Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Commentary [Print without images]

Monday, August 15, 2011
Parents don't expect to bury children

By LZ Granderson
ESPN.com

When you live near two rivers and a lake, which is the case for the folks who call Arkadelphia, Ark., home, one of the more popular things to do is fish.

Charles and Montel Williams
Charles Williams has memories of fishing with young Montel Williams.

Charles Williams introduced his son Montel to the sport when Montel was barely a year old, and while the toddler's first catch was about 2 inches long, it was just big enough to hook the youngster for life. He absolutely forbade his father to go without him, and so for the next 14 years -- sometimes as many as five times a month -- Charles and Montel would drive out to their favorite spot at the lake, drop in their lines and fish.

And talk.

And laugh.

And compete for the biggest catch of the day.

"I'm from the South and so we say we like to say, 'We catch and release them in some Wesson oil,'" Charles joked. "Montel would try to be slick sometimes, saying he's going to take a shower knowing when he got out I would have all of them cleaned. He didn't always like to clean them, but he sure didn't have a problem eating them."

Watching your only son grow up with the backdrop of fishing trips, and making the team, and being a good student is something many parents, especially fathers, dream of.

So as Charles shared with me his account of the final moments he saw his boy alive -- and I could hear him gently sobbing on the other end of the phone -- there was no controlling the tears from streaming down my face as well.

How could they not?

No matter how old you are, where you live or how many children you have, there is this unspoken thought that links all parents: We are not supposed to bury our children. And when one of us has to, we all share in the hurt.

"I took him to football practice that day," Charles said. "He just got out of the car, I watched him walk up to some friends, and they just headed to the field and that was it.

"I didn't tell him I loved him or hugged him or anything … now I won't ever get that chance again."

How many of us do that?

Drop our kids off at school or practice or at a friend's house without thinking twice? Without telling our children how much they mean to us or that we love them? I don't pose the question to be judgmental -- Lord knows I've been guilty of doing the same thing plenty of times -- but rather to give me and you pause. In theory, we know the next day, the next moment, is not guaranteed, but in practice do we live that way?

Montel was just an hour into football practice when he walked to the sideline, sat on the bench and collapsed. Less than two hours later, the 15-year-old was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital.

"When I got the phone call from his mother, I just saw stars … I just couldn't believe it," Charles said. "Montel was big and strong and never showed any signs of being sick or anything. It just doesn't make sense."

If it seems as if you've heard this terrible story before, you have. Just earlier this month three other teenagers died in similar fashion: 14-year-old Tyquan Xavier Brantley of Lamar High School in South Carolina and a pair of Georgia 16-year-olds, Donteria Searcy of Fitzgerald and Forrest Jones of Locust Grove.

If it seems as if I've written a similar story before, I have. In March I was in Fennville, Mich., covering the story of Wes Leonard, the 16-year-old who collapsed and died shortly after hitting the game-winning basket during a home basketball game.

The three who died earlier this month were ruled to be heat-related. Leonards' and Williams' deaths were due to undetected heart ailments. And unfortunately, there have been many others this year, such as Colorado's Matthew Hammerdorfer. The 17-year-old died of a heart attack after taking a shot in the chest during a rugby match just two days after Leonard died.

In Hammerdorfer's case, he was diagnosed with an enlarged heart and understood the risks in playing. The Leonard family didn't know. It will be a little longer before we find out if testing beyond the routine physical -- which Montel passed before practice started this year -- could have prevented Williams' tragedy. Not that it helps Charles, or his family or the people of the small Arkansas community of fewer than 11,000. They lost a straight-A student and by all accounts an upstanding young man in Montel.

Understanding how he died doesn't really help them understand why.

Leonards
Gary and Jocelyn Leonard, parents of Wes Leonard, shed tears during a tribute to their son.

"Every time I got mad at him it was for something trivial and looking back it really wasn't worth getting mad at him about at all," Charles said. "Death has a way of putting things into perspective."

If you're a parent reading this and your child is a student-athlete who has complained of chest pains, don't delay -- get him or her thoroughly checked out. That doesn't guarantee you'll avoid tragedies such as what the Leonards or Williamses experienced -- doctors can't diagnose everything -- but at least you're doing what you can to protect your child. I have been in journalism for more than 15 years. I've covered my share of tragedies and I can tell you no cry pierces the soul like the cry of a parent who has lost a child.

And on an even more personal note, my son, a budding track athlete, called last week to tell me his chest had started hurting and he was having trouble breathing less than 30 minutes into one of his runs. I told him to stop, drink some water and rest until I could get him to a doctor. En route I was thinking the entire time about how I had covered so many stories like Leonard's and still failed to have my own 14-year-old's heart checked.

I got busy, he seemed fine or maybe I simply found comfort in being ignorant. When it comes to matters of health, a lot of people do.

But I can tell you from experience there is no comfort in hearing your son tell you with fear in his voice that his chest is hurting a day after a kid like Montel Williams collapses and dies.

We were really fortunate. After an EKG, we learned his heart was fine and that he was likely dehydrated that day. Sudden cardiac deaths are rare (1 in 44,000 for NCAA athletes) and the test my son took is expensive, with a national average cost of $1,500. But the way I see it, I would rather deal with the financial ramifications for a test to come back clean than pay the price for not going the extra mile for my son's safety.

I have no idea how long will it be before Charles Williams can drive by the nearby lake and rivers without feeling his heart sink into sadness. I don't know how Charles will ever find the strength to drop another line in those familiar waters again.

All I know is Tuesday is the public viewing for his son.

Wednesday, the funeral will be held at Gurdon High School, where his son was a defensive end. And Thursday … well, I don't know about Thursday … and I guess that is one of the many lessons to learn from all of this.

"This was a young man who received a tremendous amount of respect from his peers and adults as well," said Dr. Lewis Shepherd, a family friend and local minister. "This is a person who you never know what they could've accomplished in their lifetime, you never know what the future held for them.

"I have dealt with death from infants to those who are 100 years and … something like this takes a lot out of you. But in the end you are reminded to cherish every moment because you never know when life will end."

LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at lzgranderson@yahoo.com.

MORE COMMENTARY »