“It’s sad that you can pretty much tell which will be the top four teams before the season starts,” McCain said.
It was just one of many topics he talked about while addressing the Associated Press Sports Editors’ annual convention last week, just outside Washington.
“Is it really an amateur sport,” he questioned, “when coaches are making (millions) of dollars a year?”
Most people know the 77-year-old five-term senator from Arizona and a two-time presidential candidate as a politician. Some may know him as a Navy pilot and war hero who was captured and tortured by the Viet Cong for nearly five years after being shot down.
But I doubt many know McCain as a passionate sports fan with a self-deprecating sense of humor.
“There was a Senator named Barry Goldwater from Arizona, and he ran for president,” McCain said. “Then there was Rep. Morris Udall. He was from Arizona and ran for president. Former Gov. Bruce Babbitt, he was from Arizona and ran for president. And I am from Arizona, and I ran for president.
“Arizona may be the only state in the country where mothers don’t tell their children they can grow up to be president of the United States.”
McCain was a four-sport athlete at Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Va. He played football, baseball, tennis and wrestled. His sports career continued at the Naval Academy, where he made the wrestling team and took up boxing.
McCain was honest about his athletic prowess.
“Mediocre was the highest level I reached.”
McCain also said he is concerned about performance-enhancing drugs, and how there’s always someone in a laboratory trying to develop something that can’t be detected by today’s current testing. McCain also said he understands the draw potentially harmful substances are for today’s athletes, who may need them to get to an elite level.
“When I was a midshipman at the Naval Academy, and someone would have told me I could play professional football just by taking a couple of these shots, the temptation would have been overwhelming, just like it is for many of the athletes today,” he said.
McCain said he understood why, with college football becoming big business, why the service academies can rarely compete on the national stage. But he couldn’t help but to wax nostalgic as he thought back to 1963, when Roger Staubach and Navy played Texas in the national championship game.
McCain also touched on the current controversy in the nation’s capital, about the Washington Redskins name. While he said he would not be in favor of any legislation forcing Redskins owner Daniel Snyder to change the team’s name, he does wish Snyder and tribal leaders would sit down and have a real dialogue, and let common sense prevail.
“If the Native American community thinks its offensive,” McCain said of the Redskins name, “then it’s offensive.”
McCain wrapped up his 15-minute talk with a story that originated from an Esquire questionnaire he received at least 15 years ago. The final question of the survey asked who his greatest living hero was.
McCain’s answer was Ted Williams. The questionnaire led to the senator having an opportunity to meet the greatest hitter who ever lived.
“We went down to his house in Orlando, and we had a long conversation,” McCain said. “He kept wanting to ask me about politics, and I wanted to know about his relationship with Joe DiMaggio.”
McCain said he eventually got around to talking about something they had in common. Both were combat fighter pilots.
Williams, who hit .344 with 521 home runs and 1,839 RBIs over a 19-year career with the Boston Red Sox, was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps as a Naval aviator and served the final three years of World War II as a flight instructor stateside. After the war, he joined the Marine reserves to help the unit with recruiting.
Williams later missed most of the 1952 and ’53 seasons after he was brought back to active duty during the Korean War.
“John Glenn, the famous astronaut (and later senator from Ohio), was in the same squadron with Ted Williams in Korea and they flew missions together,” McCain said. “And he said that Ted Williams was the best naval aviator that he knew. Now, that’s quite a compliment coming from a man of John Glenn’s caliber.
“On one of the missions, Ted Williams’ plane got shot up. It’s on fire and could not get its landing gear down and he did something really miraculous. He landed it in an outlying airfield wheels up. He landed it safely and walked away.
“So, I asked him — I said, ‘Why in the world didn’t you just eject from the aircraft?’”
McCain likely knew the answer. On the day he ejected from his plane over Vietnam, McCain suffered two broken arms, a broken leg and then nearly drowned when he parachuted into a lake.
Williams’ answer is likely why he was a hero to McCain, and to so many others.
“This guy looked at the canopy bows, the metal bars that the plastic lines up to,” McCain said. “And remember, he was 6-foot-3, and he said, ‘I looked at the canopy bows and knew, if I ejected, I would break both my knees, and I would never have played baseball again.’”
The story was a fitting end of one hero talking about another.
John Bednarowski is sports editor of the Marietta Daily Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @jbednarowski.