Perhaps because I have been doing this for so long, I have developed a number of pet peeves—okay, many pet peeves. Some are minor, others—at least to me—not so minor.
Among the minor ones: People who constantly refer to college athletes as, ‘student-athletes.’ Not only is the term redundant, it’s an obnoxious way to try to claim that players are doing something special, when, in fact, many—if not most—in the major sports are athletes posing as students because the rules require them to do so.
Others: people referring to former champions. You are a former President; senator; judge; coach. You are a PAST champion. Villanova is not the former 2016 national champion in basketball, it is the ONLY 2016 national champion and always will be just that.
People who say, ‘very unique.’ There’s no such thing as being very one of a kind. You either are unique or you’re not. Same thing with, ‘revert back.’ To revert is to go back.
Then there’s the one that makes me wince: “that was tragic.” As in a missed putt was tragic; a game lost in the final seconds was tragic. The outcome of a game or a tournament is never tragic. Disappointing sure; even sad—on occasion—but tragic? No. It is this kind of thinking that leads to rioting after soccer games around the world and death threats being made against a college basketball referee.
In the last week, we have witnessed three genuine tragedies involving sports figures, the worst one coming first; the least of them coming early Wednesday morning. There ARE different levels of tragedy. Ten people dying in a terrorist attack is a utterly tragic. Almost 3,000 people dying in a terrorist attack is beyond belief.
The first tragic event of the last few days is the one that leaves me—and everyone else who is aware of it—completely speechless. As it happens, Todd Heap is one of the best people I’ve had a chance to know in sports, an outstanding tight end in Baltimore and Arizona, but beyond that an absolutely class act in every possible way.
If someone I didn’t know or like was going through what Heap and his family are going through, I would find it horrifying. Knowing Heap only makes it worse—if that’s possible.
On Friday, Heap was apparently moving his truck in his driveway in Scottsdale, Arizona. As he pulled forward, he was unaware that his three-year-old daughter was in front of him. The truck hit her. She died not long after that.
I literally have trouble even typing those words. Heap and his wife Ashley were the parents of five children and Heap—like many fathers—would tell you they were the light of his life. He didn’t just talk about loving children, he lived it.
Several years ago, at the charity golf tournament that Tom Watson and I put on to raise money for ALS research, we had an auction item that involved spending a day at a Ravens game with me as host and guide. Kevin Byrne, the Ravens PR guy for decades, had volunteered a day that would involve press credentials for the winner plus a pre-game trip to the sideline; the chance to stand in the tunnel with the players while they were being introduced and seats in the press box during the game. I was stunned by how much money people bid.
The winner asked if she could bring her two young nephews and the Ravens—naturally—said, ‘no problem.’ Kevin even alerted Coach John Harbaugh to look for me on the sideline so the kids could get to meet him. John graciously came over, talked to the kids for a few minutes and posed for photos with them.
Okay, I thought, they’re getting their money’s worth—or at least close to it. A few minutes later Heap came out for warmups. I had gotten to know him while researching my 2004 book on the Ravens, “Next Man Up.” He had been one of my favorite players because he was always willing to sit down and talk and always had something to say.
When Todd came out, I waved at him to say hello. He stopped, walked over to us, looked at the boys and said, “what have we got here, John?”
I introduced the boys and explained what we were doing. Todd not only talked to them, not only took photos with them but pulled an extra pair of his gloves from his pocket and signed one for each boy. To say they were thrilled doesn’t begin to describe their reaction.
No one asked Todd to do that. No one had to—that’s who he is. This tragedy is unspeakable, even more so knowing how much Todd loves his kids—all kids for that matter. I think J.J. Watt may have put it best in a tweet when he wrote that he was, “absolutely gutted,” for Todd and his family.
Those words apply also to the Celtics Isiah Thomas and his family. Thomas’s sister, Chyna was killed in a car accident this past Saturday. She was 22. The only differences between the Thomas tragedy and the Heap tragedy are that at least Chyna had lived through her childhood and Isiah doesn’t have to live the rest of his life feeling as if he somehow had something to do with his sister’s death.
That doesn’t make the loss any less acute and the tears he publicly shed prior to game 1 of the Celtics playoff series with the Bulls, were painful to watch. The fact that the top-seeded Celtics are down 2-0 to the Bulls after losing two games at home, feels almost irrelevant. It probably feels that way—at least to some degree—to Thomas, certainly and to the rest of his team. Watching Coach Brad Stevens talk about what Thomas was dealing with made it painfully apparent how rocked he was by what happened.
Both are unquestionably horrific tragedies.
But what about Aaron Hernandez? Is his suicide on Wednesday morning a tragedy? Certainly it doesn’t come close to the level of what happened to the Heap and Thomas families. Aaron Hernandez was a convicted murderer, one of those athletes who often avoided serious punishment because he was so gifted.
He was serving a life sentence—without hope of parole– for murder when, at the age of 27, he decided he simply couldn’t deal with the notion of decades living in prison. There will be those who will say his death wasn’t tragic, will even go so far as to say he inflicted on himself the penalty he deserved but the law wouldn’t allow.
Regardless, Hernandez’ life—and thus, his death—was tragic because it was a life wasted. Ironically, Bill Belichick was asked in a recent interview to describe Hernandez in one word. His answer was, “tragic.”
That is one example of someone in sports using the word perfectly.
Hernandez’s life and death aren’t as tragic as what happened to Todd Heap’s daughter or Isiah Thomas’s sister, but it is—nonethless—tragic.
All three stories should remind us that no defeat on a playing field is anywhere close to tragic.
John Feinstein’s most recent non-fiction book, “The Legends Club—Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Valvano and the story of an epic college basketball rivalry,” is now out in paperback and on the New York Times bestseller list after the hardcover spent six months on the list. His young adult (10-and-up) mystery, “Last Shot,” won the Edgar Allen Poe Award for mystery writing in the YA category. His new book, “The First Major— Inside the 2016 Ryder Cup,” will be published in October.