GEORGE BEST, JOE NAMATH, DEREK SANDERSON AND CHARLES MANSON: THE PROMISE OF MAGIC
Georgie, Broadway Joe, Turk.
Please don’t hold it against me.
I wouldn’t want my name to appear next to Manson’s in the same line, sentence, title, context or anywhere else either.
But consider this: all of you offered something bigger than life itself to your masses, your adoring followers and in Manson’s case his cult-sickened disciples.
That’s pretty serious stuff and not easy to achieve by any measure or standard.
You guys did it “right.”
No, of course not. God forbid that his behavior on any planet would ever be deemed “right.”
George Best, Joe Namath and Derek Sanderson all had “it” in spades and spade-doubles.
And if sports historians or aficionados of a certain age could possibly contest or deny this simple statement, it would be unfathomable.
Right or wrong, like ’em or hate ’em, they had “it.” Boy, did they ever.
It’s called charisma. Duende.
A passion of spirit and inspiration.
And sometimes it got in the way of good judgment, sound decision-making, rational thinking. Prices were to be paid.
Lives would be derailed. Ended even.
But when all was said and done that magnetic, compellingly captivating charm and allure which roused such unapologetic, fevered devotion was like that omnipresent buoy bobbing in the sea.
Seemingly there always. Irrepressible. And forever.
All four loved — craved — the spotlight.
Big egos. Enormous actually. As large, broad and wide as the great outdoors.
They certainly weren’t the first with oversized and inflated opinions of themselves. Nor will they be the last. People like that are a dime a dozen.
People like they most surely are not.
Perhaps in the interest of peace and serenity during the holiday season especially, an expose of any sort relating to Manson would be better left for another time.
Neither Best, Namath nor Sanderson were psychopaths after all.
A little crazy. Yes.
But in a purely hedonistic context.
Apples to oranges.
At 22 years old Georgie Best, a poor lad from Belfast, Northern Ireland was the greatest footballer in the world.
That year (1968) winger Best and his Manchester United side won the European Cup and he was named both the Ballon d’Or European Footballer of the Year — the youngest ever to be so recognized — and the FWA (Football Writers’ Association) Footballer of the Year, laying claim to the oldest and most distinguished award in the domestic game.
His rise had been meteoric. Signed by ManU at 15, he made his debut for the club two years later and scored his first goal in only his second appearance.
“I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered.”
— George Best On Fame —
“I used to go missing a lot…Miss Canada, Miss United Kingdom, Miss World.”
— George Best On Not Turning Up For Training —
“In 1969 I gave up women and alcohol — it was the worst twenty minutes of my life.”
— George Best On Excess —
“When I’m gone people will forget all the rubbish and all that will be remembered will be the football.”
— George Best On His Legacy —
“Boss I think I’ve found you a genius.”
— A Scout’s Words to ManU Manager Matt Busby About George Best —
“I was born with a great gift, and sometimes with that comes a destructive streak. Just as I wanted to outdo everyone when I played, I had to outdo everyone when we were out on the town.”
— George Best On His Off-The-Pitch-Mentality —
Georgie Best never realized his true promise.
And according to acclaimed British author and journalist Duncan Hamilton, a two-time winner of the prestigious William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award (2007; 2009) it was Best’s later relative lack of success on the football field that drove him to alcohol and excess.
This theory flies in the face of the widely-held notion that his debaucherous ways accelerated the fade of his career and fueled his ultimate demise.
Hamilton maintains that when Best’s incredibly high standards were not met to his satisfaction, it broke and then crushed him.
Posits Hamilton, “There are several myths about George — some of which he liked to push himself. I think the biggest myth about George Best is that drink brought an end to his football career. It was the football that led him into drinking. There’s no doubt about that.”
To the cynical or jaded, this might qualify either as poppycock, one sot commiserating with another or a wide-eyed writer defending his boyhood idol.
But maybe not.
Hamilton expounded, “The fact is that after 1968 and Wembley, he thought that Manchester United would be the next Real [Madrid]. He thought they would continue to win the European Cup. He thought they would be built around him. He thought his peak would come at 29 years old. And he thought he would carry on winning medals. Because that’s virtually what he had done every season since he’d made his debut.”
It didn’t happen that way.
The decline of both Best and United was stark if not precipitous. He was carrying a club beleaguered by a series of foolish and unproductive signings which culminated in its eventual relegation and in Best’s acrimonious departure in 1974. He was 28.
