Athletes’ illnesses bring fans back to unfortunate reality

Athletes’ illnesses bring fans back to unfortunate reality

By Floyd Miller

 

 

 

By: Marc Nettles I remember sitting in the living room and watching sports highlights with my father as an eight-year old kid when the programming took a noticeably more somber tone. Hank Gathers, a 6-foot-7 senior forward at Loyola Marymount, had collapsed after throwing down an alley-oop – just as he had done thousands of times before. He would later pass away. Gathers was the leading scorer and rebounder in the nation at the time. More importantly, he was 23 years old and a father. That was 25 years ago last month. At the time, I didn’t understand the terminology or the situation. What second grader knows what HTCM is? I just understood my father’s grim expression. It was never one I had ever associated with sports. Sports had always brought joy, excitement, elation or even considerable amounts of consternation, depending on the score. I mean, we were Dallas Mavericks and Texas Rangers fans in the 1980s and ’90s, so one can imagine ‘{{more}}’ the manner of the words yelled at the television at times. These days, however, I understand what hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, Gathers’ fatal heart condition, means. That doesn’t mean I don’t still watch, consume and inhale sports as much more than spectator events. They are an escape, a belief in superheroes soaring through the air or pushing the boundaries of human abilities. Perhaps that is why they’re called ‘fantasy sports.’ But all too often, real life butts in and reminds us that even our most beloved athletes are just as human as us. Yankee immortal Lou Gehrig gave his legendary farewell speech at the old Yankee Stadium after the degenerative effects of the nerve disorder, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, became too much to play through. Seventy-five years later ALS is more popularly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and its awareness was given a huge boost by the Ice Bucket Challenge. Former Boston College outfielder ‘{{MORE}}’ and team captain Pete Frates launched the Ice Bucket Challenge campaign in 2014 after his own ALS diagnosis. Social media and Boston-area athletes grabbed a hold of it in the beginning, and now it has raised more than $200 million for ALS charities, according to today.com. In a wonderful showing of support, the Boston Red Sox joined Frates’ alma mater in wearing number 3 jerseys during their preseason exhibition on March 3. This outpouring of support for athletes is fairly common. Perhaps we just love to root for them so much in their respective arenas that we feel that connection is strong enough to pull for them personally, as well. And shouldn’t we? These men and women dedicate their lives to a craft that polarizes us as fans and gives us reason to believe in something bigger than ourselves. I think a little ice water or a patch on a jersey is the least we can put up with to demonstrate our support. My favorite hockey player of all-time was affected by a disease that has claimed countless lives over the years. Luckily for Pittsburgh Penguins great Mario Lemieux, his bout with Hodgkins lymphoma has what could be considered a happy ending. Lemieux beat the disease and even returned to the sport. His legacy as ‘Super Mario’ was only cemented by this victory, especially since he still went on to be one of the all-time greats. When he was diagnosed in 1993, hockey fans and his peers were dealt a difficult dose of sobering reality. Kansas City Chiefs fans tasted similar medicine last December when the anchor of their defense and former first-round pick, safety Eric Berry, was also diagnosed with Hodgkins. His teammates wore shirts in support that read, “Be Bold, Be Brave, Be Berry.” Fortunately, the most recent reports concerning his condition have all been very positive. Miami Heat forward and Dallas Skyline High School-product Chris Bosh has also been given a promising prognosis in regards to his scare earlier this season with blood clots in his lungs. Bosh is expected to return to the NBA next season, according to several sources. Not all those in the sports world have happy endings to their harrowing tales of overcoming tremendous health odds. Longtime anchor and trailblazing sports guy at ESPN Stuart Scott lost his war with cancer in January. Primarily diagnosed in November 2007, Stuart fought off several recurring bouts of the terrible disease before his death over seven years later. Scott’s list of accomplishments and role in pioneering the way so many of us talk about sports doesn’t need to be expounded. He was a champion in many ways. His death was felt throughout all of the sports culture. Social media almost broke from the outcry of support. But maybe that support should’ve been directed more toward Scott’s young daughters, who are now fatherless. This is not to say that his daughters feel any less love from the general public, considering how very adored their father was by so very many people, most of which were absolute strangers. But I still think it is food for thought. Terminal disease, especially cancer, in all its dreadful forms, has claimed millions of lives. Only a minute percentage of those lives belong to athletes. So why is that we were so quick to jump on-board to support Lance Armstrong, Jon Lester and so many others when they fought their battles? Perhaps British sportswriter, Brian Glanville, put it best. He wrote, “That is why athletics [are] so important. They demonstrate the scope of human possibility, which is unlimited. The inconceivable is conceived, and then it is accomplished.” I couldn’t have put it any better myself, so I didn’t. But still I wonder, can we not gain that same level of warm and fuzzy inspiration from our own encounters with something as seemingly insurmountable as the C-word? When our true loved ones – our family – deal with cancer’s beckoning, that is when the outcry of overwhelming support is needed. That is when we need to be so quick to jump on-board, all-in. That is when the campaigns need to launch and social media should blow up. My family has been touched by cancer numerous times. Not all involved happy endings, but my grandmothers and a few of my aunts survived breast cancer. Most recently, two of my aunts overcame double mastectomy procedures in each of the last two years. And sure, they had family, friends and co-workers all there with words of encouragement and prayers. But when a single mother of two experiences something as terrible as breast cancer, there really isn’t any effort that can seem to be truly enough. Maybe former North Carolina State coach Jim Valvano felt the same way during his numerous rounds of chemotherapy. Maybe there were moments when Miami Heat great Alonzo Mourning feared for how his family would survive without him there to be the glue to hold it all together when his kidneys were failing him. I can guarantee those feelings crossed the hearts of my aunts during their fights. And yet, their smiles never seemed to desert them. Perhaps they took solace in seeing the ugly beast having been slain before they were forced to look into its cold eyes themselves. Maybe they remembered Coach Valvano telling them to, “Never, ever give up.” Or maybe it was Scott’s voice reminding them, “You beat cancer by how you live, why you live, and the manner in which you live.” I guess sports have their place in real life, as well.