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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