Goodbye in 2023: They’ll live in our memory vaults, and our hearts

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Nobody ran the football better or harder than Jim Brown in America or George Reed in Canada.
Between them, the two football giants rushed for more than 28,000 yards and 240 touchdowns.

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And if anybody could have stopped them, it was the ultimate linebacker, Dick Butkus.

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Brown, the greatest of all NFL backs; Reed, the greatest of all CFL backs; Butkus, the middle linebacker of all middle linebackers, all passed away in 2023.

They may be gone, but the memories of them will remain, on film and in our hearts, or maybe a scrapbook somewhere or an old playing card, or in a magazine or a book. It is all so very personal, this attachment to athletes and times and our lives, so much depending on your age and what matters most to you.

That’s the beauty of sports, really. We consume it. We take it in. We get involved. We devour highlights and more highlights. They become part of us.

The greats, the ones we care for the most, remember the best. They stay with us long after their careers are over, their games remain and their stories so vivid — and in the case of another year about to end, so many great ones, so many almost greats, so many who mattered are gone. They pass away: Just never forgotten.

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You can’t forget Borje Salming for how he lived, how he played and, sadly, for how he died. His legacy in hockey, Swedish hockey, Toronto hockey remains, and will be around long after his passing on Nov. 24, 2022.

It just seems as though he died in 2023.

You can argue — and I have in the past — that no Maple Leafs player has ever been better or more important. Salming was an all-star on the ice, a giant off it, a piece of history. The King, they called him. A figure who changed his sport and whose death brought the reality of the stunning damage ALS can do to all who knew him, or thought they knew him.

Salming wore No. 21 for the Maple Leafs and so did Bobby Baun, just before him, who had the same number for 13 seasons as a Leaf. Who hasn’t seen the famous footage of Baun from the 1964 Stanley Cup final, being taken off the ice on a stretcher after blocking a Gordie Howe shot? Returning with tape, guts and determination to come back and score the Cup winning goal, essentially on one leg.

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One of the great highlights in team history for a Maple Leafs lifer, who played parts of 17 NHL seasons, won four Stanley Cups at a time when the Leafs did those things. Baun was 86 years old when he passed away in August.

He wasn’t the best known Bobby of hockey fame who left this calendar. That was Bobby Hull, whose life and death made headlines, made people uncomfortable. He was probably as exciting on the ice as anyone who ever played and as polarizing off the ice for personal behaviours.

There’s no forgetting Bobby Hull if you ever saw him, ever met him, ever heard one of the too many stories about him. You can’t write the history of the sport without his name. And sometimes you wish you could.

Adam Johnson died suddenly and tragically on the ice from an unexplainable accident in England in 2023. That one still hurts. Maybe always will. Same with the passing of hockey executive Chris Snow, whose brave battle with ALS became a public treatise of sorts for the entire sport.

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Hockey lost more friends in 2023. Bill MacMillan died, and he’s not remembered for the 137 games he played for the Maple Leafs. He’s best known as the general manager of the Colorado Rockies who traded Lanny McDonald to Calgary in a deal that included his younger brother, Bob MacMillan.

Petr Klima, the one-time overtime hero for the Edmonton Oilers, passed away rather young. Gilles Gilbert, one of Don Cherry’s favourites, was 74. Ken Dryden’s older brother, Dave, was gone at 81. The ex-Leafs coach Joe Crozier lasted beyond his 93rd birthday. And the great hockey fighter, Gino Odjick, went too soon at age 52.

My baseball life began in the school yard somewhere around the time Brooks Robinson played third base for the Baltimore Orioles. He was the standard for anyone who ever played the position. When we were kids, every time somebody went into the infield, we wanted to be Brooks. Robinson was 86 when he passed away in September.

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On the mound, pretending to be left-handers, we might have been Vida Blue, pitching batting practice to Sal Bando, maybe with Tim McCarver catching or big Frank Howard playing first base. All of them left us this year. Same with the knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, the shortstop Dick Groat, the New York playboy, Joe Pepitone.

With Brown, Butkus and Reed long gone from the football fields, you can mourn the passing of Joe Kapp, the only quarterback to start both a Super Bowl and a Grey Cup. In Minnesota, he was coached by Bud Grant, who coached in multiple Super Bowls and Grey Cups and died at 95 in March.

Dahrran Diedrick used to run the football in Scarboro before he ran it at Nebraska and in the CFL. He was just 44. The Big Z, the athletic punter Zenon Andrusyshyn, was 76. The great wideout, Otis Taylor, was 80.

In the meantime, Bobby Knight threw chairs and Willis Reed limped on to the basketball court and The Iron Sheik could fight Terry Funk and Superstar Billy Graham, both on the same night.

So many many names.

So many memories to lock away in our own personal sporting vaults as another year begins.
X: @simmonssteve

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