We usually see professional athletes on the field , when they are on top of their game. We celebrate their moments of victory, hang our heads with them during their moments of defeat, and talk about games and tournaments for years to come. Games are rehashed, players are pitted against one another in terms of who is best, and “the best sports moment ever” is highly debated and often argued.
My favorite sports memory occurred off the field, when no one was looking, nothing was at stake, and the athlete in question had no one to impress.
In Augusta, Georgia, a town known for The Masters Golf Tournament and The Augusta National, the course on which it’s played, it’s rare to sight the players off the course. That is part of what makes this story so special to me — it was a moment of being at the right place at the right time.
In the late 90s, my then boyfriend and I were having a late, shared dinner at his place of work, eating and chatting between customers. It was a slow night, but we finally had a customer. The figure walking in would have been noticeable even had it been busy. The elderly gentleman cut a dapper figure– I believe I remember a snazzy fedora –and exuded a warmth that belied his golfer nickname, “The Missouri Mortician”, given to him due to his seriousness on the course. It was Herman Keiser, the 1946 Masters Tournament golf champion. He looked slightly distressed but calm, as if he were just another patron in a hurry.
I remember him as tall, but it could have been his legendary status making him seem so; either way, he commanded attention with nothing more than a smile and a kind, “Pardon me, sir. I need your help”, directed at my boyfriend, who had already stood to help him.
Mr. Keiser told my boyfriend that he left a dinner for Masters Champions, and he hadn’t made it far when he realized his headlight was broken. It was dark, he could drive no farther without risking safety, had no tools, and needed help. Could my boyfriend call someone or recommend a mechanic at that late hour? Of course my boyfriend would help him; he would have helped anyone. Mr. Keiser looked relieved and even surprised, especially when my boyfriend told him that instead of sending him off to a mechanic, he would repair the headlight himself.
My boyfriend repaired the headlight, then checked out the car to make sure Mr. Keiser and his wife were safe for travel. The level of thanks Mr. Keiser bestowed upon my boyfriend was as if he’d done more than repair a headlight; he spoke about his joy of finding kindness in people, especially young people, and he insisted on paying my boyfriend as he patted him on the back in thanks. My boyfriend refused the money, but he did ask the golf legend for one thing– an autograph for me.
I beamed as my boyfriend introduced me to Mr. Keiser. It wasn’t his fame that had me wrapped, it was his demeanor. He was golf legend to me, but to himself he was just another guy in need of help, happy to find a kind young man to oblige. He absolutely could not believe anyone would want his autograph, and that in itself made me want it all the more. With a slightly shaky hand, Mr. Keiser signed a gas station credit card slip with his autograph and a kind inscription made out to me. I laughed when he added a footnote, “1946 Masters Champion”, in case I might forget. I found that extraordinarily endearing. Make no mistake, Mr. Keiser is a legend in the sport of golf — but it seems that everyone knew it except for him.
Mr. Keiser was gracious, speaking with us and regaling us with a few stories, even though the hour was late and he must have been exhausted. When he left, it was with hesitation we said goodbye. We knew it would probably be the last time we’d ever see this man who not only a legendary golfer, but who was kind, funny, and self-deprecating. He didn’t believe his own fame, and it was refreshing to have to convince him that yes, we really did want his autograph, and no, we would not throw it away when he left. (I still have it and still love showing it to people, especially lovers of golf.)
I believe that as much as meeting Mr. Keiser made our night, we made his too. For many years, and even now, when I hear other people tell sports stories, that is the one I tell. It’s the one of meeting a golf legend who is part of golf history, but whose stories of wins are now being replaced with those of the latest, greatest golf prodigy. I tell that story to keep a human spin on the status we often bestow upon our sports superstars, to show the down-to-earth side of men who, by virtue of skill with clubs and bats and balls, often hover in the stratosphere, when really they often desire to be down on here on earth with us mere mortals, and just have someone help them change their broken headlight.
Mr. Keiser passed away in 2003, and although I only met him once, I have never forgotten that encounter. I read about his passing with sadness, while keeping the joy of our chance meeting in my heart.
Goldstein, Richard. “Herman Keiser, 89, Golfer Who Staged a Major Upset – New York Times.” The New York Times – Breaking News, World News & Multimedia. 29 Dec. 2003. Web. 22 Nov. 2010. .