Sporting Life

Sporting Life: Giving your autograph to a fan is one of sports' vital signs

Three seconds are all it takes to make a fan's day, to enlist her to the cause, to make him a devotee. Three seconds for the dutiful Phil Mickelson to sign a hat on Sunday. Three seconds to reach out, as Rory McIlroy did recently, and put a golf ball in the hand of a boy whose face lights up as if he's just high-fived Iron Man.

Three seconds matter in an era when many sports are haemorrhaging fans and athletes hide too long behind the polished armour of fame. If they emerge from their private planes and hotel suites and from behind bodyguards and dark glasses, all it takes is three seconds to seal a bond between fan and athlete. There it is, on paper, in writing. The autograph.

Three seconds for the fan are better than anything on TV for this is god at three paces. You're never going to lunch with the star but you've got these three seconds which might include a word or two as the athlete leans in for a wefie and you smile so cheesily you wish you could do a retake but your three seconds are up.

Three seconds can stay with you forever. In 1973 in the West Indies, a giant fan crosses the boundary fence and asks the great Australian cricketer Greg Chappell to autograph a Barbadian $10 note. Chappell obliges and asks if the young man plays cricket, to which the West Indian replies: "I will play against you one day."

He does. His name is Joel Garner, a fast bowler, and eventually he becomes a legend himself, but the story isn't done. Twenty-five years later, in 1998, a journalist in Mumbai asks Garner about this currency note and the West Indian laughs and produces it. He's had it laminated and carries it everywhere. When I called Chappell in Sydney yesterday and told him of Garner's devotion, he laughed and said he did not know that.

Worship can be blinding, unreasonable, disappointing and yet it is also sweet. To see in others something grand, to the point where it can impair your speech for three seconds, which is what happened to a young friend. The first time she met Rafael Nadal she forgot to ask, "Will you marry me?" but swore yesterday she will remember next time.

Rory McIlroy signing an autograph in Portstewart, Northern Ireland. The golfer revealed last week that he has disliked Roy Keane ever since the former Irish midfielder turned down his boyhood request for an autograph.
Rory McIlroy signing an autograph in Portstewart, Northern Ireland. The golfer revealed last week that he has disliked Roy Keane ever since the former Irish midfielder turned down his boyhood request for an autograph. PHOTO: REUTERS

Three seconds for a fan are a reward for standing in the cold for three hours, it is connection, it is one level more devout than merely wearing the shirt the star endorses. It is, in fact, proof: See, I met him. Then you put the signed paper in a drawer and you might even lose it, but it is the act you can't forget.

A fellow I know flew to a Manchester United game last week, then waited for an hour, only to be delivered one unforgettable memory. Juan Mata and Chris Smalling emerged and met every autograph request and smiled for every wefie and now the fellow writes to me that, "It's a big thing to keep memories of players who ... are a source of inspiration when I go back to my desk the next week".

The autograph, after all, is almost an act of sporting communion, something sacred that is worth preserving. Some months ago when a young athlete gently grumbled that the attention can be tough to manage, I suggested it was best to embrace it. Because all adulation passes and one day no one might ask for their autograph.

Three seconds are what the best athletes find time for. Even when it gets multiplied into 100 requests. Even when fans follow you into a toilet, which has happened to Dipna Lim-Prasad. Even when they lose. Some tennis players will stop and sign after defeat and it is grace amid their gloom. Perhaps they haven't forgotten that once they, too, were fans who kept the faith even when their players fell.

The autograph, after all, is almost an act of sporting communion, something sacred that is worth preserving. Some months ago when a young athlete gently grumbled that the attention can be tough to manage, I suggested it was best to embrace it. Because all adulation passes and one day no one might ask for their autograph.

These three seconds can be fraught with chaos. There is jostling, pleading, pens that don't work - Maria Sharapova once told a magazine that she carries a marker in her handbag - and then a player who has signed 221 autographs and stops just before you and turns back and you're left cursing him with hat outstretched. But you'll be back.

People say the wefie is winning but the autograph will remain for as long as humans write. You cannot trade a wefie, nor bend over a railing and get into the same frame as the tennis player below you, nor get the picture equivalent of a hat signed by an entire team.

But wefies have one great advantage. They are washing-powder proof.

Roughly 30 years ago a friend ghost-writes a column for the legendary Pakistan cricketer Imran Khan during an event in the United Arab Emirates. On the last day he goes to say goodbye to Khan who generously asks what souvenir he would like. My friend says a T-shirt, Khan pulls out a used one and autographs it with a small message.

My friend, who views the shirt as a holy object equivalent to a personally signed copy of a Beatles album, returns home to Kolkata, wants to wear it but finds it stained with sweat. So he gives it to the washing lady who dutifully hammers all clothes against the stone floor to remove all traces of the city's soot.

When the shirt dries it doesn't even take my friend three seconds to figure it out: The autograph has gone down a drain.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 10, 2017, with the headline 'Giving your autograph to a fan is one of sports' vital signs'. Print Edition | Subscribe