On Grace, Finality, and Tragedy
Its taken me all week to feel up to writing this one, and I know it won’t make sense or do these people justice.
The past week in sports has been one with a lot of things to celebrate, and a lot of things to bemoan.
Tennessee fans learned that a Duck CAN pull a truck as they beat Florida for the first time since the first W administration. Georgia fans learned that the Kirby Smart era is a major work in progress. NBA teams opened camp with (insane unless you’re Golden State or Cleveland) optimism, and Notre Dame lost to Duke. In football.
Everything mentioned above is a petty reminder of why sports really matter: they are a great diversion from the realities of life. Age, the passing of time, unrest, and outright tragedy are all realities of life, and sports provided great lessons in each this past week.
If you don’t like Les Miles, you either hate LSU way too much or are blinded by your team’s colors. Miles is a man who navigated Katrina-devastated LSU through abject tragedy before coaching his first game in 2005, who told us to have a nice day after some careless reporting on the day of the SEC Championship Game, who constantly ate grass, and played it fast and loose with clock management to a terrifying extent for his 11 1/2 years in Baton Rouge.
Miles got fired on Sunday after an 18-13 loss at Auburn, when his Mad Hatter tendencies finally backfired and LSU’s last-second miracle touchdown was overturned.
Miles, escape artist that he is, was not fired because of that one result. He was fired because, as AD Joe Alleva put it (paraphrasing), “we didn’t want to start winning and go through this cycle again.” If you’ll recall, Miles was all but fired before triumphing in his ‘last’ game against Texas A&M last year. Boosters and administration still wanted him gone, and they got rid of him because they KNEW he’d survive again if they didn’t take swift action.
I’ve luckily never been fired from a job, outside of one where the North Carolina ABC threatened to shut down a pub at which I was pouring drinks at 16 years old. Les Miles was fired from a job he truly LOVED, and was able to handle it with grace I can’t imagine having.
From the Dan Patrick Show on Monday:
How were you told you were fired?
Face to face. Joe Alleva said we’re going to have to make a change. And I’m for the tigers. Anything they see that makes the Tigers better, I’m for it. I accepted the outcome and will support that decision and these Tigers going forward
Did you try to fight it?
It was beyond fighting. The enjoyment of being here, the enjoyment of community, the experiences that my family’s had, it’s too important to fight over. It’s history. It’s what we were are. If they see a change makes the tiger better, I’m for them.
If you beat Auburn, would you still be employed?
I want you to know something. How that game ends, with the Tigers fighting for their breath, maybe there’s a way the coach could’ve got them a second more. I would argue that I made those moves. One second. It’s certainly a decision that was made more appropriately over more than a second.
Was you being fired an undercurrent there or lingering?
If it was there, I went beyond it. I enjoyed going into my room and enjoying seeing the young men I recruited and I coached. If there was an undercurrent, it did not exist in the that building. What goes on inside the building just didn’t matter.
I’ve never had an opportunity to meet Les Miles. But Les Miles humanized a sport in a conference where robotic, calculated decision-making, soulless enterprises of football excellence, and canned, cold coachspeak are absolutes. He was the opposite of those things, and showed a humility, a reality, and a grace seen far too little in his profession or on this planet.
Whether he coaches again or not, I am more a Les Miles fan than on Saturday– I was already a big one. With the way he handled his exit, I hold that you should be, too.
My sports fandom began in 1995, as the Atlanta Braves won their only World Series. At 7 years old, I was conditioned to expect such success from all of my teams, and have been disappointed more times than I can count. Part of the draw of sports is the hope for triumph, but the overwhelming odds that disappointment will be the outcome. Again, the outpouring of human emotion for something that has no direct effect on your life is why we care.
Kevin Garnett started his NBA career in the same year, meaning that I have watched him toil, dominate, get close, toil, get traded, and finally succeed over the exact same lifespan as my fandom. He was the prototype of the modern power forward in the NBA, yet a tragic figure who could never get the supporting cast to get over the hump in the NBA.
Garnett was, by all measures, a freaking psychopath on the court. I think about how much I care about sports, and it feels trivial compared to KG. A 6’11 behemoth of athleticism routinely headbutted basket stanchions, give primal yells in meaningless December games, and wore his emotions on his progressively-broader shoulders– and he did so for 21 years.
Garnett played in the league for 13 years before reaching the top. To this day, there is no greater example of exuberance or joy in reaching the pinnacle, giving one’s blood, sweat and tears for a happy ending.
