37: Super Mario

37: Super Mario

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Hooked on Hockey

Super Mario

How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving and tolerant of the weak and strong. Because someday in your life you will have been all of these.

~George Washington Carver

It was a sports fan’s dream — meeting legends from every sport imaginable. It was February 1995. I was a junior in college and had just driven six hours south to the Super Show in Atlanta, a sporting goods expo for thousands of retail store managers, buyers, companies, and their celebrity athlete spokespeople.

So there we were, a friend and I, two college kids trying to fit in with thousands of corporate bigwigs from Nike, Reebok, Adidas, Champion, and just about every sporting goods company conceivable. They each had a huge display that featured visits from their spokes-people. The purpose of the show was for retailers to make purchases and hold corporate meetings, but we planned our days around the “stars” we wanted to meet — boxers Evander Holyfield and Muhammad Ali, little-known rookie baseball player Carlos Delgado, Hall of Fame footballer Paul Warfield, boxing promoter Don King, tennis star Chris Evert, Olympic gymnast Mary Lou Retton, baseball strikeout master Nolan Ryan, and many more. One interaction had a lasting impact on us.

After waiting in by far the longest line of the weekend, it was time to meet one of the best hockey players of all time, Mario Lemieux. I had grown up resenting this guy — not personally, of course, but as a fan. I’d get so frustrated because no matter how little or how much he did during a game, he found a way to beat my beloved Washington Capitals. He was the Lebron James of hockey — you hated to play against him, but you’d love him on your team. To say I was going through the motions just to get another autograph from an overpaid celebrity was an understatement. Sure, he was good, but I was still bitter at the suffering he caused Capitals fans.

But then I remembered that Lemieux was taking a leave of absence from the 1994-95 National Hockey League season after receiving radiation to treat Hodgkin’s disease, a form of cancer. He was also recovering from his second back surgery in three years, so the time away served multiple purposes. Nobody in line for his autograph seemed to care about his personal struggles though.

Mario was like a robot — shaking hands, posing for pictures, signing posters . . . shake, smile, sign . . . shake, smile, sign . . . . People weren’t taking time to carry on a conversation — either because others were rushing them or because they were in a hurry to meet other athletes. As I got closer, I noticed he was hardly saying a word as he continuously did whatever was demanded by fans — sign this, sign that, pose with this person, etc., never once showing an ounce of frustration.

As I approached one of the greatest players of all time, he began signing a poster without being prompted. I quietly asked him, “How ya feelin’?” He paused in mid-signature, looked up at me, nodded his head in what seemed like disbelief, and replied, “Good . . . thank you for asking.” Those five words changed the way I viewed him. He had a grateful look in his eyes and genuinely appreciated me asking. I took the poster, shook his hand, thanked him and wished him well with his recovery, and walked away with nothing but shame.

Here was a guy who was battling much more than I could imagine. He eventually returned to action and played several more years, yet all we, as fans, were interested in was getting another autograph or saying we met someone famous. He stood on a pedestal, as many celebrities do, with his life sprawled in newspapers and magazines and the Internet. We often forget that our idols are human, too.

He retired in 2006 with a heart ailment after seventeen seasons, all with the Pittsburgh Penguins. During his career he won rookie of the year, six scoring titles, three league MVP awards, and two Stanley Cups — both times winning the playoff MVP. He played in thirteen All-Star games, earning All-Star Game MVP three times. He led Team Canada to gold medals at the 1987 Canada Cup and in the 2002 Winter Olympics and 2004 World Cup of Hockey where he served as team captain. So you can see how he earned the nickname Super Mario on the ice.

To me, though, he’s Super Mario for what he accomplished off the ice.

~Jim Bove

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