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Wednesday, November 19, 2003
Rockin' Rollen was one sign of the times
By Eric Neel
Special to ESPN Classic

Some sports figures are popular, but some are something else -- they bend our mind, or tickle our funny bone, or move our groove thang, or inspire us to go the extra mile. Cult figures push our imaginations to the limit, and define the outer limits of our games. They are flying Elvises on motorcyles, and hands of stone, and big birds, and underground geniuses, and bold bodybuilding Czechs, and insane rainbow-headed superfans, and end zone dancing machines, and women who can move a quarter-mile in nothing flat. Billie Jean King, Dr. J, and Pete Rose might have defined the Me Generation in sports, but these ten sports figures (plus a bonus) gave the '70s its special flair.

Vinko Bogataj

Everybody knew him but nobody knew who he was; he was just "the agony of defeat guy," arms and legs turning like a blender in our minds forever. Bogataj fell down the ramp every Sunday at the start of "Wide World of Sports," and every single time it was unbelievable. The whole idea of sports got bigger, more exotic and more exciting, watching a ski jumper from Yugoslavia named Vinko skid and tumble out of control and into a crowd of onlookers. It got smaller, too, because, god love him, there was nothing superhuman about Vinko -- he fell on his ass (and his shoulder, and his head, and his knees) just like the rest of us.

Roberto Duran
Before his famous fights with Sugar Ray Leonard in 1980, Duran was less a face familiar to fight fans than he was a ghost, a legend, a force of nature. He had become world lightweight champ in 1972, and had won 71 (of 72) professional fights, 58 by knockout, but most of his fights had been in his home country of Panama, and few outside that country had actually seen him fight. It was said that he had "Manos de Piedra" (Hands of Stone), and people repeated the phrase with a nervous sort of whisper, like they actually believed it. He had a hold on every fight fan's deepest imagination, and if other fighters could be impressive, Duran inspired awe. By the time he stepped into the ring against Leonard, on June 20, 1980, the air was buzzing with how terrificly vicious and indomitable he was, and some worried he might literally kill Sugar Ray.

Mark Fidrych

The curly blond mop, the toothy grin, the hunched shoulders and knobby knees, the arms dangling almost to the ground -- "The Bird" was a goof, a kid named after a Sesame Street character. Fidrych manicured the mound with his hands at the start of every inning, getting the dirt just so, and talked to the ball before big pitches, urging the little bugger to add a bit of bite to a curve ball or skid to a slider. For one glorious season, his eccentricities seemed like genius and his delicate way on the mound looked like the Zen path to baseball enlightenment -- he was a proto-Sidd Finch. He was 19-9 in 1976, with a 2.34 ERA. He won eight straight at one point, threw 24 complete games and started the All-Star game as a rookie. The Tigers had a losing record, but nobody cared. Fans packed the stands at home and on the road and every one of them hoped some of Fidrych's silly magic would rub off on them.

Bobby Fischer

Bobby Fisher
Bobby Fischer won the world chess championship in 1972.
Great chess players came from Russia, they didn't come from Chicago -- until Bobby Fischer, that is. As a kid, Fischer routinely took down grandmasters, becoming one himself at the age of 15, and he was the talk of the chess world in the 1960s. In 1972, at 29, he beat Boris Spassky to become the only American world champion of chess, and suddenly people everywhere knew about him. He had an IQ of 180 and such a memory for details that he could recount moves from speed matches years after they took place. He was obsessed with the idea of being the greatest player of all time, and it's generally thought, among people who know such things, that he succeeded. But Fischer's legend wasn't about wins, it was about the utterly single-minded bulldog ferocity and paranoia with which he pursued them. That legend was secured forever when he pulled a J.D. Salinger and went underground after the Spassky match, taking the secret of his genius and a potential golden age for chess with him.

Connie Hawkins

Along with Earl "The Goat" Manigault, "The Hawk" was one of the original New York playground gods. He was Dr. J before Dr. J, all giant strides and air-born swoops, and folks who saw him then still get giddy just thinking about it. He left the blacktop to play college ball at Iowa where, as a freshman, he took a $200 loan from gambler Jack Molinas, who was arranging a point-shaving scheme. Hawkins' brother repaid the loan, and Connie was in no way involved in the point-shaving, but he looked guilty by association and was forced out of school and banned from playing in the NBA until he was 27 years old. Between college and the NBA, he was a superstar in the ABA, where his whirls and twirls were a perfect match for the league's free-spirit style. The best of Hawkins was behind him by the time he finally played for the Phoenix Suns in the early '70s, but he made four straight All-Star teams and fans in the know grooved on the poetry in his game and the anguish in his story.

