What am I supposed to do? I could only give my blood. Was I a fool because I was happy to give it to them?
– Jimmy Connors, 30 for 30 This is What They Want
When I heard that quote from Jimmy Connors while watching his 30 for 30 documentary, I thought, “That sounds so Catholic!” For the sake of full disclosure, I am a Roman Catholic, and I have either studied at or taught at a Catholic school for 31.5 of my 39 years on earth. I am also in the latter stages of a Ph.D. program at the University of Dayton focusing on the US Catholic experience. So my ears might have picked up on something others would miss (or maybe I am reading into something that is not there). Still, this recent tweet from Patti Connors convinced me to spend some time unpacking my impression of Jimmy’s comments.
A large field of scholarship and publication exists exploring how a Catholic world-view impacted various filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese, writers such as Flannery O’Connor, and artists such as Caravaggio (who oddly enough murdered someone in part over a game of royal tennis). I will give my short version of these scholars’ contention. This school of thought argues that Catholic artists of all sorts tend to place a heavy focus on the body and physical things due to a belief that the physical realm mediates the sacred. Judaism, Protestantism, and Islam have strong injunctions against idolatry, and therefore many artists tend to represent the physical world as something that often obscures or even opposes the sacred. Catholic artists, both practicing and lapsed, often produce a different sort of work when it comes to depicting the physical world.
If this holds true for artists, couldn’t it hold true for athletes as well? Connors’ quote from This is What They Want is the clearest articulation of his willingness to shed blood on the tennis court, but it is not the first time Jimmy has used blood to explain his play. Connors shared similar sentiments many times prior to his ESPN moment. In a 1987 interview Jimmy answered a question about his eventual retirement with similar corporeal images, “I don’t know if I’ll miss tennis. I’ll miss performing for the people, giving my blood, hearing them respond. I enjoy that, I think, more than the tennis.'”
My guess is that Robert Kennedy’s favorite passage from Shakespeare explains Jimmy Connors’ affinity for bonding with the crowd through the spilling of his own blood. RFK, another US Catholic, loved this passage from Shakespeare’s Henry V, Act IV, Scene II:
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother
Why Blood? Why Suffering as a Path to Victory?
I am not going to try to parse out scholastic sacramental formulations. I think it is important to note that Roman Catholics affirm the real presence of Christ, including his blood, in the sacrament of the Eucharist. A Catholic prayer known as the Anima Christi states, “Blood of Christ, inebriate me.” From statues, to Rosary beads, to incense, to Michelangelo’s Pieta, to the candles Patti and Brett Connors lit during Jimmy’s match versus Aaron Krickstein, Catholic worship tends to involve tangible objects that appeal to human senses. Connors’ play on court during his marathon battles and rage against any decline age might force upon his tennis has a kinship with the Catholic notion of the Via Dolorosa or Way of Suffering often associated with public processions such as walking the Stations of the Cross. There is a drama to Catholic prayer and liturgy, and Jimmy Connors’ play on the court often reflected this dynamic as fans were invited to walk the suffering road with him interlaced with hopes of a redemptive victory.
The Wrong Side of the Tracks
My initial reaction to Jimmy’s earthy comments about blood needs to be amended to focus on the US experience of Catholicism. In countries such as Spain, France, or Italy where Catholicism is more or less an established faith tradition, I don’t think Jimmy Connors’ outlook would resonate as fully. For much of US history, Catholics tended to be seen as exotic others and held under suspicion. That may be hard for younger US Catholics to grasp, but the experience of the ethnic parish and immigrant neighborhood was often one of Catholics not being viewed as being fully American.
Jimmy Connors was a Roman Catholic, the son of a policeman, and from East Saint Louis. He went on to dominate the high-society world of junior and professional tennis. Frank Deford’s monumental 1978 Sports Illustrated piece “Raised by Women to Conquer Men” was one of the earliest writings to raise the question of economic class in Connors taking on the entire tennis world. In his autobiography, The Outsider, Connors described being at the park playing tennis with his mother, Gloria, and seeing her brutally assaulted by two men. Gloria spilled her own blood while Jimmy was learning tennis as a child. The next day, undeterred, Gloria took Jimmy back to the same park to practice tennis again. While promoting his book Jimmy explained, “I don’t tell that story lightly, because nobody ever knew that. I tell that story because of the feeling that I had … it gave me something, you know? I grew up and it was something that always stuck in my mind. For me to play, I needed something always to go back to get me to play five hours. To get me into the fifth set. To feel no pain. And some of [the] things around that [what happened to his mom] were something that was always there in reserve, to get me to go further.”
Conclusion: Wise Blood
Therefore, Connors’ experience as a working-class Irish kid battling to make it big in US tennis make his words on blood more of an expression of Catholicism in the US rather than a general Catholic expression. We all know Connors could be earthy and uncouth on the court. Connors also invited fans in to walk with him as he battled and metaphorically spilled his blood on court. Connors, as he said in 1987, performed for the crowd, and his performances often sent the message to his crowd that spilling one’s own blood can ultimately be restorative. That to me sounds quite Catholic.