Just a month before fall practice, two-a-days, and prepping for the season opener is set to begin, instead of worrying about how the veterans are going to mesh with the fresh meat and trying to handle summer recruiting, the Northwestern family has a lot more to deal with. It's one thing to have to replace a coach, but they have to do it under circumstances no one wants to do, at any time of the year, regardless of if it's a month before fall practice or in the middle of winter.
Walker had a pre-existing heart condition, so maybe it was only a matter of time. But, the hectic lifestyle of being a college football coach did nothing to help him. If you want to be in a profession that's guaranteed to make you want to pull your hair out, if you have any left, go into coaching.
In an ironic, almost morbid way, Walker's death completes a circle, of sorts. Just a few years ago, Northwestern linebacker Rashidi Wheeler collapsed during a summer practice and died shortly thereafter.
Walker played football in the early 1970s at Miami of Ohio, where he later coached in the 90s before going to Northwestern. So, he knew a thing or two about sucking it up, gutting it out, and just keeping it going.
That's one of the better parts of being an athlete, being tough, busting it out there, all for the sake of success.
Unfortunately, at the same time, it's also one of the worse parts of it. You often enough make sacrifices that may well come back to haunt you on down the road. Maybe not the next day, or the next month, or the next year, but soon enough, they will.
Winning is a beautiful thing to witness, but it requires an almost fanatical and borderline selfish dedication, commitment, and obsession that isn't exactly the healthiest or smartest thing sometimes.
Win at all costs. Integrity, honesty, and your health may all go by the wayside. Take a guy like Ken Griffey, Jr., for example. There are very few players in MLB history as good or better than him, statistically, talent-wise, and in terms of the effort that he puts out on the field. He just eclipsed 550 homers recently, but there's no denying that he'd be the one closer to Aaron's record and not Bonds, had he not gotten himself injured, over, and over, and over. He's manned center field with almost reckless abandon for the past couple of decades, and he's going to deservedly be a unanimous first ballot Hall of Famer. But, you can't help but think about what could be. Does that mean that he should've gone a little slower, not went so hard after a fly ball or two? No. That's one of the reasons why he's as respected as he is. But he's definitely paid the price for it.
And when it hits crunch time, the limits, if there were any in the beginning, get stretched to and beyond.
In this year's College World Series, the MVP, Oregon State's Jonah Nickerson, threw over 300 pitches in 20-plus innings in a week, helping to lead the Beavers to the national championship.
Some people may call it overworking, but really, it's just a mark of the new, revamped CWS, under the new format that started in 2003. Here's a list of the pitchers from '03 to '06 who pushed themselves to the core.
2003 - John Hudgins, Stanford: 24 innings, 350+ pitches, two complete games, three wins
2004 - Jason Windsor, Cal-State Fullerton: 21 innings, 322 pitches, two complete games, one save
2006 - Jonah Nickerson, Oregon State: 21.1 innings, 320 pitches, two wins
All three won the Most Outstanding Player award. Hudgins, for all of his efforts, was the only one on the losing side.
I suppose you can sit here and make a few generalizations about Western baseball or pitching depth, or the veritable lack of sanity exhibited by pitchers and coaches alike in Omaha, but it's a case of point/counterpoint.
Hudgins and Windsor haven't shown any long-term effects as of yet. Hudgins is in AAA ball in the Padres' organization. Whether or not that's his ceiling is still in question, since he's still only 24. Windsor, who didn't make the A's brass too happy when he worked, worked, and overworked his arm at Rosenblatt, is in AAA ball right now.
[Edit: Windsor made his major league debut on 7/17 vs. the Orioles, notching a no-decision.]
However, it must be noted that neither Hudgins nor Windsor pitched any in the minors after their seasons had finished. Hudgins got his start in 2004, and Windsor got his start in 2005. Both had their struggles early on, but it seems that, if either has straightened theirs out, it's Windsor. On the negative side, however, because they sat out the entire summer after those CWS performances, that set them back half a season, which doesn't particularly benefit them or their organization all that much, especially if they're supposed to be one of the top prospects.
