“Someday, I’m gonna walk down the street. People will look at me and say, “There he goes, the greatest there ever was!'”
It’s a familiar line. We’ve heard it from would be wonder boys across generations. It’s a line we hear now, used in admiration and derision, to describe the New England Patriots’ 41-year-old quarterback Tom Brady.
Sports radio and television yakkers beat the controversy drums every day. Is Brady better than Joe Montana? Peyton Manning? Steve Young? Is he the greatest there ever was? Audiences foam at the mouth during the debate. It’s the stuff media executives dream about. Drives up ratings which in turn drives up prices for those who buy radio and TV time.
The greatest there ever was.
Robert Redford echoed the line as a young Roy Hobbs in the classic baseball film, “The Natural.” Hobbs was the young everyman who dreamed of greatness. Many of us pursued the same dream.
I grew up in a generation when there were still many doors to be opened. Many challenges to be faced and answered. The social divide was still very evident in the United States. Overt racism was on display for all to see, even in so-called cradles-of-liberty cities.
Women were seen, but not heard. Ogled and groped, but not respected. It’s the way we were — back in the day. It’s also why so many of us were inspired to succeed. We wanted to show our worth, our value. We wanted more than respect.
We seem to have regressed back to those days but I hope not permanently.
It was a clear road we walked — to be the greatest there ever was.
I remember a hot, muggy, September 1959 afternoon at the Parris Island U.S. Marine Corps training base. The base commander stopped to chat up a group of new Marines, just returned from a double-time forced march near the swamp infested grounds that lay outside the base.
The young Gyrenes were clearly tuckered out, cursing the sandflies who nestled in their bodies. The commander zeroed in one group, singling out a young recruit of color who had attitude written on his face. “Private, how do you like the Marines, now?”
The young man broadened his smile. “Sir, permission to speak freely, sir?
The commander nodded. Red-faced drill instructors familiar with the young man stiffened in their nearby posts braced for the worst. The recruit eyed the DI’s, smiled at them and responded to the commander. “Sir, Private Armstrong is PROUD to be a marine, sir.”
The commander smiled.
The D.I.’s seemed relieved as the recruit continued talking to the commander who could make stripes disappear quickly off a sergeant’s shoulder.
“Sir, I love the Marines. I want to be the greatest there ever was, sir”.
The commander’s stoicism was replaced with a big smile. The D.I’s chuckled softly while glaring at Private Armstrong.
I did want to be the greatest Marine ever. This wasn’t any John Wayne fanboy stuff. My brief stint had fueled aspirations for a career in the Marine Corps, perhaps in the communications division. My hearing difficulties would soon end my life as a Marine, but it was a time I still remember with pride. It also helped me plot the course for the rest of my professional life.
In the decades that followed, I never lost the fire in the belly from my Marine Corps days. Some thought the “glamour” of TV news kept me happy and satisfied over the years.
I remember catching up with old friends over the years. They would tell me how successful they were. I heard about how much money they were making. The fancy cars they were driving. Vacation homes, country clubs, and so on.
I couldn’t, wouldn’t play that game. I inevitably wound up repeating how much I enjoyed my work. I talked about excitement, interesting people, dramatic stories — and the chance to make a difference.
There usually was a pause from the friend. I would then tell them I still wasn’t satisfied. Yes, I had awards, celebrity but there was something else.
I still wanted to be the best there ever was. Best replaced greatest somewhere over the years. No matter. The concept had not changed, just the wording.
I’ve been retired for more than 18 years after banking 40 plus years on the job. I think I’m satisfied with my body of work. Satisfied doesn’t do it.
Part of me still wants to be the greatest there ever was.