Athletes, fans use sports to deal with loss

Jeremiah Davis

I was in class once, and the professor asked us what sports meant to us.

He asked our class to write down our responses, and when we went over them a lot of students responded that sports were a competition or a game.

My answer was different.

I believe sports are an escape. They’re an escape from whatever is going on in your life. It could be school, work or any kind of tough time in your life.

Often times when someone is grieving the loss of someone close to them, sports are what they turn to.

It seems absurd, the notion that a game can help someone who’s hurting like that. That something as simple as a football or basketball can help heal and help someone move on.

Yet at the same time, it makes perfect sense. Everyone has something that takes them away and helps them get back to the place they want to be. Why can’t sports be that thing?

Before the Iowa State-Iowa game this season, ISU cornerback Ter’Ran Benton learned his grandmother had passed away. He was torn between wanting to be with his family in Texas and wanting to relieve his frustrations on the football field.

“I really wanted to stay and play, but I thought it was best to be with my family,” Benton said. “I take football very seriously and all the frustration, I put it on the field.”

ISU football coach Paul Rhoads also sees sports as a refuge. As a coach, whenever he’s away from the game, he misses the interaction with his players and it definitely affects him.

“My wife would be the first one to agree with that,” Rhoads said of his mood being affected by being away from the game. “I can get a little owly at times when I get away from it. Getting back to a workout and teaching for an hour has always been great medicine for me.”

You can look at recent professional sports history and see it. There are several cases where athletes lost loved ones, and instead of shrinking away from doing what they loved, they used it.

While he may now be a pariah, Brett Favre once awed and inspired sports fans with his performance on Monday Night Football after his father died.

During and after the game, you could see the emotion on his face. He was playing for his dad. He was playing because that’s what he knew his father would have wanted him to do. To do anything different would’ve been an insult to his father’s memory.

When Michael Jordan’s dad was murdered in 1993, he played out the rest of the season and won an NBA championship. Television cameras caught Jordan in the locker room after the game lying on the floor with the game ball, weeping.

He then quit basketball altogether and went to play professional baseball to honor his father. Jordan said on multiple occasions that the best way he could honor his father was to play the game that his dad loved so much.

After Dale Earnhardt was killed in the 2001 Daytona 500, an entire fan base grieved. While they grieved privately, his son Dale Jr. and their family grieved in the intense spotlight. We watched as Dale Jr. tried to be strong and do what he knew his father would want him to.

Then that July, at the first race back at Daytona, Dale Jr. went out and healed millions of hearts who were hurting, including his own. He won that race and afterwards while celebrating, pointed to the sky as people who watched wept.

It’s not about wanting to forget. It’s about wanting to feel the joy you used to feel. To feel alive again.

In the last five years, I’ve dealt with a fair amount of loss. I lost a cousin, a friend and two grandparents. I won’t insinuate that my experiences have been better or worse than someone else’s, but I know that each time I lost someone that I cared about, I turned to sports to help me.

The summer before my senior year of high school, a friend of mine was killed in a car accident. He was a gifted athlete, especially as a basketball player. He loved playing pickup games at a local park court. What did we do in the days following his passing? We went and played at that court.

Recently, my grandmother died. She and I were very close, and we shared the love of racing. Following her funeral, I came back to Ames and went to the Lied Recreation Athletic Center to play some pickup basketball.

While I was playing, I felt exhausted. I felt my heart pounding. I felt normal again, like anyone does after 20 minutes of basketball.

I’m not here to tell people how to grieve. I won’t ever tell someone how to deal with death. I just know that for me, writing about, watching or playing sports is the best way to move past the hurting.

“Sports and sports arenas can be a sanctuary,” Rhoads said. “Whether it’s a loss or just bad times that you’re going through, it’s your chance to get away from that and really dive into something that you love.”