Seven More Favorites of 2013

Over at Sports on Earth on Thursday, Selena Roberts listed her 13 best longform sports stories for 2013. Here I’ll offer an additional seven of my own, to round out the list to 20.

The Ghost of Speedy Cannon

By Thomas Lake of Sports Illustrated

In a 1972 Alabama high school football game, an African-American player died following a late, helmet-to-helmet hit. Was racial hatred to blame, or was it simply a “good lick?”

A day or two later I had a brief phone conversation with Frank Burgess, another assistant coach for Jacksonville in 1972. He said that after Cannon died, Jacksonville buzzed with rumors of a Wellborn conspiracy. According to one rumor, a Wellborn coach “went in at halftime and said, ‘You gotta kill that n—–.’ And that’s what they came out and did.”

The Match Maker

By Don Van Natta Jr. of ESPN’s Outside the Lines

Did tennis champ-cum-hustler-cum-showman Bobby Riggs throw his 1973 “Battle of the Sexes” mega-match against Billie Jean King? Forty years later, Van Natta Jr. unearths compelling — if ultimately inconclusive — evidence of a mafia-influenced fix.

After King took match point, winning in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3, Riggs mustered the energy to hop the net. “I underestimated you,” he whispered in King’s ear. Several hours later, Bobby Riggs lay in an ice bath in the Tarzan Room of Houston’s AstroWorld Hotel. Despondent and alone, Riggs contemplated lowering his head into the icy water and drowning himself.

“This was the worst thing in the world I’ve ever done,” Bobby Riggs later told his son, Larry, about his defeat before the whole world. “The worst thing I’ve ever done.”

20 Minutes at Rucker Park

By Flinder Boyd of SB Nation

Boyd tells the story of TJ Webster, a springy, impoverished 24-year-old street basketball player attempting to earn a summer league roster spot at New York City’s famed Rucker Park. Sports, like dreams, can be cruel.

Really, he’s given himself no other choice. He quit his job as janitor at the Greyhound bus station in his hometown of Sacramento, gave up his room in his grandfather’s house and cashed in every last penny he saved to take a three-day bus trip across the country to try out for these 20 minutes. Twenty minutes. Running clock. That’s all he has to make a team and continue his journey.

How the NFL Fleeces Taxpayers

By Gregg Easterbrook of The Atlantic

An infuriating, comprehensive takedown of all the ways the National Football League and its billionaire owners use Wall Street’s parasitic business model — privatize profit; socialize risk — to suckle from the public teat.

Almost nothing about the league’s operations involves the free market. Taxpayers fund most stadium costs; the league itself is tax-exempt; television images made in those publicly funded stadiums are privatized, with all gains kept by the owners; and then the entire organization is walled off behind a moat of antitrust exemptions.

Frostburg State Football Player Pressured Back on the Field After Blows to the Head Dies

By Nathan Fenno of The Washington Times

Fenno digs into the heartbreaking story of former Division III football player Derek Sheely, whose brain-damage death following a brutal 2011 preseason practice sheds light on the NCAA’s dangerous, liability-shirking, stunningly laissez-faire concussion policy.

Four months after Kristen Sheely wrote NCAA President Mark Emmert in December 2011 about her son’s death, an envelope arrived from Indianapolis. The four-paragraph letter from Mr. Klossner extended condolences, called Derek’s death “tragic” and noted that risk can’t be removed completely from contact sports. Then Mr. Klossner directed her to the NCAA’s health and safety website.

The words didn’t seem real. She turned over the letter. She couldn’t stand to look at it.

“What are they there for,” she says through a voice that still shakes, “if not to protect the health and safety of their athletes?”

The letter remains their only communication with the NCAA. Kristen can’t understand why the NCAA’s response to their son’s death amounted to the cost of postage.

Sweatin’ With the Oldie

By Bryan Curtis of Grantland

Curtis’ mini-profile of kitschy 1980s exercise guru Richard Simmons is wry, hilarious and oddly moving.

“Absolutely no farting,” Simmons said as marched to the front of the room. “People eat [expletive] Mexican food and I have to suffer.” He put on “It’s Raining Men” and we got moving.

Out of sheer cardiovascular terror, I hid in the back. I couldn’t see Simmons well, and had to wait for his moves to ripple through the class and make their way to me. This meant I was doing the Monkey (balled fists shaken up and down) while everyone else was doing the Hitchhike (hand with thumbs out to the right, then left). Every so often, Simmons would materialize from among the sweaty bodies, like an enemy soldier in tall grass, and bark commands.

“No baby steps. Get your [expletive] together!”

“Sir, you must be bad in bed!”

My Injury File: How I Shot, Smoked and Screwed My Way Through the NFL

By Nate Jackson of Deadspin

Former NFL receiver and tight end Jackson provides a riveting, nauseating account — with medical records to match — of just how punishing professional football actually is.

But I learned to deal with the pain, the instability, the imbalance, just like every other NFL player does. My story is not unique. Every other football-playing man deals with the same cycle of injury and rehab, separated by periods of relative health. Some bodies are better suited to the demands of the game than others. They stay healthy longer, play more, smash more skulls, die younger. I should see my inability to stay healthy as a blessing in the long run, because it spared my brain the extra punishment. The fact is, no one remembers any NFL game I ever played in but me.