Saturday, December 1, 2007

Evel Knievel: Sadly Another Hero Bites The Dust

Yesterday I lost a childhood hero. Evel Knievel, the red, white, and blue spangled motorcycle daredevil whose jumps over Greyhound buses, Idaho's Snake River Canyon and tons of other things made him an icon of the 1970s, died Friday at age 69. Though Knievel dropped off the pop culture radar in the '80s, the image of the high-flying motorcyclist clad in patriotic, star-studded colors was never erased from my memory.

Immortalized in the Washington's Smithsonian Institution as "America's Legendary Daredevil," Knievel was best known for a failed 1974 attempt to jump Snake River Canyon on a rocket-powered cycle and a spectacular crash on New Year's Day 1968, when he was nearly killed when he jumped 151 feet across the fountains in front of Caesar's Palace. He cleared the fountains but the crash landing put him in the hospital in a coma for a month. He suffered nearly 40 broken bones before he retired in 1980. Check out this old ABC Wide World of Sports video.

Knievel made a good living selling his autographs and endorsing products. Thousands came to Butte, Mont., every year as his legend was celebrated during the "Evel Knievel Days" festival. "They started out watching me bust my ass, and I became part of their lives," Knievel said. "People wanted to associate with a winner, not a loser. They wanted to associate with someone who kept trying to be a winner." For the tall, thin daredevil, the limelight was always comfortable, the gab glib. To Knievel, there always were mountains to climb, feats to conquer. According to people in Buette, if Evel came into a bar, he bought everyone's drinks. He was that kind of guy.

Born Robert Craig Knievel in the copper mining town of Butte on Oct. 17, 1938, Knievel was raised by his grandparents. He traced his career choice back to the time he saw Joey Chitwood's Auto Daredevil Show at age 8. The name "Evel" was given by Joey Bishop on the the Joey Bishop show. Knievel decided to retire after a jump in the winter of 1976 in which he was again seriously injured. He suffered a concussion and broke both arms in an attempt to jump a tank full of live sharks in the Chicago Amphitheater. On April 1, 2007, Knievel announced to a worldwide audience that he "believed in Jesus Christ" for the first time. He had been in failing health for years, suffering from diabetes and pulmonary fibrosis, an incurable condition that scarred his lungs.

Slowly but surely, the icons of my youth are fading away. My Dad, Bob Hope, George Burns, Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas and now Evel Knievel. Man, I can remember watching you on ABC's Wide World of Sports on Saturday afternoons, then racing outside to see how far I could make my Schwinn jump while my brother and his friends laughed hysterically when my balls made hard contact with that infamous center rail. RIP, Evel my good man. Thanks for the memories.