Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The end of the illiterate athlete?

So, a conversation with a friend at work about this week's NFL game between the Browns and the Bengals led me to a brief reflection on the relative disappearance of the illiterate professional athlete.

This is obviously a good thing.

Let me explain: my co-worker asked me if I had a rooting interest in this Sunday's showdown between Cleveland and Cincinnati. I said no, reminding him that I grew up rooting for the Houston Oilers and hating both teams, who were AFC Central rivals at the time.

It would be tough for people to appreciate how good the Bengals were during the Sam Wyche era of the late 1980s. Led by Boomer Esiason and James Brooks, Cincinnati was truly a force to be reckoned with: they nearly knocked off the Joe Montana-Jerry Rice 49ers in the 1989 Super Bowl.

That brings us to James Brooks (pictured above with the ball). My friend mentioned that Brooks later revealed in retirement that he had made it through Warner Robins High School in Georgia and four years at Auburn University without learning how to read.

Consider my mind blown. Brooks was one of the most dynamic, versatile running backs of his era. He was a lot like Brian Westbrook, I suppose, a running and receiving threat on all three downs. Brooks played so smart that I assumed that bled over into other areas of his life:

Richard Finley, one of Brooks' football coaches at Warner Robins High, says "James Brooks was a very serious competitor. Although he had reading problems, he was highly intelligent ... he had good native intelligence."

When asked what he meant by native intelligence, Finley laughs and says, "He had good common sense. He couldn't read too well, but he knew how to behave."

I suppose. But it just amazes me - even as I write this - that anyone could make it through that many years of school without being able to read much more than Xs and Os. I assumed Dexter Manley was merely the aberration of the era but, according to this old NY Times story, as many as a fourth of high school football and basketball players were functionally illiterate in the late '80s.

Surely those shameful days are over, especially with the implementation of more rigorous NCAA eligibility standards. I simply can't fathom an army of unlearned, academically unprepared athletes cruising through high school and college classes these days. Let alone navigating a complex playbook from someone like Jon Gruden or Al Saunders.

Or am I being naive?


Zen said...

I'm so proud of Dexter Manley. Konichiwa 8itche5

blackink said...

Ha. Dexter is now studying Chinese, according to a recent story that I read. No lie.

Still, the Manley bio is not a great bit of history for Yates High or Oklahoma State.

avery said...

i just saw dexter manley on saturday at a health fair in silver spring. illiteracy is always the first thing that comes to mind when i see him.

blackink said...

I know what you mean, bruh. Maybe if he made it into the HOF, we'd think of something else. Like, I don't immediate think of rocks when I see Lawrence Taylor.

I once saw Dexter Manley at the Galleria Mall in Houston, picking out a hat in the Ralph Lauren store. I remember telling my friend that I wondered if he could read the price tag.

That's wrong, I know.