This weekend, the world of sports was dominated not by the box scores of baseball pennant races, college football match-ups, hockey tournaments or NFL games. The focus this weekend was on loss. In Miami, Florida, Jose Fernandez was killed at the unimaginably young age of 24, succumbing in a boating accident. In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Arnold Palmer finally lost his battle with heart disease, having turned 87 just two weeks previously. Finally, half a continent away, the ashes of Gordie Howe - who passed away on June 10 at age 88 — were laid to rest in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, next to those of his wife. Three different people, with three distinct stories. Yet they shared some vital qualities, both on and off their chosen fields of battle.
On the surface, Fernandez would appear to be the odd man out in this trio. Raised in a different era than Palmer and Howe, his untimely death robbed him of the opportunity to build his legacy. However, if you scratch the surface just a bit, you find that the three shared more than you might think. Both Palmer and Howe were raised with the small town, blue collar values of hard work, honesty, respect and perseverance. Palmer learned his way around a tractor before he learned to navigate a fairway, Howe worked in construction to help his family during the Depression years. Fernandez, a Cuban native, survived three unsuccessful defection attempts — and the resulting jail terms — before successfully defecting with his mother and sister. This all occurred before he turned sixteen years old. Same values, different path.
Howe, of course, became “Mr. Hockey”, and Palmer was — and forever will be — “The King” Their respective careers on the ice and golf course are nothing short of remarkable. Both transformed the public perception and appreciation of their respective sports, and both altered the face of the game forever, both monetarily and otherwise. Unfortunately, fate deprived Fernandez of the longevity necessary to achieve that stature, but he demonstrated the same competitive fire and determination, enabling him to come back from Tommy John surgery that robbed him of the better part of two seasons, after earning Rookie of the Year and All-Star recognition in his MLB premier.
I never had the privilege of meeting either Howe or Fernandez, but did meet Palmer at a Pro-Am event in California. Despite the constant demands on his time, he was unfailingly gracious. Several years later, we spent some time at his Bay Hill resort, and happened to have Palmer’s usual Senior Tour caddie as our fore-caddie for the round. We heard some terrific stories, including how Arnie had arranged for the caddie to work on Gary Player’s game preserve when he finished school. At the conclusion of the stay, we penned a note to the management, expressing our enjoyment of the stay and the assistance of the fore-caddie. About four weeks later, we receive a letter from Palmer, expressing his appreciation for our note, referencing specific passages. Needless to say, that letter now hangs on our wall.
Palmer and Howe shared that unique ability to display fiery competitiveness in the game, with a gentleman’s sense of decorum away from the battlefield. To this day, male patrons at Bay Hill who have the temerity to wear a hat in the dining room are quietly -- but firmly — reminded that “Mr. Palmer prefers that gentlemen not wear hats in the dining room,” Similar stories abound concerning Howe.
Ultimately, the quality that most firmly joins these three is their love for their respective games. Fernandez was an unabashed cheerleader in the dugout, and possessed that infectious smile whenever he was on the field. With Palmer, you always had the feeling that if he went on vacation, he would love nothing more than to play golf. Howe’s love of the game was evidenced simply by the longevity of his career, playing long beyond the age when sane people have moved on to less violent pursuits. All three men clearly loved their chosen games, and their compelling personalities rose above the more mundane concerns of money and statistics.
The larger-than-life presences of Arnold Palmer, Jose Fernandez and Gordie Howe make the voids left by their deaths deeper and more vast. They brought passion, determination and consummate skill to their games without sacrificing either the almost child-like joy of playing the sport they loved or the respect and sportsmanship that pervaded their dealings with others. Their lessons are worth learning, whether you are an athlete or not. We can only hope that their legacies are passed on.