Every once in a great while there comes along someone that is so much greater than those around him that they transcend their sport and become worldwide icons to hundreds of millions of us. Usually they have one name that lets you know who they are but just seeing their face makes them instantly recognizable.
This week we lost one of those people when soccer superstar Pele died after a long battle with illness. Pele was, of course, beloved in his native Brasil. The communist government named him a national treasure and used him as a propaganda tool to further their brutal cause. Eventually he broke away from them and refused to be used in a political way.
But this isn't about that part of his life, it is about how this poor unknown from a tiny town in a country the world knew little about became one of the most recognized faces in the world because he was very, very, very, good at playing soccer. His fame allowed him the opportunity to get endorsement deals around the world as he became the first, or one of the first, international sports stars.
His rise to fame coincided with another international icon, Arnold Palmer. Because of their ability to dominate their sport they were able to cash in and make millions which they used to not only support their families, of course, but help people all over the world with their charity causes too. The fact that they are recognized as two of the most accessible people in their prime is also telling about the kind of people they were.
Muhammad Ali is another superstar who loved talking to people and welcomed them with open arms and he also earned millions as a spokesman for various products in his lifetime. I actually had the good fortune to meet both Palmer and Ali in my life and both times it was one of the great days ever. Two absolute gentlemen who looked you in the eye when they spoke to you and no matter how busy they might have been, made you feel like they had all the time in the world to speak to you.
As opposed to these two, who also transcended their sports, but were generally regarded as two of the most surly people you could ever meet. They proved that you can never have too good of PR help to get you endorsements when you won't give people the time of day. While they transcended their sports and are internationally known, nobody is ever going to accuse them of being nice guys.
I'm going to include the greatest athlete in my lifetime here even though he never said one word. Secretariat is another athlete that everyone in the world has heard of and was beloved for what he accomplished. Watching replays of his races makes me cry because of how great he was.
Anyway, I started this with Pele and feel it is fitting to conclude with him too. To give you an example of his charisma and draw, in 1975 the New York Cosmo's hired Pele to play for them. It was at the end of his career and for sure his best days were behind him at this point but the Cosmo's were looking to generate interest in soccer in the US and he was the guy to do it they felt.
Prior to his arrival with the team they drew around 4-6,000 fans per game, not bad to be sure and many other teams in the league were drawing around 4-500 fans only. Once Pele arrived the attendance went to 50-60,000 per game. This wasn't because suddenly people became interested in soccer, it was because people wanted to see the greatest soccer player to ever play. Just think about that for a minute. One guy increased attendance by 10 times.
We may never see the likes of transcendental superstars again because of the ability to see every sport over 500 different platforms today. These athletes should be appreciated for their ability to rise above the rest.
Be sad because we lost one of the all time greats but take the time to find some old video of him playing in one of his three world cup wins, still a record, and enjoy watching the best there ever was.