Leap Of Faith

by Ken Pisani

A sportswriter futilely pitching Hollywood finds the one story they want but can’t have. 2,522 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.

Jack Williams was a New York sportswriter for thirty years before Hollywood beckoned. Actually, it didn’t so much "beckon" as merely exist on the other side of the country and, upon his arrival, disappear like Brigadoon. Several of Jack’s articles had been optioned by Hollywood producers for significant sums of money — sums that went to his employer, Sports: The Magazine. Jack had been content with the small bonuses he received on each option. But it stood to reason that if so much money was being recklessly parceled out for projects that never reached fruition beyond the issuing of the check, as if the option itself were the endgame, then why not cut out the middleman?

So Jack fled both the magazine and the Brooklyn neighborhood that had been slowly and covertly gentrified out from under him and headed west. To mine the gold that leaked from the pockets of the well-tailored men and women who, when they deigned to receive an audience, desired only one thing:

"Tell me a story," as the young executive asked with the yearning of a child at bedtime but none of the joy or wonder.

"Excuse me?" Jack replied, not that there had been any mistaking the nature of the request, only momentary confusion that the question had no preamble — no introduction or greeting of "hello" or even eye contact as the man poked at the phone smarter than he was.

"You know, a story," he expanded with five additional syllables. "With a beginning, a middle and an end."

And so Jack did. All over town. Jack told them all stories. Of "Wild" Harry Greb, a boxer who embodied The Roaring Twenties more than Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, and Al Capone combined. Greb was a nightclub-hopping rough-and-tumble brawler with educated thumbs that filled his opponents’ eyes in a clinch, a middleweight forced to battle much bigger men because fighters in his own weight class wouldn’t get in the ring with him. That Greb fought the latter part of his career while blind in one eye, and died at the age of twenty-six during an operation to correct the damage, struck those who heard it as "unbelievable." Not in the best sense of a great story ("Incredible!") but in the worst sense of Hollywood filmmaking because ("Nobody’s going to believe that!").

He told them about tragic figures like "Big Daddy" Lipscomb and heavyweight champion Sonny Liston ("Tragic endings are the stuff of great story-telling since the days of the Greeks," lectured one producer, likely parroting a phrase he once heard, judging by his inability to cite a single Greek tragedy when prompted). He told them about about a secret boxing match between President Teddy Roosevelt and retired heavyweight champion John L. Sullivan, whose boast that he "could lick any man in the house" apparently included the White House. He told them about England’s greatest jockey — the only jockey ever to be knighted — only to be interrupted by the "eureka" idea to make it a comedy and cast Rob Schneider, who Jack instantly confused with Roy Scheider, so good in Jaws, but probably miscast in these movies, even if he wasn’t dead.

Exhausted by each impassioned telling, Jack had no defense against the rejection that followed, a one-two punch of vague dismissal coupled with absolute confidence. "Not edgy enough," "Too smart for the room," "Movies about [fill in the blank] don’t work," and "I feel like I’ve seen that before." It occurred to Jack that it didn’t matter whether these people had actually seen something before, as long as they felt like they did; that what they thought and felt consistently trumped the evidence of reality.

But Jack had come to the inappropriately named City of Angels prepared, having accumulated over his long sportswriting tenure savings large enough to allow him to luxuriate in its perpetual sunshine, coastline retreats, proximity to Las Vegas, and swell restaurants with outdoor seating on streets busy with convertibles and the stunning young women paired with much older men that gave Jack hope even as it repulsed him.

But his financial parachute dwindled more quickly than it should have, diminished by late breakfasts on the beach, afternoons at Santa Anita, and evenings with those younger women who taxed him physically, emotionally, and sexually in a trifecta of humiliation. And so Jack found himself looking for a job, something nobody past a certain age should be forced to do, like bungee jumping or having a body part pierced or attending Lollapalooza.

For months Jack suffered the torturous process: interviewing with much younger people whom he outshone no matter trying to dim his own light by deliberately mangling syntax and pretending to possess less knowledge and hiding every virtue he could think of until he realized, What possible reason have I given this person to hire me, besides abject pity?

