Stoke of genius

THERE IS A BOOK that you were probably supposed to read in high school, which means that you probably didn't: Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes. It's about a man named Charlie, with an IQ of 68, who undergoes a surgical procedure that turns him into a genius. Of course, Charlie's universe, and his view of it, changes with his increased intelligence, mostly unhappily. When the people around you expect you to be dumb, they don't always like it when you're suddenly smart. Worst of all, Charlie eventually loses his newfound gifts -- his IQ falling like stars until once again it's 68.

Flowers for Algernon is one of those stories that stick with you, because it's easy to imagine what it would be like to be briefly better than you are, visited by a transient heroism. It's especially easy if you watch sports, because then you've seen however many real-life Charlies rise and fall in a matter of days or weeks or, if they're really lucky, a few special months. Their names, even long after they enjoyed their temporary athletic genius, continue to send a weird kind of crackle through a fan's heart: Remember that guy who for whatever reason, for however long, was untouchable?

There's an even-money chance that's how we'll talk about Jeremy Lin one day. Tim Tebow too seems poised to join the ranks of Charlies, last season's improbable series of starts already part of Denver's erasable history. (Talk about people not liking it when you're suddenly smart.) There is a long list of names waiting for their twin company. Baseball's particularly good for lightning strikes: Shane Spencer with his remarkable September in 1998; Kevin Maas and his rookie-season bleacher boob crew; Dontrelle Willis and his confounding delivery. Boxing will always have Buster Douglas. Football? Washington's Timmy Smith ran for a record 204 yards in Super Bowl XXII; he collected only 602 yards in his entire career. And how many college games have been decided because some knockdown kid was inexplicably great for 40 or 60 minutes?

For me, though, the best Charlies are hockey goalies. In some ways, the role is ripe for it: Goalies are so singularly important, and their jobs are such a function of streaky confidence, a suddenly superhuman goalie can change history and then just as quickly fade into it. Just watch these next few glorious weeks: It's an annual rite of each Stanley Cup spring. Some anointed goalie will steal a series, and then another, and maybe another, and all the analytics in the world won't be able to explain it.

That's why Steve Penney will always be my favorite Charlie. All these years later, his story continues to mystify. Called up by the Montreal Canadiens shortly before the 1984 Stanley Cup playoffs, he played in just four regular-season games (winning none) before Jacques Lemaire lost his mind and rolled with him the rest of the way. Penney -- an ordinary guy with bad knees -- soon had rabid fans comparing him to Ken Dryden after he won nine of his 15 games, including three shutouts, before the Habs finally fell in the conference finals. Penney followed up that miracle run with a decent season, but he eventually succumbed to those bad knees and the more permanent genius of a young goalie named Patrick Roy. A few games in Winnipeg, and that was it. Steve Penney vanished.

Now here, at the end, I think Flowers for Algernon fails us as a sporting metaphor: In his book, Keyes reveals almost with horror that despite Charlie's having lost all those IQ points, his memories remain. It's bad enough that he's no longer smart, but the real tragedy is that he remembers when he was. Back when I was in high school, I'll admit that I shuddered at that thought. Now that I'm old and fat, I understand that Charlie wasn't tragic, unless we're all tragic -- unless life itself is tragic.

I can remember all sorts of things that I used to be able to do but can't anymore. Do I wish I could still do them? Sure. Is the memory of my younger self so painful that I wish I had never been young? Only when I think about my prom. I don't doubt that Steve Penney, that Shane Spencer, that Buster Douglas would have liked longer stretches of triumph. I'm sure they wish they were in their respective Halls of Fame. But given a choice between what they had and nothing, who would choose nothing? Who would ever refuse to be blessed?

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