The Most Unwelcome Spectator

"The time you won your town the race

"We chaired you through the market place;

"Man and boy stood cheering by

"And home we brought you shoulder-high.

"Today, the road all runners come,

"Shoulder-high, we bring you home,

"And set you at your threshold down,

"Townsman of a stiller town."

--To An Athlete Dying Young, A.E. Housman

Midcourt in a basketball game is a terrible place to die. So is the five-yard-line of the Chicago Bears. So is the center ring at Madison Square Garden.

Age 23 is a terrible time to die. But, then, so is 63. Maybe no one is ever ready.

"Ventricular fibrillation" is something palsied old men get, not power forwards. Doctors might be tempted to disbelieve their instruments.

How could Hank Gathers, 6 feet 7, 210 pounds, a franchise basketball player, fast, strong, a stupendous physical specimen, be a walking invalid? How could Lou Gehrig, the most powerful baseball player I have ever seen, be a victim of a disease so terrible it would reduce him to a man without the strength to lift a cup of coffee? What kind of cosmic joke is at work here?

Death should stay away from young men's games. Death belongs in musty hospital rooms, sickbeds. It should not impinge its terrible presence on the celebrations of youth, reap its frightful harvest in fields where cheers ring and bands play and banners wave.

But it does. Sudden-Athletic-Death syndrome is all too common. Medical symposiums have been held on the subject.

Yet it is shocking when it comes. It is resented. Death should know its place. How dare it claim our youngest, our fittest, our future? The inexorable workings of God? Or the inevitable blundering of man?

Obviously, Hank Gathers should not have been playing basketball. The awful result makes that abundantly clear. He fainted at a free-throw line as recently as December. Dying men should not be at a free-throw line. A slam dunk is not recommended therapeutic care for an arrhythmic heart. The doctors are very clear on that.

As long ago as 1985, cardiologists met and addressed the problem with a finding of their society that no one with cardiomyopathic problems should be playing pressure competitive sports.

But how do you tell a kid whose whole life, whose every dream, has been built around a sport? How do you say, "Tough luck, Hank, but you're going back to the projects. It's all over. You've got all the tools, size, speed, reflexes, but there's this one tiny muscle that's out of sync--your heart." How do you tell a guy who led the nation in scoring and rebounding and led his little school into the gaudy NCAA tournament that he doesn't belong out there?

Mickey Mantle probably should not have been playing big league baseball. He had osteomyelitis. Players like Norm Larker and Rick Reichardt had only one kidney. Earnie Shavers fought with a detached retina. Sam Langford fought with two of them.

Russ Christopher pitched for seven years in the majors with what was described as "a hole in his heart." He pitched till 1949 and had 17 saves in his last full year. He died in 1954. He was 37 years old.

There is a young man playing basketball in South Carolina now, Joe Rhett, who began having fainting spells. His heart stopped altogether for five beats under testing. He has been fitted with a pacemaker to keep the heart jarred into activity.

Should he play? Doubtful. Will he play? Doubtless.

One of the greatest athletes the San Joaquin Valley, which was a hotbed of them, ever produced was a young man you never heard of. Leon Patterson put the shot more than 60 feet the first time he ever picked it up. He was the first high school athlete to throw that far. He threw the discus 167-10 the first time he tried it.

He ran the 100 in 10.1, pole-vaulted 12 feet in high school on a steel pole--when the Olympic record was 14 feet--threw the javelin almost 200 feet. He was a good-enough football player to have Notre Dame after him and he high-jumped 5-11 in high school, wearing a baseball uniform. The Olympic record was 6-8 that year.

Leon Patterson had his heart set on the 1956 Olympics at Melbourne. He was a threat in the shot and discus and a natural for the decathlon.

He went out to get a summer job in the oil fields near Coalinga and, when he took the physical, they found albumin in his urine. It could have been any one of a number of things. In Leon's case it was the worst--Bright's disease, a catastrophic disorder of the kidneys, incurable and, in that year, largely untreatable.

He could live 10 years, the doctors said, if he gave up sports and strenuous activity. Leon compromised. He gave up football. He clung to track and field.

He got married. Ten years can be long enough if you play it right, he and his bride told themselves. Besides, doctors can be wrong.

The doctors were wrong. Leon Patterson didn't have 10 years, he had two. He died screaming after a summer spent loading 40-pound crates of grapes onto boxcars in the broiling valley sun, sometimes working 17 hours a day.

Did Hank Gathers know the direness of his plight? If so, would a life as a might-have-been be acceptable to him? Should he have had a say in the matter? Could he have believed the doctors?

Marc Buoniconti, the son of the pro football's Nick Buoniconti, suffered a severed spinal cord while making a tackle in a college game. He was quoted in the papers the other day as saying, "I've always said that a young player will always want to play, whatever the risk. It's up to the doctors and trainers to stand between him and the field."

But the poet has said, "I must have my dreams if I must live." The athletes are wrong to risk all for a career in the light, a life in the center ring. We, in crabbed age, know that. But did we know it at 23? Remember, young men march off, singing, to war.

"And round that early-laureled head

"Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead

"And find unwithered on its curls

"A garland briefer than a girl's."

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