Remembering Evel Knievel

If you're a man of a certain age, then you spent a lot of Sunday afternoons building ramps and wearing capes and trying to be the first on the block to jump over your Labrador retriever. Or maybe you spent some time in an emergency room because your banana-seat bike--the one with the sparkly flag seat--almost made it from the roof of the garage to the cow pond. When it was all over, and the stitches were in place and the arms set, your mom had one man to blame: Robert Craig Knievel Jr., a.k.a. "Evel Knievel," every 12-year-old boy's man crush, circa 1974.

In addition to inspiring thousands of cast-wearing children across America, Knievel survived nearly 40 broken bones himself, and several near-death experiences, before his retirement in 1980. The man who literally jumped sharks--take that, Fonz--and trucks and canyons and flaming Las Vegas fountains, succumbed last week at the age of 69 to the same old mundane diseases of Everyman at his home in Clearwater, Fla.

The battered body of the legend, whose own Web site calls him a "crazy son of a bitch," gave out after years of battling diabetes and pulmonary fibrosis, a disease that scars the lungs and eventually stops the lung tissue from transferring oxygen to the bloodstream. Knievel also had a liver transplant back in 1999; he'd contracted hepatitis C, possibly the result of receiving infected blood after one of his many stunts that ended in surgery.

Knievel was born in Butte, Mont., in 1938, and was brought up by his paternal grandparents. When he was a boy, he saw a performance of Joie Chitwood's auto daredevil show and his life's course was set. A gifted athlete, he excelled at skiing and hockey. Before making it as a stunt act, Knievel spent a few years raising hell. He dropped out of high school to work in the copper mines, spent time as a hunting guide and sold insurance, among other jobs. Legend has it that Knievel once made the mine's earth mover pop a wheelie and it crashed into Butte's main power line, killing the lights in the whole town. He allegedly got his nickname back in the '50s when he was in a jail cell next to a local troublemaker named "Awful Knofel." Someone jokingly suggested he should be called "Evel Knievel," and so he was.

The stunt career started in 1965 in Moses Lake, Wash., when Knievel went to a failing motorcycle dealership and jumped over a caged mountain lion and a few crates of rattlesnakes on his motorbike. From there, he would go on to try ever-more-daring stunts, culminating in his attempt to jump Idaho's Snake River Canyon using his "Skycycle"--more of a rocket than a motorcycle--in September 1974. Knievel was on the cover of Sports Illustrated in the week leading up to the stunt with a headline that read "Up, Up, And ..." with a bad-ass photo of EK standing at the bottom of the canyon in his trademark white jumpsuit with a red, white and blue flag design. Shown with his shirt unzipped to the navel and holding a black cane, he looked like a mix of the thin Elvis and Captain America. Hell, he was a mix of Elvis and Captain America.

The attempt was shown to a huge audience on ABC's "Wide World of Sports," but the parachute opened too soon, and Evel went slowly, slowly, slowly down into the canyon below. It seemed like forever before we heard he was going to be OK. People talk about where they were when Kennedy was shot. I remember exactly where I was when Evel went down toward the water: sitting on some deep-green shag carpet in front of the Zenith and nearly hysterical that he wasn't going to be OK.

It's really sort of impossible to overstate how cool EK was to a generation of men and boys in the '60s and '70s. So you kids who grew up watching "Jackass" on MTV should mosey on over to YouTube and check out the man who makes those guys look like Little Lord Fauntleroy playing in the sandbox.

Though he had mostly faded from view over the years, Knievel had been in the news last week because he and rapper Kanye West had settled a lawsuit over the use of the daredevil's image in a music video. In 2002, Knievel started "Evel Knievel Days" in Butte, a celebration that draws tens of thousands of visitors a year to watch stunts and celebrate the man.

He was a hero to many, but Knievel didn't like that word at all: "It's the most overused, undeserving word. Too many people think the wrong people are heroes. A soldier ... a scientist ... an astronaut ... those are heroes .... I was good at riding a motorcycle and a pretty good businessman. Not a hero."

We're going to have to respectfully disagree on that one, EK. And I've got the scar on my wrist to prove it.

Remembering Evel Knievel | Culture