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A memorable night with a legend who paid the bill

by J.W. Miller on 07/09/18

I am not sure if there is another city in the nation that has gotten more sporting attention in the past month than Las Vegas. You might not have watched the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but you probably know that the Las Vegas Golden Knights became the most successful expansion team in history when they not only became the first to post a winning record but make the playoffs and advance all the way to the championship round. In the past week, the NBA moved in with its Las Vegas Summer League games that allows pro basketball fans to see if the draft choices or other new players have a chance to make the team and contribute. Then last night, Vegas hosted yet another major sporting event in which a young athlete achieved a feat that once almost killed a legendary figure. 

Yes, sporting fans, while you were tuned in to “America’s Got Talent” or “NCIS Los Angeles,” (it was a repeat) I was watching the History Channel’s presentation of motorcycle daredevil Travis Pastrana, who was attempting to succeed where the greatest daredevil of them all had failed. Hey, this is not only big stuff but a little personal, because I once spent a long night drinking with Pastrana’s obvious hero: Evel Knievel. I will elaborate later, but let me tell you about Pastrana’s Vegas victory last night. 

The 34-year-old Marylander attempted the “Big Three” jumps that made Knievel famous and damn near killed him. Riding an Indian Scout FTR750, which any fan of “American Pickers” will know, Pastrana first sped up a ramp, went airborne and jumped 143 feet to clear 52 crushed cars. In his second jump, he sailed 192 feet over 16 Greyhound buses, which topped Knievel’s best of 14 buses. And in his mondo stunt, Pastrana jumped 149 feet to clear the fountains at Caesars Palace, an attempt that nearly killed Knievel when he lost control of his Triumph Bonneville T120 then nosedived into the ramp and concrete parking lot. He suffering broken ribs, a hip, a crushed pelvis and various other cuts and scrapes that kept him hospitalized for 29 days. But he looked hale and hearty about ten years later, when my story begins. 

The Baltimore Evening Sun had sent me to Seattle to cover the Colts’ preseason game with the Seahawks. That was a day when we wrote stories on a Neanderthal computer that resembled a big electric typewriter. On top of the machine were two cups into which you jammed an old cradle telephone if you  could find one. But whenever we weren’t writing, the four or five of us usually were out together measuring the alcohol content of a local establishment. 

It was in the lounge of the Sea-Tac Hotel where our group included the dean of Baltimore scribblers, John Steadman, the sports editor of the rival News-American. John was typical of writers in that era whose writing style was straightforward and not flashy; reminiscent of Peter Finney or Bob Roesler in New Orleans or Billy Thompson of the Lexington Herald and Dean Eagle of the Louisville Courier-Journal. But their knowledge and contacts – they knew everybody - made their daily columns must-reading. 

Well, we were sitting at a large round table when all of a sudden, Steadman sees somebody he knows. He stands up and shouts loudly across the busy room: “BOB, BOB!” Into the room, ahead of a small entourage, strode Robert C. “Evel” Knievel, in tight leather pants, western shirt open to the navel and roach-killer cowboy boots. He saw Steadman, and you could see his blue eyes light up as he shouted back “STEADY! Where the hell have you been?” 

Knievel strode over, sat down with us, and as best as I remember, the next four or five hours were spent listening to Evel Bob Knievel tell stories about his most famous jumps but also the ones you never heard about. His first jump was at Moses Lake, Washington, in 1965 over a cage that contained two mountain lions. His jumps over a stack of cars or buses or pickup trucks became a standard part of his act, and occasionally he would pull off something spectacular like jumping over a pit that contained 100 rattlesnakes or a pool of sharks. Of course, we wanted to hear about his 1974 jump over the Snake River Canyon in a steam-powered rocket which required him to parachute safely to the ground. 

The only other thing that I remember about that night was the guy who stayed close to Knievel’s side. He wasn’t a bodyguard, but he was probably just as indispensable to the star. The bagman. Whenever our glasses were close to empty, our friend Bob directed the server: “bring “another round,” and when it arrived he directed his bagman: “pay the girl.” Those are nights that young sports writers remember: drinking with a legend who was free with his stories and picked up the bill.

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