Shattered limb Sturdy oak, Kerr finds life's tree suddenly bare with wife's death

October 17, 1990|By Bill Lyon | Bill Lyon,Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA -- He was an oak, and she was a willow.

He plants himself in front of the net on the hockey rink, tall and strong and unyielding, and defensemen pry and prod and poke at him. But that is like trying to uproot a stump that has been in the ground a long, long time. Tim Kerr will not be budged. They slash and whack at him -- men with no teeth and mean intentions -- but they cannot move him.

Naturally, then, when bulldozers are used in vain, when dynamite won't work, what is called for is a woman.

Naturally, he was a sucker for her.

Naturally, the oak who cannot be dislodged by the toothless muggers turned to helpless mush whenever he was around her.

It is the way of the world.

Kathy Kerr was petite and sinewy, and Tim Kerr planned to spend forever with her.

Except, abruptly, with no regard for anyone's wishes, forever has ended a lot sooner than either one of them planned.

Kathy Kerr, 30, who had given birth to a daughter only days before, died yesterday morning.

It makes no sense. But, then, tragedy hardly ever does.

What happened is one more wrenching reminder that, while life can be so very, very sweet for our sporting heroes, it also can be so very, very cruel.

From the outside, Tim Kerr would seem to have lucked into all that we envy. One day, he was a 17-year-old kid from Windsor, Ontario, just across the river from Detroit, making $18 a week playing junior hockey, and the next, he was a professional athlete, the Philadelphia Flyers' top gun, with a paycheck swollen with zeroes and commas, with a summer home at the shore and a speedboat, with idolaters craving his autograph, with worshipers craving to cater to his every whim.

What was not to like?

There was, of course, a price. There is always a price. And, usually, the greater the reward, the higher the price. Tim Kerr's bills took the form of shoulder surgery. Over and over, so many operations. They went into his shoulder so many times, it would have been more convenient just to put a zipper in, rather than stitches. And, always, there were the drudgery and the pain and the boredom of rehabilitation.

And, always, there was his wife. For reassurance. For support. For comfort. Always, the oak had the willow.

Tim Kerr, also 30, knew he was playing on borrowed time. His shoulder reminded him. So he was never as blinded by being a celebrity, as some of them are.

Three summers ago, when the metal screw that had been put in after yet another operation came loose -- they told him the reason was that his shoulders were too big! -- he said:

"This isn't something I'm happy about, but I'm not going to ruin my life over missing a couple of hockey games when all you have to do is look around a little bit to see what life is all about."

He showed a nice sense of balance, a nice perspective.

And they lived it, too -- the oak and the willow.

They gave back.

Tim Kerr runs a hockey school every summer. He has organized an annual summer run in Avalon, N.J., that raises thousands for the blind. Kathy Kerr was chairwoman of the annual Flyers' Wives Fight for Lives Carnival last winter. It raised $760,000 to fight leukemia.

Yes, the oak and the willow had it together. They had each other. They had their dogs. They had a stepdaughter, and after Kathy Kerr suffered miscarriages, they adopted a little girl.

And, as is so often the case, not long after they adopted, Kathy Kerr learned that she was pregnant.

When the Flyers opened their 1990-91 home season 10 days ago, the message board above center ice flashed congratulations to Tim and Kathy Kerr on the birth of daughter Kimberly.

The Flyers won.

Their first goal was scored by Tim Kerr.

On a rebound.

From right in front of the net.

Right where the oak always takes root.

Now the oak has lost the willow.

In all that he has endured, Tim Kerr has adhered to the athlete's credo of striving for equilibrium.

"I don't get too high in good times," he said in an interview last winter, "and I don't get too low in bad times. Listen, if you're looking for real troubles, you don't have to look too far in this world."

When all of the tears have finally been cried, there will be one comfort for Tim Kerr in his agony, one source of solace, and that is that the willow has left behind for the oak a living reminder of herself and of what they had together.

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