It was February 1964, 50 years ago next month, when a 22-year-old Cassius Clay uttered the simple phrase that would become so iconic, “I am the Greatest,” before he stepped into the ring to defeat Sonny Liston. Clay, of course, would go on to change his name to Muhammad Ali and the sports world would never be the same. Really
I recently was scanning the channels and I heard both Jerry Rice and Deion Sanders talking about how they were both the greatest – self-proclaimed, of course, with a little tongue in cheek as they were promoting their captain’s duties at this year’s Pro Bowl. Sanders even went so far as to say that at age 47 he was going to suit up.
Maurice Greene, a former world-record holder in the 100 meters, even tattooed himself with “GOAT” or greatest of all time. That was after Carl Lewis and before Jamaica’s Usian Bolt. Television has a way of turning the very, very good into great. At the Olympics, they will focus on storytelling for about 30 minutes, then preview the event (which is prerecorded) for hours and finally a legend is built in the span of about eight hours.
On May 25th, 1935 Jesse Owens set three world records and tied a fourth. Setting records in the long jump, 220-yard dash, the 220-yard low hurdles and equaling the 100-yard dash world record – all in the span of 45 minutes! 45 minutes is less than the time it takes to hype up one event nowadays. Don’t believe me? We go on the air for Super Bowl XLVIII on Sunday at Noon! A mere 390 minutes before kickoff! Today’s pregame talk shows last longer than the games themselves. Owens later went on to win four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, a feat Carl Lewis would replicate in Los Angeles at the 1984 Games. Side note, I beat Carl Lewis in our only head-to-head race – which was the half-mile run at the 1986 Superstars (You can look it up)!
Back to football, Jerry Rice had what I think was his best campaign in the strike-shortened 1987 season. In ’87, 15 games were played and Rice appeared in 12 (replacement players played the other 3). Rice had 65 catches for 1,078 yards and a mind-boggling 22 touchdowns. But wait a minute – 49er teammate and should-be Hall of Famer Roger Craig actually led the team with 66 receptions.
Now a little bit of history. Packers great Don Hutson’s best season was 1942, when the Pack finished with an 8-2-1 mark under Earl “Curly” Lambeau. Yes, the guy the stadium is named after. Hutson caught 74 passes for 1,211 yards and 17 touchdowns. The second-leading receiver caught 21 passes. 74 catches for 1,200+ in the ’40s when the wishbone was still the rage? That’s pretty great. The same year Hutson was making plays all over the place, Bears Hall of Fame QB Sid Luckman passed for 1,024 yards and 10 touchdowns. In total.
The dictionary defines greatness as many things – including “being of more than ordinary importance, distinction or effect.” You have to love today’s games with the glitz and glamour, with the playmakers, and the primetimes and the GOATS. But where would we be without the past? We didn’t count sacks when Deacon Jones played – maybe that’s what made him legendary. I heard that Don Hutson was fast, but no one had to droll on and on about his combine results. The Kansas Comet, Gale Sayers, exists mostly in black-and-white footage, Jim Brown quit while he was on top and went on to make some good movies. Defining the greatest is like comparing the effect of the first TV, the first color TV, the remote control, the big screen, plasma, high-def, your man cave, Google Glass or whatever comes next. But I will say this – in our moves-so-fast-you-better-not-blink media world a guy can go from GOAT to goat in no time – or vice versa. Sometimes I miss the good old days.
– James Lofton
Pro Football Hall of Famer James Lofton is the analyst for WestwoodOne’s coverage of Sunday Night Football. This week he’ll be patrolling the sidelines for our coverage of Super Bowl XLVIII.