While driving through town to drop my daughter Delaney off for morning camp at Exeter Day School, I had Boston Sports News WEEI, 93.7 FM, on the radio. I know as well as anyone the ridiculous, bread and circuses fascination America has with sports but sometimes I just get sucked into its narrative, just like people do with afternoon soaps, teenage vampires, or reality “talent” shows. Anyway, it was the morning show but, thankfully, the hateful regular hosts Denis and Callahan were on vacation so I wouldn’t have to swear in front of my daughter. It must have been the weekend that the Jimmy Fund Cancer Research Drive was beginning because they were interviewing a Boston College football player who had been all-everything for a couple of years and then found out after an MRI that the pain he was having in his leg during spring practice, that he was trying to tough it out through, was bone cancer.
I pulled into the driveway of Delaney’s camp and sat there for a second listening to this young man’s story. “Let’s goooohh!” Delaney said in a half-whine, half just looking for words to sing. I left the engine running as I opened my door and then hers. I grabbed the suntan lotion that, summer through winter, I always keep in the door pocket of my van in case a sudden swell and chance to surf pops up. Even the winter sun can burn.
Delaney stepped down from her car seat. Her blonde pigtails caught the sun that was muscling up over the tall pines of the parking lot. I looked across the playing fields of Phillips Exeter Academy that spread out behind Delaney’s little nursery school. I could feel the muggy breath heaving from the grass. As I started lubing Delaney up with the SPF 50, I listened to this kid on the radio say that when he was first diagnosed his first thought was not survival but when he was going to play ball again. He was young and that’s what you think when you’re young. That’s what I thought when the bulging disks in my upper spine were scraping the sheath off my nerve endings and causing burners in my arms during my senior year of football practices.
Burners, if you haven’t played football or some kind of collision sport, are a sudden flare-up in the nerves. Like blowing a fuse, there is sudden over-surge in energy and then the power cuts out. You feel an intense, burning pain on some part of your body but when you look, it is just flesh. Still, you rub it trying to snuff out the fire that is not there. Burners are pretty serious but I usually didn’t tell anyone about them, partly because I didn’t realize how serious they were at first and partly because I didn’t want anyone to think I wasn’t tough. But every once in a while, when I was playing defensive end at Yale, usually when I was blitzing down on a tackle or blowing up a pulling guard, my head would jerk back just enough and the building disks would cut into the nerves making my arms catch fire at first and then go numb and limp. If you ever take the right hit, said the doctors, these nerves weren’t ever going to get un-numb. If the nerves were severed, that would be it. No more using my arms and maybe not the rest of my body. I was just the right hit away from paralysis, or worse, but I didn’t want to stop playing and let my team down. Even more, I didn’t want my team to think I was a quitter. In fact, I remember times when I wished I would take that right hit, that hit that would kill my limbs, just so I could pack it in and not be called a quitter. That feeling did not come from the hubris of youth but the utter fucking exhaustion of always being in pain.
I remember sitting in Coach Cozza’s office at Yale my senior year. I don’t think I had been in there since my recruiting trip. He asked me to pop in when he saw me watching some film in another coach’s office. He began telling me how he much he loved football, how much football had brought to his life and to the life of his family. I remember looking around at all the pictures of former players on the walls, all the covers from past game programs, all the awards, plaques, game balls, and trophies that lined the walls and shelves. I don’t remember the pictures of his wife, his children, and his grandchildren that also lined the walls and took up his big oak desk. Those were things my eyes would glance over as fuzzy colors between Ivy League championship trophies.
I do remember him telling me, with hard eyes and a soft smile, that football had been great to him but that none of what football had given him came close to being able to hold your child in your arms. He didn’t tell me not to play. He just told me about holding his kids and his grandkids. And while the message was received it was not felt, because I was a kid. I was twenty-one. And here’s this other kid on the radio fifteen years later as I am dropping off my daughter thinking the same thing. The doctors told him he probably wouldn’t run again but here he was, hell-bent, determined to play ball again. It hadn’t hit him yet about what he really may lose. That is such a beautiful pleasure of youth. That is why the young are warriors. For them to risk everything is only to risk themselves. I think you realize how small a thing that is, how it is just a part of what you can risk once you are married, have children, start seeing parents and even friends get sick or die.
