I have never understood the deeply personal reaction many folks have to the death of a famous person. In no way, however, do I question the sincerity of their grief. I’m just unable to empathize with it. The most obvious recent example is the tragic death of Kobe Bryant. Although, I had mad respect for the man’s basketball talents, I felt no more sorrow for his passing than that of the approximately 150,000 (approximate number of worldwide deaths per day according to the World Health Organization) other people who died that day and whom I also did not know personally. Setting aside family and close friends, the deaths that have instigated the most visceral responses from me have been those of contemporaries from my youth – an occurrence that is becoming all too frequent – especially guys I competed with or against on athletic fields.
Not long ago I unexpectedly came across the obituary for John B. (Those who knew John will also know what the “B.” stands for.). I have not been able to get him or the effect he had on my life out of my head ever since. John was two classes ahead of me in school, so we were not friends, but we were teammates on the football team. I don’t think he ever gave much thought to my existence as I was a smallish sophomore, and he was a senior-captain and QB-1 on a very good team. In my insecure fifteen-year old’s mind, John was everything I wished I could be but wasn’t and, even then, somehow knew I never would be. But, I tried. Man, did I try. I tried to walk like John and to talk like John. I even listened to Springsteen mostly because John did.
In those delusional days, I had aspirations of being QB-1 myself one day, so I tried to throw a football like John as well. With little success, I might add. But glorious were the days when I was able to finagle my way in individual skill sessions to have him as a partner. Again, I’m sure he didn’t notice my finagling nor the expression behind my face mask that belied my awe at being his partner and my determination to impress him. I’m equally sure I never did. I certainly never impressed the coach, who rightly switched me to receiver the following season.
The life lesson John ultimately taught me was, once again, done without his intention or notice and didn’t occur until two years later when he was two years graduated and I was a senior myself. We had just defeated a rival football team that John’s class never seemed to be able to beat, and I had played a significant role in the victory, including scoring a touchdown. John and several other former players from his class had returned home for the game, and as I watched them storm the field after the victory, I thought for sure John was running to hug me and congratulate me and to thank me for finally helping to beat those Huron Tigers for him and his football classmates . . . he wasn’t . . . and he didn’t. Instead, he ran right past my half-outstretched arms for a few of my more talented, more popular teammates. I never felt so alone in a crowd before or since. (I’m No. 18 in the photo above in the actual game against Huron, apparently having missed a tackle.)
But, please, don’t misunderstand me here. John did nothing wrong. How could he have possibly known the extent to which I had idolized him or how much his validation would have meant to me in that moment? In the bigger picture, he inadvertently taught me two life lessons I have never forgotten and have tried to pass on to the young people who have been in my charge: 1) You never know who’s watching you nor the impact your actions have on those observers, and 2) To quote Emerson, “Envy is ignorance and imitation is suicide.” By trying so hard to be John B., I had stifled, if not killed, the unique me that was trying to form itself at that vital and malleable period of personality formation. It’s not like I had an epiphany at that moment of unintentional rejection, but the experience taught me to try my best to be my own person and not to live so much for the approval of others.
I never once spoke to or even ran into John B. in the many years since that night, but he’s never not been with me one day since. I would give much to be able to have one more anonymous catch with him and maybe to tell him what a hero he had been for me. In my mind’s eye, he will forever be the epitome of youth and charisma and cool inside his golden helmet, in the vanguard, leading his teammates on a conditioning run or into the fray on a Saturday night.
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14 thoughts on “Thank You, John B.”
Could that be John Barry?
Beautifully written !!! Very sad loss, everyone loved John. Thank you.
John will always be larger-than-life to me. Thanks for reading!
The funny thing is John would have definitely been gracious and appreciative if he had known the impact he had on you. You have had such an incredible impact on so many young people, and so in some way, John also blessed those people through you. He will be missed by our family and by so many who love him.
Thanks for the kind words, Ann. I’m sure he would have. I wish I could go back in time and let him know he was a real hero to me and, I’m sure, many others.
Very well written Ty! It is not only a wonderful tribute to John, (whom I always thought was one of the best looking guys in school), but it took us down memory lane as I remember that game against Huron quite well.
What a great lesson Ty for each one of us to tell someone NOW how much they are admired and mean in our lives. Great job..
Liz (Weyer) Markley
Hi Ty. Thank you for the kind words. I am married to John’s sister Chris and I am sure she and the family will appreciate.
I was a year ahead of you and when I look back it seems almost comical how in adolescence we magnify the importance of self image and perception to others to the nth degree. John was like a brother to me and there is such irony in your comments.
While I loved John, he was also one of the most insecure individuals I have ever met. Not meaning this in a critical or negative way as we all have our insecurities, but the cool cat persona was his way of coping with his insecurity. He was a great guy and it was hard sometimes to watch his struggles.
While we never ran in the same circles, I do remember you and the thing that sticks with me about you was you were a shy yet comfortable guy in who you were, at least it seemed so to me.
Very few kids at that age are blessed with enough self awareness to be comfortable in their own skin. I know I was not. But as we age we realize how irrelevant the opinion of others is of us and focus on more important things, like love and our families.
So I guess the lesson here is (for any of you kids tuned in) what you see in people is not always reality and being comfortable with your own self is what its all about. Life unfolds from there.
Thanks again and take care.
Great to hear from you, Dave. Thank you so much for the thoughtful and truly insightful comments. If we only knew then the things we know now. Also, please share my condolences with all of John’s family.
Beautiful message Ty. Also, Dave Ernst. I’ll have to tell you a story of when I was the center for John’s senior year. I was a junior. He would aggravate the crap out of me because he was so dang demanding. Everything had to be perfect. In practice one day, he was all over the offensive line because we weren’t performing. The next scrimmage play the offensive line stepped aside and let the defense have their way on John B. But he was the glue for that team. He was the captain and a true leader indeed.
You talk about being yourself and not imitating others. When I was in school, I was one of those insecure kids. I just tried to live up to my older brothers images. Inside I was a coward and lacked self-confidence. I remember one day Coach Weyer got on my case because I wasn’t a leader like my brother Mitch. I remember it so clearly. We had a team meeting. We were sitting in the balcony seats in the gym.
Fast forward, life changes. I’ve established a kids wrestling team that has won numerous state tournaments. I have since left that organization as the teams success continues. I’m currently the V.P. for our local branch letter carriers union NALC Branch 4716. I’m soon to move into the president position. I’m also an arbitration advocate at the national level for our union. I say this not to brag, but to let people know that trying to live up to someone else’s standards may inhibit your self security. It wasn’t until I moved away from my environment that I started to feel confident of who I am. I have went on my own journey. No need to be someone else. If God wanted us to be like others, he would’ve done that. I just wish I could have conversation with Coach Weyer today.
I do remember that little number 18 on the field. I remember him as a little tyrant that wasn’t afraid of anyone. He’d mix it up with the biggest.
I am aware of your 1) and 2) from your blog. I have tried to implement that into my three boys during their childhood.
Again, great testimonial to John B. I love your writing Ty. John B will be missed until we meet in our eternal home. God Bless your works.
I love that story about John! And you’re correct. He was the glue. Man, can I relate to trying to live up to a big brother. My brother Kevin was/is brilliant. I got so tired of being compared to him that I just stopped taking school too seriously because I could never be like him no matter how much I tried. I’m so glad you shared your successes. You do deserve them all. Also, your comments very well written. I teach composition for a living, and I mean it when I say you are a very good writer. Thanks so much for reading and for sharing your thoughts!
Thank You, Matt. I think you and your boys would enjoy the books.