But eventually pity pays off, and Jack finally secured employment in the Valley as a writer for a spiritual lifestyle magazine, Divine Quest. The young man who hired Jack was nice enough; in fact, the entire Divine Quest staff seemed content beyond the point of reason. Which is of course the whole reason behind spirituality, in theory if not in bloody practice, especially at a publication that rejected non-secular belief systems in favor of well-meaning homilies. Which Jack thought he could muster up on deadline if absolutely necessary.

At first it was odd to work alongside people without any interest or even basic knowledge of sports. Including any apparent awareness of its existence. Jack’s every reference to "Cowboys" or "Orioles" was followed by necessity with sentences that included the words "football" or "baseball" lest the staff think he meant movie westerns and ornithology.

Yet that same staff seemed mightily impressed at the notion of men and women striving to achieve at a very high level against all odds — what they called the physical manifestation of the "Triumph Of The Human Spirit."

Jack assured them all that he couldn’t have agreed more when, in fact, he couldn’t have agreed less. Over the years he had found sport to be as much about the worst of humanity, like the athlete who’s forgiven every flaw simply because of an ability to run faster or throw harder or soar higher despite a well-documented drug problem.

Jack soon found himself promoted to an editor, although the honor came at an embarrassing fraction of his former salary. He was assigned to write an uplifting profile of an athlete whose spiritual values and belief system had helped him or her achieve at an extraordinary level.

Now, if only he could find one.

Sure, there were the football players who genuflected in the end zone, having scored a touchdown because Jesus wished it so. And pitchers who pointed to the heavens in homage to God, grateful for the victory after deliberately popping a batter in the head for crowding the plate. And NBA players with giant crucifix tattoos alongside Mr. Peanut.

But this quest for a spiritually virtuous athlete made Jack feel like a planetary rover seeking life on Mars.

Until he met Frida Rodriguez.

It was during an interview with a high school swimmer who believed he could hear the Voice of God when fully immersed in water that Jack first learned of Frida. She had been an unpopular high school girl whose lack of physical beauty should have been redeemed by her innate sweetness. But, of course, it wasn’t. They mocked her with the slur "Frittata," which she really didn’t mind since having a nickname was a form of attention.

When "Frittata" showed up one day for a track and field tryout, she was immediately intrigued by the pole vault. That this light, slender pole might be capable of hurtling a human being high into the air seemed impossible to her. The first time she tried it, she felt exhilarated to her soul, even after painfully crashing to earth entangled in both pole and crossbar.

She won meets and set records and even earned a college scholarship. There was even talk of international competition and a possible Olympic berth. But she wanted none of that. She only wanted to leap, and to land close to home. Frida was the best pole-vaulter her coach had ever seen. But more important was why she jumped.

"She said it made her feel closer to God," her former coach told Jack, which caused the sportswriters’ ears to warm, a tiny rush he’d grown used to feeling when he was close to something wonderful.

"Every week," the coach continued, "she got a little better, went a little higher, and I’ll be goddamned if it didn’t seem like she was trying to leap into heaven itself."

By the time Jack found himself sitting across from Frida in her modest East L.A. home, she was no longer the lonely teen who had soared above the name-callers, finding glory in the air and peace on earth. She was fuller now, in face, in body, and in worldview. She sipped tea and politely dodged questions and countered with questions of her own: Why did he write about athletes? Had he ever competed? What was the most transcendent thing he’d ever witnessed on the playing field?

When Jack resisted her deflecting of questions back at him and asked if it were a "trick" to avoid revealing herself — Frida explained that she merely wanted him to reveal something in exchange for her own exposure. Which Jack, upon reflection, agreed was only fair.

So Jack explained that, despite his own proximity to the accomplishments of others, he’d never achieved a measure of greatness himself and so sought to steal a bit in each account of those who had. Each time he was recognized by his writing peers or nominated for an award, it was in every case a simple act of transference — mining the greatness of others for some tiny sliver, like a desperado shaving the edge from a soft gold coin before passing it. Over time it might add up to something; but it wouldn’t be much, and would never feel earned.

Jack felt his face flush. Frida smiled. She took his hand and walked him outside into the gathering darkness where he should not have been as surprised as he was to find a pole vault, cross bar, and pit.

The cover of Divine Quest’s July issue featured a college-era photo of Frida Rodriguez vaulting a then-record 4.8 meters for the University of Arizona. Jack’s cover story told of a remarkable waif who repeatedly and willfully "slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God." He compared her to the builders of the great cathedrals designed to reach heavenward and bring us closer to the Almighty. He invoked the Tower of Babel, an act of hubris by mortals to reach the kingdom of a God who saw not striving but arrogance, and caused it to tumble back to earth.