The July morning was getting steamy. The northeast was in the gut of a heat wave and even at 8:30 the air was getting too thick to breathe comfortably. Double sessions weather. Like breathing soup. The kind of wet heat that made you lose 15 pounds of water weight every practice and left your stomach too queasy to eat or drink much before the next practice. Then the kid on the radio talked about how after the radiation treatment he couldn’t even walk up a flight of stairs without breathing heavy.
My daughter giggled as I put lotion on her neck and just above the clavicle. She closed her eyes and pursed her lips as she tilted up her head for me to put sunblock on her cheeks that freckled in the summer just the way mine had been in all those 4th of July bonfire pictures from when I was a kid. Then the young man on the radio started realizing what he might lose. His life. His mom. His dad. The rest of his family. But he still needed to fight his disease in the language he knew. He said he went downstairs to see his dad and told him he was going to beat this and that he was going to play again. He had to keep it in terms that his fear could not invade. He wasn’t going to simply live. He was going to play.
I walked Delaney over to her camp. She hugged me and then skipped away to the swing set. I got back to the car and started to drive off and the BC football player was talking about the charity work he had been doing. He had become a spokesman for cancer research and treatment. The cancer was gone. Not only was he running, he was going to be playing ball at BC in the fall. He had a humility in his voice you don’t hear a lot in twenty-something Division 1A linebackers. And there was fatigue in his voice, possibly because it was a sweltering summer morning. But it was not the fatigue of someone who had been robbed of his fight. The grit and gravel was still in his words and his tone. But at the back there was something that hinted at weariness. The weariness that comes from realizing that what the world gives will eventually be taken back. The weariness was wisdom, the strength we gain in the mind and soul as we lose it in the arms and legs.
I pulled into Me and Ollie’s, a coffee shop in Exeter to get some writing in before I had to go home and watch my son so my wife Emily could take a conference call. She was doing part-time consulting work for a software company so we were trying to juggle our schedules without tossing each other too many flaming chainsaws. I had planned on writing my grandmother’s baseball story or about the time I didn’t hit the kid who hit my brother. But I lingered in the parking lot listening to this player’s story. He said he had received a book from a friend that really helped him in his fight. It was Ted Bruschi’s book.
Tedi Bruschi was a linebacker for the New England Patriots. After the 2004 Super Bowl, the one in which millions had watched him play with his sons on the field before the game, Bruschi suffered a stroke that nearly killed him. I’ll skip all the sport cliché details but after months and months of therapy and rehab, he played ball again. Many thought that he was foolishly risking his life just to play a kids’ sport again. What did he have to prove? What about his wife? Those cute sons he played with before the Super Bowl? Why risk that for a game? Me, I thought for him to not fight back to try to be what he was, what he knew, would be to give up. And to give up would risk more in terms of his kids than playing would. A father teaches his sons not with the lessons he preaches but the lessons he lives. Trite but true–just like all sport metaphors.
So this ball player from BC reads Bruschi’s account of his experience, connects with it, uses it as ammo in his own fight and comes out the other side changed but whole. He even got to know Bruschi through a friend. “You’re a survivor,” Bruschi said over the phone the first time the two of them talked.
I turned off the ignition and headed into the coffee shop thinking about that word, survivor. I wondered what Bruschi meant by it. The kid lived, beat cancer, and was going to play ball again. But I wondered if that was what it meant to be a survivor. Did you have to live and get back to where you were for it to count as survival? I wondered what Bruschi would have thought of my dad. Was he a survivor? He fought for almost eight years against a different kind of betrayal of the flesh. He lived almost on will alone, bewildering doctors with the fact of his life. But he never ate again, not without injecting that slurry into a tube that strung out of the side of his gut. He never ruled the room the way he used to. He never got to be the big guy in the boardroom again. He never had the big voice again.
