It was just this past weekend that I was sitting around a dinner table with my family in Cancun. The sports world itself, an aspect of society I cover for a living, was a foreign entity at the time.
I wasn’t checking my phone for the latest breaking news. I wasn’t going to Twitter for information about potential Kevin Durant free-agent scenarios.
My phone was in my pocket. I was looking around at my sister, her two-year-old daughter and my mother. At that moment, it donned on me just how irrelevant sports is in the grand scheme of things. It’s a great outlet, but it’s not life. It’s something I enjoy doing, but it’s not what’s going to define me.
Waking up before 6 a.m. on my first day back to work after a much-needed five-day vacation in Mexico, the first two reports I read were the deaths of two sporting icons, former NFL coach Buddy Ryan and the great former Tennessee Volunteers head women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt.
Both were battling serious diseases that ultimately cost them their lives. Both were battling these afflictions with the strength and courage of the human spirit embedded within them. Both of their lives, as we will learn moving forward and know today, were about much more than coaching sports.
Their lives. Their deaths. They are just the latest example of a 2016 calendar year that’s been filled with tragedy around the United States and within the context of the larger world.
Comments were made on social media about just how horrible this year has been for icons in both the entertainment and sports world. And in reality, it’s been one horrible event after another.
From David Bowie’s untimely demise to the gut-wrenching loss of American legends Muhammad Ali and Prince, it’s been a year filled with sadness, grieving and memories of lives lived and those lost.
Even in the face of battling an affliction (early onset dementia) that strips strong people of their own ability to function, Summitt showed that the strength of the human spirit could endure the most damning of life events.
“God doesn’t take things away to be cruel. He takes things away to make room for other things,” she once said. “He takes things away to lighten us. He takes things away so we can fly.”
It’s this type of strength that we can all live by as we navigate through these most difficult of times.
It also brings up a personal story this one scribe would like to tell.
As much as I would have given everything for my grandfather to be at the dinner table with my family this past weekend, he was taken from us a decade ago. His life represented the strength and courage to overcome the bleakest of situations.
Growing up during the depression, my grandfather, who had always joked he was too poor to have a middle name, never wanted for anything of material substance. His strength was in seeing how his parents struggled raising him. He turned that into becoming the patriarch of a large and successful family.
He did this by attending night classes while working full time. Taking on odd jobs so his children, my mother included, could have food on the table. He turned that into a lucrative career within the government — a career that spanned multiple continents. A career that saw him live in Saudi Arabia’s capital city of Riyadh.
Not only was my grandfather a man of dignity and strength for his children, he acted like a father to my sisters and I. He did so when we needed it the most. The iron hand of discipline coupled with the warming embrace of love.
My grandfather was taken from us a decade ago after being diagnosed with a brain tumor. The deadly type that offers not a reprieve of any kind. He went from that patriarch to someone who needed us to change his diapers. Even in this, his strength and guiding light lived with us all.
As we see these tragedies occur. As we witness good people taken from their families with no real explanation from the natural world.
When we see a dozens of young Americans killed by a man filled with evil in Orlando. When terrorists strike in Europe. When a band of evildoers take from their own people in the Middle East.
When I wake up ready to get to work after taking some time off and see the news of two legends passing away.
When all this happens, it’s important for us to be able to hold on to something. That something could be the strength these legends, some heroes even, show in the face of life-altering events.
So next time you are checking your phone for the latest sports news when around family. That Sunday brunch. At church. Maybe just a get-together. Put that phone away, celebrate how lucky you are to have them around. Embrace the love. The togetherness. And never forget that life is too short.
If 2016 has taught us anything, it’s that life is what we make of it. Those who have died taught us this. It’s now up to us to respect them in death by following their lead.