Tuesday, July 2
Athletes face unusual hurdles in grieving process

By Wayne Drehs

To this day, former major-league pitcher Ted Power carries a tattered baseball card in his shaving kit. He keeps another in his glove box.

Both are of former Indians pitcher Steve Olin, who, along with teammate Tim Crews, died in a boating accident during spring training in 1993.

Steve's memory didn't stop haunting me on a daily basis for probably the first year and a half, two years. I'd hear a song or see a picture, and the emotions would come rushing back. It was terrible. There were times when it was just so overwhelming. I feel for the Cardinals.
Ted Power, on the death of teammate Steve Olin
It's fairly obvious that Power, who pitched with Olin in the Cleveland bullpen for one season, has yet to move on. He is on year 10. The St. Louis Cardinals, who were stunned by the death of 20-game winner Darryl Kile, are barely through day 10.

Although the story has moved off the front page and the memorial services have passed, the Cardinals are a long way from getting over the shock and sorrow of losing a teammate.

For as smooth as everything looks on the surface -- with Albert Pujols and Jim Edmonds back to their home run-hitting ways and even manager Tony LaRussa flashing an occasional smile -- behind the scenes, the pain is far from gone.

The Cardinals prefer not to talk about the emotional aftermath of a teammate's death, but there are plenty of others, like Power, who will. And they say the grieving process is grueling.

"Steve's memory didn't stop haunting me on a daily basis for probably the first year and a half, two years," Power said. "I'd hear a song or see a picture, and the emotions would come rushing back. It was terrible. There were times when it was just so overwhelming. I feel for the Cardinals."

Thurmon Munson
Thurman Munson was the heart and soul of the late '70s Yankees.
It has been 23 years since New York Yankees catcher Thurman Munson died in a plane crash. Yet last week at The Ballpark in Arlington, Texas Rangers manager Jerry Narron, the man who replaced Munson, became teary-eyed at the memory of the first game the Yankees played after their captain's death.

On that day, every Yankee took the field except Narron, who stayed in the dugout until after a 20-minute standing ovation for the unoccupied spot behind home plate.

"Any time you're on a ballclub for an entire season, it's a very close-knit family, and when you lose somebody in the family, it's a huge tragedy," Narron said. "But as a professional, you've got to go out and do your job.

"I really believe the players the Cardinals have, with the leadership of Tony LaRussa being there, these guys will get through it. But it won't be easy. There's no question about it."

The impact
Grief is an individual thing. Twenty-five players will find 25 different ways to mourn. But regardless of who you talk to, everybody agrees on one point: Dealing with the death of a teammate is one of the greatest challenges any athlete will ever face.

Randy Moss
Randy Moss breaks down while addressing a memorial service for teammate and friend Korey Stringer last August.
"There are times when it can put you so down in the dumps," said Houston Comets coach Van Chancellor, who watched point guard Kim Perrot die of cancer in 1999. "It was the most difficult thing I ever had to deal with. And it takes a long, long time to get over it. You still go on and play, but it's with you all the time."

So much so that it sometimes even translates to struggles on the field. In the nine games after Kile's death, the Cardinals went 4-5. Though they were still in first place by a game over the Cincinnati Reds, history says it will be difficult to stay there.

Consider: Last year, Pro Bowl tackle Korey Stringer of the Minnesota Vikings died of heat stroke in training camp. The Vikings, a perennial playoff team, crumbled to a 5-11 record, their worst since 1984. A series of on-field arguments between Cris Carter, Randy Moss and Dennis Green made things even uglier.

Before the season ended, even Carter admitted the emotional trauma of Stringer's death weighed on the team.

I don't think any of us were quite ourselves after what happened on August 1. I think some of us ... started acting a little out of character.
Former Vikings receiver Cris Carter
"I don't think any of us were quite ourselves after what happened on August 1," the veteran receiver said. "I think some of us -- me, coach Green -- started acting a little out of character. We just let the pressure get to us."

They weren't alone. Last summer, Northwestern was the preseason favorite to win the Big Ten but was rocked by the death of strong safety Rashidi Wheeler to an asthma attack during an offseason workout. Though they started the season 3-0, the Wildcats crumbled in league play, finishing the season 4-7.

Some teams, though, handle the adversity with unflappable resiliency. The 1999-2000 Charlotte Hornets were 18-16 (.529) before a car crash killed guard Bobby Phills. They were 31-17 (.598) after. And Chancellor's Houston Comets rebounded from Perrot's death to win the second of four straight WNBA championships.

The '79 Yankees also persevered. They were 58-48 (.547) before Munson's death and 31-23 (.574) after. Still, the team that had won the World Series the year before and would reach the ALCS in 1980 didn't make the playoffs in 1979.

So what should the Cardinals expect? That's anyone's guess. Most sports psychologists say it will help that the Cards are a veteran-laden team with an experienced manager. But they also say losing a teammate can be an emotional hurdle nearly impossible to get over.

"Players say it doesn't have an impact on performance," said Jack Llewyllen, a renowned sports psychology consultant. "But there's no way. Of course it does. Any time you have anything that isn't part of your normal thought process, it changes your ability to concentrate. And that affects things more than they even realize. The question isn't whether or not this causes adversity, but rather how long it takes to recover."

The challenges
The emotional and competitive obstacles a professional athlete has to overcome seem almost unfair.

Unlike the rest of us, their productivity is measured every day in a very public manner, with box scores quantifying, rightly or wrongly, just how well they're handling the death of their teammate.

On top of everything is the pressure to perform. To keep your job. To compete for the championship.

