Life without football, he told me then, would be a ‘big zero, ’cause, I don’t know, it’s just the way I feel. If I had a good job and stuff, I still wouldn’t be happy. I want to go pro … that’s my dream. Be rookie of the year or something like that.’ As I listened to him, I could already sense doom. I hoped I was wrong.”
That is an extract from H.G. Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team and a Dream, one of the finest books written on the ephemerality of sporting fame. James “Boobie” Miles was the star of his High School American Football team, an 18-year-old with strength, speed and a fierce determination that came from a misplaced childhood. In pre-season, he wrecked his knee. The team, and time itself, left him behind to pore over the wreckage of his dreams.
Boobie’s is not an isolated story. In a sense, it’s the story of sport. For every Lionel Messi, Sachin Tendulkar and Roger Federer, there are hundreds of thousands of others more gifted than you and I, who for reasons of character or luck never make it as far as those that get their names up in lights. The Boobies are the norm, not the exception.
At The Oval in 2011, Sachin Tendulkar was dismissed for 91 in what was possibly his last innings on English soil. I recall a press-box luminary talking of how ‘tragic’ it was. Clearly, his perspective didn’t take in Superga, Munich or Hillsborough – genuine sporting tragedies that involved loss of human life. It would have been funny if it wasn’t so pathetic — this equation of a legend’s failure to score a 100th century with catastrophe.
The real heartbreak is in not being able to realise your potential, to be 43-years-old like Boobie Miles and wonder how different life might have been but for one misstep on artificial turf. The real travesty is the life of Nii Odartey Lamptey, anointed by Pele as his successor after Ghana won the Under-17 World Cup in 1991.
Over the course of an itinerant career that lasted nearly two decades, Lamptey played for 13 clubs across four continents. His international career was over at 22, after eight goals in 38 games. Those were the least of his sorrows. Along the way, he also buried two children, a son and a daughter.
It’s easy to look at someone like Lamptey and brand him a failure, easier still to do so when you know nothing about his struggles. In an interview with The Independent in 2008, he said: “My father used to beat me, but I got used to it and did not cry any more. So he would smoke a cigarette and burn me with it.”
You don’t need cigarette burns for there to be scars. Consider these names. Daniel Addo. Mohamed Al-Kathiri. Sergio Santamaria. Like Lamptey, they too were winners of the Golden Ball (Most Valuable Player) at the Under-17 World Cup. Addo represented Ghana 27 times, but never managed a game for a top club. Oman’s Al-Kathiri did nothing of note at senior level. Santamaria played six games for Barcelona over five seasons, and retired two years ago at the age of 31.
Think too of Shalabh Srivastava. Most people first heard of him when he was banned after India TV’s match-fixing sting operation in 2012. Yet, 12 years earlier, he had been India’s leading wicket-taker in a victorious Under-19 World Cup campaign.
And what of the Indian side that won hockey’s junior World Cup in 2001? In theory, those young men should have been in their prime in 2008. Instead, India failed to qualify for the Olympics for the first time.
Nothing quickens the pulse quite like the sight of a young buck taking on and subduing an old warrior. What we need to remember, though, is how rare that is. For most, especially the accursed ones like Boobie Miles, the lights are extinguished long before they’re grown men. That, and not Tendulkar failing to reach some landmark, is sport’s real tragedy.
Dileep Premachandran is the Editor-in-Chief of Wisden India