Of course, Michael Irvin can't be right all the time.
Last week, we deferred to ESPN's resident anthropologist on the subject of race and grace: White guys, the logic went, just don't have it between the lines. It's not that they can't get the job done, necessarily (Larry Legend, anyone?)but rather that they can't get it done with style; they can't get it done without making it look hard, and sucking all the fun out of success. Which yes is a fair criticism, on the whole—as fair as you're going to get from an overtly racialized stereotype, anyway—and the fact is that we'd almost be ready to cede the field to Irvin and his ilk, if only it weren't for one happily stubborn truism:
There's an exception to every rule.
Or five exceptions, by our count—five white guys who stand as positive proof that real athleticism is more than just skin deep. The bleached ballers lauded here are, together, a paradigm-subverting bunch; they float where we expect them to flail, strut where we expect them to stumble. Their exploits aren't exactly the stuff of a Ralph Ellison novel, but they're enough, in our eyes, to reinforce the old adage about books and their covers. You shouldn't jump to conclusions, is pretty much the rub...which probably works on any number of levels with this bunch, because really Meat let's be honest:
If it so happened that any of these dudes had a little brother in their blood, it's not like we'd be surprised...
Number Five: Jason Sehorn
Sure, the erstwhile Giant has fallen a long way, but let's not forget him as he was, way back when: the baddest pale-faced corner in the history of the league, a cat with world-class quicks and uber-smooth hips who never let his flesh tone keep him from locking down opposing receivers. Alas, a torn ACL in 1998 derailed a promising career, and what started as a latter-day Rosa Parks story ended with Sehorn playing gimpified whipping boy to ball catchers all around the league. Even more deflatingly, the decline on the field was matched by a fall from grace off of it, and Sehorn's example, today, offers a sobering lesson to all those would-be hipsters out there: Flyness is like coverage ability—you either use it or lose it...and anyone who commits the sin of complacent coolness is liable to wind up playing out his days as a pointlessly poptastic pin-up in the pages of Us Weekly. And nobody wants that.
Number Four: Steve Prefontaine
It's not often that a distance runner establishes himself as the reigning bad boy of American sports—but so it went with Prefontaine, who cut a decidedly antiestablishment figure en route to a fourth-place finish in the 5000 meters at the 1972 Olympics. Between the pompous swagger and the porn-star -stache, the Oregon legend was more maverick than miler; he was James Dean in waffle trainers, really, and the studied cheek he displayed in interviews and press conferences led many observers to conclude that Pre was consciously angling for comparisons to the 50s icon. As for his subsequent decision to buy the farm in a fiery car wreck in 1975, well: Emulation only counts if you do it right, and we suppose there's no consistency like thorough consistency...but the Jim Stark wannabes here at the Spot are doing just fine with the tight jeans and the high cheekbones, thankyouverymuch.
Number Three: Ed McCaffrey
Anyone who remembers McCaffrey as just another white wide receiver obviously wasn't paying very close attention. Yeah, Easy Ed made his living over the middle in thirteen seasons with the Giants, Niners, and Broncos...but that didn't mean he couldn't hoof it with the best of 'em, and his unheralded mastery of the Denver Dig-and-Go earned him some pretty gaudy numbers over the years, including nine touchdowns and a career-best 101 catches in 2000. Unfortunately, that success was followed by a nasty leg injury in the next season's Monday night opener—a small-scale tragedy that might have garnered more hemming and hawing from the national press if it hadn't happened on September 10, 2001. It's like they say about perspective, Meat: She's a bitch when she's not on your side.
Number Two: Joe Namath
We've already made our feelings for Joe Willie abundantly clear in this space, but doe-eyed fawning never gets old. The swinger they called Broadway was just about as fly as they come—he was flyer than fly, really, so fly that most of America didn't know what to make of him. More than anything, in fact, Namath was a man ahead of his time: He was a sports diva before sports divas existed, and his flair for all things flamboyant,pantyhose included, reframed the very notion of diffident cool in modern athletics. Plus, the guy was working a mink coat on the Jets sideline back when Michael Irvin didn't know blow from baby formula, which seems like, you know, it ought to count for something.
Number One: Pete Maravich
The Pistol was—well, he was the Pistol, and if that doesn't mean anything to you...that's your loss, Meat, not ours. We could come at you with numbers—44.2 points per game in three seasons at LSU, or with hyperbole—"Showtime before there was Showtime," according to columnist Robert Lipsyte—but the truth is that Maravich doesn't need it; his legacy speaks for itself, to the extent that the mere mention of his name still elicits hushed reverence from those who know. All told, the dude was a one-man And 1 mix tape, and his no-way-he-really-just-did-that skills bridged the racial divide in a way that the Professor could only ever dream about. Even more trailblazing: The fatal heart attack the Pistol suffered at age forty, which showed that the color of a man's skin doesn't count for much next to the content of his coronary arteries. Death comes for us all, as the conventional wisdom has it, and seriously Meat let's not be too grim about it:
The Reaper knows better than anyone that it's only what's on the inside that counts. Everything else, after all—everything else ain't nothing but worm food...