Let us now praise famous men
The sports world lost two great men when baseball Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn died after a battle with salivary gland cancer and ESPN reporter Richard Durrett suddenly died in his home of a brain aneurysm. Gwynn was 54 and Durrett was 38.
Two men, gone entirely too soon. But what has struck me the most about each of them is the amount of tributes that have been written for both of them. Gwynn is one of the greatest hitters of all time, with a lifetime average that is the highest of any hitter whose career began after World War II. Durrett was one of the most versatile and trusted reporters in the country, working as a newspaper writer, radio show host, substitute play-by-play announcer and even doing some TV work at times. When Richard Durrett wrote something, it was taken as fact by Rangers fans.
But neither one of these men have been remembered by their accomplishments as much as they have been remembered by their kindness. Gwynn was always noted as one of the nicest guys in baseball, and its the countless stories like these that make you shake your head in wonder at how great Gwynn was. In fact, his accomplishments on the field have almost been diminished by the type of person he was off the field. And with Durrett it’s the same way. Please take some time to read the tributes of his fellow reporters, but especially read this one written by my friend Clinton Foster. Clinton is a sports writer for the Mineral Wells Index and the biggest TCU fan you will ever meet. His story of Durrett, a TCU alum, is one of dozens and dozens you can find about the extreme, genuine kindness of the man.
I didn’t know Durrett personally, but I did call him once. Last summer when I was looking for jobs in radio, I asked my former colleague and family friend Bill Coates if he knew anyone in Dallas that could help me find a job. Coates almost immediately gave me Durrett’s number and insisted that if anyone would be willing to help, it would be Richard. So, I got over my nerves and cold-called him. He didn’t have any help to offer me beyond passing my name along, but he was genuinely nice on the phone. When I mentioned Bill’s name he told me stories of how they used to work together. He was super friendly to this total stranger who called him out of the blue. I always remembered that when I would listen to him on the radio, and I looked forward to the day that I would meet him and I could tell him how I cold-called him that one day. From what Clinton and others say, Durrett was a strong Christian so hopefully I’ll tell him that in Heaven some day.
And our fathers who begat us – Eccelsiasticus 44:1*
I really like reading biographies. Right now I’m reading Robert Hilburn’s biography of Johnny Cash. Others that I have read include Teddy Roosevelt, Sonny Liston, and Malcolm X. Those people have nothing to do with each other beyond the fact that they lived lives in the public eye. But they each have something to learn from, some good, some bad.
The reason I bring this up is that I have been really convicted by reading the tributes to Gwynn and especially to Durrett. When I read their stories of extreme kindness, I realize that I don’t do these things for others often enough. And these guys didn’t do it so they could be remembered. Gwynn would be remembered as one of the greatest of all time anyway. Durrett had no clue he would suddenly pass away, I think he wrote three articles the day he died. His goal was not to have people speak well of him when he passed away. These men had legacies of kindness because that is who they were.
I’ll never be as kind as those two men, and I’ll never be the performer or songwriter Johnny Cash was. I’ll never the be leader of men that Teddy Roosevelt or Malcolm X were, or be the heavyweight champion of the world like Liston. But I can learn from their lives. These men all made major mistakes in their lives, but we study them because they remind us of the capacity for the human to be a great failure and to be great success. They show us what we should strive for, and what we should strive to avoid. In some cases, these mistakes brought them to their grave. My favorite book of all of these biographies is The Devil and Sonny Liston by Nick Tosches. It’s an amazing piece of work, written about an enigmatic man blessed with size, strength, and speed, but one who couldn’t seem to avoid the devil inside him. Sonny Liston’s life is one that started, consisted of, and ended in tragedy. Lessons can be easily learned from tragedy.
The Greeks often used tragedy to teach lessons. One such tale is a story Herodotus tells us of King Croesus. Croesus asks the sage Solon who the happiest man in the world is, and Solon tells him of a man who lived a good life and died bravely fighting a winning battle. When Croesus was disappointed, he asked who the second happiest man was and Solon tells of some twins who carried their mother on a heavy ox cart for six miles. These two were so revered that the goddess Hera granted them the greatest wish of all by allowing them to die in their sleep. They went out as heroes and were honored. Solon then answered Croesus by telling him “I cannot answer the question you asked me until I know the manner of your death. Count no man happy until the end is known.”
Both Durrett and Gwynn died young, but were doing what they loved. Durrett was working what he called his dream job. And Gwynn was coaching the sport he loved for his alma matter, San Diego State University.
Durrett’s and Gwynn’s are lives that ended tragically, but that were lived victoriously. That victory is one that will be remembered by those who knew them. But more than that they will be lives told about, not in terms of accomplishment, but in terms of the impact they had on others. We study the lives of famous men, because they show us what we are capable of, the good and the bad. We now know the end for these two men. They are clear evidence that we never know when the end will come, but we must strive to make an impact on others until that day. Both men leave legacies that are difficult to live up to. Durrett and Gwynn showed us that we are capable of making an impact with kindness in a world of cynicism. They showed us that Jesus’s second greatest commandment is still one that we should practice today. May we carry on that legacy.