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Pondering what makes a great athlete, a couple of football players from yesteryear and one today quickly come to mind

I often think about how much fun it would be to gather several old teammates, coaches and sports enthusiasts to discuss the question: What makes a great athlete? I’d get some varied opinions. We could probably carve out a few qualities possessed by exceptional athletes. What usually catches a coach’s eye is “natural talent.” The guy has speed, strength, stamina, can catch and throw the ball, and if he has size…that too is a plus. If an athlete has the natural talent along with some size you probably have something to work with, but that’s not always the case.

There are a couple of qualities that must blend in with talent and size. Competitiveness is another important factor that usually can’t be taught. Some have, some do not. If you have all the attributes mentioned, but no competitiveness, the guy will flop. I have seen athletes with limited physical abilities, and yet, they beat you on Friday or Saturday night. These guys are usually the guys that do not give up and never say die.

Another important attribute is “coachability.” Is the guy coachable? Does he understand the game? Can he do what he is coached to do? A kid with good abilities, but is not coachable, usually brings “heart-burn” to coaches. If a coach finds a kid with most of these attributes, he has a prize that doesn’t come around very often in a coach’s career. But when a coach finds that athlete, he is “special.”

Over the years, I have played with some, watched from the stands, and coached some athletes who made the game a pure joy. It is delightful to watch anyone perform his job well. To me, it’s an art form. Watching an athlete, a waitress, a truck driver, a welder or a teacher do his or her job well is a true pleasure.

I played ball with Sam McCord at East Texas State in the 1950s. Transferring from Paris Junior College, Sam became our quarterback and was four years older than most of us, so we thought him to be an “old man.” He was partially bald, about 5-10 and weighed 173 pounds and was not a physical specimen. He was quick, but no real blazing speed, and he didn’t throw the ball that well. Some of his passes looked like a wounded duck through the air.

But Sam McCord led East Texas to three Lone Star Conference Championships and two Tangerine Bowl wins in Orlando. Athletes who played with or against Sam would probably say that he was one of the most completive quarterbacks they ever saw. Sam was Tangerine Bowl MVP; All-Lone Star Conference each year, and NAIA All-American.

Blackie Sherrod of the Dallas Morning News wrote a story about “Stumbling” Sam McCord-saying, “He Can’t Run, He Can’t Throw, But He Will Beat You on Game Day.” Sam was blessed with a double helping of competitiveness that carried him far. Sam could “do the job well.”

I played with another quarterback at Cameron Junior College in Oklahoma. Byron Beaver was a native Cherokee athlete from Lawton High School who could probably have excelled at any sport he pursued. Some say he was a better basketball player than football player. Former Oklahoma Sooner head coach Bud Wilkinson thought enough of Byron’s football skills to take him to Norman, Oklahoma after high school, but an illness caused him to lay out his freshman year. He transferred to Cameron Junior College.

Byron had all the natural physical abilities. He could run, throw, catch; he was smart; but most of all, he had that competitive edge. But his strong suit was “breaking training.” I don’t believe he ever had a good night’s sleep while at Cameron. He spent most of his nights down on “the block” in downtown Lawton. He liked to shoot pool, gamble and drink. On our way to breakfast one morning, we found Byron laying in the front yard steps of the dormitory. He didn’t quite make it to his room the night before.

On the practice field, I never saw him loaf, hold back or quit when things got tough. He worked as hard as anyone. The coaches loved him, and we considered Byron as part of the coaching staff. He was a student of the game. He was a rugged competitor and he knew how to win. In 1960, he led the Cameron Junior College Aggies to a National JUCO Championship. He was All Conference and All American.

For someone who never properly trained, Byron Beaver was as tough and good a player as I ever played with. Byron went on to the University of Houston and was converted to defensive safety under legendary head coach Bill Yeoman. In Yeoman’s first game as a head coach, Beaver intercepted five passes against Baylor at Floyd Casey Stadium setting a record at that time. An outstanding athlete, Byron was the exception to the rule. He could do what needed to be done when it had to be done in spite of his late-night bad habits.

Then there are stories of athletes like Tom Brady, who have raw talent, natural and developed skills, are students of the game and are the epitome of competitiveness. He is still throwing passes at the age of 45. Brady pays special attention to his diet and takes great care of his body and has spent years preparing for each new season. Today’s “great” athlete cannot leave anything to chance.

Like I said earlier, it is enjoyable watching people do what they do well. I was blessed to have seen several over many years.


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