A few weeks after a plane crash that took the life of a college football coach, his wife said that she didn't miss him yet because he was away from home so much when he was alive.

When we go to games, most of us don't stop to think how much of their lives that coaches, athletes and others associated with the teams give to the games they play. It may seem to many of us who watch those games that coaches and athletes work two or three hours a day, but we don't see the amount of time they spend in preparation and planning for games and in traveling to and from those games.

The Clippers will board a plane on Christmas Eve for Portland, where they will play on Christmas Day. The Lakers leave Christmas Day for San Antonio, where they will play the next night. This is the holiday season? Ask the Raiders and Rams about that. To them, this is the playoff season.

Professional athletes are not without their rewards. Certainly, they are well-compensated financially. There also is psychic pay, which won't take care of the mortgage but comes with the satisfaction of playing well.

But they earn it. Most of them do, anyway. Particularly in a city such as Los Angeles, where even playing well sometimes is not enough to appease the crowds, the pressure on athletes and coaches can be a heavy burden.

That is why most of them emphasize the support they receive when they are at home, where their reception doesn't depend on whether they threw to the right base or picked up the maximum blitz. Sports sociologists tell us there are no more sports heroes, but don't tell that to the children of athletes.

They may have snowballs thrown at them in Denver and have their signals drowned out by hostile crowds in Miami, but most athletes know of one place where they will always hear a Christmas cheer.

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