There is, you understand, no scientific formula by which we pick our sports heroes. Some of us with high mileage nostalgically cling to the memories of yesteryear’s stars, men with names like Ben Hogan or Babe Ruth or Jesse Owens. Those with a more contemporary point of view tick off the achievements of modern-day giants like ?Peyton Manning or Manny Pacquiao or maybe Michael Jordan.
You can have them all, past and present. Me, I’ll take a guy named Jeff Harrell.
No, you’ll not encounter him on the banquet circuit or see him on ESPN’s highlights. He hasn’t been asked to endorse a single product. He gets no celestial payday for his accomplishments, and, truth is, it took him a long time to arrive at his shining moment.
Harrell, 69 going on 70, today a great-grandfather, is the reigning Senior Games national discus champion in his age group. He’s the guy we washed-up jocks wish we could be: a competitor who finally found a way to rebound from a lifetime of athletic disappointments and near-misses.
“All my life,” he admits, “I’d wanted to be the best at something.”
And, back in the day, he came close. He was 12 when he took the mound for his Brownwood, Texas, all-star team, needing but one more playoff victory to earn a berth in the 1954 Little League World Series. A week earlier, he’d thrown a four-hitter, striking out 13 Carlsbad, N.M., batters. Then, however, his control deserted? him, and he and his teammates lost, 5–3, to a team of Galveston all-stars. The dream visit to Williamsport, Pa., was canceled.
As a schoolboy, he tried other sports with marginal success — but baseball was his passion. By the summer of 1960, the 6-foot-2-inch, 145-pound Teenage League right-?hander had a fastball that had scouts promising a bright future as a pro. There were no radar guns to chart his speed in those days, but it was clear he could bring the heat. The summer before he signed with the Philadelphia Phillies for a $25,000 bonus, the 18-year-old Harrell had struck out 156 batters in nine games.
The quest for fame and fortune, however, died a slow, agonizing death. In his second trip to the mound in the rookie Pioneer League, on a 33-degree night unfit for baseball, he felt a sudden sharp pain in his right shoulder, a signal that his rotator cuff had been badly torn. This, understand, was back in a less-enlightened time when any kind of surgery was considered an immediate ticket out of the game. Goodbye, fastball. Goodbye, hopes of making it to the big leagues.
For the next seven years, he bounced around the minors, playing in outposts like Spartanburg, S.C.; Bakersfield, Calif.; and Chattanooga, Tenn. But his signature pitch never returned, and his career peaked in Class AA.
“I stayed with it as long as I did, not so much because I thought I’d miraculously get better,” he recalls, “but because I had no idea what I’d do with my life once I put sports behind me.” He was 26 when he retired and moved to Kermit, Texas, to settle into a career as youth-center director for the local school district.
The constant ache in his shoulder was his only reminder of his athletic days. Finally, at age 57, he chose to have surgery to repair the damaged rotator cuff.
“A few years later, I was watching a track-and-field meet on television and made an offhand remark to my wife that I really missed being in some kind of competition.” Daneilia told her husband of 49 years about a friend whose husband had begun participating in something called the Senior Games, an age-group track-and-field competition. “That,” she said, “might be something fun for you to do.”
Unsure that he could get back in shape, he began taking long walks, then lifting weights. Finally, he experimented with throwing the discus. Eventually, he began entering various Senior Games meets.
Over the past decade, he has lost only once. Then, last spring at the National Senior Games in Houston, Harrell not only won his event but established a new meet record: 149 feet, 9 inches.
“Competing again has added years to my life,” he says. “And being a national champion feels really good. It’s restored a little pride.”
And made him an inspiration to aging couch potatoes everywhere.