A few years ago, after watching a documentary about the career and life of British soccer great Sir Tom Finney, my father-in-law shook his head sadly and said, "It's a shame a man like that should ever grow old."
He did, of course, and on Valentine's Day, Finney died at age 91.
There is no local angle to this news, other than that Finney was by far the top sports hero of my father-in-law, Bernard Booth, 85, who has lived in High Point for 30 years. Also, Finney was such a worthy hero that I figured everyone could benefit — could be uplifted — by knowing his story.
In the old photographs, he seems small by today's standards, shorter than average and as lean as a distance runner. But he scored 30 goals in 76 games — including in three World Cup tournaments — for England's international team. For his regular club, Preston North End, he racked up goals at an even higher rate — 210 in the course of his 433-game, 14-year career.
The tributes to Finney in the British media — and they have filled the sports pages of every major paper — put him in the same class as players such as Pelé and Lionel Messi.
He may have been even better, my admittedly biased father-in-law says, because he was the master of the lost art of controlling the ball with the dribble and advancing it upfield.
"With Finney, you knew that as soon as he got the ball he was going to make headway down the wing, that two or three guys were going to be very embarrassed," Booth said. "He was an absolute wizard; he really was."
When Finney was in the lineup, the stands — so-called because that's what almost all the spectators did, stand — were always packed to their capacity of about 45,000.
"They didn't have the silly safety rules they have now; we were really crammed in there," Booth said.
All that drawing power, you might assume, would have earned Finney a high salary — or that, if it didn't, he would have occasionally behaved like a sullen jerk.
Wrong on both counts.
His pay was so low, 14 pounds per week, that Finney's father insisted he finish his plumbing apprenticeship before accepting a position with the team. The young man needed a "proper profession," the father said.
Finney was fouled often, as frustratingly skilled players often are, but never seemed to retaliate. Every tribute that I read contained, at least once, the word "gentleman."
And he stuck with his hometown team even though he once was offered a 10,000-pound signing bonus from an Italian club, and even though he was by far its best player.
"His status was such that Preston . . . (was) rather unfairly dubbed the 'Preston Plumber and his 10 drips,' " according to Finney's obituary in the Telegraph newspaper.
He stayed in Preston after his playing career, too, building a big and successful plumbing business and serving as the president of his old team's board of directors.
The features I read are full of stories of him sitting for hours to sign autographs, of offering friendly greetings in the street to regular Preston residents, of caring for his wife, who died of Alzheimer's disease in 2004, of doing charity work that filled his days during retirement, and of his unfailing decency to journalists.
One sportswriter recalled that whenever he asked Finney for an interview, he got the same answer:
"Call me when you're close, lad; I'll put the kettle on."
Preston, in a lot of ways, isn't much of a town. On a family visit to England last year, we decided that it wasn't worth exiting the expressway to have a look around. The team Finney once led to the brink of championships has slipped deep into the sport's lower divisions.
Preston was lucky that a player and person with all of Finney's great qualities happened to be born on a street next to Deepdale, the team's longtime grounds, and the town knows it. It loved him at least as much as he loved Preston.
Its local paper, the Lancashire Evening Post, put out a special, 24-page edition devoted to Finney's legacy. At the first game after his death, his old team's players all wore his name on the back of their jerseys. Fans have heaped so many flowers and poster-sized photographs on a statue of Finney outside Deepdale that it looks like the gates of Buckingham Palace after the death of Princess Diana.
"I would have done the same if I was there," my father-in-law said. "I would have certainly done something to repay him for all the memories, for all the pleasure he gave me, watching him play."