“As the United side began to disintegrate, that’s what sent him towards the bottle,” Hamilton asserts.
Although Best went on to play for a number of lower-profile teams (Stockport; Cork Celtic; Fulham; and Hibernian to name but a few) it was not the same and he never recaptured the breathtaking form that had at one time albeit briefly, made him the best footballer in the world.
“He was too much of a perfectionist. I think that was his problem after 68/69. He wanted to be number one. Being number two was absolutely mournful for him and being three or four — as Manchester United then were — was absolute pain. He couldn’t cope with that.
He had this absolute obsession — this need to be perfect and to go and win every game.
He said he never wanted a game to end if he was playing well. And he never wanted it to end if he was playing badly.
If he was playing well, then he wanted to go and get some more goals. If he was playing badly, then he just wanted to do one thing — either score a goal or make a goal, [Ed. Note: those are two things, Mr. Hamilton] which would send people home happy.
He just couldn’t get his head around the fact that he wasn’t playing for the number one side in the country.”
Hamilton, whose intensive research involved poring over roughly 5,000 press clippings and 500 books as well as interviewing north of 100 people, also watched voluminous pieces of now-archival Best footage and is of the opinion that he never “got over leaving Manchester United really. Nothing gave him that level of satisfaction. When he scored that famous goal for San Jose Earthquakes when he’s beating 29 men backwards, his first thought afterwards was: ‘What if I’d done that for Manchester United?’ I think that shows the kind of love and devotion he had for them.”
“If you’d given me the choice of going out and beating four men and smashing a goal in from thirty yards against Liverpool or going to bed with Miss World, it would have been a difficult choice. Luckily, I had both.”
— George Best On His Glamorous Lifestyle —
Joseph William Namath, better known as Joe Willie or “Broadway Joe,” was, on his best day, a distant second to Georgie Best in the looks department.
He wasn’t nearly as good at what he did either.
His career professional statistics belie his enduring, even legendary influence on the game as well as his place in the pantheon of National Football League heroes.
It was his brashness and ability to back it up that vaulted him to the celebrity he still enjoys nearly fifty years after predicting victory — “guarantee” was the word he chose — over the NFL Champion Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III (1969), a world championship which remains the New York Jets’ one and only since they began play in 1960.
Between 1962 and 1964 Namath quarterbacked the Alabama Crimson Tide under the iconic Paul “Bear” Bryant who once called him, “the greatest athlete I ever coached.”
After being suspended for the final two games of the 1963 season for violating team rules, Namath piloted the Tide to the 1964 national championship.
In spite of that and largely due to pedestrian individual numbers — 64 pass completions in 100 attempts; 756 passing yards; 5 TDs; 4 INT; 44 carries for 133 yards — he finished eleventh in the 1964 Heisman Trophy balloting.
(John Huarte of Notre Dame carried off the statue).
A sidebar to Namath’s 1963 suspension:
Alabama had a bye-week before its regular season finale against Miami. Namath had planned to watch the Army-Navy football game on television but it was postponed due to the Kennedy assassination.
He went to the local diner where he probably had a burger, fries and a shake.
Then he had a beer, a clear breach of Bryant’s policy mandating no alcohol during the season.
Bryant heard something to the effect that his star quarterback had been drinking over the weekend and asked him if that indeed was the case. Namath admitted that he had modestly imbibed, never hanging any of his teammates out to dry and Bryant explained that he could look the other way.
But to do so and thereby violate his principles would mean he would then have to resign.
Instead, he ended Namath’s season; he was suspended for the December 14th. Miami contest (a 17–12 ‘Bama win on the road) as well as for the upcoming 1963-’64 Sugar Bowl against the Rebels of Ole Miss, also won by the Tide (12–7) with Steve Sloan at quarterback.
Namath and Bryant were a very odd couple; they represented “a clash of cultures — North and South, young and old, brash and conservative.”
Polar opposites on the surface.
A cocky schoolboy star from Beaver Falls, PA. and an iron-willed coach with a commanding presence who had won his first national championship (of six) in 1961.
But there were similarities between them too.
Both had hardscrabble upbringings; they were tough and hungry. Each wanted very much to succeed.
Then there was the race thing and a philosophy they shared. The Bear and his boys “didn’t strive to be symbols of Alabama’s white power structure, or emblematic of” the Old South’s values.
Bryant was neither racist nor progressive. Namath’s friends and teammates back home had been black. In fact, he was the only white starter on his high school basketball team. (And legend has it that he could and did routinely dunk). To his credit he refused to be sucked into the poisonous, violently swirling vortex of racism.
