Too Young to Die

Dearly beloved,

We are gathered here to celebrate the lives and mourn the passing of two fine men. To be truthful, we don’t really know much about them as men – their wisdom, fairness, ingenuity, compassion, responsibility – so we honour, as we often do, their career accomplishments. They were utterly dedicated to their chosen profession, and paid a great price for that devotion during outstanding careers in the graceful, and brutal, exercise of power. Millions had watched their rise, profited (in ways not easy to account for) from their successes, and muttered quietly about their eventual and inevitable fall. And now they are gone. They were thirty years old.

They still are, actually. Brian Westbrook and LaDainian Tomlinson are running backs, a celebrated but cruel position in the National Football League. The average runner lasts four years in American professional football; WestB and LT were not average, though, having careers exceptional both for their thrilling productivity and longevity. Each is a hero of fans in Philadelphia and San Diego, respectively, and each has been widely admired in America for their toughness, skill and flair on the savage playground that is football.

But they’re done. The Eagles and the Chargers have released these star athletes in what must be among the most blunt displays of the cruelty of professional sport. These are young men, paid absurdly high salaries, to be sure, but their extended excellence – both are possible candidates for their sport’s Hall of Fame – was no protection from the scrap heap when they “lost a step” of speed or, in Westbrook’s case at least, had suffered one two many brain-rattling concussions. They may try to prolong their playing days, no doubt in reduced roles, with other (probably lesser) teams hoping to benefit from their diminishing skills and veteran character. Many hope that they, unlike the majority of sporting stars, don’t cling too long to what was, reminding their fans of how great they had once been.

Already, some might have muttered in the last season or two, that ain’t Tomlinson, that’s gotta be somebody else just wearing his gearHey, didn’t Westbrook used to beat that first tackler? So what do you do when you’re 30 and your best years are behind? When sporting kinship, huge paydays, applauding millions and a certain kind of pure striving are over? When what remains is the mind of an athlete and never-ending conviction, but also body aches and a certain lostness? We may resent the money and the godlike stature that athletes are given and, yes, the highs of professional sports stardom are giddy and enviable. But what a fall awaits when your muscles fail and when, as too many find, they are but little prepared for life outside the game.

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