1. Jack Kerouac (Football)
After starring for his Lowell, Massachusetts high school, the Beat legend went to Columbia on a full football scholarship. According to The New York Times, Kerouac was a “fast, agile fullback.” He broke his leg freshman year, though, and it was onto the Navy (and the bookshelves of aspiring bohemians everywhere) from there.
2. Albert Camus (Soccer)
The philosophical Algerian once famously wrote, “All that I know most surely about morality and obligations, I owe to football.” There were rumors Camus played goalie for the French national team, but he actually only played on a junior professional team before contracting TB and retiring.
3. Vladimir Nabokov (Tennis, Soccer, Boxing)
Nabokov taught tennis and boxing in Berlin, but called soccer “the great love of my life.” He wrote affectingly about his time as a goalkeeper at Cambridge in Speak, Memory:
“Of the games I played at Cambridge, soccer has remained a wind-swept clearing in the middle of a rather muddled period. I was crazy about goal keeping… Aloof, solitary, impassive, the crack goalie is followed by entranced small boys. He vies with the matador and the flying ace as an object of thrilled adulation.”
4. David Foster Wallace (Tennis)
Fans of the late, worshipped postmodernist knew he wrote a good deal about tennis, both in essays and in his fiction. Wallace was a self-described “near-great junior tennis player” growing up in Illinois and at age 14 was ranked 17th in the USTA Western Region and second in the narrower Central Region. Beyond junior level, though, DFW faltered. A wonderfully thorough Quora thread about his tennis prowess breaks down his gimmicky, ultimately doomed approach:
“In his essay, ‘Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley,’ Wallace discusses the secret to his early success in tennis: unimaginative play in a very windy environment. Basically, Wallace would simply hit the ball back down the middle of the court, and let the strong winds of Central Illinois blow the ball into the corners.”
5. Stephen Crane (Baseball)
Although he said it was football that influenced some of his famously realistic prose in The Red Badge of Courage — “I have never been in a battle, of course, and I believe that I got my sense of the rage of conflict on the football field” — Crane was more accomplished on the diamond. While studying at Syracuse, he focused more on baseball than his studies and was believed (at least by his Latin professor) to be the Orangemen’s “finest player.” Originally a catcher, he struggled making the long throw to second base — Crane was only 5’6”, 125 pounds — and moved to shortstop. (Although that’s not that much shorter of a throw, come to think of it.) One teammate described the future literary legend as someone who played “with fiendish glee.”
6. Lord Byron (Swimming, Fencing, Cricket)
Despite being born with club foot — he nicknamed himself “The Limping Devil” — the hopeless Romantic loved sports. He was most passionate about (and renowned for) swimming, probably because his disability was less of a hindrance in the water, but Byron also “fenced, sculled, rode and shot at targets” in addition to playing cricket for his boarding school Harrow.
SI also notes that “by his own reckoning he had 200 affairs in 1819 alone.” THE SPORTING LIFE.
7. Ken Kesey (Wrestling)
Before he was a Merry Prankster, Kesey was a standout wrestler at the University of Oregon and was on the verge of qualifying for the U.S. Olympic team before dislocating his shoulder.
8. Virginia Woolf (Cricket)
In his memoir, Woolf’s father Leslie Stephen remembered that his “children delighted in playing small cricket every evening.” Probably safe to assume that “small cricket” actually means a short game of cricket and not, like, cricket with tiny participants. But you never know.
9. John Irving (Wrestling)
Irving’s official bio notes that he “competed as a wrestler for twenty years, until he was thirty-four, and coached the sport until he was forty-seven,” though he also found it in him to grapple with Time’s Benjamin Percy last year at the age of 69.
Irving wrote, charmingly, for The New Yorker about why he gravitated to (and has stuck with) wrestling:
“…there are civilized aspects to the sport’s combativeness: I’ve always admired the rule that holds you responsible, if you lift your opponent off the mat, for your opponent’s ‘safe return.’ But the best answer to why I love wrestling is that it was the first thing I was any good at.”
10. J.R.R. Tolkien (Tennis)
If Tolkien hadn’t been injured playing tennis, it’s entirely possible that there would be NO SUCH THING as Gandalf the Grey. shudders
The New York Times’ tennis blog Straight Sets explains:
“But continuing to play tennis after the age of 40, Tolkien found himself wounded by the sport. After injuring his ankle in a match against Angus McIntosh, some 22 years his junior, Tolkien was immobilized, and his idleness beget the fantasy series that would bring him worldwide acclaim…”
11. John Steinbeck (Alligator Wrestling)
In 1965, Steinbeck wrote a letter to SI declining its offer to contribute an essay about sports. The entire letter is worth reading, but here’s the most important part:
“…my interest in sports is catholic but cool. I don’t expect you will believe that I once sent for a mail-order course in alligator wrestling complete with a practice alligator, so I will not tell you this.”
Sadly, a “john steinbeck practice alligator” search doesn’t turn up the results you’d hope it would.