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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 62 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

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Friday, October 01, 2010

The Folly of Man* (or Why I'm Not Playing Football This Year)

*Johnstown, PA Tribune-Democrat
October 17, 2010
as "Athletes Face One Foe They'll Never Beat: Age"

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

In youth, man is brash, confident, full of inexhaustible energy, and consumed by an undaunting sense of immortality. There is nothing he cannot do; no task too large to attempt, save cleaning out the refrigerator. The display of strength and toughness is their stock in trade, their language, a silent articulation of challenge to each other and to the world.

It is this seemingly reckless sense of opportunistic animalism that drives the man into pursuits that prudent judgment may otherwise deem to be of unacceptable risk. Within man exists a contradiction. On the job and at home he is sane, rational, intelligent and skillful. Yet in an athletic endeavor, he is a man possessed, immune to pain inflicted or received; every injury is healed by the magic phrase, “Walk it off.” In this alternate universe, the highest compliment is, “Dude, he’s crazy!”

Man is inspired by visions of professional sports. In his mind, the images of athletes, their bodies cut like faceted diamonds throw themselves about their particular fields of endeavor with violent abandon. But their uniforms hide the cuts and bruises. Their skulls secreting the damaged brain matter held precariously within. Man knows not, nor cares not, that behind each of these star-crossed professional warriors is a battalion of medical miracle-workers armed with truckloads of diagnostic and treatment technology, all designed and purchased with the sole intent of getting that 8-figure contract back on the field as quickly as possible. However, for the ordinary man (alas, not ordinary in HIS mind!) what awaits his injured person is the neighborhood mediquick clinic and a couch where he will receive icepacks and derision from his dearly beloved.

Years pass; little by little, age encroaches on a man’s strength, flexibility, and reaction times, the results felt everywhere, it seems, save his conscience mind, or at least the part involved in risk assessment. He only knows that if he shows up at work with a sling, a bandage, or a full-body cast, he will get respect from his fellow men. At least to his face, anyway.

Alas, there will come a time when even the brashest man must face the fact that he is no longer that iron-jawed, steely-eyed warrior beneath the camouflage Kevlar. In the words of Bob Seger, his hands are no longer steady; his eyes aren’t clear and bright. The only time his walk has purpose is on the way to the restroom. Although once lean and solid everywhere, he is no longer like a rock, but an aging and pliable mass of memory foam.

That once vibrant and sweaty institution of male conflict and dominance played out on fields and in gymnasiums has fallen victim to that most remorseless of foes, time. There are those few, those proud, those deluded ones who are willing to risk it all, venting their remaining testosterone onto the grass and into the air, channeling Chesty Puller, Pappy Boyington, John Basilone, and perhaps Flavius Maximus. But most have come to realize that youthful vigor has faded, and the risk to self has trumped foolish delusions.

Yet, there is something sadly heroic in the image of the few remaining heroes who still show for the game. For them, the impossible is still possible, the last remaining shreds of their vitality reluctantly hanging on one more day. Like Picket at the foot of Cemetery Ridge, like the Roman Legions awaiting the final charge of the Visigoths, like the Spartans defending the pass, they pick up their arms (and legs too, if they’re lying around) and turn to the contest at hand, not with grim certainty, but with a primal sort of joy, knowing that if this be their last battlefield, they will go out fighting; warriors to the last.

We honor their courage, even while we mourn the apparent death of their common sense while we retire to another field of honor for a vigorous…and safe…game of chess.
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