Thursday, March 13, 2008

Three tragedies

Much ink has been spilled this week on the death of J.I. Albrecht by such worthies as Neate, Stephen Brunt, and Earl McRae. One of the prices of young age is missing the chance to appreciate and understand legends firsthand, instead relying on secondary sources. Still, said secondary sources did a marvelous job of filling a young sportswriter in on what exactly will be missed. If you can read those pieces and not be moved, you're a tougher man than I. McRae's piece in particular shows the dichotomy at the heart of
sports fandom: we like our athletes and heroes to go out at the top, and have a hard time combining the bedridden old man with the legendary general manager.

"This is the figure of physical power, of dominating presence, I remember," he writes. "I am not prepared for the J.I. Albrecht before my eyes. His sunken body covered in a white sheet from his neck to his toes. His unshaven face thin and pale. His good eye red and hurting. His left arm and hand immobilized from the stroke. His toothless mouth misshapen by the stroke. His aching legs unable to walk. The catheter so that he can urinate. The diaper for his uncontrollable bowel movements. The oozing bedsore on his buttocks. The medication he's on since the heart attack. The pain killing drugs for the damaged prostate, the pain of which makes him scream out to God during the day and in the middle of the long, dark night."

Andy Rooney's 15 minutes of fame can last for years of a sporting career, but for most, once the glory days of the gridiron are behind, the spotlight never shines again until after the final darkness falls. We don't want to see our legends reduced to sad, pitiable old men. Consider Muhammad Ali, quite likely the greatest boxer whoever lived: we prefer to visualize him at the triumphant heights of the "Rumble in the Jungle" or the "Thrilla in Manila", not the old man whose pugilistic Parkinson's syndrome, an unwanted byproduct of the glory years, has reduced him to a mere shadow of his former self. As Neil Young wrote, "It's better to burn out than fade away."

That logic itself requires some analysis. This week, I wrote a piece for the Journal on the deaths of young athletes Mickey Renaud, Shannon Veal and Rene Ayangma. All of these deaths were truly tragic, and certainly disappointing given the potential of these athletes, both in sports and in life. Yet, the sad fact is, along with others like Dale Ernhardt and Owen Hart, they've probably gained more fame because of their tragic death than they ever would have in life. Look at Bill Masterton, who now has a trophy named after him and became the poster boy for the NHL's helmet campaign. Renaud could have gone on to a great career in the NHL, but unless he cracked that first tier of superstars, few would probably remember him down the road.

Another case is shown by Bill Simmons' moving column this week on the funeral of Jamiel Andre Shaw Jr. Shaw's death is another tragedy, and definitely deserved the full treatment (which Bill delivered in great style: for those who question the man's sportswriting talent, please read this piece). However, the unfortunate fact of life is even if Shaw had lived out his dream of playing in the NFL, it's a pretty slim likelihood that he would have gotten a whole Bill Simmons column devoted to him (unless he led the Patriots to victory in Super Bowl L, but that's another story). It's the age-old myth of Achilles, who chose dying young as the most famous warrior in the world over living to old age as an obscure coward. Sadly, these athletes weren't offered the choice, though.

Another salient aspect to consider is from the Kingston Frontenacs - Oshawa Generals game I attended Tuesday night, where I picked up a souvenir program. Myself and my friend, both being hockey geeks of some description, quickly proceeded to the back pages where the list of franchise alumni who made it to Tom Cochrane's "Big League" is proudly displayed. There are plenty of recognizable names from the current era, such as Chris Gratton, Chad Kilger and Craig Rivet, as well as names out of the past like Mike Gillis, Ken Linseman, Bernie Nicholls and Tony McKegney. Yet, one jumped out by its total inconspicuousness: Jay Wells, who played a terrific total of 1098 NHL games (second only to Nicholls among franchise alumni) and won a Stanley Cup. Until Tuesday, I had never heard of Wells: his Wikipedia page shows that he was a pretty darn good player (a first-round draft pick defensive defenceman who was part of the Rangers' 94 Cup win, but was traded the next year as a reward for his yeoman service). Defensive defencemen don't tend to get the press clippings, though. They toil in obscurity, never hitting the heights . Wells never burned bright enough to go out in a blaze of glory: instead, he kept the coals glowing until the last spark of his career sputtered out. Compared to such spectacular NHL bests as Alexandre Daigle, his legacy is amazing: far fewer people know his name, however.

In the end, there's no real winners and losers. Dying young is tragic: so's being forgotten about in a nursing home, asking writers to stay to provide some desperately needed companionship. Is it better to be an Achilles, who goes out at his peak, or one of the unnamed foot soldiers in that war who made it back unscathed? To drive like the Intimidator and embrace the terrible consequences of doing so, or to peacefully finish in the middle of the pack? Who's better off, Daigle or Wells? Above all, is it really better to burn out than fade away? A.E. Housman, in his famous poem "To An Athlete Dying Young," wrote that it was.

"Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose."

Simmons begs to differ, though, arguing that the true tragedy is the lost potential.

"When it's a star football player with a chance to make something of his life? It matters to people who didn't even know him. Maybe he would have starred in college. Maybe he would have starred in the pros. Maybe he would have injured a knee next season, and that would have been that. There's no way to know. What mattered was the promise that something could happen, that something might happen."

Who's right? Ours not to reason why. In the end though, the blaze of glory and the slow sputter have one thing in common: all that remains afterwards is ash. The sad thing for those of us left learning about the Albrecht, Renaud and Shaw deaths via our computer screen is we never got the chance to meet these amazing people and never experienced their passion for the game. In the latter two cases, we didn't get to see what they'd become; in the first case, we missed out on one of the CFL's great characters. In the end, both missed opportunities are tragedies.

No comments:

Post a Comment