Blame, if you could call it that, on pushing yourself beyond your supposed limits is shared between the players themselves and the coaches.
Sit there, walk it off, suck it up, grit your teeth, and keep on going. A player is not going to say, "Okay Coach, take me out. I just can't go anymore," unless he's about to fall over. It's the nature of the game. Toughness is what the dictionary calls it. Ice it down. Shake it off. Wait until the end of the season to rehab it or get surgery. Don't worry about it until you have to.
So what do you say about it? Be careful? Don't push so hard? Let common sense take over? For the sake of the future, for the sake of the well being of these guys, sure, we could, or should.
But come on, that's what we, as fans, love about sports. We applaud the 'tough' guys, and when we see someone who isn't so 'tough,' what do we do? We say he can't cut it. We make it seem like he's less of a man. The barometer for the greatness of an athletic achievement is often how much 'toughness' was required. One of the reasons why we laud Cal Ripken's streak so much is not only because he was such a great person and player and he carried the streak on for so long, but because on many occasions he played through pain, pain that'd normally keep most other Joe's out, sitting in the dugout or the clubhouse, covered in ice packs and ointment.
Heroes are made in the most brutal of moments. If there's a guy on his knees in between downs, delirious and dehydrated, leading his team down the field in the final minute for a game-winning touchdown, what do we do? We celebrate it. We don't say, "This guy could be killing himself out there.' We celebrate the achievement, and we make the guy into a hero.
Before Donovan McNabb became T.O.'s punching bag, I mean, favorite quarterback besides Jeff Garcia, he was a star at Syracuse. In 1998, he led the Orangemen (that's what they were at the time) to a dramatic, last-minute comeback over Virginia Tech, throwing a floating Hail Mary touchdown with no time left for the win. While on that drive, McNabb was throwing up on the field.
Is this sort of sado-masochism of sorts necessarily an indictment on us as fans, or is it a reflection on the world of sports in general? A little bit of both.
These days, we've got a sports world littered with guys taking performance-enhancing drugs to get an edge, to make them stars, to get to that point where we love them and adulate them. Who ever thought that punters would be using steroids and dangerous dietary supplements? Or pitchers, even?
And don't think that 'amateur' athletes don't do it as much, because they do. You've got to start somewhere. Ephedra, the supplement that killed Orioles' pitcher Steve Belcher during spring training in 2003, has also been implicated in the death of Wheeler and in the 2001 death of Minnesota Vikings tackle Korey Stringer. It also has landed Panthers punter Todd Sauerbrun a four-game suspension.
Many people could have a laugh and raise an eyebrow as to why punters, of all people, are using illegal supplements, but the bigger question is why so many people are putting their careers, bodies, and even lives on the line with things like ephedra and human growth hormone?
All in the name of success. Is it necessary? Is it really that necessary to endanger yourself like that?
Gone are the days when coaches like Bear Bryant would rule over summer practices like prison camps. If anyone did that now, they'd be out of a job quicker than you can say 'civil suit.' Then again, all the same, we aren't all that far removed from when football helmets weren't as durable and stable as they are now. Forget concussions. How about fractured skulls?
But, as they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Practices are more regulated and supervised than before, and the methods in which practice is carried out are different. And, there are also indoor practice facilities at many schools now, which you couldn't lay claim to a generation ago.
But, still, you've got guys, out in the dead of summer, pushing themselves to and beyond their limits, and it's not even a live-game situation. In summers down South, the temperature hits the high 80s and low 90s before noon, and it stays above there until well into the afternoon. Factor in the intense humidity in these parts sometimes, and it feels a good ten degrees or more than it really is.
You can say whatever you'd like about making practices earlier or later in the day, but heat is heat, and when you're busting tail out there, you're going to be dropping pounds quicker than Subway Jared. The amount of fluids you take in is going to be drastically less than what you're losing. In the Tour de France, riders can burn 10,000 calories in the most severe mountain stages, and the side effects from having to exert themselves to that extreme and then having to replenish their bodies in such large quantities wreak havoc on their systems. They can be in the saddle for up to nearly six hours, peddling at average speeds of well over 20 mph, during the middle of the day, when temperatures reach the 90s in France. Talk about suffering.
