I remember my grandmother talking about how she cried when Lou Gehrig gave his "luckiest man on the face of the earth" speech at Yankees stadium, announcing that he was going to retire from baseball after being diagnosed with ALS, an illness that would soon become known as Lou Gehrig's disease.
This might have been tougher for Gehrig than most. At the time—and for more than 50 years after this—he was the record-holder for consecutive games played in baseball (2,130). That sort of commitment earned him the nickname "The Iron Horse" and was one of the many reasons he made such a great team captain.
Gehrig was long gone by the time my grandmother told me this story, but he became my first sports hero that day.
In sports—and other pursuits—you need skills (some innate, some developed). You have to deliver. In addition to his consecutive record streak, Gehrig played remarkably well (the other record he held was for most Grand Slams: 23). Then there’s the unflappable spirit. You need to believe you’ll hit another homer even if you find yourself striking out.
And even better than playing well? Playing well with others. Unless you are pursuing something truly individual, you need to unselfishly support the efforts of your teammates. Now for the part about having a heart of gold. Yes, of course you need to have a healthy ego and plenty of ambition (but, seriously, you don’t have to be showy or obnoxious about it). If you’re fair and decent, you earn the respect and admiration of your teammates. In honor of their lost hero, the Yankees didn’t name another team captain for 30 years.
Back to that speech. My grandmother was one of thousands who cried upon hearing a brave and humble Gehrig give his farewell address, in which he expressed his gratitude to fans, fellow players, his parents, his wife, his mother-in-law—even groundkeepers. It is by no accident that Gary Cooper, the most All-American of actors, was later cast to play Gehrig in the movie about his life, The Pride of the Yankees. It is a bio film of Gehrig's life, but it a story you would guess to be pure fiction because, come on, let’s be honest here, could a guy really be that good?
I grew up believing he was, and his example has stayed with me all these years.
Watching sports still entertains and inspires me, and it is the athletes with Gehrig-like qualities I always admire the most. While I have been disappointed by some (I won’t even bother to name them), so many other true greats continue to emerge on playing fields and courts and tracks.
It's inspiring to see someone who has the skills, the spirt, the heart—and commitment. That consecutive game streak of Gehrig's says so much. Think about how easy it is to quit, change course, or simply lose steam. Gehrig didn’t. (2,130 consecutive games!) He remained dedicated until it was no longer possible. You’re lucky to find someone like that to look up to in life.