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The Loss of Two Legends
It’s been a rough stretch when it comes to losing great men as two titans passed from our midst this month.
On Thursday, Jim Brown, the former Cleveland Browns running back, died at age 87, a long life very well lived. Four days earlier, my good friend Peter Lambert, a doting husband and father, died at age 47, a much shorter life that was also very well lived.
When impactful figures - like these two men - leave our presence, it often leads us to talk about their greatness, about what set them apart.
In the case of Brown, folks begin with a playing career that was as good as that of any player who ever lived. While it’s very difficult to compare players across generations, there are a few rare guys, like Brown, who seem like they would’ve starred in any era.
How good was he? The man was stronger than teenage B.O. and as elusive as on-street NYC parking, ripping through NFL defenses like Olestra once ran roughshod through the collective intestinal tracts of those manning the 12th floor Dow Jones newsroom in lower Manhattan.
The numbers, to be sure, are remarkable, and I’m not even talking about the cavalcade of journalists felled by the aforementioned snacks.
Though Brown only played nine seasons, he earned eight rushing titles and won three Most Valuable Player awards, all while never missing a game. He was also far ahead of his football peers, a bit like Babe Ruth was ahead of his baseball contemporaries.
When he retired after the 1965 campaign, he was the NFL’s all-time leading rusher with 12,312 yards, nearly 27% ahead of Joe “The Jet” Perry, who starred for the Niners and Colts for 16 years. Even more impressive, his 106 regular-season rushing TDs were 38% better than Jim Taylor, a stalwart for 10 seasons with the Packers and Saints. By the way, 58 years after playing his last game, Brown still leads the league in career rushing yards per game with 104.3.
Yet, as impressive as the numbers are, Brown is now nearly as well regarded as a civil rights activist and statesman. Remember, he left the game at age 29 and spent the next two-thirds of his life working on bigger causes, including efforts to rehabilitate gang members and prisoners. Yes, he was long dogged by allegations of violence against others, but he’d apparently kept his nose clean over the past two decades, leaving his legacy largely secure.
Peter Lambert, long known in these pages as PETER THE SCOT, was not famous like Brown but his impact was nonetheless felt by all he crossed. He could carry a conversation on subjects as disparate as religion and the Premier League and was as generous as the day is long. He also had some peculiar habits.
On Sundays, he turned into a teetotaler, eschewing alcoholic beverages in favor of a lengthy nap and all the candy he could consume. I once asked him his preference of sweet treats and he replied, “I don’t really care, mate, as long as it’s got sugar in it.”
Though born in Edinburgh, Scotland, Peter his spent formative years living on the Isle of Lewis, a body of land about 260 miles northwest of his birthplace. In his hometown of Stornoway, pop. 20,000, he formed a love for golf and soccer, passions he nurtured throughout his life, not that he probably had much of a choice. In Scotland, they give you a golf club, a soccer ball, and a raincoat as soon as you hit open air for the first time.
After making his way to New York as a young professional, Peter developed a deep devotion for the Yankees and, in particular, the Giants, a decision that compelled him to despise the Eagles, Cowboys, and my beloved Commies.The man truly LOVED American football and even coached with me for several years as our sons and their friends played the game.
Peter often admitted that he didn’t know a heck of a lot about coaching football, but he was surely more knowledgeable about the sport than I was about soccer, one of his great loves. He coached the way he lived his life - with passion and with purpose - and was a favorite of the boys on the team.
I’ve spent an extraordinary amount of time thinking about Peter over the past 10 days and, though it’s fun to reminisce about my old friend, it is profoundly sad that he is no longer with us. There won’t be lengthy conversations about football, faith or pork roll. We won’t grab the occasional pint or vacation together. Never again will we share a sideline.
Still, I take solace in the fact that, like the great Jim Brown, Peter’s spirit lives on. It lives on in his friends, in his devoted children, John and Juliana, and in his wonderful wife, Robin. To me, that defines a life well lived.
In 1998, the enterprising folks at Frito-Lay introduced WOW chips under four of their leading brands: Doritos, Lay’s, Ruffles, and Tostitos. As is customary, the company sent a large promotional box of the snacks to journalists, including our crew at Dow Jones in 1996, well before they were released publicly. They tasted fine and advertised just a single gram of fat per serving due to a fat substitute called Olestra. As it turned out, the magical ingredient was capable of causing abdominal cramping and loose stools, sort of like Mike Tyson was capable of causing headaches. Indeed, we quickly learned that WOW chips were as subtle as a two-by-four to the gut. Underscoring that point, one of my colleagues, who shall remain nameless, plowed through an entire family-sized bag of the Doritos and promptly missed the next four days of work. When he returned, he looked noticeably slimmer and far more self aware, realizing he may have shaved a few years off of his colon’s life.
When Ruth retired after the 1935 season, his 714 career home runs were 47% ahead of the #2 long-ball hitter, teammate Lou Gehrig. In the four major American sports, this is hard to match though NFL receivers Don Hutson and Jerry Rice were similarly dominant when compared to their football peers and hockey’s Wayne Gretzky still owns hockey more than two decades after hanging up his skates. “The Great One” became the sport’s all-time points champ during his twelfth season, 1989-90, and proceeded to play nine more years, relentlessly piling up goals and assists like I’d add slap deli meats on a baguette. In fact, 24 seasons post-retirement, Gretzky’s career point total is still 49% ahead of Jaromir Jagr, who is in second place. Folks, that’s a gulf wider than the chairlift they’d need to take FATBACK HOBBS to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro.
This nickname is an equal-opportunity offender. It upsets those who believe in democracy while also ticking off communists, who are embarrassed to be associated with the franchise.