He did get eight more years with his wife. He did see all of his sons marry wonderful women. He saw grandchildren be born. He got to play with them and sneak them Gummy Bears when their dads weren’t looking. He saw three Super Bowl championships and two World Series wins. He watched Bruschi play with his kids before a Super Bowl and then he saw him play again after his stroke and talked about how tough a guy he was. I thought of Santiago in the Old Man in the Sea talking about DiMaggio with his bone spur. I wondered if DiMaggio would ever question Santiago’s toughness? Would Bruschi think my dad was a survivor? I have to think he would.
We like to raise our athletes to the levels of heroes and gods in New England, no less so than Santiago does in Hemingway’s Cuba. So maybe I have idealized the wisdom of Bruschi. Maybe I hear wisdom in that BC kid’s voice because I want to hear it. So be it. Today as I sit in this coffee shop I think they would call my dad a survivor because he fought beyond his strength and beyond the expectation and capacity for most of us to understand.
One night, the summer before he died, he was out on the porch at the house in Seabrook having a “drink” with Dave Prybyla, a guy I played ball with at Yale and who was now an orthopedic surgeon in Lowell. When I say my dad had a drink I meant he dipped the plastic syringe used to inject his food shakes into a glass of wine or beer, pull back the stopper to pull the syringe, and then inject the alcohol into his J-tube. That night, he told Dave, “I’m tired of this shit. I’m tired of fighting.”
When my dad died it took him thirty hours of being off the ventilator to finally breathe his last. They said it would just be a little while, maybe an hour. They would make him comfortable. But he kept breathing. Even talking. He even reached out an arm to hug me one last time, the stripe of a tear cutting from his face to his pillow. My mom, brothers, and I stayed in the room all night waiting. Bruschi and the Patriots beat Jacksonville in a playoff game on the little TV in dad’s hospital room. And then we watched and waited all morning and into the afternoon. He kept heaving slow, hard breaths. I worried we were wrong. That he still wanted to fight. That we weren’t doing the right thing. I was worried he wanted to fight and we weren’t helping him.
After the funeral Dave told me what my dad had said, that he was tired of fighting. I felt better after that. Sane, at least. My dad had fought. He had survived. He was a survivor. He had nothing left to prove to himself or his teammates.
When I was 21 and my arms were burning and going numb with almost every hit I took, and sometimes even in class if someone bumped my arm or I turned my head too quickly in the wrong direction, I was determined to keep playing. I can’t say for sure if it was something I was doing to prove my toughness to myself or to my teammates. It certainly wasn’t about the game. Coach Cozza called my dad and told him, “We want him to play but I think you need to tell him he has to stop.”
“He’s over 18,” my dad said. “He has to make the decision himself.” He didn’t want me to play. He knew what I was risking even if I did not. But he knew it was my call.
One day working out with my brother Paul in a Gold’s Gym in Tewksbury, about a week or so before camp was supposed to start, my neck seized up and my left arm failed as I was pressing 275 pounds over my chest; back then that was still warm-up weight. My brother pulled the bar up before it crushed me. I knew that was it. I was done playing this game with myself. Not the game of football, the game of acting tough as opposed to being tough. I was tired of it. You can’t win a fight you don’t believe in. I called the coach and told him I was done. He seemed glad.
Now I type this with two hands that work. And even though, almost 15 years later, my neck still hurts, I can leave this coffee shop and go pick up my son with those arms when my wife gets on her conference call. I can throw him in the air, let him tackle me just like Bruschi let his sons tackle him on that field in Reliant Stadium in Houston Texas in 2004 before the game against Philadelphia. I can pick my wife up off the ground after she collapses after an undiagnosed ectopic pregnancy goes septic. I can get her and my two-year-old daughter to the car and get to the emergency room two nights after Christmas, ten days before my dad will die. I can hold my wife with those arms when she finds out she needs to get a biopsy on a lump in her breast. I can teach my daughter to paddle a surfboard and I can put suntan lotion on her before camp on a crushingly hot day. I can hold my son when he is afraid of the ocean and when he is not.
And four years ago, we sat in the hospital room with my dad as we watched Bruschi and the Patriots play against Jacksonville. The same room he would die in the next night after 30 hours because his body would not stop fighting even when his mind was at peace with victory, as my dad for the last time in this world stretched out from his gurney with the one arm not tethered to wires, I could hug him back with both of mine.