Billy "White Shoes" Johnson

As a receiver and punt returner for the Houston Oilers, Johnson popularized the end zone dance with his "White Shoes Shuffle," inspired by the "Funky Chicken" and a college opponent who danced after catching a touchdown pass. Kids playing touch football in the street and on playgrounds all over the country practiced the "Shuffle." It felt good. In fact, you should probably do the dance again now, while you're reading: find a ball (don't tell me you don't have a ball handy, I don't even want to hear that) and hold it in one hand over your head, let a little waggle ease into your shoulders and neck and turn your head from side to side -- that's it, give love to fans on all sides of the stadium. Now put your feet together and flap your knees in and out, in and out, like butterfly wings in slow motion. Yeah, you've got it, you're feeling the touchdown boogie now, you don't need me to tell you how "White Shoes" was the epitome of '70s style and freedom, how his kick returns and celebrations were bigger and better than the game itself.

Evel Knievel

There was a time, before bicycle tricks and inline moves, when extreme sports meant jumping dozens of cars, giant fountains in front of Caesar's Palace, and shark tanks -- on a motorcycle. And breaking every bone in your body -- twice. There was a time when extreme didn't mean cool, it meant crazy, a time when crazy was the very definition of cool. That time was Evel's time. It wasn't easy to take a guy all decked out in Elvis-style jumpsuits and mirrored shades seriously, but it wasn't easy to resist him either because his campy routine always ended with a mindblowing crash or an amazing landing. To the kids, he was a superhero come to life, a guy you were proud to have on your lunchbox. To their parents, he was part freak and part rebel, a guilty pleasure, someone you couldn't help but watch.

Shirley Muldowney

Shirley Muldowney
Shirley Muldowney takes off in a cloud of smoke during qualifying for the 1974 NHRA Winternationals at Pomona Raceway.
Shirley Muldowney had it all. She had a nickname: "Cha Cha." She had a rival: "Biggy Daddy" Don Garlits. She had a nitro-burning funny car they called "The Bounty Huntress," and she drove a hot pink top fuel dragster to the 1976 National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) title. She was a tough chick in a man's man's world, an inspiration to every girl who ever dreamed of doing something different, and a take-no-prisoners driver off the line. She was perfectly suited to the '70s -- her trail blazing career mirrored the rise of women's rights in sports and every other part of society. In 1983, she was immortalized in the movie "Heart Like a Wheel," and she continued to race, and win, well into the '90s.

Steve Prefontaine

At one point in the early 70s, "Pre" seemed unbeatable. He won seven NCAA titles in track and cross country at the University of Oregon and owned every American record between 2,000 and 10,000 meters. He wasn't a graceful runner, and his technique was a bit ragged, but he had tons of want-to. "I run a race to see who has the most guts," he once said, and more often than not, he was the answer to his own question. His heart wasn't enough at the 1972 Olympics, though: after leading the 3,000-meter race most of the way, he was boxed out on the last lap and finished fourth. Prefontaine bounced back from the loss to lead a fight for athletes' rights against the Amateur Athletic Union in 1974. His athleticism had made him popular, and his activism made him hip, but "Pre" didn't reach his greatest heights as a cult figure until he died in a car crash at age 24 and left the world wondering what he might have done next.

"Rockin'" Rollen Stewart

Rollen and his rainbow-colored afro debuted at the 1977 NBA Finals, and after that, they were in the crowd and on the screen for televised sporting events everywhere. Like bellbottoms, short shorts, roller skates and platform shoes, Stewart typified '70s fashion in all its wrongheaded glory. He seemed a harmless geek, just angling for the some small splash of the spotlight, and after a while, his presence helped make a game seem like a big deal. In the '80s, he found religion and started flashing "John 3:16" signs for the cameras, trying to save souls one big game at a time. In 1992, he went from being a funny curiosity to a sad, dangerous headcase, taking a hotel maid hostage for several hours before being subdued by police and eventually sent to prison.

Arnold Schwarzenegger

The pre-Terminator, pre-Maria, pre-President's Council on Physical Fitness Arnold was a wonder to behold. As winner of the Mr. Universe and Mr. Olympia titles many times over, he strutted his way across the screen in the 1977 documentary "Pumping Iron" without an ounce of fat or a trace of doubt on him. He spoke with a heavy accent and had a body that was definitely from another world, but his supreme self-confidence and relentless self-promotion seemed oddly American. What he really looked and sounded like was the future. It wasn't clear in the '70s what he'd become in the '80s and '90s, but it was clear from the way he teased Lou Ferrigno, mugged for the camera, and crushed the competition that he was too big and too ambitious to stay stuck on the small stage of bodybuilding for long. The mid-flex gleam in his eye said he was thinking icon all the way.

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