Ironman Favre just 15,821 games behind Meadowlark
When 41-year grandfather and Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre drags his battered body, broken ankle bones, beat-up reputation and boatload of personal baggage into Soldier Field on Sunday to play the Bears, it will mark his 294 consecutive start (318 if you include playoffs). That impresses folks.
"I'm a fan of Brett Favre. He's tough," says Meadowlark Lemon, the Harlem Globetrotters legend who is making the media rounds these days promoting his new book, "Trust Your Next Shot." "That's what I like about ironmen. They have a passion for the sport."
Meadowlark (you can't call him Mr. Lemon) knows about passion for the game and showing up to play even when you are hurt, sick or tired. He's still haunted by the last game he missed.
"We were in Cologne, Germany, and we had a little restaurant right in the building, and I got hungry," Meadowlark remembers. "They had goulash, and I didn't realize I had the flu."
Meadowlark was vomiting by game time, and the coach made him sit out the game. That was in December of 1955. Meadowlark vowed he'd never miss another game and 16,115 consecutive games later, the 78-year-old Hall-of-Famer and "Clown Prince of Basketball" says he can't wait for his road trip next month in Alaska.
"There's a difference between getting old and getting older," Meadowlark says. "It's all about the passion."
The comedic, but highly skilled, style of basketball played by Meadowlark certainly doesn't expose him to the injury risks that Favre faces in the NFL. But showing up for any job 16,115 times without missing a day since President Eisenhower's first term is remarkable. There are college kids who can't spend a spring break in Mexico without needing a few sick days, yet Meadowlark has been traveling the world for more than half a century without taking off a game.
"Oh, gosh no," Meadowlark says, explaining his dedication to the fans, whether they were in small farm towns of the Midwest or violence-ravaged cities in the Middle East. "They would save up all year, and when they came out they didn't care about Meadowlark Lemon being hurt…I broke my right pinkie finger about 35 years ago and it just starting hurting me last year. I had a lot of opportunities not to perform."
Meadowlark played in 11,115 consecutive games in nearly 100 nations with the Globetrotters, who come to the Allstate Arena in Rosemont on Dec. 29 and 30. Sometimes, he and his teammates would have to help set up a portable court in an outdoor soccer stadium and then help pack it away in the postgame cold and rain. In his early days, racism often kept him from hotels and restaurants.
"You can be angry and you can be bitter, but what I learned to do is take that adversity and turn it into joy," Meadowlark says. "There were a few (incidents of racist taunts or unsportsmanlike behavior) but that stopped. You deflated all of that with your skills."
The crazy dunks, no-look-wrap-around passes and showboating that Meadowlark and his teammates perfected fit in well with today's NBA highlights.
"I love his game," Meadowlark says of new Bulls star Derrick Rose. "Did you see that dunk he made the other day?"
If Rose plays every regular season and playoff game, he'll have to play until he's 183 years old to reach Meadowlark's streak. Since Meadowlark left the Globetrotters after the 1979 season, he's played in 5,000 consecutive games with the Buckateers, the Shooting Stars and since 1988 with his Meadowlark Lemon Harlem All-Stars.
He avoids the lifestyle that brings down other athletes.
"When I was 14, I took a drink of Old Crow. That was my first and last drink," says Meadowlark, who grew up in the small town of Wilmington, N.C., where he practiced basketball by shooting a milk can into a hoop he made from a coat hanger and an onion sack. "One time in Antwerp (Belgium), Wilt Chamberlain and I decided to go to the bar and sit on a bar stool and light up cigars."
A few puffs later, Meadowlark says his eyes watered so much, he quit smoking.
Basketball was his job.
"I had to get better," Meadowlark says. "And after I got better, I had to get better."
In a recent game in North Dakota, Meadowlark hit seven out of 10 hook shots from the 3-point line. "There was a time I could have made nine," he says.
Now a minister with 10 kids (the youngest is 16 and "the oldest is almost as old as I am"), Meadowlark (see his foundation's website at www.meadowlarklemon.org) shows no signs of ending his streak. He's played before royalty, presidents and popes. President Obama, who plays basketball, would be smart to invite Meadowlark for a pickup game at the White House.
"It's all about joy," Meadowlark says. The president could use a little joy, and the odds are real good that Meadowlark won't call in sick.