"Professional athletes lead a very difficult -- charmed but difficult -- life," said Dana London, a noted counselor to pro athletes. "We tell them, 'Put the number on your shoes; wear the black arm band; do whatever you need to do, as long as you can go out there, play nine innings and not blink.' "

The schedule dictates when it's acceptable to grieve. Days off -- good. Mornings -- fine. 7:30 p.m. on a game night -- unacceptable.

With or without Kile, with or without a clear frame of mind, the games keep coming. One after another.

"It's amazing these guys hold up as well as they do," Llewellyn said.

And the Cardinals have yet to face a road trip, with the long flights, lonely hotel rooms and new reporters asking the same old questions. Since leaving Chicago after Kile's death June 22, the Cardinals have been on a 13-game homestand. They hit the road again after the All-Star break. Away from the relative safe haven of Busch Stadium, things will be tougher.

"They're on the road, and a teammate dies in their hotel," London said. "Now, with every road trip, it's going to be a thought. They're a long way from being comfortable with this."

The stereotypical macho mentality of today's athlete doesn't help either. The Cardinals coaching staff used to refer to Kile as "John Wayne" for his gritty, tough-minded competitiveness. But in matters of emotion, a gritty, tough guy is about the last thing you need.

Tina Thompson and Cynthia Cooper
Cynthia Cooper consoles teammate Tina Thompson before the Comets' first game after the death of Kim Perrot in 1999.
Just ask Chancellor, who watched the women on his team handle Perrot's death better than he did.

"I think that sometimes, we as men, are afraid to show our emotions," Chancellor said. "There's nothing wrong with crying and saying I miss Darryl Kile sometimes. I miss him as a human being, I miss him being in the clubhouse. Sometimes, when you share this rather than hold it inside, it helps."

London agrees. When she spent the 1999-2000 season counseling the New Jersey Nets, a handful of the players told her it was easier crying on the shoulder of a woman than it would have been a man.

"It's not very fair," London said. "Theoretically, a woman can walk through a store and cry, and nobody would notice. A guy shows that same amount of emotion and they're ready to call out the professionals."

Then there are the constant reminders of what's missing -- an empty locker, a new face in the starting rotation.

"I remember when the bullpen phone would ring in the seventh or eighth inning to get somebody throwing," Power said, "and the first thing I would think is that Olin should be up. These were his innings. This was his time. And that was tough."

Moving on
So how do players move on? Everyone has a theory. Power insists the key is maintaining the same routine while relying on teammates for emotional support.

Dr. Llewellyn, who gained national acclaim in 1991 for turning around the career of Cy Young winner John Smoltz, believes the key is setting performance goals and developing the ability to "lock in" at crucial moments during a game.

Llewellyn, now under exclusive contract with the Atlanta Braves, worked with former New York Yankees outfielder Paul O'Neill in 1999, when O'Neill's father died before Game 4 of the World Series. Llewellyn stressed to O'Neill that a person can be successful during times of great distress as long as he can focus, when needed, on the task at hand. In a three-hour baseball game, Llewellyn figured that was about three minutes.

The same, he says, holds true for the Cardinals.

"You have to have the mental discipline to lock in and play," Llewellyn said. "If you can lock in for those three minutes and then stand in the outfield and cry or in the tunnel and cry, so be it. It's nobody's business."

Dr. Tom Tutko, a faculty psychiatrist emeritus at San Diego State and one of the founding fathers of sports psychology, takes a similar, but much more harsh, approach.

In Tutko's eyes, the loss of a player as critical as Kile can be overcome as long as each player does just a little bit more. If each player can improve by just one percent, Tutko says, then the on-field product improves by nine percent, making up for the absence of a particular player.

"Everybody needs to suck it up," Tutko said. "If I were the manager, I'd analyze every player and how well he has performed since the death. If he's played poorly, he's been influenced by this, and he needs to be replaced by somebody who is dealing with it better. I know it sounds cruel and harsh, but that's what the business world does. And this is a business. You have to put the guy out there that produces best."

London's suggestions are a little more emotionally therapeutic. She accepts that the sports world is a business and that everyone isn't going to hold hands and sing Kumbaya. But at the same time, the human side of everyone needs attending to.

You need to allow players an outlet, a place to go that's a safe haven, where it's OK to grieve and be upset without anyone branding you as troubled.
Dana London, counselor
"You need to allow players an outlet, a place to go that's a safe haven, where it's OK to grieve and be upset without anyone branding you as troubled," London said.

In all likelihood, a combination of all three is probably what's best. The difficulty rests with the manager or coach to determine what his players need. It's never easy. Baltimore Orioles manager Mike Hargrove, who managed the Indians in 1993 when Olin and Crews died, said leading that team was the most difficult challenge he ever faced.

Former Kansas City Chiefs coach Gunther Cunningham faced similar problems in 2000, following the death of linebacker Derrick Thomas in a car accident.

"It tested me to my limits to handle the football team," Cunningham said. "I had a friend who's in psychiatry who I asked, 'You know, these are my feelings. How do you convey that to the team, and how do you control the team?' And he says, 'Hey, share your feelings with those guys. They need to see a 54-year-old guy shedding tears.' And he was right."

Though the tearful days might become fewer and farther between, they never truly go away. Just look at Narron, still teary-eyed after 24 years, or Chancellor, who got choked up during a recent trip to Los Angeles, the city where he got word of Perrot's death, or Power, who still carries Olin's baseball cards.

"That bullpen, we were like a gang down there," Power said. "And there were moments, lots of them, where there was something missing. And everybody knew what it was. But you move on, develop other relationships or strengthen the ones you already had. You find ways to cope, to get by. And in the end, you learn from it all."

Wayne Drehs is a staff writer for He can be reached at

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