September 22, 2006

Tragic Events Shape Athletic Community

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Earlier this week, I wrote an article that attempted to explain why Cornell student-athletes are so adept at making the right decisions and staying out trouble involving headlines and handcuffs.

In my interviews, I found a lot of answers; proactive awareness programs run by the administration, solid recruiting practices by Cornell coaches, and a sense of accountability and responsibility among the Red’s student-athletes.

To all of these tangible and rational explanations, I’d like to add one more. I’m an amateur psychologist at best, and all I have to go on here is personal experience, raw emotions, and three-plus years of covering Cornell athletics.

What I find telling about the spirit of the Cornell athletic community is that in my time at The Sun, the Sports section has been exactly the inverse of the Panic! At The Disco song — we write tragedies, not sins.
During my freshman year, three student-athletes died. Wrestler Scot Elwood ’06, fell to his death in a gorge early in the morning of Sept. 19, 2003. George Boiardi ’04, co-captain of the men’s lacrosse team, died on the turf of Schoellkopf Field on St. Patrick’s Day, 2004, when he was struck in the chest by the shot of a member of Binghamton’s squad. And on May 13, 2004, Jaime McManamon ’06 died in a car accident on his way home to Cleveland, Ohio. This fall, he was named an honorary captain of the football team.

Why do I think these events have anything to do with the values of the Red’s student-athletes? Because on Dec. 9, 2003, my dad died, and I know how the loss of a friend, teammate, and family member can ripple through the lives of those left behind.

For me, this loss has remained intensely personal. Of all the people I know and love at Cornell, maybe three of them met my dad when he helped me move into Townhouse D3. When I walk around campus, the closest I can come to the memory of my dad is walking by the law school that he graduated from in 1972. It’s easy to escape the pain, because I don’t come face-to-face with the past every day.

From my experiences covering the men’s lacrosse and football teams, I can say that it’s been an entirely different grieving process for these families. Boiardi’s life-size photo hangs in the lacrosse team’s locker room, and every time they practice, they revisit the site of that awful day. For the football team, McManamon’s name is permanently inscribed on the Big Red Power Wall of Honor, where the names of the strongest people currently on each varsity team are displayed. And that’s just when they show up to work out. Who knows how many reminders linger in dorms, fraternities, dining halls, and classrooms?

For these student-athletes, the memories — good and bad — are never far away. But they have something I don’t; a group of people who can share that loss and help them channel grief into a productive outlet every day. They can don pads and pick up sticks, and know that every time they step on the field, they’re playing not just for themselves and their school, but also for a fallen teammate whose time was cut short. No longer is the goal simply to win more than you lose. Now, they know that the character and values embodied by their missing teammates last longer and mean more than victories and titles.

I learned, and I think they did too, something important from the events of 2003-04. When you lose a part of your family — and students, coaches, administrators alike refer to the athletics community as a family — it brings the rest closer. The absence of one makes you realize how important everyone left is to you, how much you need them there, and how much you want to be there for them. Doing something that would hurt a family that’s already been through so much is simply not an option.

Because of these difficult lessons, our student-athletes have been forced to grow up a little faster than the average college student. For the most part they were good people to begin with, but now, they possess perspective and a sense of purpose forged by tragedy. With a constant reminder that someone they love will never get to realize their goals and share in these memorable experiences on and off the playing field, it’s easier to see that risking all they’ve gained by being a part of the Cornell athletic community for a cheap thrill or a questionable action is simply not worth it.

In Life as a House, a movie about a father with terminal cancer reconnecting with his son, the dad says this: “Maybe everything happens for a reason. Something bad to force something good.”
Maybe it’s as simple, and as painful, as that.

Olivia Dwyer is the Sun Sports Editor. Forever Wild will appear every other Friday this semester.