More often than not we Americans turn to sports as a way of escaping from the mundane realities of life, or even the from the more seriously distressing challenges that we face. In spite of labor strife, the police blotter, the occasional bizarre comments & behaviors, on the whole sports still distracts us, entertains us, distract us long enough for us to decompress a little & continue to function as best we can.
Then there are times like the past 48 hours.
On Thursday, sports fans read with no small sense of disbelief about the murder of Tina Stewart, a member of the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders women’s basketball team. A 21 year old junior from Memphis, she was a part-time starter having the best season of her career but most of the reaction from those around her talked about Stewart as a person more than an athlete. Despite having a relatively large student body, the MTSU environment is usually likened to that of a much smaller school. Students who know each other by name, who are part of the community, where the university president plays host to students who can’t make it home at Thanksgiving. In short, not the sort of place where you expect anyone, much less a somewhat public figure, to be stabbed to death by their 18 year old roommate. But according to police, that’s what happened & it’s hard not to read between the lines of what’s being said (or not said) and get the impressions that Stewart may have died in large part because she tried to do the right things, because she wasn’t willing to risk her future by tolerating improper (or downright illegal) behavior by her roommate.
Hard enough to think about a recognizable face suddenly gone. Harder still when it’s a young person. Downright brutal when it seems that doing something right may have contributed to her senseless death.
Friday morning comes & the sports section/websites/news brings us a story that’s even harder to get our heads around. 16 year old Wes Leonard hits a layup in overtime to help his Fenner, Michigan team stay unbeaten heading into state tournament play. The celebration that followed was like the ones many of us have seen many times, jubilant players & fans enjoying the moment, lifting the hero of the moment in the air in celebration & triumph. Except this one didn’t end like the others. The high school junior praised earlier in the week by his coach as “a special kid” with great drive and the ability to see “the bigger picture” collapsed, lost consciousness, and was pronounced dead at a local hospital a short time later.
What’s stayed with me all morning is how many high school basketball games I saw this year. How many different kids I’ve watched play this year. How many games I’ve watched in my life, how many faces & lives & families I’ve shared that experience with. As either a fan or an announcer I’ve seen stadiums plunged into total darkness by power outages, I’ve seen fights in the stands, I’ve seen fights on the field, I’ve seen players taking swings at their own coaches, I’ve seen a fan with very bad intentions head to the floor after a referee. I’ve seen career ending injuries, I’ve seen cheerleaders crash to the floor & leave in ambulances, I’ve seen officials go down with injuries. As a broadcast and/or newspaper reporter I’ve covered unexpected deaths of athletes from both hidden medical problems to accidents … and I realized this morning that none of it comes remotely close to preparing me for even the thought of something like what happened in Michigan. Not in that kind of moment, not in that environment. Not as a fan, not as an observer, and definitely not as a parent.
As if the story wasn’t tragic enough, wasn’t stunning enough, wasn’t hard enough to get my head around, reading some of the local coverage reveals that it’s actually the second student-athlete death at the same high school in 14 months. A 14 year old wrestler suffered a seizure after competing early in 2010. Trying to imagine what that school and community have to be going through is mind boggling to me.
It also isn’t lost on me that, as tragic and as senseless and as incomprehensible as these deaths are, in some ways they differ from other deaths mostly in terms of media coverage. We lose good people – of every age – every minute of every hour of every day, from illnesses, accidents, or other causes. Those losses don’t have any less impact on loved ones, on communities, and I don’t mean to diminish them in the least. The additional shock comes, I think, when something so tragic intrudes on something that many of us associate with entertainment or escape. It’s so incompatible with our expectations that I suspect it influences our reactions, human nature I suppose.
As much as the Friday morning story bothered me and seemed likely to stay with me all day, as I was reading one more story, I ran across something that finally brought me to tears. Wes Leonard’s team had just pulled out a dramatic win in overtime, but for that to happen then another team had suffered a heartbreaking loss, in this case Bridgman High School. Their athletic director talked to reporters after the game, telling them “I went back in to tell my coach to keep the guys in the locker room, and they already had a pretty good idea of what was going on, and one of our players (Josiah Badger) was leading our team in a prayer when I walked back in.”
All morning I’ve been fairly baffled by what I’ve read from the relative calm of my desk, trying to make sense of the tragedies, feeling sad to the point of being depressed. Yet somehow in the middle of that scene, amidst their own emotions and all the uncertainty of the situation, there was a group of teenagers who apparently knew exactly what to do.