OK, he isn't exactly my running buddy. But he is a very good friend, and boy could he once run. And boy, has this guy given me some incredible insights about the role of sports in our society.
It's not often that you'll find a long-distance runner hanging out with an NFL linebacker and having stuff to talk about. There's kind of a culture gap. We distance runners are slow-twitch and skinny; those guys are fast-twitch and explosive. We are usually light-to-medium weight; they are anywhere from big to gigantic. We spend a lot of time alone on wilderness trails; they spend a lot of time in ear-splitting stadiums. Ever since high school cross-country, half a century ago, I thought football players were a different breed altogether--until I met David Meggyesy.
It happened after David married my cousin Carolyn, who had graduated with honors from Yale, and right away I thought that must be a very odd couple! I was a bit apprehensive about meeting him, but they lived in the San Francisco Bay area and I was going up there to visit my friend Ken Lee and run a 50k, so we all arranged to get together. When we did, it wasn't just polite handshakes; we hit it off right away. And on the morning of the race, even though I had to get up ultra-early and drive to Marin County while it was still dark, there at the start was David, to give me an enthusiastic cheer. Later, my wife Sharon and I went to David and Carolyn's house in Berkeley, and met some of their friends. One of them, to my great surprise, was a guy named Don Paul, who had been one of the top American ultrarunners of all time: he had once run 50 miles in a mind-blowing 5:10. That's miles, not kilometers!
Before meeting David, I heard he had written a book, Out of Their League, that had raised a huge ruckus in the football world. I read it, and found it to be a very entertaining but disturbing expose of the apparently rampant corruption, exploitation of young athletes, and spectacle of violence that big-time college and pro football had become. David had played at Syracuse (I think he was a freshman the year they won the national championship), and later played linebacker for the St. Louis Cardinals of the NFL, where he reputedly became notorious for his leg-breaking tackles. And then, at the peak of his career, he had quit and published his book, which became a huge best-seller. Since then, he has devoted his life to studying the role of sports in society, and that's where he and I discovered that our interests coincided.
Contrary to what a reader or reviewer of his book might have thought, David Meggyesy is not a disgruntled ex-player. In fact, for many years until his recent retirement, he was one of the leaders of the NFL Players Association. But he has also been pursuing some questions that go far beyond pensions and medical plans (and, lately, what to do about head-butt concussions and brain-damage). What is wrong with an American population that is sports-crazy but grossly overweight and unfit? Why is it that while an enthusiastic minority of the population runs 10ks or marathons or works out at the gym, a much larger share is looking more and more like Rush Limbaugh? And most important, when you think about that ancient mantra of "mind, body, and spirit," which is so easily and often invoked, how exactly are those parts of our nature connected? Is it even possible to badly neglect one of them and not be dangerously eroding the others? (Does your brain get the oxygen it needs for optimal cognitive functioning if you don't exercise your body? Can your spirit grow if your mind and body are dormant?)
A few days ago, I launched my new website, willhumansendure.com. I sent an invitation to friends, and one of the quickest to respond (he was always one of the quickest to get to the ball carrier) was David. He sent me a piece he'd written, and among other insights it contained a comment that goes to the heart of what I want to explore. The gist of it is that as everyone knows, if an athlete wants to be good he has to practice, but what an awful lot of people don't seem to recognize is that it also takes practice to become mentally or spiritually fit. The mind and soul need exercise just as much as the legs and lungs do. Yet, millions of us are content to stop reading books, or studying complex issues, or asking hard questions and searching for answers, after about the age of 21. I know people who have been sitting on the couch eating fritos for decades. And, too many of them vote for politicians who themselves have never read a book or done serious soul-searching--who are not only physically soft but have done nothing to keep their minds fit. And these are the people who are going to make our policies and laws? Just the thought of it makes me want to go out for a run.