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Thursday, March 1, 2001
Updated: September 13, 7:08 PM ET
Death is like Joe Louis:
We can run, but can't hide


By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist

You're Dale Earnhardt. You can't die. Got too much going on. Too much to do. Too many people depending on you, gunning for you, looking at you. Can't be letting nobody down out here. Can't be punking out. Just get this last lap over with, then put Mike Waltrip in a headlock and hug 'ol Dale Jr. for finishing 1-2 at the Daytona 500. But first just make sure they finish 1-2. Might exchange a little paint in the process, but they ain't made a Turn Four you can't get out of -- especially not at Daytona. ...

Life is hard, then you die. Dale Earnhardt was ... we'll never know. He died before he had a chance to say. Nobody wants to know all the truth anyway. Human beings. We're weak and pathetic in the end. It's how well we hide it that counts. If you die right, people invoke JFK, Princess Diana, Jesus Christ. When you die, if good folks start crying and you didn't even know them, that's good living, right there.

Now your name is Devaughn Darling. Die? No way you can die. You can't even get old. Old? That's for old dudes. Old? Die? You are 6-foot-2, 220 pounds of man.

Young man, but full-grown, just like your twin, Devard. Both puffing and straining and sweating and dying that little death in football training camp, which never ends now. Not when you're one of the few, the proud, the muscle-bound, trying to win that starting spot on the Florida State Seminoles football team, which is going to mean a good shot at the pros. Big Money. Pie. One day. So you roll through mat drills; thorough, in that they leave young honed bodies like yours and Devard's puking their guts out on a February day in Tallahassee. Winter work.

Ain't no holiday for a real pro prospect bona fide Dee-One college football player. Not at Florida State. Not for a 'Nole, baby. Got to stick and stay. Can't be no scrub.

That's what makes it life. It's ambiguous. And that's what makes it death. It isn't. But you're Devaughn Darling. No problemo. Played on special teams last year. Thirteen tackles. Looking to start as a pure sophomore at outside LB.

You feel a pain in your chest. You mention it to a few dudes, but they don't want to hear it. What are you gonna do? Walk off? You look at Devard. He's grabbing shorts, but he ain't goin' nowhere. Stick and stay. You talk to yourself. To Devard. "C'mon, bro'!" you think. "We boys! 'Noles. They gon' remember us!"

You push a little further than you ever pushed it before. Devard looks at you. He's breathing deeply. "That's what I'm talking about, boy." Then Devard stops breathing. Devard! Not Devard! Then you are calm. You take the hit. It isn't Devard that stopped breathing. It's you.

Your name is Cole Pittman. You can't afford to be hurt. There's a bunch of guys waitin' for a shot. But you're 6-5, 265 pounds, and it's your spot. You're a Texas Longhorn starter, started every game since you came to the University of Texas.

Went home to Shreveport for a visit and are driving back to Austin. Eyelids getting heavy. Can't pull over and go to sleep. Gotta get back. Drills. Can't give up that edge you worked so hard to get. You blink hard. You're a defensive end now, get to come off the edge and show you can rush the passer, not just a slow boy in the middle of the line who has to blow up like Siragusa and then sit on people to be effective. No, you got Youngblood in you, you can come off the edge, you can get there.

But you never do ... at least you managed to pull over. People will never know just how hard that was.

You? You're Joe Fan. You can't die either, even as a terminally ill boy, head bald from radiation treatments, bald so the Yankee cap slips down over your eyes. You know Bernie will get the hit that drives in the run that wins the game that takes the Series in the year the dynasty is built. You forget -- and thus beat -- being sick. Hurts bad when they lose, and so, for you, they don't. Not often enough for you to die over it.

You're a quad, in a wheelchair, limbs deadened forever by a bad dive into a pool or ocean waves, a check on the boards, or the impact of a speeding car -- why nobody is a bigger fan than you. You barely even care about names. Just to see what a whole human body can do. Just to live again. Nobody is more fixated by it.

Now we could say, "This is sports, and death seems out of place here." But death is never out of line or place. Death is inevitable. Death is gonna be there. Death is like ... Joe Louis. We can run, but we can't hide.

Wherever there's life, there's death. That's why we're in ball in the first place, because we're trying to stay as far away from death as possible. We're all the way over with the so-called immortals, the boys and girls of spring and summer, the demigods of playing fields, playing fields otherwise known as land-of-make-believe, and ultimate denial. We don't want to hear about death in ball. Sometimes we don't even want to hear about life. We just want to be alive. We want the final score. We want to win. We want to ... beat death.

It's not as if we don't want to go out like that. It's that we don't want to go out at all.

What do you mean, what do I mean, we don't want to hear about life? We don't. Not here. Recently I was standing in the downtown Washington D.C. ESPN Zone with Michael Wilbon, who is often guilty of enriching the pages of The Washington Post, Tony Kornheiser, guilty of doing same to The Post and ESPN Radio, and Dick Schaap, among many other things, author of a new book "Flashing Before My Eyes."

  Wherever there's life, there's death. That's why we're in ball in the first place, because we're trying to stay as far away from death as possible. We're all the way over with the so-called immortals, the boys and girls of spring and summer, the demigods of playing fields, playing fields otherwise known as land-of-make-believe, and ultimate denial. We don't want to hear about death in ball.  
   

Bigger than life. That's what you'd call the people in Dick's book, the legends of sports. Bigger than life.

We want some of that life. Why do we want it? Because it sort of smells good? No. Because it helps stave off the Old Clockmaker, that's why, or so we suppose. But one thing we don't suppose. One thing we know, deep down, The Old Clockmaker called Death is out there.

The best stories those three sportswriters were telling about athletes are stories the average sports news consumer will never hear, Pancho. Know what? That's the really good stuff. That's the real stuff. Because whether you win or lose -- shtuff happens.

Remember when that Houston Oilers defensive lineman named Jeff Alm, a Notre Dame grad, was involved in a murder-suicide a few years back, when he killed himself with a shotgun?

We don't really want to hear the story behind that.

Remember when Curt Flood died at 59?

We figure it's sad, but he had his time.

We just want to remember what we want to remember, and forget what we want to forget.

The truths about Cole Pittman and Devaughn Darling, they didn't even get to know it very well. Died too young to know. As for Dale Earnhardt, if you can leave that many people at a loss, in sincere tears, then that means you have filled a core need for them, a need to feel strong, alive, important, a need that must be respected in all people.

It's when someone dies that you see what something as seemingly mindless as oval stock-car racing is really all about. They all are mindless in the end, football, basketball, baseball, hockey, boxing, most especially boxing, and people can and do die while doing all of it. It's about the emotions they cause in people who are watching that makes them mindful, that makes that slice of life so important.

Oh, and one other thing about Earnhardt, Pittman, Darling, the Oklahoma State basketball players and the others on that plane that went down, and, before the cycle of this article is over, whoever's got next ...

They've all been where we're going.

Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."