The hero doesn't win in the end, but he's the hero just the same. And a winner just the same. Danny Fitzpatrick is a deaf athlete whose struggle to win a gold medal at the World Games for the Deaf proves soundly, authentically encouraging in "The Quiet Champion," at 10 tonight on Channel 26.
Producer-director John Marcus' 1978 documentary, underwritten by Gallaudet College, and just now making its local TV debut, follows the 6-foot, 3-inch, 255-pound Fitzpatrick from life on a farm in central Illinois to football stardom at Gallaudet and the 13th World Games, held in Bucharest. Fitzpatrick, a giant with a disarming smile, won a silver medal in the shot put but failed to score the victory he hoped for in the discus.
Nevertheless he remains a beacon of determination and a figure to be admired, and not just for having, in the condescending phrase, "overcome a handicap." As former Redskins coach George Allen says in the film, "I don't think the handicap he has is a handicap," and Fitzpatrick obviously feels the same way. This is a story of a kind of positivism that is not demonstrative but remains unmistakable.
Very well shot and edited, the film wanders only a short distance from its central subject to convey some of the atmosphere of competition. Two exhausted runners collapse upon each other, literally, and just stand there interlocked in pain; because of a technicality, the 100-meter race has to be run all over again; freeze-frames capture the stress and physical anguish reflected in faces of competitors. How do deaf runners and swimmers hear the starting gun for an event? They can feel the vibrations when the gun goes off, the script explains.
Ironically, though, "Quiet Champion" would benefit from keeping quieter itself. The narration written by Jim Upshaw and spoken by William ("Cannon") Conrad, is overly insistent and melodramatic, like one of Conrad's old radio scripts from the '40s. Far too much yowling is done about how awful it is not to win: "To win is to be wounded," says the script, referring later to losing as "suffering" and to "the cold exile of defeat."
The writer seems to want Fitzpatrick to be far more depressed than he becomes. A coach marvels at his attitude upon losing -- he is disappointed for the others who had faith in him more than for any imagined humiliation -- and says of Fitzpatrick, "That's class." So, for the most part, is "The Quiet Champion."