faces I'd memorized from the pages of Western Horseman magazine.

In my mind I can see the scene unfold and recall the delight I felt meeting one world champion after another. I was thirteen and close to six feet tall, but around them, I felt much younger and they seemed much taller. It was as though I'd been transformed into a seven year old, four feet something version of myself, just making my way through the crowd. Maybe it was the atmosphere or maybe heroes really are larger than life. It's hard to say, but that's how I felt.

Although I must have the autographs in an album somewhere, the only name I remember clearly is Shoulders'. Since he was retired at the time, I hadn't expected to see him, and my father told me, "Don't get your hopes up." But I had them anyway, you know? No reason to believe he'd be there, just hoping he might. The way a kid hopes while looking for an autograph from someone he wishes to emulate.

I never did get on a bull, nor do I think there's enough money to convince me to do so now, though there have been times when medical school has certainly felt like one. Still, I haven't outgrown the delight in meeting someone I've come to admire. A few years after John Denver died, I ran into his manager at a book signing and introduced myself. Naturally, we began to talk about John, how he and I had met and gotten to know one another a bit, but that I'd never considered myself a fan. He replied that was okay, not everyone cared for his music. I said, "It wasn't that -- I loved his music -- it's just that I always felt like a good friend that, up until meeting him, John didn't know he had."

My eyes swam, he choked up and after a few seconds silence, said, "John would have liked that." It's the human connection. That's what I love.

(Creative Commons image by Jami Dwyer via Flickr)

P.S. Reading over this post I realized I never told you whether or not I met Jim Shoulders that afternoon behind the chutes. I did and that's something else I've never forgotten.
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