“You don’t get to know that.”
As much as we pride ourselves on being insiders, times like Sunday night remind us that we’re just as much on the outside as everyone else who sits and watches a sporting event.
With Louisville leading Duke 21-20 in the first half of yesterday’s regional final, Tyler Thornton hit a three pointer. Louisville’s Kevin Ware jumped to defend it, landed awkwardly, and broke his leg.
Ware suffered a compound fracture. The bone protruded through the skin. His teammates and coaches cried. Reportedly, some got sick on the Louisville bench.
Some of us wearing media credentials saw it happen. I followed the ball and missed the injury, but I saw the immediate aftermath. Thornton staggered to the Duke bench after seeing it happen. The Louisville bench players piled on top of each other as they recoiled in horror. Three Cardinals players laid down on the court.
My first thought was that there might have been some type of nerve gas attack. Then the tweets started pouring in from people who had seen it in person or on television, and my second thought was simple.
“You don’t get to know that.”
When terrible things happen, people tend to shift into movie mode. It will all be made right, eventually. The terrible injury leads to a dramatic comeback, or it serves as an inspiration to lift teammates higher than they thought possible.
That’s not how it works, and I learned that on September 9, 2007.
The Buffalo Bills opened their season at home against the Denver Broncos. On the second-half kickoff of what had been a clean but hard-hitting game, Bills reserve tight end Kevin Everett delivered a lick to kick returner Domenik Hixon, a solid blow, but not the hardest that had been seen in the opening 30 minutes and change. Still, it was hard enough to stop Hixon in his tracks. He went reeling backward and two other Bills special teamers hit him on the way down. All three got up quickly.
Everett didn’t. He fell face first to the turf and didn’t move. He suffered a life-threatening fracture dislocation of his neck vertebrae that nearly severed his spinal cord.
Members of both teams gathered at midfield and prayed as medical personnel fought to save Everett’s life on the field.
The game resumed, eventually, and the Bills lost on a Broncos field goal as time expired, which no game story referred to as “heartbreaking”.
Both locker rooms were shell-shocked after the game and into the next week.
“It wasn’t anything that remotely resembles what’s after just a normal football game,” head coach Dick Jauron said. “I don’t know how long it will stay that way.”
Starting quarterback JP Losman wore a hat pulled low over his eyes, and spoke in a voice on the verge of cracking.
“I saw a kid who as battling for his life,” Losman said. “I was spooked. I’ve got some younger brothers and cousins that are playing football right now … you ask yourself is it worth it?”
That’s when Jauron set the ground rules for the media … rules that I’ve continued to follow, for the Blair Holliday story last summer, and Kevin Ware Sunday night.
When reporters asked Jauron about the team’s reaction, and what he told them on the field, and how they felt, Jauron met them with steely determination in his eyes.
“You don’t get to know that,” he said. “Our reaction, our feelings … that’s ours. Not yours.”
We got everything we needed to do our job. Information on Everett’s condition was made available on an hourly basis, then daily, and then periodically. Players met with the media and spoke about visiting Everett, and about moving on as a team. But they were allowed to grieve in private.
Eventually, some players addressed the elephant in the room—the fact that what happened to Everett … or Ware … could happen to anyone—and tried to explain how they lived with that knowledge.
“It can happen any time,” tight end Robert Royal said. “You can’t think about it.”
Tyler Thornton said the same thing, almost word-for-word last night. “You have to keep playing in the moment. You never know when it’s going to be your last game.”
“You just keep moving, and we do what we do,” Jauron said. “This is the profession we chose, and by God, we love it.”
Mike Krzyzewski said something similar to his Duke team as play resumed. “He said we came here to play,” Thornton recalled. “When stuff like that happens, we can’t let that affect what we’re doing.”
Like Jauron, Rick Pitino had to find a way to focus his team on the job at hand, when its insignificance was made brutally apparent in front of them. We don’t know exactly what he told his team as he wiped tears from his eyes. We never will.
We don’t get to know that, not from where we sit and watch.
And we should be fine with that.