When an Athlete Dies

A pro player embodies good health, but we may be more vulnerable to the ravages of time

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Just before the midnight strike of 2011, I heard the news that a former teammate of mine, Rosman Garcia, had been killed in a car accident at the age of 32. I didn’t play with him for long, but I remember his happy spirit.

As a member of the pro athlete club, these shocks force us to take instant stock of time. A year is 365 days, but it is also a collection of moments, all of which are not guaranteed to us. We know this, but there is something more ominous about the death of a young professional athlete. A professional athlete embodies good health. We stay in shape for a living and we use that shape to perform. Sure, there may be wild parties or steroid-induced fits from time to time, but no one questions the physical mastery and the drive required to be a top performer.

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So it is natural to assume that for super-athletes, there is an extended hall pass for life on earth, that you can fight off bad health, time itself or even happenstance. But then I think about which contemporaries I have lost over the last two decades and the causes of their deaths. It includes failing health but also plane crashes and drownings, suicides and falls down the stairs. And I lose my breath thinking about it.

Time in professional sports works in mysterious ways. You have the gift of being able to make a career out of something you love to do. Inherent in that idea is youth, be it from needing youth to keep you viable or spewing it from your excited pores to holding on to something that was part of you since you were six. Yet you have to mature rapidly to be prepared to know what you need to be the best in the world before your 25th birthday. You need to know yourself and your capabilities with sniper-like precision when most professions afford you the time to understand those elements slowly and surely.

In this oxymoron lays the richest conflict for a top-shelf athlete. One that pits the innocence of youth in sport with the need to be beyond your years to know how to sustain it. And so you stay young in the game, while aging as if someone slipped an age accelerator in your drink. Bad knees at 30 and all.

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Which may be why peace for players proves to be particularly elusive. According to some calculations, the rate of suicide among major league ball players is twice that of the general male population. This year alone, former Yankee pitcher Hideki Irabu hung himself and former Orioles pitcher Mike Flanagan died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, according to the Baseball AlmanacMeanwhile, the suicide rate among ex-NFL players is six times the national average, according to GamesOver.org, a Web site dedicated to helping former players adjust to retirement. In February, former safety Dave Duerson shot himself in the chest and asked that his brain be given to the NFL bank; several months later, tests confirmed he’d suffered from the brain trauma that has been found in two dozen other retired NFL players.

In every sport there is a significant and heart-breaking “gone too soon” list. In 2011, we lost performers in every sport. From the former WNBA’s 7 ft. 2 in. super giant, Margo Dydek at 37 to IndyCar driver Dan Wheldon at 33. And as a on-field contemporary of these giants, I have had to learn how to cope with an idea that runs counter to our training — that we are vulnerable.