But hey, if you throw up during football practice, it's okay! Just sit out for a while, and forget about it, and you'll be fine the next day. Right. Stringer did that, came back the next day, collapsed during practice, and was dead less than 24 hours later.
And it's not just a matter of the players themselves going and getting back up, going back after it even though they shouldn't. Voluntary or mandatory, they're still being pushed, one way or another. And, in that Bear Bryant fashion, if someone goes down, unless it looks to be serious, it's likely going to just be shrugged off. But, regardless of how much a coach says or doesn't say, in the end, the responsibility falls on the athlete himself. A player knows when he needs to quit, regardless of when a coach says anything.
In the most notable death since Wheeler's death in 2001, Missouri linebacker Aaron O'Neal collapsed during a voluntary summer workout and died less than two hours later. Shortly after collapsing, his teammates, who were attempting to help him, were told not to 'baby him.' Even if nothing could have been done to help him, there are some comments that don't need to be made, in any situation. You've got to put the machismo behind and think for a second.
Games are another story. The schedules are made in consideration of fans and players alike. Who wants the sun beating down on them at noon in September, especially down here? As a fan in the stands, I know I don't, and I imagine neither does a guy wearing a half-ton of pads and equipment.
Athlete deaths, unfortunately, happen all too regularly. Since it doesn't happen on a professional level, it can sometimes miss the headlines, unless it's a Korey Stringer-type incident, or an incident like Wheeler's or O'Neal's. But, every year, players from high school, to college, and every so often, in the professional ranks (like 49ers tackle Thomas Herrion or AFL player Al Lucas last year) pass away, from injury, or from some sort of health-related issue.
Hank Gaithers was one thing. Reggie Lewis (Celtics, collapsed during an offseason practice and died on 7/27/93, coronary disorder), Sergei Grinkov (Russian ice skater, died of a massive heart attack while practicing on 11/20/95). Those guys too. You can't quite predict when the heart's going to give out like that. And you can't predict injuries like Lucas' or Chucky Mullins.
Now, some of these guys have pre-existing conditions that they ignore or aren't serious enough to keep them out of sports. But, sometimes, those conditions catch up to them, like Rashidi Wheeler's asthma. Now, there were some underlying circumstances in the Wheeler incident that have been mentioned time and again that might separate it from some other incidents, but it still bears mentioning because of the connection it has to Walker. Eraste Autin, Wheeler, DeVaughn Darling, O'Neal, the list goes on. The sad thing is, though, the world keeps on moving, and these things are quickly forgotten.
True enough, death is the biggest extreme, but below that, you've got Eric Lindros, Don Beebe, and Troy Aikman types, guys who ignore injury to just keep on going until they've got nothing left to give. Or guys who push themselves too far mentally, letting their success or lack there of determine their state of sanity. Or those who sacrifice their personal lives, their girlfriends, their wives, their families, for a few wins.
At some point, you have to wonder how much all of the potential sacrifices are worth, on a personal level, on a physical level, on a mental level.
As a player, you have to deal with beating yourself up physically and mentally, putting yourself on the line for what? A win, a couple of wins, a championship or two? Ask Larry Walker how it feels to barely be able to move. Or better yet, just take a look at what happened to Muhammad Ali after taking all of those head shots for two decades.
As an athlete, and even just as much or more so as a coach, you sacrifice yourself, your time, your life, to keep on top of the game.
You suck it up. You grit your teeth. You shake off that injury. You hop on the treadmill for another hour. You change your diet a little, start taking a supplement or two. You come back a little early from that concussion, that injured hamstring, that pulled groin. You have another sleepless night, working on the game plan for this Saturday, and the Saturday after, and the Saturday after. You substitute another meal for coffee and doughnuts. You miss your child birthday, again.
And when you finally lift that trophy, that's when it's worth it. At least it better be.
Eddie Griffin, a freelance writer who does monthly opinion columns for the Dawgs' Bite, Powered by GenesPage.com website, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .