Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s landmark moment

October, 19, 2012
10/19/12
11:00
AM ET

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a revolutionary. His decision to seek expert help regarding the recurring headaches that plagued him was in fact a step so dramatic -- so ballsy -- it'll take years to quantify.

Granted, he'll tell you different. Earnhardt isn't inclined to pay mind to others' analysis of his personal decisions. He looks at it in literal terms: his desire to ensure his long-term health. He doesn't invest in the prospect of legacies or the broader scope beyond the racetrack. He just wants to be smart about his noggin so he can race for a long time.

But here's the truth: That step will forever be a part of his legacy. Because when he sat down with Dr. Jerry Petty to discuss the ramifications of successive concussions -- and was ultimately told that he couldn't do the only thing he has wanted to do since he was old enough to form an opinion -- he told an entire generation of fans, drawn to the speed and fury of his passion, that it's OK to be vulnerable.

Tear-open-your-soul-and-bleed vulnerable.

Because for a racer there is nothing more vulnerable than idling while another man is holding your wheel.

Emotionally, Junior is sick about it. He is hurt. He is sad. He is heartbroken.

Idling is torturous.

But he is a stronger man for it. He is a smarter man for it.

The easy decision would have been to saddle up and ride.

The impossible decision was to cuddle up and watch.

But he did. And everyone watched.

There were athletes in locker rooms all over this country watching him live on "SportsCenter." In that moment, many of them looked at themselves and wondered if they'd make the same decision.

Every driver in NASCAR wondered if he or she would do the same.

Few human qualities are as dynamic as vulnerability. Those self-confident enough to acknowledge the deepest part of their personal weaknesses are in fact the strongest among us. Just are. They're on another level spiritually. It takes indescribable guts to peer into your soul that deeply, because you may not like what you learn.

We're now a week removed from Earnhardt's announcement. We're still digesting it and will be for quite some time.

It was a landmark moment.

He wasn't fired. He's not sitting at home because he has no wheels. He's sitting out because he's smart enough to listen to his body. That he chose to do it in a resurgent season, which erased four years of mediocrity, is even gutsier. He chose to do it in a season that, for the first time in a long time, he was relevant in the season's championship conversation. He did it during a year in which the wit and the grin and the confidence that defined him in the early portion of his career had returned.

It was a revolutionary decision.

But we won't realize how revolutionary until a young racer, or a young football or soccer or baseball player makes the same decision -- because Dale Earnhardt Jr. did.

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