The scenes are familiar ones. A fleet wide receiver flings the football skyward after snaring a game-winning touchdown pass...A jubilant gang of baseball players mobs their pitcher after that final World Series victory...A triumphant tennis player hurdles the net to offer his opponent the glad-hand after whistling one last ace past him. Victory in its many guises--ah, how sweet it is.
But 11 days ago in Birmingham, Ala., 20-year-old running back Kent Waldrep of Texas Christian University lay on the ground before 63,000 spectators, unable to move. Moments before, he had been toting the pigskin, trying to gain yardage for his team. Yet there he lay, the victim of a jarring tackle which landed him upside down. The result: a damaged spinal cord and instant paralysis from the neck down.
A maudlin response to such a personal tragedy is uncalled for. But Waldrep's story gives us pause. For he represents that occasional, unwanted intrusion of reality into the restricted domain of the sports page.
Such stuff we expect to find in front page news. Sports pages, we protest, are reserved for such weighty matters as tabulations of shots-on-goal, comparisons of probable starting pitchers, or analyses of what makes the star athlete tick. When inflation, taxes and homicides weigh too heavily on the reader's mind, sports provide relief.
Thus does Waldrep's accident, and others like it, gain a special poignancy. The unsuspecting reader of the sports page is momentarily jarred from his cliched patterns of thought. Tragedy has found him out, even amid the daily barrage of sports scores. The hoopla that surrounds so much of modern sport seems even more contrived than usual.
Still, no universal moral will be drawn from a young football player's misfortune on an October afternoon. Sports injuries like Waldrep's leave little room for discussion. The only way to eliminate them is to eliminate contact sports altogether, hardly a viable option. Players who love to "hit" wouldn't stand for it, nor would the thousands of armchair quarterbacks who spend their spare weekend hours watching athletes parade up and down synthetic turf. All that can be hoped for in our sports-conscious society is that every possible precaution be taken to prevent serious injury.
So football will continue to be played, and with gusto. For Kent Waldrep, however, the game won't go on. Last Saturday wasn't just another loss, something he could shake off by mid-week. It's just sad, pure and simple, that a young man has been so severely incapacitated while trying to carve out his own bit of gridiron glory.
For dogged pursuers of athletic success, Kent Waldrep puts that shanked punt, that booted ground ball, and that fifth personal foul in proper perspective.