On Friday, a most remarkable thing happened. “Evel” Knievel, that most American king of daredevils, died. In bed. Of something utterly mundane. After a career of spectacular stunts and even more spectacular failures, injuries, and traumas, Evel’s end might have been that of any elderly American.

But, as the Washington Post writes, however mundane his death, his life remains “larger than life:”

Any time ABC showed a Sunday afternoon Knievel stunt on “Wide World of Sports,” you could expect half the neighborhood to show up in the cul-de-sac immediately afterward, in an act of instant emulation. Someone would get a piece of plywood or a couple of 2-by-4’s and a cinderblock. Everyone had their bikes (bicycles, that is — Huffys, BMXs, with the banana seats and faded Wacky Packages stickers) and would perform jumps. You could get the little kids to lie flat on the asphalt in a row next to the ramp. (I can jump all four of you.) Kids would jump until the wood broke, or, more wonderfully, a daredevil got hurt and ran home bleeding.

In a way, Evel inspired a generation (if not to greatness, at least to extremes). Whether they know it or not, the skateboarders of the 1980s, the Extreme sportsmen of the 1990s, and the “Jackasses” of the 21st Century all owe their debt to Evel Knievel. He moved daredeviltry away from actually succeeding at apparently dangerous tasks to attempting truly, spectacularly dangerous tasks. And because, by sheer force of showmanship, he succeeding in that shift, his failures never really damaged his legend.

Because the story of Evel Knievel isn’t about success, or failure. It’s about daring to do the (sometimes literally) impossible. Defying death, sense, and sometimes even physics to reach for a dream—even if it really can’t be done. If nothing else, Evel taught us that you can defy all the rules and, if not walk away from it, at least be carried off with a thumb held high. In Evel’s stunts, raw courage and optimism were set against brutal reality. And if, brutal reality usually won brutally, you never stopped hoping against hope that this time, just this once, Evel would prevail.

In that, Evel Knievel truly symbolized America, in all her glory and folly. And he symbolized America too in his final embrace of God and Jesus Christ, realizing at last that there are some things man need not face alone. In Evel was played out the longstanding paradox of America: materialistic and faith-driven, huckster and preacher, worldly-wise playboy and humble penitent. In those latter days, no less than before, Evel was quintessentially American.

Requiest in pace, Evel.

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