“To An Athlete Dying….. Old”

June10/ 2012

A.E. Housman wrote the poem “To An Athlete Dying Young” in 1859.  A literary work that survives thru time must carry a theme that is timeless and universal.  Ol’ A.E.’s words may even be more relevant these days than they were 160 years ago.   ….. #35 Pete Brennan died Friday morning.  At 75, Pete was an athlete who died “old”.

“The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulders high.”
“To-day, the road all runners come,

Shoulder-high we bring you home.
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.”

In between those two verses, Pete Brennan lived his adult life.  Between March 1957 and June 2012 he rose each morning to a day and circumstance that would measure him as each day measures each of us.   Some days “you get the bear”.  Some days “the bear gets you”.   The longer one lives, the more bears one must battle.

Being a prominent member of UNC’s 1957 32-0 National Champions would be a laurel wreath that Pete Brennan would wear (or bear) for the rest of his life.  That euphoria when Tommy Kearns flung the ball high into the rafters of Kansas City’s Memorial Auditorium….. when the ball came down, the game was done – laurels won.  Lives forever marked by that moment.

Champions.  Heroes home from the war.  “The Victors Valiant….. Hail Hail the Champions of the West”.  ….. now what?  What indeed?

“Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out.
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.”

If the grandest moment of your life occurs at 20….. what sustains you for the remaining 55 years?  For the early years following “The Moment” one imagines there will be more and greater moments.   The cheering will never stop.  The fame will never flee.

Excuse me, but “didn’t you used to be” Mark “The Bird” Fidrych?  Gary Burghoff ??  Mark Hamill??

For a Michael Jordan certainly his jumper vs Georgetown in 1982 was followed by even greater glories at even higher levels.  Every professional athlete was a hometown hero from Little League on up.  ….. “chaired thru the market-place” to the cheers of men and boys.   “Is this as good as it will ever get” is not foremost in any competitor’s mind as he acknowledges the adulation of his peers.

In sports the scoreboard is the grand arbitor of Wins & Losses.  In “life” it’s never quite so easy to tell.

The harsh reality of Life’s Success Pyramid is unrelenting.  From Little League star to high school hero to college BMOC…. to a Tom Brady – a Michael Jordan – a Tiger Woods – a David Freese.   For each of these there are 1,000s who do not ascend to the next level.  Their glory came early and faded….. never to be equaled in all the days to follow.  One never knows how many of those days there will be.

Can a David Freese ever hope to have another moment like he did last October in Game Six?  The pent-ultimate hometown hero on the biggest stage of his profession.  How long will he be recognized in public places….. feel the stares and hear the stage whispers.  In St Louis he can ask Stan Musial.   In New York he can ask Yogi.

During the 90s I was in the celebrity golf tournament bizness from the Bob Hope to the Jimmy V and 100s of others in between.   The saddest line heard at those events is “which one of those old guys used to be somebody?” or “Excuse me, are you “somebody”?  When I heard the “which one” line I would say when in doubt, always go with the one limping from an arthritic hip or bad knees.

More than a few former athletes made a 2nd – 3rd career out of such events.  I would run into them from coast to coast.  They would tell the same stories week-week to anonymous playing partners.   I would play “straight man” setting up a joke we had choreographed a month earlier at TPC Whatever and now were re-enacting at Yadda Yadda Resort.

Over a decade I saw a dramatic change in Pro-Am regulars.  When one’s Whozit Factor reached the “tell me again, why were you famous” level, one became an alternate in case So&So no-shows.  Ouch.

When a “used-to-be” dropped off the Pro-Am circuit it was like “they shoot horses, don’t they”.   It was not a subject anyone wanted to talk about.  Everyone knew their time would come too, but hopefully not soon.

Why are Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Payne Stewart and JFK remembered with such passion?  They “went out” dramatically at the top of their game.  They never aged out of the spotlight.

Beware “the Turk”. …… In NFL training camps “the Turk” is feared above all others.  “The Turk” is the designated staff member who tells a free-agent or a marginal or aging veteran “Coach wants to see you…. and bring your playbook.”  Thud!

Every athlete fears The Turk.

That last big-time Pro-Am.

That last request to speak to the local civic club.

That autograph request from “some old guy” who says “when I was a little boy, my dad would take me to see you play…… .”

The unkindest one of all……  The first time someone asks you to TAKE the picture rather than to be in the picture.

“Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.”

#35 Pete Brennan RIP.  Of the players and staff of “the ’57 team”, four remain amongst us.   Lennie Rosenbluth, Joe Quigg, Tommy Kearns and Danny Lotz.

If you should encounter any of these gentlemen and you wonder if they would mind if you took a moment of their time to share a memory.  Remember this column.  Ask’em.   They won’t mind.   ….. Just don’t ask them to take the picture.

“And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.”

A gallant & gutsy effort by Avent’s boys.  The future is bright for Wuff Baseball. NOTE: John Swofford did NOT order that weather delay to thwart Rodon.

Yes, there were more revelations of more Julius crap last week.  Within the universe of people following this mess from whatever partisan perspective, I probably am in the top 3% of those actually “in the know”.  And I can honestly say:  I have no clue how this is going to end….. what the UNC sports & academic landscape will look like when the smoke clears.  Who will be left standing?  Who will not?

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