Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Silent courage

If there's one thing I've learned in 30-plus years of sportswriting, it's that sports is mostly about overcoming adversity:

Overcoming a deficit; overcoming an injury; overcoming impossible odds; overcoming the pain in your head to continue playing against an overwhelming opponent and he's laughing at you; overcoming the pain in your heart when you think you don't have the heart to continue any longer.

Sometimes we call that courage, but it's difficult for me to call anything in sports courageous when in fact sports isn't much more than fun and games. The key verb in anything athletic is usually the word "play" — that should tell you something right there. So with that in mind, I don't see any true courage in taking a buzzer-beating jumper; what's so brave about 10-yard game-winning TD run; what's so courageous about a twisting 15-foot birdie putt to win the Masters? Even stock car drivers and jockeys (who are usually professionals paid very well for their services) have made the conscious decision to participate in their chosen field and know the risks they face. Courage becomes a tax deductible write-off.

Sometimes, though, real life gets in the way. The kind of courage I'm talking about can be seen in a person like Jeff Pace, an assistant softball coach at North Davidson who has been diagnosed with incurable amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), better known as Lou Gehrig's disease. Pace, 43, who has already lost his ability to speak to the disease, and his family face an uncertain future. His 14-year-old daughter, Haley, is a freshman shortstop for the team.

Jeff and Haley graciously agreed to be interviewed for the story that appears in today's Dispatch (see here). I've never conducted an interview quite like this one before this. Jeff communicated by writing notes in a pad, and sometimes, Haley would answer for him. Sometimes my questions were difficult to ask — I can only imagine that they were difficult to answer.

Over the years I've stumbled into interviews that grew difficult: Pech Ly, a tennis player from Thomasville who won the Lexington city championship in 1992, told me she lost both her parents to the ravages of war in Cambodia, and that her brother died in her arms; I interviewed Darrin and Macon England after their father, iconic Lexington coach Charlie England, passed away; my own father died too young — at 58 — when prostate cancer reached into his bones.

There have been a number of other stories in similar veins over the years, and they all go to serve to the strength of the human spirit in impossible situations. The Paces, as far as I can tell, try to take their lives as it comes, with no agenda other than to make it to the next day. A silent courage, and it is this kind of courage I can appreciate.

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