At some point, you are going to die.
It’s something that we don’t think a lot about. More correctly, it’s something we try not to think a lot about, because holy crap. And in one of the peculiar ironies of life, it’s quite often only when you die that people take stock of how you lived.
It is also at that time, given your incorporeal state, that you won’t give the tiniest of rat’s asses how people assess your life and how it was lived.
Now imagine living your life that way, for as far back as anybody can remember. That was Diego Armando Maradona. Warmups, Hand of God, booze, drugs, women, comments, he didn’t care, this squat man possessed of a bull-like grace who had the most rare of gifts: the ability to make a football do exactly what he wanted when he needed it to.
He isn’t one of those players with a lot of records. When you Google “Maradona records,” you get that he was the most-fouled player during a World Cup, both tournament and match. And in many ways, you say to yourself, that’s perfect. He played the game in a way that almost dared opponents to kick him, in a time when things weren’t as civil as they are now. Butchers cheated the world out of time with Maradona, diminished his grace, but you got the feeling that he wouldn’t have had it any other way, this man who said if he had to live life again, he would come back as himself.
How will we be remembered doesn’t really occur to a lot of us. Or if it does, it’s too late for us to do anything about it. Maybe Maradona cared, but it sure as hell didn’t seem like it. People who live lives like that seem like they have achieved a state of grace, like the human form of the “Everything’s Fine” meme, where the critter sits in a room that is on fire. What Maradona wanted to do was play football, and win. Any way possible. Hand of God? Sure, if that’s what was necessary. While he played the game, after he left the game, as a pundit, as a national team manager, as a man struggling with his addictions and opening his heart.
When the tally comes, as people line up to write about him, you will see a lot of references to him not being a very nice person, or doing drugs, or what the hell ever. So what. It raised eyebrows in America when basketball star Charles Barkley said, “I am not a role model, I am not paid to be a role model.” Mike Tyson said, “I’m not Mother Teresa, but I’m not Charles Manson either.” What we do with athletes is weird. Think about it for a second. Who’s the best dentist in the country in which you live, and does anybody care except for the people who get their mouths worked on by this person. Nope. Somewhere there is a king of the garbagemen, or the best teacher anyone has ever seen, and they toil away in anonymity. Nobody watches them work on TV, they aren’t endorsing shoes. They die, and someone writes a lovely obituary if they are lucky. And that’s that.
But athletes. Ah, athletes. They touch our lives and live on in our memories because what they do is the stuff of dreams. We live vicariously through them, we argue about which ones were greater or lesser, we parse goals and moments, buy stuff they endorse, strut around in replica kits. Most crucially, we idolize them without fully understanding what they are, as if scoring more goals than anyone else automatically makes you a better person. Not necessarily. It might just make you an exceptionally talented asshole. So what, then, of how we react to great athletes. Maradona didn’t change football and inspire hero worship because he built houses for the poor. He stomped the terra like a mastodon on the football pitch, then lived a life so full you can be forgiven for being surprised he even made it to 60. And he did it without a shard of compromise.
Lives lived like that are rare, and usually at the funerals of those people, particularly if they are famous, people will say, “But they weren’t very nice.” Okay. Now what? The moment of watching Ayrton Senna drive for the first time is something that a lot of Formula One devotees remember. Drivers of the modern era, beginning really with Alain Prost, were amazing, and all-conquering, but they were also technicians. They tested, they absorbed data. Senna got in the car, grabbed it by the scruff of the neck and made it do what it needed to extract the maximum. His famous on board lap from the 1990 Monaco Grand Prix is one of the most thrilling things you will ever see.
But Senna wasn’t a nice man. That wasn’t why he was being paid. He rammed a teammate to take both out so that he could win the championship. Okay. Yet when he died, Brazil — the entire nation of Brazil — was a wreck, for days. Because he was the best at what he did. Argentina will be a wreck for days for the same reason. Maradona was stupendous. It is my belief that Lionel Messi is the greatest player to ever play the game, which takes nothing away from how astonishing, how memorable Maradona was. In many ways it’s the same, philosophically, as Senna compared to Schumacher. Both are great, both changed the game. All wanted to win. Period.
The famous Maradona warmup is really so much of what you need to know about him, You can see teammates doing the science stuff around him, while he just dances to “Live is Life,” doing keepe-uppes, even shimmying his hips as the crowd went wild. The world doesn’t have many unicorns, people so rare they’re like mythic beasts. Maradona was one of those people. In death, people will celebrate his life, but they won’t do it any harder, better or more thoroughly than the man himself did. No regrets.
And we all feel the power / We all give the best / Every minute of the hour / Don’t think about a rest
My life has only had one person like that in it, a person who grabbed it with both hands, with joy. He rode hundreds of miles a week, raced harder, ate more, smiled more, had more fun than anybody I have ever ridden with. He wasn’t the most talented, didn’t really win, but his winning was in doing the damn thing, and doing it in full. Racing was it. And one horrible night, I also watched him die of a massive heart attack, at the end of a ride. Franco died at the same age as his father, 52, in the same manner; massive heart attack. Maybe the key to Franco living, loving and embracing every last damn thing he could with absolute fullness was a consequence of thinking, maybe, just maybe, I shouldn’t hold back.
At his funeral we told Franco stories, and everybody who knew him had one. The biggest thing was the lack of sadness, that everybody who talked about him was smiling as they did so, and everybody said that he held nothing back. It’s a rare person who can live life like that, who has the courage to live a like that. Death comes for us all. And despite all the things people say about enjoying life, doing this or that, most of us don’t, even though we should. Maradona was immortal in that he will live on in legend, on video, on highlight reels and in memories. And memories of that uncompromising life will incorporate that thing at which he was nonpareil. And that is as it should be. Humans gifted enough to do remarkable things get to become immortal. Yet they’re still human, and that’s okay.
Rest in peace, you damn crazy genius.