Wednesday, May 27, 2009 | 6 p.m.
There’s a picture stuck away in a box somewhere in my house of a younger Mike Tyson standing behind my son, his arms draped over him and a huge smile on his face.
The picture never made the family album, was never brought out to show around when friends came over. Brian never asked me to have it framed.
It was taken at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas in 1990, and by that time Tyson’s life had already spun far out of control and disintegrated into soap opera status. His wife at the time had accused him on national TV of abusing her, he had lost the only two father figures he had ever known, and, thanks to Buster Douglas, he was no longer the heavyweight champion of the world.
Soon he was going to be charged with rape. It wasn’t the time to be showing his picture around.
Not that I had any worries about letting my son hang briefly with the baddest man on the planet. With Tyson you got pretty much what you saw, with none of the phoniness or pretentiousness of most athletes.
A lot of times it wasn’t pretty, and a lot of times the decisions he made were pretty bad. But there was always an underlying endearing quality to Tyson that was missed by those more interested in his left hook or his many problems.
You could see by the way he joked with my son and put his arm around him that he loved kids. That may have been because in many ways he was still a kid himself.
A kid who cried after failing to make the 1984 Olympic team. A kid who had no idea what to do when promoters and so-called friends were shoving their hands in his suddenly deep pockets.
A kid who took an awfully long time to grow up.
He’s led his life under intense public scrutiny since he was a teen, and people were often as transfixed by him as they were repulsed by some of the things he did. At times it was comic, most times it was tragic, but all of the time people watched.
He’s gone through enough highs and lows to last five lifetimes. But no parent should ever have to go through this.
The news Tuesday that Tyson’s 4-year-old daughter died after a freak accident at home in Phoenix came as a jarring reminder of how things can go terribly wrong just as they finally seem to be going right.
Exodus Tyson died a day after her neck apparently got caught in the cord of a treadmill.
Tyson was in Las Vegas at the time of the accident, riding a wave of mostly favorable publicity since a documentary on his troubled life hit selected theaters earlier this month. Clean and sober for more than a year, he also has a part in the upcoming comedy “The Hangover,” where he gets laughs singing a song and punching out one of the main characters.
He seemed to be finally putting at least some of his many demons behind him, much to the relief of those who never thought he would make it this far. He wasn’t at strip clubs every night, and could go to a restaurant without having a drink. He was finding a new identity outside the ring.
And now he’s faced with every parents’ worst nightmare.
How he will handle the tragedy in the long run is anyone’s guess, though there are probably some psychologists speculating about it already.
People will offer their sympathy, but not everyone will be so sympathetic. A changed man or not, he’s still reviled by many as the fighter who once bit off a piece of Evander Holyfield’s ear and threatened to eat Lennox Lewis’ children.
But he’s also a man who talked often about his own children, and how he wished he could have had a father when he was growing up. I remember watching him playfully nibble on his infant son’s arm on the podium at a press conference days before his fight with Clifford Etienne, so engrossed with the baby that he seemed oblivious to everything else going on.
Indeed, Tyson has been a walking contradiction most of his life. I saw him bite Holyfield’s ear and try to break Francois Botha’s arm, but I also remember times he would knock someone senseless and then kiss him on top of the head and try to help him up.
Sadly, there’s no kiss that can bring back his daughter.
He was once young and ferocious, hated by many and feared by all. But that was a lifetime ago.
Now he’s simply Mike Tyson, grieving father.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org