In the past month, well-known, former college basketball coaches Dean Smith, 83, and Jerry Tarkanian, 84, as well as Chicago Cubs legend Ernie Banks, 83, have all died at old ages — all after celebrating successful careers.
At the same time, there were multiple tragic deaths of younger professional athletes in the past year, including former NFL kicker Rob Bironas, 36, and rising MLB star Oscar Taveras, 22, who were both killed in car accidents, and most recently NHL defensemen Steve Montador, 35, who died in his home Feb. 15 — a cause of death has not yet been determined.
We don’t know when that moment of fate is around the corner, and during a recent track and field competition, I almost witnessed first-hand the sight of a similar tragedy.
On Feb. 14, our men’s track and field team traveled to Houghton College to compete in the Empire 8 conference indoor championship title for the eighth year in a row. I was slotted in the fastest heat of the mile trying to help my team climb out of a large early deficit. With one lap to go, I positioned into fifth place but was passed by two runners and missed out scoring by one place and less than half a second.
As disappointed as I was when I crossed the line, I turned back around to see one of my fellow competitors from the race lying on the ground. When he crossed the line, he collapsed face-first due to what I heard was a seizure. Lying there unconscious, trainers and officials surrounded him, checked his vitals and began chest compressions to get him awake.
Shortly after, an ambulance took him away to an intensive care unit. Fortunately, we found out two days later that this runner made it out of the hospital and was just beginning to walk for the first time since the race.
It was a close call, and though I was not teammates with this one individual, I still remember that you could have heard a pin drop inside the fieldhouse when trainers were trying to care for him. As track and field competitors, we’ve jokingly said to one another that we run until we feel like we’re going to die and keep going to the finish. This time, this almost came true.
Still, the experience helped put my running career in perspective. Though our team ended up falling short of an Empire 8 indoor track and field championship for the first time in seven years, I couldn’t keep the near-death experience I witnessed out of my head. If anything, it made the meet results mere numbers on a scoresheet.
I’ve realized over the years that you never know when you’re going to run your last race or compete for the last time. Over my athletic career, I have many things to be thankful for.
For example, I played football for four years in high school. I sat out one practice with a sprained ankle but never missed a game. Most importantly, I never sustained a concussion. Given how much stricter the protocols are now compared to my playing days, I am still grateful, yet in some ways puzzled how it never happened. I saw plenty of teammates play through games with concussions, and it’s a scary sight to say the least. Sure, I got my bell rung a couple of times, but I knew the symptoms and never personally experienced any of them.
Now, as a track athlete, I’m in a sport where my events involve running in 200-meter circles a various number of times with your lungs burning and your legs locking up toward the end. Still, we find ways to push through the pain and finish what we started. I certainly hope my fellow competitor recovers well but will not let this experience ruin a life of athletic pursuits. That doesn’t necessarily mean competing in a uniform again, but trying to do what he enjoys for the rest of his life.
Stories like these make people cringe and ask why we do this, yet I think it makes us appreciate the sport more. While we certainly never want to see this happen to anybody, we understand the risk of pushing ourselves to the brink. In the end, I think it’s a necessary human pursuit — measuring yourself often and being the best you can be.