Some of the most important literary figures of the last century had previously made a name for themselves in athletics. Here are the stories of a halfback who became a beatnik, an Olympic-hopeful wrestler who became leader of the Merry Pranksters, and nine other athletically gifted writers.
1. Ken Kesey
Reading Tom Wolfe's anatomical account of Kesey in The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test, with his "thick wrists and big forearms," "big neck with a pair of stemocleido-mastoid muscles," whose "jaw and chin are massive," it's little surprise he was a standout football player and wrestler as an Oregonian schoolboy. Kesey's prowess on the mat landed him at The University of Oregon where, competing in the 174 lb. division, he earned the Fred Lowe Scholarship, awarded annually to the Northwest's most outstanding wrestler.
A shoulder injury sustained during preliminary qualifying for the United States Olympic team effectively ended his wrestling days while simultaneously kick-starting his literary career: The same day Kesey was notified by the military that the injury classified as 4F, thus disqualifying him for service in Vietnam, he was also granted the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, which allowed him to enter Stanford's writing program.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons user MDCarchives
2. David Foster Wallace
Like Kesey, Wallace's imposing stature in the literary field was equal parts metaphorical and literal. Author David Lipsky observed the late writer walking with "...an ex-athlete's saunter – a roll from the heels, as if any physical thing was a pleasure."
A football enthusiast in his youth, Wallace spent his post-pubescence pursuing and maintaining a level of, as he put it, "...near great junior tennis player." As a 14-year-old, he enjoyed a U.S. Tennis Association ranking of 17th in the Midwest, 4th in his home state of Illinois, and, by his own estimation, "around one hundredth in the nation." Even in his athletic twilight, he continued to possess unwavering confidence in his abilities, confessing, "deep down inside, I still consider myself an extremely good tennis player, very hard to beat."
The subject of tennis—its beauty, intricacies, participants, etc.—permeates the late post-modernist's bibliography, so it's of little surprise when Wallace, in an Esquire profile of tennis pro Michael Joyce, submits "...that tennis is the most beautiful sport there is and also the most demanding." A man known for footnotes, his life in tennis was anything but.
Photo by Flickr user claude le monde (Claudia Sherman)
3. Jack Kerouac
The protagonist of Jack Kerouac's first novel, The Town and The City, enjoys success as a high school football star before accepting an athletic scholarship. As is the case with the majority of the Beat writer's works, it's largely autobiographical.
The Lowell, MA, native ran track and played in the outfield for his hometown school, but it was in the backfield for Lowell's football squad where he enjoyed the most success. Several top universities, including Boston College and Notre Dame, expressed interest in his services before he accepted a scholarship offer from Columbia University. However, constant clashes with his head coach and a major tibia injury in the season's second game ended his football career.
A recent piece on Kerouac's childhood, entitled "Another Side of Kerouac: The Dharma Bum as Sports Nut," reveals the author's childhood passion for fantasy sports decades before the concept entered into the collective consciousness of American sports fans: "He obsessively played a fantasy baseball game of his own invention, charting the exploits of made-up players... He collected their stats, analyzed their performances..."
Photograph by Tom Palumbo, via his Flickr stream
4. Samuel Beckett
Beckett's obituary in the New York Times features the sub-header, "A Star in Study and Sports," a fitting summation of the cricketer/rugby player/light-heavyweight boxer turned novelist/playwright/theater director.
Beckett's affection for cricket remained long after his playing days ended, and it's as a cricketer that he enjoys his most noteworthy distinctions. As a student at Dublin University, the lefty bowler/batter twice participated in 'first-class' cricket matches ('first-class' referring to the highest level of domestic cricket as sanctioned by the game's governing body). Upon receiving the 1969 Nobel Prize for literature, Beckett earned the double-distinction of "only Nobel laureate to have played first-class cricket" and "only laureate to have an entry in Wisden Cricketeers' Almanack," which is considered the foremost authority on the game.
5. Jim Carroll
By the age of 13, Jim Carroll was cementing his legend on the basketball courts of New York City's Lower East Side and writing, in the words of Jack Kerouac, "better prose than 89 percent of the novelists working today."
Carroll's family moved to the northern Manhattan neighborhood of Inwood, and his raw, prodigious talents on the court and in the classroom earned him a half-academic, half-athletic scholarship to Manhattan's Trinity School, one of the nation's elite prep schools. A three-time All-City performer while at Trinity, he was selected to play in the National High School All-Star Game in 1966.
But schoolboy exploits only tell half the story. As is the case with all too many NYC hoop legends of the era, his playground exploits are left to the subjective memory of oral historians who recall Carroll's rivalry with fellow Inwood resident Lew Alcindor, among other greats.
While his addiction to heroin—famously chronicled in The Basketball Diaries—adversely affected his chances of playing college ball (he once recalled nodding off during dinner with a representative from Notre Dame), Carroll maintained that it was literature, not dope, that killed his basketball game.
Photograph by Eric Thompson, via the Jim Carroll fan site
6. Tom Wolfe
Prior to his career as New Journalist and writer, Tom Wolfe's foremost aspiration was to play professional baseball. After starring on the mound at Richmond's St. Christopher's School, Wolfe found himself on the pitching staff at Washington and Lee University. Possessing, in his own words, "a great screwball," he would go on to play a couple of seasons of semi-professional baseball until 1952, when he was granted a tryout for the New York Giants. Having been cut by the Giants after only 3 days, which he attributes to a lack of a fastball, the writer was prompted to forgo his baseball dreams and pursue a PhD in American Studies at Yale.
Upon reflection of his failed diamond pursuits, Wolfe remarked, "The only thing that saved me from a very poor career as a professional baseball player is the fact that I wasn't good enough."
Photo is from the White House Salute to American Authors in 2004
7. Malcolm Lowry
Author of Under the Volcano, he won the junior golf championship at the Royal Liverpool Golf Club at age 15.
8. John Fowles
A member of The Times' "50 Greatest British Writers Since 1945" list, Fowles attended the Bedford School and was a standout on the rugby, fives, and cricket teams.
9. Roald Dahl
Acclaimed author of several of the greatest modern children's books, as well as screenplays for You Only Live Once and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the 6'6" Dahl played football, boxed in the heavyweight division, and captained the fives and squash teams at Repton, a famed public school.
10. Stephen Crane
Author of The Red Badge of Courage, he played baseball as a catcher at three different colleges: Claverack, Lafayette, and Syracuse.
11. James Dickey
Former U.S. Poet Laureate and author of Deliverance, he played tailback at Clemson Agricultural College of South Carolina.