Written by Andrew Ottoson Tuesday, 13 October 2009 14:01
Being young has advantages and disadvantages. Advantages include instinctively understanding Facebook, ultra-high metabolism and the ability to accept peers (and their egos) despite their misguided, self-important hopes and dreams. The single biggest disadvantage is the lack of a sense of history.
Enter Louis Zamperini, an All-American and a two-time NCAA champion who was the first American 5,000 meter finisher in the 1936 Berlin Games.
I’d never heard of Louis Zamperini before this week, even though the man, now 92, was a World War II hero.
He was also an avid skateboarder. He converted to Christianity and was inducted into the World Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame for his work counseling others about the importance of forgiveness.
The story of his youth reads like the start of a novel, according to Elizabeth Segal who spoke to him for USC News in 2003: “His father taught him how to box in self-defense, and pretty soon ‘I was beating the tar out of every one of them,’ he says, chuckling. ‘But I was so good at it that I started relishing the idea of getting even. I was sort of addicted to it.’
“Before long he was picking fights just to see if anyone could keep up with him. From juvenile thug, he progressed to ‘teenage hobo.’ Hopping a train to Mexico, he courted danger for the thrill of it. ‘I caught a wild cow in a ravine and tore my kneecap till it was just hanging off,’ he recalls. ‘I snapped my big toe jumping out of some giant bamboo; they just sewed it back on. I’ve got so many scars, they’re criss-crossing each other!”
According to a release written years ago for his induction to the World Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame, Zamperini’s final lap time of 57 seconds at the ’36 games impressed Adolph Hitler enough to command a personal audience with "...the American boy with the fast finish."
Zamperini later stole a Nazi flag off the Reich's Chancellery.
He explained to Segal: “They don’t have small-sized beers in Germany...I was drinking in a pub across from the Reichstag where some Nazi flags were flying, and I thought, ‘I’ve got to have that flag for a souvenir.’”
He talked himself out of trouble with one word: bier. Then he asked to keep the flag “to remember my wonderful time here.” The guards let him keep it.
Zamperini was drafted as a bombardier. He crashed into the Pacific and drifted for 47 days on a life raft before being taken captive by the Japanese.
After two harrowing years as a Japanese POW, his camp was liberated. He returned home with the one ID his captors let him keep: his USC Silver Life Pass, engraved with his name for lettering three straight years.
The story of his rescue made the front pages of both the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, but Zamperini was, according to Engel, “all churned up inside... All I could think about was revenge. I’d dream about strangling my prison guards. One night while half-asleep, I grabbed (wife) Cynthia around the neck.”
Not long after that, he attended a Billy Graham sermon, quit drinking and smoking and forgave the guards. He sought them out, embraced them, tried to convert them and, in some cases, pleaded for their clemency during war-crimes trials, according to Segal.
There are advantages to being old, too; not least among them is the chance to right a wrong by way of forgiveness.
* * *
Football is many things, but it is not a war. There are no enemies on Friday night, just friends and neighbors from down the road. But there are casualties, young men whose bodies and brains are injured more often (and many times, more seriously) than we would like to admit or discuss.
Between Tim Tebow’s injury and the NFL’s study of retired players’ brains, concussions are the national news in sports. Forgive me for asking bluntly, but isn’t the long-term effect of concussions an issue that hits uncomfortably close to home?