The last two decades of the 20th century were not kind to Evel Knievel, the greatest daredevil of all time. Set back by problems both physical and spiritual, Evel sometimes walked a lonely road. His astounding legacy all but forgotten to the public at large, Evel became a mere shadow of himself.

Those were Evel Knievel’s lost years, a lean and uncertain time for the original Master of Disaster – and perhaps the darkest chapter in the life of a man who once commanded the attention of millions of loyal fans the world over with his legendary exploits: Caesar’s Palace, Cow Palace, the Snake River Canyon jump, Wembley Stadium and many others.

He found himself 40-something, retired, divorced, and waist-deep in financial and medical quicksand. Instead of commanding every American’s attention plotting his next gravity-defying spectacle, Evel took his prescriptions from Dr. Jack Daniels and gamely made the auto-show rounds, occasionally popping up on late night television as a pitchman for roadside hotel chains, hawking 1-800 products like “The Stimulator” (static electricity arthritis buster) and, as this reporter can testify to personally viewing on television, hoisting himself 100 feet up in the air in a crane-suspended trailer-home as a gimmick to sell Dodge automobiles to the denizens of Central Oklahoma.

It was not always this way.

As anyone who grew up during the 1970s knows, Evel Knievel was a Man of Action, and one of the definitive icons of that time. Charismatic, larger than life, with a patriotic streak as long as his medical chart, Evel Knievel’s public persona presented a stark contrast to the growing cynicism, the drugged up hedonism, the distrust of men in uniform that was common in the ambiguous landscape of that hazy, burned out decade.

Here was a man who seemingly hailed straight from Mythic America. Like the Lone Ranger, Evel was sometimes misunderstood as an outlaw. Yet at every turn his good intentions and dashing charm quickly convinced city and country folk alike to embrace his heroic calling.

Dressed in a red, white and blue jumpsuit, Evel Knievel was the ultimate Cold War cowboy, gladiator and test pilot. There was nothing he liked better than to ride into town on a Harley-Davidson motorbike to remind the American people that there was still plenty of action left in this great nation of ours. For a time, a star-struck generation embraced him, and he was their champion.

But times change. As the 1970s faded into history, so did Evel Knievel. Gone was the cool merchandise like the durable line of zip cord or crank-driven toys bearing his coat of arms. Gone were the appearances in high-rated television shows like “The Bionic Woman” and in the movies. And gone too was Howard Cosell, whose supremely captivating reporting style focused the attention of 1970s America onto guys like Evel Knievel (and his counterpart, the equally boisterous and quotable Muhammad Ali) with all the intensity of the Death Star’s planet-destroying laser. Indeed, given the vanilla fudge superpowers of Ali and the Evel One, people in the 1970s had good reason to question whether Kal-El, also known as Superman, really was the sole survivor from the faraway, doomed planet of Krypton.

Perhaps the nation simply outgrew Evel: in a time of countless front page scandals, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the insidious rise of Political Correctness, there just didn’t seem to be anyplace left on the public stage for a simple guy from Montana who sincerely loved his country, didn’t take drugs, and wanted to make people happy by achieving low-earth orbit on a motorcycle.

It seemed that the greatest daredevil of all time would soon be little more than a footnote in psychiatric textbooks or a punch-line on the quiz shows: a crazy, self-instructed country boy whose appetite for breaking the rules of common sense and the laws of gravity just didn’t jibe with the cell phone-toting New Squares of the ‘80s and ‘90s.

But even in his darkest hours – when he was using a walker due to his deteriorating hip, when his own son Robbie was threatening to eclipse him in the record books, when he was sent up the river to the state pen for breaking the arms of a writer who wrote a lengthy profile about his darkest hours – even then, not everyone forgot about Evel Knievel. His loyal fans were, and still are to this day, legion. When he announced his comeback at Galpin Ford on June 1st, when he vowed that his last jump would be the greatest, most spectacular one of them all – on that day the Legion of Evel was reborn.

If the last two decades have been a forced march through Death Valley for the greatest daredevil of all time, then his uncanny revival must be the Promised Land. Thanks to the modern miracle of medical science, Evel’s back and better than he was before. This reporter wishes him nothing but the best of luck in his latest, greatest jump.

Evel, there’s only one man in the world who can do what you can. It’s good to have you back.

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