Thursday, September 25, 2008

Grieving teams learn hard lessons after tragedy

The piece below was published last Sunday as my follow article to the game I covered on Friday at Glenn. I didn't want to go the “Debbie Downer” rout being mindful that it had been a month and being sure the kids were probably tired of talking about it considering the tragedy of it and all. But I did ask everyone I interviewed how they were holding up and such and what teams were doing and things like that as sort of a warm up to get them going. So at the last minute I decided that it more or less had be my follow because I have been, let’s say, upset since David Foster Wallace’s death considering that I have been looking to his commencement address delivered to my graduating class as practically a religious text.

Here is the piece:

Last Friday’s match up that pitted the now 1-4 Glenn Bobcats against the 2-3 R.J. Reynolds Demons would to most observers appear like a game hardly worth notice in its mediocrity. However, in this unexpected setting, there was a supreme truth to be learned with life-or-death significance void of self-interest or cynicism. It was a parable of hope.

One month ago, Reynolds linebacker Matt Gfeller died in a horrible anomaly and in his honor they have worn no.57 decals and patches. They’re also a reminder that adolescent myths of invincibility and immortality to committed pursuits get shattered when reality proves fragile and temporal and directed by forces beyond control. Yet they must play on, as their teammate cannot.

Talking about how his team has held up, Reynolds coach Mike Propst vented “anything we do, win or lose, on or off the field, you know… whatever,” considering how unimportant a loss becomes when compelled to think about bigger issues.

However, in the midst of an excruciating situation, players have learned a deep truth novelist David Foster Wallace, who woefully died last week, said in his commencement address at Kenyon College, “involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.”

“Sports have a way of healing things,” Propst said. He added that their opponents have done some “wonderful things” to make the burden easier to bare, but Glenn “did some extra things they didn’t have to do and that’s just been special.”

One such thing came soon after the horror when Glenn coach Dickie Cline, who not so long ago had a player pass, interrupted practice to talk about issues more serious than sports—assuming one thinks that possible—when he declared the obvious but overlooked truth that life is cruelly and unbelievably short.

“We do not know when it is going to be taken,” he said. “That is why you need to live your life to the fullest and to make sure your right with the-Man-Upstairs. Because you never know when its your turn.” This televised message for players to take responsibility and own up to their true interior selves was also an act of mercy since it took just a little attention off of the traumatized Reynolds community.

Though Cline would never say it, his team faces similar yet far less consequential dismay with their recent slump. But confident in his team’s “men of character,” there is hope that “something positive will ignite this team.”

When tragedy strikes the self-contained world of football, it paradoxically makes everyone more cognizant of the world off field since it refuses to indulge the fantasy of a seamless break between realities. There, things like personal character and communal disposition become extremely important to success. To deal with a player removed from not only his role on the team but from all aspects of life is a transcendentally profound and sad experience—teams have come apart when a player changes clubs or gets sidelined for a few weeks. Yet, as Cline’s words also pointed toward, through the tragedy there comes the more important awareness that life actually means something beyond self-interest.

Reynolds won the game 34-0.

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