The Passing of a Legend
When Justin Timberlake exposed Janet Jackson's nipple in front of millions of Super Bowl viewers, I could see where things were heading with the NFL It was about as accidental as the later event with the Latin bombshell Shakira putting her crotch right on the camera lens and shaking it as if she were having a seizure.
I thought about writing a movie script that night, one about the childhood joys of playing football on a playground in the coolness of a sunlit Saturday morning in Autumn. I thought that America needed that story. I still do. I don't think that I have ever been as consistently happy as I was on one of those mornings after catching a pass or even running the football across an imaginary plane proscribed by the end of classroom on one side and the fourth fence pole from the road on the other. Joy is too weak a word for that feeling. I felt good about myself, about my choice of friends, and about how we lived our lives, and it has been approximately the exact time from one of those moments till now, since I could honestly say that.
Arnie Lofton passed away this week. He was my neighbor back then. In my mind's eye, he would have been the center of the story. He was the best pure athlete that I've personally known. I've watched sports ever since Arnie and his family moved next door to us back when all the neighborhood kids attended Mark Twain Elementary School. It was him who brought sports into our neighborhood. He had a football, and he knew the basics and the rules to all the games. He showed us, the kids who lived on the southern ends of all streets like Letts, Estes, and Van Dorsten, how to play. His dad Hank used to sit out on the porch and listen to Giant games in the evening, and that more than anything else is why I hate the Dodgers.
I've coached basketball for thirty-five years. I've been around some truly amazing athletes. The reason why I would say that Arnie was the best pure athlete of all those who I have known was his love of the game. As far as I know, he never played a single sport in high school and was never corrupted by a win-at-all cost mentality that so much of our sporting culture espouses either overtly or otherwise. He liked to win, don't get me wrong, but he loved playing even more.
He was the one who showed us how to play basketball, and he had great corner jumper which, for my money, is the hardest shot to make, and he didn't panic when you rushed at him, and with a simple flick of his wrists, he'd get you up in the air and drive by you talking smack all the while. I always thought he could have played pro-baseball had he desired. He had such a great swing and did everything on the diamond so naturally.
But it was in football, as a pocket passer, where he became the Legend of the Southside. His huddle presence was direct, "Gilbert, you go long. Carlyle, you cut across the middle. Adrian, you wait over on the left as a safety valve. Harold, you snap the ball and block." As simple as it gets, but the complexity, and the thing that made it beautiful was that Gilbert Martinez was the fastest human being who ever ran in a pair of street shoes, and no matter how fast he ran, Arnie would put the ball exactly in the one place where it needed to be. I don't think I ever saw Gilbert stretch to make a catch. He would run as if he were being chased by demons, hold his hands in front of him slightly below shoulder level and the ball would land there as if by magic.
Yes, I said, "as if by magic." Humans make mistakes, it's the most fundamental rule of our existence. We screw shit up. That's what we do best. Legends, on the other hand, defy rules, they find ways to circumvent logical explanations. The guys who I grew up with will all tell you that Arnie Lofton's deep passes were the most perfect thing we've ever seen, and the most consistent. I mean Albert Einstein could have plotted the velocity of the pass (VOP) and calculated Gilbert's rate of speed (ROS) and then drew an X in the sky five feet from the ground and about twenty yards from the front leg of the swing set where the ball should end up, and that damn ball would end up there every time. (Or at least enough times to convince us that we were seeing something special.)
The Sixties hit our neighborhood pretty hard. I am ashamed when I look back and see the role I played in leading some of my friends astray. We bit hard at the lure that the movies, magazines, and the music they dangled in front of us using our budding sexuality to tempt us unto paths that led us away from the innocence and the ball fields of our youth. As far as I know, Arnie and his friends stayed true and never got caught up in that culture. I took the rest and left.
Our paths diverged, but we often combined our efforts in adult leagues later, and Arnie was always the "great equalizer". We would lead us, a ragtag bunch of misfits into battle, and provided us with moments that we will talk about with reverence all of our lives. He gave us hope that we could be better than we were.
It took me several years to overcome the damage that the Sixties inflicted upon my life. It hinged on the discovery at some point where I could no longer avoid the fact that everything bad that ever happened to me was the result of my own bad choices. A lot of people never understand that the future changes the past. Looking backwards from a higher ground changes how you should remember things and makes you realize how much that you got wrong as you were going through them.
Justin Timberlake has a lot of fans. He is considered by most to be a legendary performer. To me, he is always going to be one of the douches who corrupted football. He willingly participated in the halftime event that told the world that this is how things are and are going to be from his point on. I've always believed that it was more of a staged ritual than an accident.
A few years ago, I ran into Arnie's best friend, one day at the Kings Drive-in, and he told me about this project that him and Arnie were working on rehabbing a living space for a handicapped friend. That's some salt-of-the earth shit right there, and that night as I thought about it, I realized that I had never in my life done anything as altruistic as that for anyone.
I got into coaching because I wanted the kids like me to avoid the all the mistakes I made. I wanted them to understand that you shouldn't depend on others to select your heroes for you and to allow them to use those heroes to sell you a false reality. Most real heroes never make the paper, they live right next door to you; they fix your cars at a reasonable rate, they teach you how to read; they make your breakfast, or pay for the food. They never get close enough to someone like Janet Jackson to unbutton her blouse in front of people, and left with the decision would ultimately think, "Actually, that's probably not such a good idea."
And being in such close proximity, it should allow us to tell them that we appreciate how they inspire us.
I ran into Arnie one time much later in life and tried to tell him. He just shook it off.