Warning: I am about to write something completely off-topic.
A few days ago, the local paper ran a front-page story about the sudden death of a 30-year-old former local high school football star. No, let me correct that: it wrote about anything but the death of a 30-year-old former local high school football star. I would be positive and say that it wrote about his life, but that would also be untrue. The lengthy story concentrated only on what an amazing, focused athlete he was as a teenager; how he was so good and so serious that his friends didn’t like to involve him in pick-up games; how he gave up every other sport for football; how he had the world at his feet and colleges banging down his door; how he casually and confidently chose to go to the University of Maryland…until he injured his spinal column at the end of his freshman year, transferred to Penn State, never played again, and “life did not get easier.” After this statement, the writer returns to extolling the young man’s athleticism in high school for several more paragraphs, before dropping this quote from one of his old high school buddies: “We haven’t really hung out much or talked to him much…There wasn’t much in common here lately. We didn’t really want to associate with him, unfortunately.”
The cause of this young man’s death is never mentioned, and so I cannot with certainty say why he died. But there are dark hints that lead to some sad possibilities. He had a bad football injury, most certainly painful, and was never able to play football again. Afterwards, his “life did not get easier.” His friends ceased hanging out with him and “didn’t really want to associate with him.” He died suddenly of a cause not reported. When I read between these lines, I see hints toward depression, personality change (think: concussions), and, very likely, addiction. I also see a lost opportunity for a real story.
I understand that, for the sake of his family and friends, relating the (apparent) grimness of his recent years and the (painful? sad? tragic?) details of his death is something that, as a sympathetic writer, you might be reluctant to do. You want to remember the good times. But, to put his death on the front page and and to devote almost 30 paragraphs solely to his years as an amazing high school football player seems entirely disrespectful of the majority of his life. Was he truly only valued for those 2 or 3 years of athletic greatness? Did he fall off the face of the earth after football? The article notes that his Facebook page mentions working for a local tree service and country club. Did he have no friends from these places to quote? What has he been doing for the last 10 years? Was it of no value? Was he of no value?
I am afraid that he might have felt that way. I hope not. I hope he found life afterwards. I hope that he didn’t become addicted to painkillers. I hope that he didn’t become depressed and choose to self-medicate. I hope that he found something to live for outside of football. I hope that he found other interests and friends. I hope that he didn’t think that the best years of his life were over. I hope that he died in a way that had nothing to do with his “tough times” after leaving football. I hope.
It’s strange how angry this article has left me…for him, his family, his loved ones, for all those injured athletes who have had to face life after their sport. All of these men and women are more than what they can do on a field, or how fast they can run, or how hard they can kick. Let’s be respectful of that. Let’s remember that. Let’s remind them of that.
We are not to be defined by one ability, by one time in our life, by one tragedy that changed things. We are all so much more.