Race was an issue for neither. They wanted to compete and win, period.
Namath suffered a nagging knee injury in the fourth game of his 1964 senior season but he led the Tide to a perfect 10–0 record and the national championship which in those days was announced before the bowl games kicked off.
In the Orange Bowl on Jan. 1, 1965 — the first college football game ever played at night (and during television prime time) — ‘Bama lost to Darrell Royal’s Texas Longhorns 21–17 but Namath was voted the game’s MVP (18–37; 255 yards; 2 TDs).
Then as luck would have it, Joe Willie was the beneficiary of a pair of most fortuitous circumstances.
First, the cartilage damage to his right knee ensured his class 4-F designation for the military draft which meant a deferment from service in Vietnam.
Secondly, the established NFL and the upstart AFL were engaged in a hot and heavy bidding war for new talent, then reaching its apex.
Namath was selected 12th. overall in the NFL Draft by the St. Louis Cardinals and first overall by the AFL’s New York Jets.
The day after the Orange Bowl, Jets owner Sonny Werblin proudly displayed Namath’s signature on the contractual dotted line for a pro football record $427,000.00 USD over three years.
And the rest as they say is history.
Joe Namath parlayed whatever it was that he brought to the table into Beatles-like mania.
His schtick and charisma were off the charts.
Low-cut white shoes; full-length fur coats; Super Bowl III; Bachelors III; an ‘Acting/Hollywood’ career; Howard Cosell; MNF; the spectacle of September 24, 1972 when he and his boyhood idol Johnny Unitas lit it up for a combined 872 passing yards in a 44–34 Jets victory over the Colts in Baltimore, a game in which Namath threw for 496 yards and six TDs; Noxzema commercials with Farrah Fawcett; Ovaltine; Hanes Beautymist pantyhose…and the hits just kept on coming.
Not unlike Best, a supernatural aura surrounded him and the sweet scent of divinely conferred power and talent emitted from his pores.
It was all natural. It was organic.
He had “it,” big-time.
As did the kid from Niagara Falls, Ontario.
You know, Harold and Caroline Sanderson’s son, Derek.
By his own admission he was an “insecure kid” who somehow morphed into a bona fide matinee idol and at one time was the highest-paid athlete in the world.
As a young boy, Sanderson took to hockey thanks to his father, the handiest of the handy and “the greatest man I ever knew,” according to Derek, “…the only hero I’ve had in my life.”
He skated around-the-clock on what was basically a half-scale version of an NHL rink built by his father and spanning two backyards of cookie-cutter houses on lots provided at a nominal price to servicemen like himself who were returning from WWII.
(Rumor has it that Harold offered the next-door neighbor all of the winter’s broken hockey sticks and his yard to accommodate the man’s summer tomato garden in exchange for some additional real estate on which to expand the rink. Little doubt that “Turk” got some of his charm and powers of persuasion from the old man).
Sanderson honed his hockey talents as a youngster under his dad’s watchful eye and in accordance with the tenets of Lloyd Percival, a pioneer of fitness testing and coaching techniques whose 1951 book, “The Hockey Handbook” became the bible of instruction for the sport in the USSR.
“My dad had me practice all the stuff out of that book,” Sanderson recalled.
“He told me I was going to have to go both ways, handle the puck both ways, equally hard, turning left and right and backwards. He made sure I was able to do it all. Before I got to play with the guys, I’d go on the fresh ice in our yard and skate 200 laps around the rink, left and right, carrying the puck. That was probably one of the greatest things my dad ever had me do. A few years later, when I was trying out for the Niagara Falls Flyers (in junior hockey), that’s exactly what the coaches wanted us to do.”
Best, Namath and Sanderson grew up poor.
In the summer of 1972 after starring for the Boston Bruins, Sanderson signed the then-richest contract in sports history — surpassing Pele — with the fledgling World Hockey Association’s Philadelphia Blazers.
Contract aside, and in spite of the fact that he had more trouble than one man should have to endure — a lot of which was self-inflicted — he was loaded with that “it,” this charisma.
He was European football’s Best and American football’s Namath, to the gills.
In Boston he was and remains legendary.
For his play, his characteristic puckishness (sorry), his team-oriented attitude, and his resurrected life off the ice.
George Best, Joe Namath and Derek Sanderson were three of a kind.
Another story for another time.
[Editor’s Note: This piece was written by Mr. Kaplan in December 2017.]