Disclosure: when I was a contributing reporter for The Boston Globe sports pages in 1989, I had the pleasure of meeting my writing idol, the amazingly talented Leigh Montville. Not only was Montville the most original sports columnist I have ever read, he was also incredibly nice to a 19-year-old reporter from San Juan and the Bronx.
I have followed Montville’s career for the past 22 years, from his stint at Sports Illustrated to his current calling as a sports biographist. To this day, his book Ted Williams: The Biography of an American Hero, is one of the BEST biographies ever written.
This year Montville returns with Evel: The High-Flying Life of Evel Knievel: American Showman, Daredevil, and Legend.
For an boy growing up in Nixon’s America, THIS BOOK IS A MUST READ. For several years in the 1970s, Knievel defined what a rebel was all about: with his daredevil appearances on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, his bravado, and more importantly, the coolest toy ever.
Here is an excerpt from the book, which describes the time Knievel wanted to jump Snake River:
The man of the moment made the moment a family affair. If this was going to be his last day on earth, then he would go out looking like a church deacon, Linda and the three kids would be there. His mother would be there from Reno. His father had been there all week. (“Bob always had to have a challenge,” his dad said at a press conference, sounding a bit like Ward Cleaver. “I tried to discourage him for years for fear of injury.”) His eighty-one-year-old grandmother, Emma, would be there. His half-sisters would be there from both sides of the family tree. His cousin, Father Jerry Sullivan, a Catholic priest from Carroll College in Helena, Montana, would give the benediction before liftoff.
His lawyers, accountants, bartenders, friends, and fellow reprobates from long ago had appeared already at the site. Bus trips had gone down from Butte. There had been a mass migration from the city, people driving the 364 miles in five, six, seven hours, depending on speed. The Butte High band had gone down to play the National Anthem. Everyone had assembled, former promoters, fans, everyone …Ray Gunn, his first assistant from Moses Lake in the early days, had returned for the show, friends again, signed up now to watch the jump from a helicopter and carry a bottle of Wild Turkey to the other side for an instant celebration.
The day would be part wake, part wedding reception, an all-time Humpty Dumpty experience. The broken pieces of Robert Craig Knievel’s life would be put together for this one time as they never had been put together, not once, in all of his years.
He would fly from Butte in the Lear in the morning with his family. Watcha would be at the controls and would buzz the crowd at the canyon, a dramatic touch. Watcha and everybody else would switch to a helicopter at the Twin Falls City- County Airport, arrive at the site to great applause, and the man of the moment would put on the flight suit in his trailer, and the show would begin.
Unless, of course, he canceled the show.
“I have two demands that if you don’t meet I’ll cancel the show,” Knievel said in an early morning phone call to Bob Arum from Butte.
Arum prepared for the worst.
“First,” Knievel said, “I want to have all the press meet my helicopter when it lands. I want to make a statement.”
Arum said that would be impossible. Moving the entire press corps through the crowd could start a riot. (Another riot.) What he could do was bring Knievel to the press tent. That was possible. Knievel could make his statement that way. Same result.
At a time when America battled with an unpopular war, a bad economy, and loss of prestige in the world (sound familiar?), Knievel was DA MAN, the American who said fuck it to the rest of the world. This little Puerto Rican Italian boy loved every minute of it, and for the Tony Hawks and Shawn Whites of the world, without Knievel, the X Games would be just a pipe dream.
So, congratulations to Montville. You had me in 1986 when I started reading you religiously in Boston. And your grip on my mind is still tight.
As for Knievel, I leave you with this video gem: