Promising young men

While the internet blows up about Steubenville, (rightfully) outraged at both the crime and the media’s treatment of it, I have been unable to stop thinking about a different high school football disaster, a different promising young man whose life really was irrevocably changed at 17–not because he knowingly committed a disgusting crime but because of a terrible accident.

Rob Komosa died this week at age 30, almost 14 years after he was paralyzed during a football practice at my high school. The accident happened my freshman year. I remember my mom waking me up in the dark to tell me about it.

I didn’t know Rob Komosa (always Rob Komosa to me, never just Rob. Like 9/11, a pair of trochaic feet that changed my life while remaining terribly abstract). I hadn’t thought about him for years and his story was (of course) never my story. For me to claim any of the ripples of his experience as “tragedies” in my own life felt disrespectful, like in Friday Night Lights when Tyra goes off on the girls who are weeping about Jason Street in the diner: “He used to sit right there!” they cry, while Jason’s real friends nurse their deep grief nearby. The best way I could acknowledge this terrible thing, it seemed, was to solemnly recognize that it was not mine to grieve.

Nevertheless, when I saw the headlines in my hometown newspaper, “Paralyzed ex-high school football player dies” and such, I knew immediately who they were talking about, before I saw the picture or read the article. And given the media shitstorm this week about another pair of young men reduced in the headlines to their status as promising high school football players, I’m struggling with this label and what it means. With the idea that being a high school football player is something that defines you forever. With what it means for your life or your football career to be ruined.

It seems to me that the cost of being forever remembered as a high school football player is that that some part of your life ends in that role. Rob Komosa achieved immortality as a hometown hero, a high school football icon, because the last independent breath he ever took was on the field.

It’s a terrible tragedy when this happens by accident. And it’s deeply disturbing–an outrageous waste–when young men choose this fate for themselves by destroying other people’s lives, infringing on other people’s rights, taking away other people’s agency and dignity, because they believe this label means they can.

Their lives aren’t ruined because of the verdict the judge handed down. Their lives are ruined because they lived as though being a high school football player was the most important, influential, privileged role they could ever hold–as though it were more important, more powerful, than the humanity of other people–and the community condoned it, until they couldn’t anymore.

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