Wednesday, April 22, 2009
Updated: April 24, 4:59 PM ET
By David Fleming
ESPN The Magazine
I was in a rental car, not far from Nick Adenhart's hometown of Williamsport, Md., when the radio program I was listening to was interrupted by the news: "Tragic story from the world of major league baseball," the voice said. "Angels rookie pitcher and two others are dead, killed earlier this morning by a suspected drunken driver. The accident occurred just hours after Adenhart, who was 22, had realized his big league dreams, throwing six scoreless innings against the A's. His father, Jim, had watched from the stands inside Angel Stadium." As I glided down the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, my foot instinctively raised off the gas when I heard that last part. That is what passes for reverence these days inside the monster of our busy lives: slowing from 75 mph to 60. But as I maneuvered into a slower lane, my thoughts soon turned to another Maryland native, former Ravens kick returner Jermaine Lewis.
As I wrote last month on ESPN.com, Lewis has been on my mind a lot since I returned to Tampa's Raymond James Stadium for Super Bowl XLIII. Eight years earlier, seated in almost the exact same spot, I watched the courageous Lewis break open XXXV with an 84-yard kickoff return. That night, as he sliced down the sideline and floated into the end zone, Lewis pointed into the inky sky to honor his son Geronimo, who had been stillborn the month before.
In an instant, it was an answer to a father's prayer: His son would never be forgotten. But I saw something even more significant in Lewis' gesture: a sliver of defiance cutting through his sadness. Yes, I'm broken, but I'm still here, still moving.
Most fans remember Baltimore's ravenous defense in that game, or the perfect slow-motion arc of quarterback Trent Dilfer's 38-yard TD lob to Brandon Stokley in the first quarter. But at the time I was also a grieving parent, having lost an infant son just a few months earlier. And for me, watching in numbed silence from my seat inside the press box, Lewis' triumph over tragedy felt transcendent, a moment as ethereal and instantaneous as a puff of smoke but solid enough to help an athlete defy death.
Since then, while operating within the confines of a world punctuated at nearly every turn by tragedy -- like the Feb. 28 boating accident off the Florida coast that claimed NFLers Marquis Cooper and Corey Smith and former USF player William Bleakley -- I've been constantly reminded of the poignant connection between our games and our death.
Last summer during NFL training camp, I caught up with Colts defensive captain Gary Brackett, who, during one 16-month span starting in 2003, lost his mother, father and brother. "You honor the dead by the way you carry on and live your life," Brackett reminded me as my unspoken question lodged itself in the back of my throat.
I thought about it again in early November, when I spent part of the Redskins' bye week with running back Clinton Portis at his waterfront condo in Miami. A sore knee and other ailments had Portis shuffling around in his pj's like an old man. When I asked him what kept him going through the meat grinder of the season, he just tapped his T-shirted chest, emblazoned with a photo of his teammate Sean Taylor, killed in his home a year earlier by burglars.
Taylor's murder resonated across the league, sparking a paradigm shift in the way NFL players approach their safety and security, which we can only hope will prevent further tragedy. The Redskins continued their living tribute to Taylor with a renewed fervor for the game -- the injured Portis finished fourth in the NFL with 1,487 rushing yards -- helmet decals of his jersey number and a spot for Taylor in the team's Ring of Fame. The team's reaction typified what I've found to be an inspirational approach to dealing with the kind of unthinkable tragedy that now faces the Adenharts and the Angels. "When you measure someone's life," Portis said, "it's not about the time they had, but the impact."
A few months later, Colts coach Tony Dungy walked away from the game at 53 in a move hastened by the 2005 suicide of his son, James. During my own ordeal, it was Dungy who helped me formulate, for lack of a better term, an athletic approach to grief. I had to confront it rather than cower before it. I had to channel it in a way that might convert the pain and loss into positive change, a blessing even, that honored the life I was mourning.
Maybe it's the short career spans, the threat of injury or the constant ticking of the game clock, but I remember thinking at the time that athletes and coaches are better equipped to deal with death than the rest of us. Athletes are taught early on to convert emotion into action. They don't put their faith in fairness or pity. And they're trained not to dwell on the past, on things they cannot control -- like the utter senselessness of three young, blossoming lives being snuffed out at an LA intersection by someone police say was a repetitive, unrepentant drunken driver.
Athletes, it seems, understand (or, I should say, accept) better than most that nothing is guaranteed and that our time and our opportunities are not endless. They know that on some deep level, sports is about cheating death; about creating a legacy that will outlast one's own mortality. Hours after his son was killed, Jim Adenhart spent several moments inside an empty Angel Stadium, alone atop the mound, searching for peace and a glimmer of hope on the same spot where his son had realized his dream.
Even from a distance, it was hard not to be moved by the strength and dignity shown by the Angels and the Adenharts. The team grieved like strong, secure men -- with openness and perspective. A day after the accident, Adenhart's jersey hung on the back wall of the dugout. His locker remained untouched. A memorial portrait was placed on the outfield wall. And the players had already agreed to wear patches on their uniforms to honor him.
To the outside world, the familiar rituals teams go through in the wake of tragedy might seem morbid, saccharine, or worse, meaningless. But the truth is, they help define and focus a team's sorrow, allowing each member to move on as he must -- quickly -- by channeling his grief in a way that gives meaning to suffering. It's a defiant, hopeful refrain, and one I recognized right away: Yes, we're broken, the Angels were saying, but we're still here, still moving.
On the day after Adenhart's death, fellow Angels pitcher Jered Weaver bent down and drew his friend's initials in the dirt on the left side of the rubber before he took the mound. Almost nine years after his death, I still repeat the same ritual with my son's initials nearly every morning in the steam that fogs my bathroom mirror. So I understand how, this season, the heartbroken Angels will be in many ways like that pitching mound. On the surface they will look no different. But every once in a while, if you catch a closer look from a different angle -- maybe after a big win or a tough loss or as they shag lazy fly balls before a game or wait out a rainstorm together in the dugout -- you'll see a deep and significant impression.
It will say, simply, NA.
Nine years after I lost my own son, I still repeat that ritual.