Some people say that all the heroes are gone, but on July 4, I spent 12 minutes getting spat on by one of the few people who truly deserve to be identified by the term.
And I’m not talking about Joey Chestnut.
Sure, the kid from San Jose earned the international acclaim he received after his stunning, world-record-setting, 66 hot-dog-and-bun performance at the Nathan’s Famous frankfest on Independence Day in Coney Island.
Indeed, there’s never been an achievement like Chestnut’s in the history of sport, but the hero to whom I was referring was the man Chestnut beat: six-time world champ, Takeru Kobayashi.
As always, I had the pleasure of serving as Kobayashi’s official judge — the man who dodges spittle, sweat and soggy hot dog bun scraps to keep the champion’s count.
(And can we put to rest one controversy for a minute? Sure, I’m Kobayashi’s judge — and his longtime biographer / confidant / soul mate — but I’m also one of the nation’s legendary journalists. My profession’s rigid standards of accuracy and objectivity make me the perfect person to count Kobayashi’s weiners. There’s no “conflict” of “interest” here. My heart may consider Kobayashi the greatest athlete in human history, but my brain still counts his dogs, one by one, as if he was a green rookie in his first contest. Now, let’s move on.)
This year, of course, Kobayashi entered the contest with a well-documented (though widely disbelieved) case of jaw arthritis, a medical condition that this reporter quickly dubbed “jawthritis.”
At the ceremonial weigh-in on July 3, even Mayor Bloomberg stood horrified by the site of this legend of the game — this Japanese Jehosophat — barely able to open his mouth from the pain of his jawthritis.
It was unclear even then whether Kobayashi would even compete.
But compete he did — stunning the world by breaking his own personal record and downing 63 HDBs in the requisite 12 minutes.
I watched him downing dog after dog, bun after bun with a precision, grace, speed and athleticism he has never shown before, even with a good jaw. Whenever Chestnut jumped ahead, Kobayashi answered back, putting aside whatever pain he felt to push the limits of human competition.
Shades of Willis Reed coming off the bench in the 1973 playoffs, Kirk Gibson limping around the bases after winning Game 1 of the 1988 World Series, or Seabiscuit running on at least two gimpy legs.
Afterwards, I spoke to him as only I know how.
“Kobayashi-san,” I said. “Did the jawthritis play any role in your loss today?”
But a true champion doesn’t play that game. Kobayashi didn’t curse his jaw. He credited Chestnut.
“Gersh-san,” he said. “I must tell you this: Joey Chestnut is a great champion.”
He never suggested that his jaw — not Chestnut’s — was the difference that day.
And that’s why he’s a legend. And that’s why I refuse to wash my Kobayashi-spittle-covered referee’s shirt.
It is my Shroud of Turin.