— Tough guys make the best heroes. It’s why Lenny Dykstra’s legend is greater than his accomplishments, why Billy Martin is remembered with such affection by Yankee fans, why Jason Varitek is so popular in Boston.
It’s also why some of the best stories in sports this year involve Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre, Phoenix Suns point guard Steve Nash and Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith.
In a sports world dominated by prima donas and huge contracts and privilege, guys like Favre, Nash and Keith remind us that of all the things we admire about athletes, toughness is probably No. 1. You can be a star by being a great player. You become a legend by being a tough one.
These three guys are perfect examples.
You know all about Favre, the quarterback who’s never missed a start and is known as one of the toughest players who’s ever played the ultimate tough-guy sport. He outdid himself in January in the NFC championship game against New Orleans, darned near taking his Vikings to the Super Bowl on an ankle so torn up most people would have had trouble walking, much less playing football on it.
But Favre’s got company these days — Keith and Nash, both of whom are deep in the playoffs of their respective sports.
Keith is just the latest addition to the multi-volume history of tough-guy hockey players. Playing against San Jose last Sunday in the game that would send his team to the Stanley Cup Finals, Keith blocked a shot with his face. He dragged himself off the ice bleeding from the mouth and spitting out seven teeth. It took just short of six minutes to sew his mouth back together, at which point he returned to action, playing nearly 30 minutes in the win.
You figure hockey players for stuff like that. In fact, if Favre had been born in Canada, he’d have been a hockey player, and he wouldn’t have been Wayne Gretzky. He’d have been a cross between Scott Stevens, one of the toughest defensemen who ever lived, and Mark Messier, who was to centers what Stevens was to defensemen.
The guy who does surprise you, though is Nash, and that’s because of the sport he plays.
The legend of Willis Reed notwithstanding, NBA players aren’t known for their toughness. These are the guys who writhe on the floor like soccer players every time they get knocked down and find it impossible to regain their feet without the aid of two teammates. Some, like Kobe Bryant, will play through broken fingers and bad knees, but others, like Kobe Bryant, will almost intentionally lose a game just to spite a coach.
But Nash is different. He’s a skinny little guy who was born in Canada and got lost on his way to the hockey rink, ending up in a gym and taking up basketball. He got to be arguably the best point guard in the game, a two-time MVP who has his Suns trying to get to the NBA Finals.
A few days ago, Nash looked like he’d been in a puck-blocking contest with Keith. In the Suns’ conference semifinals series win against the Spurs, Nash took an elbow to the eye from Tim Duncan. The shot was inadvertent, but that didn’t make it hurt less.
Nash suffered gash that had to be stitched up in the locker room. Patched up, he returned to the fray, his eye swollen shut, and led the Suns to victory.
So it was off to play the Lakers. With the eye still surrounded by an ugly green bruise, he managed to hit Laker guard Derek Fisher in the head with his nose. The collision broke Nash’s breathing apparatus, and he reacted by trying to push it back into place on the court. After all, there was no sense leaving the game over a little thing like a busted proboscis.
Oh yeah, the Suns won that game, too, continuing their effort to upset the defending champs.
I once got into a discussion about which athletes are the toughest, and that’s probably impossible to say. Of the major sports, hockey players are the he-men, but are they tougher than ironman triathletes and MMA fighters? And are those worthies tougher than rodeo cowboys, who get gored and stomped and have their bones broken, joints dislocated and tendons ripped at an alarming rate.
I’ve given up the argument. For every tough guy in one ultra-macho sport, you can always find one who’s even tougher in another.
Instead, I’ll leave with a story about my choice for the toughest athlete who ever lived. This guy was so macho we still know his actual name and hometown nearly 2,600 years after his glory days.
His name was Arrachion — or Arrhichion — of Phigalia. A two-time defending Olympic champion in the ancient Greek mixed martial art called the pankration, Arrachion arrived in Olympia in 564 BC as a favorite to win his third straight title.
In the fight that etched his name into history, Arrachion’s opponent got our hero in a stranglehold. Unwilling to tap out but also unable to break free, Arrachion twisted the other guy’s foot until something broke and the guy screamed for mercy and quit the fight. Yeah, I know, how NBA of him.
So the referee went to lift Arrachion’s hand as the winner, but Arrachion didn’t cooperate by standing up. He couldn’t. He was dead.
This actually happened, or so the ancients said. Arrachion of Phigalia died to win an Olympic title. Today, such an outcome would result in hundreds of angry editorials and columns, rules changes to prevent such a tragedy from ever happening again, and a Congressional investigation or two.
But in 564 BC, no one suggested changing a thing. Why would you want to change a sport that cool? As you can tell, they looked at life differently back then.
The officials crowned Arrachion’s corpse laurel and the good citizens of Phigalia celebrated his heroic win with a major party. It safe to say that large quantities of wine were involved.
Anyway, if Arrachion had been born in Canada anytime in the past 100 years, he’d have been a hockey player. And if he had instead been born in the United States, he’d be Brett Favre. In the unlikely event he took up basketball, he’d surely be Steve Nash.
He’d also have a heckva Nike contract.