Joe Louis (left) poses with Max Schmeling (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
First, let me give my disclaimer. In this column, I will use the masculine form of the personal pronoun. This is a literary device, not politics; this column applies to everyone, men, women, and children.
There is an expression, “Behind every great man, you will find a great woman.” A book could be written on the many great truths of that simple sentence. In the United States, we call the generation who fought World War 2 “The Great Generation.” However, greatness does not happen in a vacuum. Among writers, the standing joke is it takes twenty years of hard work to be an overnight success.
In the case of The Great Generation, it was 14 years of hard work from 1929 to 1943. The 1930’s is my favorite time in America. Those 14 years of hard work is “the woman behind the great man.” It was the depths of the depression. President Franklin Roosevelt was in the White House, and together with congress, they were creating programs to put America back to work. But, it was slow going. It was during that time the foundations of greatness were implanted in men. Government, families, and friends can give a hand up, but greatness, true greatness only comes from within.
Greatness cannot be given to a man, or implanted in him. Greatness only comes when a man faces a challenge so great, he feels his failure is guaranteed. It is at that moment when a man stays average or rises to the greatness that is within him. A greatness that is within all of us, but few ever achieve. You look into the abyss of certain defeat, and you accept the challenge. If you succeed, you can go on to greater things. If you fail, you have a choice to make. “Do I pick up and persevere, or do I take my place in the crowd.” Those men we think of as great from world history, failed many times; but they always picked up and persevered. Henry Ford had several failed car companies before he succeeded; Thomas Edison failed 1,000 times before he made the incandescent light bulb.
We think of the 1930’s as the time of the great depression, a time when people were desperate and down on their luck. There were people in Kentucky who were eating weeds to stay alive, and people in the great dust bowl of the plains who wished they had weeds. When we think of the great works of the 1930’s, most people think of the projects the government designed to put men back to work, like the Hoover dam. They miss the very foundations that created the victory in World War 2. Look at the heroes of Americans in the 1930’s and you will see what I mean.
Joe Louis defeated Max Schmeling in a boxing match that Hitler declared would demonstrate the superiority of the Arian race over all other Peoples of the world, so much for racial superiority. What most people do not know is this was not the first time Joe and Max fought; Max had already beaten Joe before, knocking him out in the 12th round. Americans from coast-to-coast celebrated Louis’ victory, particularly those Americans who were chaffing at the bit of a segregation that though separate, was decidedly not equal.
Then there was a little horse that captured America’s respect and admiration. A horse that inspired all who were down on their luck, to “give it another try.” He was literally little, much smaller than the horses he competed against. When ran he was easy to spot, he threw his legs out in what looked like an awkward gait. By the time he was three years old, the peak age for racehorses, he was an experienced loser. He was not alone though, he was surrounded by losers. First, there was the trainer, a displaced cowboy, many saw as old and tired. There was the jockey who was blind in one eye, and too tall to be a jockey. Last, there was the owner, a man mired in the grief of losing a child, a loss that led to the breakup of his first marriage.
When he began racing for his new owner he was laughed at and ridiculed, “The horse is too small, the jockey too big, the trainer too old, and the owner is too dumb to know the difference.” He didn’t just look bad running, standing still he looked like nothing as well. You see, when he started winning, it wasn’t because of great stamina or strong legs, he had none of that.
When our little pony was younger, abuse was heaped upon him. He was beaten repeatedly as trainers attempted to conform him to the accepted mold of a racehorse. When he did not conform, he was used to train other horses. He was forced to lose to the horses he trained to build their self-confidence. Finally, he was sold to others who raced him. But, he did not race at Churchill Downs and Pimlico, he raced in the lowest of all horse races, the claim stakes. Competing in two races a week he did what they taught him to do, he lost. He was then sold one final time. It was for this new owner that he finally began to win.
His best race, in my opinion, was against a monster of a horse. His nemesis, War Admiral, stood 18 hands tall, bigger than all other horses, and he dwarfed our little pony. A millionaire who had previously owned Man of War, the greatest racehorse in the history of horseracing, owned War Admiral. War Admiral had the best trainer, best jockey, and best stables money could buy. War Admiral won the Triple Crown, America’s three premiere horse races, and easily defeated every horse he went up against by a wide margin.
But, Seabiscuit, an enigma to science, triumphed. Why is Seabiscuit an enigma to science? Because, by everything measurable by science, Seabiscuit should never have beaten War Admiral, or any of the other horses he beat. So, how did Seabiscuit become one of history’s greatest horses? How did this horse win against better horses, with better training, better riders, and better support? He had heart, and three losers who had heart; and saw the heart within the breast of that little pony. You can see the greatness within him in his races. He would look those other horses in the eye, and it was almost as if he said, “Not today, you will not beat me today.” The racetrack operators didn’t “level the playing field” by giving him a head start. No, he had to go head-to-head with horses that looked like racehorses, horses that had star trainers, star jockeys, and owners who knew horseracing and had the money to win. If the races had been made fair for Seabiscuit, he would never have become the great horse that was deep inside of him, he would never have beaten War Admiral. Seabiscuit did not just beat War Admiral, he beat War Admiral on War Admiral’s home track using the starting bell War Admiral was used too and was unfamiliar to Seabiscuit. He beat War Admiral by four furlongs an unbelievable feat.
Seabiscuit’s new team did not attempt to conform him to the accepted mold of what a racehorse should be. They did not demand a just and fair field of competition. They saw the greatness in Seabiscuit, and encouraged that great will power and heart deep within the breast of that little pony.
We all have that kind of greatness within us, the harder the battle, the greater the victory. When my youngest brother was three years old, he asked me to teach him chess. He pestered me until I taught him how to play chess. For more than a dozen years, I beat him every time we played. I could see in his face the pain of defeat, many times, I was tempted to let him win a game, but I did not. If I let him win, he would know I let him win. Maybe not immediately after his victory, but eventually he would know, and this would be as bad as not winning. I knew if he persisted one day, he would win. I never removed one of my pieces or gave any other advantage to him, we always played as equals, even though we were not. I was older by 10 years and 11 months, I had played in sanctioned chess tournaments and had a rating from the United States Chess Federation, there was nothing fair about our games.
I always encouraged him, but never leveled the playing field. Then one day, while I was home from the navy, he beat me. I cannot remember what we said to each other, but I will never forget the look in his eyes. There was a calmness in his eyes, a self-confidence I had never seen before. He had risen to the challenge; he had accomplished this victory by never giving up. I stood there understanding for the first time, the joy Pete Lamoreaux must have felt the first time I beat him. I knew now that no matter where Jason would go in life, he would succeed. Like Joe Louis and Seabiscuit, Jason had found his own greatness within himself.