Master motivators and football geniuses: Cal Ripken, Steve Young, Frank Deford talk past glories, new challenges
By Lou Fancher Correspondent Contra Costa Times
If the athletic "first acts" of Steve Young, Cal Ripken Jr. and Frank Deford weren't enough to bring the audience to a standing ovation, the spirited storytelling and heavy-hitting charitable activities of the three sports heroes were a sure hit.
These three Hall-of-Famers -- football, baseball and sportscasters/sportswriters, respectively -- shared the bill for the Sept. 10 season opener for the "Newsmaker" Lesher Speaker Series' 10th season, Young and Ripken talked with Deford about life after sports, and about persistence, in sports and otherwise.
The event's nonprofit partner, Oakland-based Playworks, offered an impressive playing field for a night devoted to the glories of games. Playworks provides trained full-time coaches to low-income elementary schools in the United States. Aiming to boost positive classroom behavior and reduce bullying at recess and in afterschool sports leagues, the nonprofit operates in 31 East Bay schools.
Deford has more than five decades of sports journalism to his credit, and has worked with everyone from Sports Illustrated and GQ magazine to ESPN and NPR. His books "Everybody's All-American," and "Alex: The Life Of A Child," have been turned into films. The latter is about his daughter's death from Cystic Fibrosis; Deford has spent 17 years as chairman (now emeritus) with the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.
He introduced Young and Ripken: "Two-time MVP's, Hall of Famers, both number eight, both devoted to youth charities after retiring," he said. "Number eight in your program, number one in your hearts!"
Bay Area residents know all about Young's 15 seasons in the NFL, especially his three Super Bowl title wins as a 49er and his MVP Award for Super Bowl XXIX's 49-26 win over the San Diego Chargers.
After retiring in 1999, the high-ranking passer (and lawyer) went on to sports broadcasting, business ventures, philanthropic enterprises (both the Forever Young Foundation and Right to Play support children and disadvantaged communities) and to his greatest role, fatherhood.
Ripken was all about big numbers -- the 6-foot-4 former shortstop and third baseman played 21 seasons with the Baltimore Orioles and appeared in 2,632 consecutive games (toppling Lou Gehrig's long-standing record). Another big number: 700,000, the number of players around the world involved with the Cal Ripken Baseball program.
Deford asked both men about retiring from professional sports.
"You felt like the roadrunner, like you fell off a cliff," Young said. "I'd dream I can't get dressed and make it Candlestick in time and wake up in a cold sweat. My life is sublime, but I'll never be third-and-10 again."
As for Ripken, "The hardest thing to do is to leave when there's a little left in your tank."
But his retirement announcement had sweet recompense: "I had closure with fans and I could talk about my work with kids," he said.
Recalling their most cherished memories, they spoke of coaches, managers, victories and camaraderie from fans and fellow players. Young said 49ers coach Bill Walsh was "genius," especially when he was screaming at the coaches instead of the players during practices. "He was getting me accountable. I was think, 'My God! I've gotta play better for my poor coach!' He was an integrator, always moving us around in the locker room or at meals so we'd know every person on the team."
Orioles manager Earl Weaver was more clandestine, Ripken suggested, telling a story of an end run Weaver spun when pitcher Jim Palmer refused to suit up for a game due to a sore neck. "Earl was a master motivator. He told Palmer the other team "probably had his number any way." In the end, Palmer was saying, You SOB, I'm pitching tonight."
Young's favorite memories include the mildewy Candlestick locker room, shaking with fans cheering in the stadium, and the joy of leading "guys you need to dig in with you." Ripken said beating the odds -- too big to shortstop, staying in "small market" Baltimore his entire career, "waving" at crushed New York Yankee fans after a pivotal win -- were unforgettable.
Persistence was a key for both men -- Ripken beyond his 3-for-5 big league debut that stalled into a subsequent 4 for 63, and Young, sweeping past the "lefties can't be quarterbacks" doubters to eventually stand atop the mountain.
For Deford, deferential and dignified throughout the Sept. 10 event, it seemed he had taken a page from the Walsh/Weaver playbook -- identify the stars, then step back and let them shine.