George Plimpton is one of my heroes. Journalist, writer, sometime actor and the first editor-in-chief of The Paris Review, he had a seemingly insatiable desire for new experiences. Ones that often seemed completely at odds with his literary demeanour. Even half of his life would have been a life twice lived.
Plimpton was the father of modern participatory sports journalism, having pitched in the National League, sparred with Archie Moore and Sugar Ray Robinson, trained with the Baltimore Colts and Detroit Lions, played in preseason goal for the Boston Bruins ice hockey team, attempted to get on the PGA tour, performed as a high-wire circus act and been soundly beaten at tennis by Pancho Gonzales. He recorded each of these experiences with great wit and honesty for Sports Illustrated and in a number of best-selling books. He also played in the New York Philharmonic, under Leonard Bernstein, and acted alongside John Wayne, Warren Beatty and Matt Damon.
He is responsible, too, for one of my favourite lines in all of sports journalism when, covering the Rumble in the Jungle for Sports Illustrated (Kinshasa, Zaire, 1974) and attempting to convey Muhammad Ali’s rope-a-dope tactics, he described the great heavyweight as leaning far back over the ropes “at the angle of someone looking out of his window to see if there’s a cat on the roof.”
He was a remarkable man.