Has there ever been a year like this, so much youth entombed? So many young men and women—boys and girls, some of them—scattered from playing fields? Has there been a year this dispiriting? Season by season, strength and stamina were betrayed, and talent was destroyed. Has there ever been a year like this, so much broken promise?
Reggie Lewis, 27, on the cusp of stardom in the NBA, collapsed and died in 1993. Heather Farr, 28, a golfing prodigy, succumbed to cancer despite courageous resolve. Such things happen, of course, even in sports. But as the year's morbid roll call continued to sound out, it was no longer possible to feel that glory could be fixed in death and made enduring. So much waste just mocked the poets. And dying young never seemed less heroic.
It was so strange, though. Repositories of spectacular health and fitness were ravaged. The heart of a superbly conditioned athlete...fails? Fans watched, helpless and confused, as one important axiom after another was violated. An athlete's supernormal will is...unrewarded? There was no comfort to be discovered as first Arthur Ashe and then Jim Valvano were vanquished in what should have been the prime of life. Suddenly it was no longer good enough to be tall, strong and gifted, to have so much fight within that even doctors might be baffled. Actually, it didn't matter one bit.
The athlete's exemption from the laws of real life was finally proven to be illusory. Acts of nature, of circumstance and of stupidity could lead an athlete to death as surely as they could the rest of us. Spring training, a literary window through which essayists like to jump, offered us the senseless deaths of Cleveland Indian pitchers Tim Crews, 31, and Steve Olin, 27. The essayists, who normally seize upon the season's start with insufferable metaphor, could find no example of rebirth here. The grass might still grow fragrant, and the jacaranda might still bloom, but, god, these guys drove right into a dock! The essayists quickly withdrew and surrendered the field to experts on boating safety.
It was one calamity after another. A basketball player at Iowa, 21-year-old Chris Street, was killed when his car hit a snowplow, hurdled a median and was hit by another car. A football player for Ohio State, Jayson Gwinn, served as an ambulance, picking up a teammate who had been wounded by gunfire in a nightclub and delivering him to a rescue squad. Then he sped off, collided with a car driven by another student and was killed. Gwinn had been legally drunk. He was 20.
There was, in fact, a stunning list of traffic fatalities involving the unknown, the near famous and the celebrated. A '92 basketball star at Vermont, 22-year-old Kevin Roberson, was killed when his car was hit head-on by a drunk driver. Another Cleveland pitcher, Cliff Young, died when his truck crashed near his hometown of Willis, Texas. He was 29. The New York Nets" Drazen Petrovic, 28, was killed in an accident on the German autobahn.
Race car drivers Alan Kulwicki, 38, and Davey Allison, 32, were killed, but not on the track, not in high-speed pursuit of their own brand of achievement. Their deaths were not even dignified by the enormous risk with which they chose to entertain us. One was killed in a plane wreck, the other in a helicopter crash. So what do you make of that?
And then there was Jeff Alm, the backup defensive lineman for Houston. He was a strapping 25-year-old in his fourth season with the Oilers. He may have had his disappointments, his injuries, his contract problems. But how do you account for his behavior following an auto accident—in which he was the driver—that left his best friend dead? Aim was ruined by what he saw. Upon ascertaining his blame beneath the mercury lamps of a freeway exit, he withdrew a pistol-grip shotgun from his Cadillac Eldorado, slumped next to a guardrail, put the gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger, and there was one more young man who would never start again for the Oilers or enter the Hall of Fame.
The deaths were not merely pointless, like the cocaine-induced heart seizure that killed Los Angeles Raider defensive back Dave Waymer. They were, as they mounted, infuriating. So much talent junked. Among all these dead, who does the poet choose for his elegy? Smart lad, to slip betimes away.... Whose lifetime achievements docs the poet immortalize? We think a sensible poet surrenders the field, this time to traffic-safety experts, grief counselors and ironists.
The wreckage of 1993, like the wreckage of the plane in which 18 members of the Zambian soccer team died in April, was overwhelming. It's as if the debris of so much potential were raked before us at year's end to challenge our long-held contract with sports. Didn't we have an understanding? Most professional athletes are well paid, but year after year we demand that they stay young and healthy while we march toward our own decrepitude. The arrangement is unsatisfying otherwise. Why celebrate the heft of one player or the grace of another's swing? Why glorify neuromuscular firings so exaggerated in their precision that we must rise from our seats and laugh in amazement at the athletes—their rare abilities are useless, face it, except to evoke a sense of wonder—if all they do is mirror our own mortality? Why in the world?