He wrote of Frida’s awful realization one day, mid-air, that she might never reach heaven, in this life or the next. And how every vault became a seconds-long journey from rapture to damnation, as the joy she felt soaring skyward turned to dread as gravity snatched her back to earth.

He wrote of the impossible acceleration of emotions from one to the other that made it intolerable for her to vault any more.

He wrote of his own emptiness, deepened now in the presence of this fallen angel who once slammed pole into earth and pushed the world away from her.

Jack wrote of the final vault Frida had been planning on the very evening that had brought him to her door — one final attempt at heaven. He described the symmetry of her legs as she stretched, the sinew of her arms as she gripped the pole, the chalk dissipating from her hands into the cool night air. He noted her resemblance to a jousting knight in motion, pole thrust out in front of her like a lance; of the clockwork mechanism of cheeks pumping and deflating in bursts that matched each footfall. He wrote of the mask of determination that slipped just briefly enough for him to glimpse the lonely teen she used to be, whose own coiled angst matched the physics of the pole vault — how the pole, in bending, absorbed all the energy she exerted against it and returned it equally as it straightened, propelling her to the heavens, an act that had once transformed anguish into joy. Action and reaction. Risk and reward.

He described his own sickening realization that there was no padding on the other side of the vault to catch her as the waning upward thrust of her will met the inexorable pull of gravity.

He wrote of the breathless awe he felt as he watched her continue to rise, disappearing into the night. How he waited alone with his heartbeat for her to descend, but she never did—even as Jack sank to his hindquarters, ears on fire in the presence of something wonderful.

In the weeks following publication of Jack’s article, the story spread far beyond Divine Quest’s meager circulation. Local news sent their own reporters to cover Frida and the national media followed suit. Jack found himself in the odd position of being interviewed by a young writer from his former sports magazine. He also found himself interrogated by the police, for Frida was nowhere to be found. Gone without a trace. And never seen again.

The "Miracle Of Frida Rodriguez" provoked hysteria from both ends of the belief spectrum, outraging skeptics and inspiring devotees. For those who worshipped bleeding statues and saw the Virgin Mary in a tortilla, Frida’s empty house became impassable behind a moat of religious pilgrims, some carrying poles of their own to demonstrate their piety. (One even tried to vault over the LAPD barricade and crashed through the window.)

Embarrassed by the attention, Jack’s perennially benign bosses at Divine Quest fired him after readers complained his article was cheap fantasy.

The producers Jack had grown to loathe found him in church, awash in stained glass hues, as he pondered what he had witnessed. They came with noisy offers to adapt the story of Frittata Rodriguez as a movie about "wish fulfillment and transcendence, a metaphor for hurdling obstacles and clearing hurdles," and a possible vehicle for J-Lo.

But Jack had no desire to steal even a tiny sliver of Frida’s greatness. Having experienced some smattering of spiritual uplift, he would not be pulled back to earth by the promise of a fat paycheck or, as they sweetened the pot, a three-picture deal. Not to be denied, those same producers then descended on the publishers of Divine Quest, who similarly rebuffed them and promised to sue for copyright infringement over any attempt to repurpose Frida’s story as some crass entertainment.

So the producers made their own movie about a daredevil who shoots himself out of a cannon and into the kingdom of heaven. It starred Rob Schneider, who, Jack realized upon seeing the poster, had not been in Jaws.


About The Author:
Ken Pisani
Ken Pisani was an Emmy-nominated TV sportswriter producer for Sports Illustrated Television, Wide World Of Sports, CNN, Fox Sports, TNT, as well as on co-productions with the NBA and ESPN. He is currently co-writing a true sports feature film with Oscar winner David Seidler, His debut novel AMP’D is a Los Angeles Times bestseller just published by St. Martin’s.

About Ken Pisani

Ken Pisani was an Emmy-nominated TV sportswriter producer for Sports Illustrated Television, Wide World Of Sports, CNN, Fox Sports, TNT, as well as on co-productions with the NBA and ESPN. He is currently co-writing a true sports feature film with Oscar winner David Seidler, His debut novel AMP’D is a Los Angeles Times bestseller just published by St. Martin’s.

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