Time plays a key role in sports - for athletes and broadcasters
`THERE is a time for each year to end, and a time for each year to begin,'' to paraphrase Ecclesiastes. This is the time when we are most aware of time. We can't control it, we can't delay or stop it, we can only be aware that time is pitiless. Yet kindly, and inevitable. It is only in certain games that we deal artificially with time.
I began serving time as a broadcaster in 1930. The hands of the clocks have never stopped. Each Friday on National Public Radio at exactly 7:35 a.m., my segment with Bob Edwards goes on the air. I have a stopwatch that orders me to be silent after exactly 4 minutes. Should I misread the watch and run over, as I have once or twice, I'm abruptly cut off. My time is 4 minutes - no more, no less.
My father was a locomotive engineer running on single-track railroads. At certain precise times he would have to pull his train into a siding, sit and wait for another train on the main line that had the right-of-way to roar past. If my father had failed to pull his train into the side track on time, or his watch had failed him, there would have been a terrible, head-on collision. Sometimes accidents happened because a man failed to respect the absolutes of time.
My father never failed to correctly read the time on his orders and the time on his watch. His watch never failed him. Dad was a very generous man, especially with his family, but he never allowed anyone to touch his watch, not even my mother. He said each person had a different bodily electricity, which might cause a watch to vary its measurements. He was the only person to touch his watch, except the appointed railroad watch inspection man, who checked it at stated inter vals and corrected any slight variations.
Dad died in 1945 in his sister's house in North Carolina. He had been ill three months. The last time I saw him, he said, ``Walter, I want you to have my watch. You are the only one in the family that has any sense of time.'' Then he said, ``Walter, go on back to your job.'' Knowing his respect for work, and for time, I took his watch and went back to the broadcasting booth at Brooklyn. It was time for me to do as he said.
From boyhood I have always known the importance of time. My father's work, his watch, and his complete cooperation with time prepared me for my minutes, hours, and years under the sentences of this program and that assignment. I went under the studio clock March 4, 1930. I have never been late, which demands, at times, a price.
Frank Frisch, one of our greatest ballplayers, joined the New York Giants in 1919, fresh from the campus of Fordham University. He never played an inning in the minor leagues. Frisch lived in New Rochelle, a short train ride to 125th Street, where he took the subway to the Polo Grounds. John McGraw was the hard-bitten manager of the Giants, and once he ordered Frisch to report at 10 o'clock the next day. The train Frisch was accustomed to take that would get him to work on time got held up because the bridge at 125th Street was raised. Frisch was a few minutes late.
``I thought I told you to be here at 10 o'clock,'' roared McGraw.
``The bridge at 125th Street was up,'' Frisch replied.
``That will cost you $50,'' said McGraw. ``Next time take the train ahead of the train that'll get you here on time.'' (In 1919, $50 was real money - especially for a rookie.)
Frisch told me, ``I always did from then on. He never gave me back my money either.''
Time is a lethal element in such sports as football, basketball, and track. The ability to manipulate time in these games creates some of the most dramatic and exciting events on record. To me, the most meaningful time in sports is 3:59:4 on May 6, 1954. That is when Roger Bannister broke the 4-minute time for the mile. In all the years that had passed, no man had been able to break the 4-minute barrier. Many great runners had tried. Men had given up on this achievement. It seemed too much for the human body.
Bannister not only broke it, he planned for it, worked and suffered for two years to be able to do it. He knew what he had to do, and he did it. Today you are no miler at all if you can't do the mile in under 4 minutes. Now some times are under 3:50. Bannister showed men it could be done. Once men knew it was possible, many men did it, if they were willing to pay the price physically. Bannister not only broke the barrier of time, he also broke the barrier of the spirit.
Often we see football games decided by the ability of quarterbacks to stop the clock, to use a precious final few seconds for just one more play. I remember one of the most exciting college games - in 1935 - when Notre Dame scored two touchdowns at the very end to defeat highly-favored Ohio State. I remember Johnny Unitas in the last two minutes of the 1958 National Football League title game, moving the Baltimore Colts from their own 14 yard line to get a tie with the New York Giants, which brought about the first sudden-death playoff. This game on television made pro football a truly national sport. ... Basketball has many winning shots ``at the buzzer.''
However, no matter how young the players, how fast, how strong, remorseless time ticks its inevitable toll. It may be a timeout on the field, but not a timeout for the body.
I doubt any athlete says with the Psalmist, ``Spare me a little, that I may recover my strength before I go hence, and be no more seen.'' But even as you and I, he might well say it.