When I was growing up, I had a real interest in these little statuettes of athletes produced by the toy company named for the guy who wrote the Spawn comics in the 90s. It was about the second closest I ever got to having a real collecting hobby (the first was video game collecting, a hobby I dipped about a full foot in before recognizing how unbelievably expensive it was and how unbearable so many collectors were). I used to be able to tell you which figures came out with which color variations, and which figures came out in which line of releases, and I owned the figures of most of my favorite childhood athletes (Dirk Nowitzki, Priest Holmes, Shaq, etc). But after a while I kinda grew out of that thing, and I don’t remember buying one of those guys after like 2007 or so.
But one of the sportsman figures that I owned stuck with me:
That is Joceyln Thibault, former goaltender for the Chicago Blackhawks. I never have had an interest in ice hockey. I’ve watched many a game, I’ve tried at different times to follow different teams, but at this point I’m just going to accept that I’m not yet an ice hockey convert. I have no attachment to the Chicago Blackhawks, and I know next to nothing of Jocelyn Thibault. Yet, I owned his figure. I saw his figure at the Toys R Us, and I spent however much allowance money on it, not because I was a Blackhawks, or Thibault, or hockey fan, but just because I was amazed at the idea that I could own a little figure of a guy drinking from a bottle of water.
All of the other guys were doing cool stuff. My Nowitzki figure was posting up, about to kick out for a signature one-legged fade. Paul Pierce came with a little stick that would hold him in the air while he dunked. Brett Favre had his hands raised in celebration. But Thibault… Thibault was just getting a drink. The guy was getting hydrated, and for whatever reason, this brief moment in the middle of a game was the one that got immortalized. No athletic saves or anything… Just some hydration. A little Powerade.
These are the McFarlane sportsmen who I believe need to be adequately celebrated. The McFarlane toys website has a database of every toy ever sold by the company, complete with high-res action shots of each, which I’m going to mine for content over the rest of this post. This is the Sportsman Figure Hall of Fame:
THE BASEBALL MEN
Major League Baseball was well represented by the McFarlane line, but to my memory I never actually owned any baseball men, because the Royals were ass during the entirety of the line’s run and I don’t think anybody in KC Blue ever got a figure.
This figure of ex-Red Sox pitcher Derek Lowe stands out, as the sculptor rendered the veins along the side of his neck in honestly disgusting detail.
Reggie Jackson was sculpted with an unflatteringly realistic pudginess, for which I’m sure he’s very grateful.
The losers of the facial expression lottery were Roberto Alomar, who looks genuinely puzzled about something as he slides into second, and Mariano Rivera, whose teeth appear to have fused together.
But the least explicable, and therefore my favorite, is this figure of baseball Hall of Fame member Lou Gehrig giving his famous retirement speech in 1939. This is a powerful moment in baseball history, where a man succumbing to a disease that later killed him effectively announced his mortality to a stadium of his supporters.
Yet, I cannot for the life of me think of the type of person who would want to purchase and display a figurine of this moment. This is a man who was grappling with his impending death – Where would you put this? Would you put him next to the statue of Vince Carter dunking or would he get his own little place alone? And these figures normally were displayed at Toys R Us next to the Tech Decks and WWE figures. It’s a bizarre artifact, I guess is what I’m saying.
THE BASKETBALL MEN
There was a bit of a challenge for the McFarlane company in producing basketball men – Basketball is such a reactive game, where most actions are dependent on the immediate presence of defenders and the presence of the hoop. Isolated, a lot of the common poses in basketball play look sort of weird. Take for example Metta World Peace here –
I don’t… really know what he’s supposed to be doing here. Is he calling for the ball in the post? Is he holding his left on somebody he’s defending? Is he powering up for a Kamehameha wave to be lobbed at a spectator in the third row of the Palace at Auburn Hills? Who can say?
Vince Carter’s spectacular athleticism was rendered by a little plastic stick out of his crotch that propped him up. This was the other problem they faced often. Basketball is a game of verticality, and unfortunately levitation technology never made it to the little sportsman figurine industry.
Ex-Washington Wizards forward Kwame Brown got the ol’ stick in the ass treatment and was matched with a disembodied rim and net to hang on. He also looks very bored. This is a top-tier basketball man if I’ve ever seen one. However, I think my favorite is this one:
I don’t know why they made it this way, but this Shaquille O’Neal figure is clearly in the middle of missing a dunk. Looking at the positioning of the net and the positioning of the ball, there’s just no way that this is a successful dunk. Shaq somehow lost the ball between elevating and grabbing the rim, and yet still decided to pull his legs up and grip the rim with both hands. This blooper was, apparently, the moment that needed to be made concrete. And I respect that.
THE FOOTBALL MEN
The NFL guys were McFarlane’s bread and butter for a long while, but they seem to have slowed to a stop over the past few years. For whatever reason, NFL men got some of the most experimental poses. Take, for example, Sad Tom Brady.
They didn’t have to make him sad. They could’ve made him stoic, or content, or focused, but… They chose to make a very clearly sad representation of Touchdown Tom for us. I also think it would be very funny to imagine that he’s kneeling during the national anthem in this picture.
Reggie Bush was depicted pre-punt return. I like to look at this pose and imagine that he’s crying out to a god who won’t listen, like “Whyyyyyyy?”
I realize it’s hard to make anything a football center does look really cool, but there’s something very bizarre about anyone seeing this figure and thinking “I want that displayed prominently in my home.” I cannot imagine that even Jeff Saturday would like this statuette of him squatting over featured in his home.
Ndamukong Suh was given a profuse amount of booty meat, for which we should all be grateful.
While all of these were excellent, and while each sport had its own Hall of Fame caliber figure, I truly believe that the greatest work of sportsman figurineship was a football man. Football is a game of motion, speed, action, and yet, on any given play, more than half of members of either team in a game of football are seated on the bench. This is an unsung, but repeated moment in the average football game. And so, I believe we must salute the McFarlane company for recognizing this moment by placing one of the game’s most electrifying athletes ever in solitude on a metal bench. Friends and Fellows: LaDanian Tomlinson.
If you would like a figurine of one of history’s best ever football players taking a seat on a bench and enjoying a sip of Gatorade, he’s available. This is interesting for a few reasons – First, the idea that anybody would want this is very funny. Second, this actually pre-empts one of the most infamous moments of Tomlinson’s career, when he sat alone on the bench wearing his coat and helmet during a 5-yard performance in the 2007 AFC Championship game. The third funniest thing about this is that I absolutely want this figure and I will be searching eBay for it into the wee hours of the morning for it.