Some people will tell you that when Gazza broke down in floods of tears in Italia 90, it changed everything. It might have done for a lot of people, but I remember something before then: Alex Higgins's tears when he won the 1982 World Snooker final.
It's hard to separate one moment out of a sporting great's life and say there, that is who the person was, because it's all too easy to slip into the world of cliche, to imagine that everything was perfect before the world titles and there was some inevitable arc towards destruction and eventual death; it's easy to look back and imagine the dots got joined together by straight lines, but you have to suspect that things are even more complicated with Higgins than with anyone else. Here was someone who was quite rightly loved and hated, who acted appallingly and brilliantly. How can you separate it all out? How can you take one strand and say, this is who this person was? It's impossible.
There was always something of the outsider about Higgins. There was a look on his face of a man who'd been wronged, who wasn't quite right, who was always going to have to fight just to stand still. He was more crumpled, more battered, less together than the other neat and tidy snooker stars on television in the 1980s. Higgins didn't wear a tie, citing medical reasons. He'd sit there, screwing his mangled features up as he lit another cigarette, looking like everything could fall apart at any second... but then sometimes it didn't fall apart. Sometimes it all came together.
Higgins was the loser's hero, the guy who couldn't be relied upon to get anything right, but who could, when he did get it right, beat anyone. There's something almost childish about the risk-taking behaviour, the desire to try anything to try and win, to go for the near impossible when the safe option is there, but when it comes off, it's amazing. The more methodical sporting heroes - in snooker, Steve Davis or Ray Reardon - are always going to win more times with their approach. But in this bit of action from 1982, Higgins pulls off an amazing series of shots to crush Jimmy White:
Maybe there's a part of all of us who are failures, and losers, and defeated, who admire the courage of Higgins to go for it when the odds were against him. Those of us who are never going to amount to anything can look at someone like that and think, well, that's what happens when you really try, it might come off, and you might just do it. We all just want a millionth of what he had, and we'd be happy. Here was someone who was a fighter - against his rivals, against authority figures, against cancer, against everyone, including himself, of course. It was that battling spirit that saw him overcome cancer, though the operations and treatment, as well as the lifestyle he'd had, did for him in the end. But he raged against the dying of the light, like he'd raged against everything.
It's hard to like someone like Higgins, whatever you think of his sporting achievements. I dare say in real life he could be an awful person. I don't want to read all the stories from friends and lovers that will no doubt appear in the papers, but I imagine there will be some unsavoury stories that come out - those, after all, are the ones that attract the most attention, the bigger headlines, the potentially bigger payout. Who knows what really happened.
But I just remember being a younger person, looking at Higgins's face contorted in tears as he won that 1982 final. Tears of joy, that he could have won again, despite everything. Tears of relief, that it was all over. And probably tears for all kinds of other reasons, too. Here was someone so painfully, obviously fallible, and yet, there he was, champion of the world, best of everyone. He was a terrible ambassador for the sport, hounded for every tiny swear, cough, indiscretion and so on by the press, often rightly so, sometimes making a lot out of a little. But for those moments, as the tears fell, he was proven to be the best of the best. The rest of us can only dream of such magic. That's why a lot of us love sport, for the power to transport you to somewhere else, to see a glimpse of someone else's dream, to see a part of your own hopes invested in someone else.
And years later, they're gone, and you're still here. But still. If you could have a millionth of what they had, you'd take it right away. I know I would.