As KG’s skills regressed, he returned with much fanfare to Minneapolis, and in one year passed the torch to a cast of Timberwolves who may well represent the future of the NBA.
Kevin Garnett: the gift that gave nightly through his antics, for 21 years, and may continue to give through his leadership. Despite unrealistic expectations of more, the above clip shows that 1 out of 21, in sports, is not bad.
I really didn’t know what to do with Arnold Palmer’s passing in this piece. To live a full life of 85 years, be by FAR the most-well liked of many legendary contemporaries, and have a delicious drink named after oneself…anyone can hope to live to that, and in passing, be a cause for celebration, not grief. I know no less than 25 people who met The King, and no less than 15 who posted pictures with him on Facebook on Sunday night. I struggle to think of a single negative thing I’ve ever read about the man– he was gentle, courteous, patient, and universally beloved.
That fits more into ‘grace’ or ‘finality’ than it does tragedy, but for the world to lose such a revered soul is always a tragedy.
The other sports death on Sunday was much, much harder to stomach.
Due to the waning popularity of baseball in my age demographic, I don’t know how many of my contemporaries got a chance to marvel at Jose Fernandez, or even knew who he was. Fernandez was a Cuban pitcher, 24 years old, and a Miami Marlin. From a team standpoint, a Cuban superstar in the heart of Miami was a marketing coup for a team always finding itself on the wrong side of the PR battle. Fernandez was certainly that and more on the field, compiling a 29-2 record with a 1.49 ERA in Marlins Park over his career. His career ERA of 2.56 was also remarkable given his age– better than Sandy Koufax, Tom Seaver, Pedro Martinez, and countless other legends.
For his exploits on the mound, Fernandez was more an embodiment of what contemporary Bryce Harper so callously claims to do– “make baseball fun again”. Jose Fernandez epitomized that with his actions on a daily basis:
His story? Oh, one where he tried to defect from Cuba FOUR times before making it to the U.S., saving his mother from drowning on the successful journey. One where his grandmother, the most influential person in his life, sat on a tin roof in Cuba to listen to his starts. One where his girlfriend just last week announced she was pregnant with his child.
SBNation’s Grant Brisbee said it best about Jose: he was pure joy. Nobody knew to fully appreciate him until it was far too late, until baseball and sports reminded us why we can channel human emotion through the exploits of millionaires playing a child’s sport:
— Chad Floyd (@Chad_Floyd) September 26, 2016
— BeatinTheBookie™ (@BeatinTheBookie) September 26, 2016
The magic of sports: withdrawn from our personal lives, from the tribulations of the world, but still something that allows us to feel. We’ll see an all-too-soon 30 For 30 on Jose Fernandez, and it’ll be excellent. Billy Corben will be able to funnel all of the emotion of the past 72 hours and put it in a digestible format….and it won’t do the human Jose Fernandez was justice. One more snippet into that:
But he also had a big heart, McGehee said.
“The toughest part for me has been having to tell my son,” McGehee said, choking back tears.
McGehee’s son Mack has cerebral palsy and formed a close bond with Fernandez.
“I think everybody knows about my son and some of the struggles that he deals with,” McGehee said. “A lot of people don’t really know how to treat him. But for some reason, Jose had a heart for him.
“I’d get to the field and it wasn’t like, ‘Hey Jose, do you mind keeping an eye on him while I hit?’ It was, Jose coming to grab him and they were together from the time I got to the field to the time my wife came to pick him up. I think that really says a lot about what was truly in his heart and what kind of a guy he was.”
Sport, in the context of life, really should be less of a priority than it is for me, or anyone digging this deep enough into the internet on this Wednesday morning for a diversion– but that’s what it is, a diversion that humanizes us by allowing us to feel raw human emotion without having to experience it directly.
As Jim Valvano once said, “If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that’s one heck of a day.” If you remembered the goofy, appalling, and downright hilarious exploits of Les Miles upon his firing, you laughed. If you reflected on KG’s or Arnie’s legacy, you had a chance to think. And if you reflected on the passing of Jose Fernandez, you are either a robot or you cried, at least a little bit.
I guess that’s why sports are important. We get to live and die by the actions of complete strangers in the name of what’s on the front of the jerseys. We fall in love with brands, individuals, and in some cases shape the human experience based on triumphs and failures. And we are provided an escape to express emotions– good or bad, jovial or furious– in a safe haven that, if done responsibly, allows us to grow emotionally without any real consequences to life.
If only life could be so inconsequential.
Rest in peace, Jose and Arnold.