Players shouldn't have to carry burden of decision

November 09, 2006|By DAVID STEELE

Four days after their teammate was shot to death under still-mysterious circumstances, the Miami football players plan to play their scheduled game at Maryland on Saturday.

Good for the university and its officials for giving the players the final say on it.

Well - maybe not so good.

Maybe an older head with more wisdom gleaned from life experience would have offered a different solution. Maybe such a person - a former star player, for example, later a Super Bowl Most Valuable Player, a man who lived through a near-identically wrenching tragedy - would say something about how picking up and playing and moving on with the grind of life, even if you're convinced that Bryan Pata would have wanted it that way, isn't quite the thing to do.

Someone did.

"I'm kind of lopsided with that," Ray Lewis said yesterday.

Lewis should feel that way. Plenty of people do, people who could offer guidance to extremely vulnerable, impressionable and emotional young men in what is an almost unprecedented situation, even in light of the way many of them grew up.

Lewis wants to be that guide, feels obligated to be, largely because, as he said yesterday at the Ravens' facility in Owings Mills, he knows what they're going through. He went through it 10 years ago with his friend, teammate and roommate at Miami, Marlin Barnes, murdered in his apartment just as Lewis was about to enter the NFL.

One of the things he knew, definitively, is that he wouldn't want to have gone through with a game four days after Barnes' death.

"Whatever decision they had to make, it's going to be a hard decision," Lewis said. "As tragic as it is, it's a business, and it's something that has to get done, and they're going to keep doing what they're doing, regardless of how the family mourns and how everybody else is affected by it. They're going to keep on rolling.

"Do I particularly believe in it? No," he continued, later adding, "I don't believe in that, because I believe life is the most precious gift we have on this earth."

For athletes, many of whom feel a sense of invincibility well into their young adulthood and feel it strongest in very young adulthood, the idea of life being that precious isn't crystal clear. This is not to say the Miami players are not being respectful or have things in perspective - it's that at this stage of their lives, they may not know any better.

This also is not to say their decision is being dictated to them, despite the outside circumstances that come to bear on the situation.

Coach Larry Coker has a lot on his shoulders with this one, enough to eclipse everything else going on in a mess of a season in Coral Gables - and by all appearances, he has handled his duties after Pata's death admirably. He talked to reporters after practice in Miami last night about the challenge of reaching out and connecting in a meaningful way to his players in a time of such fresh turmoil.

"The decision to play was not so much about football," Coker said. "I wish I could've told them this will be the toughest thing [they will] experience in their life. And I can go around to each one of you [reporters], and we've all had those, and there will be tougher things that they're going to have to face. This is a learning process - it's a very tough one, but it is a learning process."

Whether the lesson should be to play, or work, through the process is very much up for debate.

We all have gone through something like this. Many of us, as Lewis said, went back to work soon after and kept the machinery rolling. Many of us seriously regretted it later. But many of us were convinced, by someone or something somewhere, that this is how it was supposed to be, that the world wasn't going to stop spinning just for us.

The world could have been held up briefly for this team, though.

It would have been complicated. In a football sense, it would have created chaos. The schedule has no breathing room, not now that the ACC football championship game is locked in for a certain date and certain place and certain time slot in ABC's schedule. Maryland, of course, is locked in itself, in a battle for an unexpected berth in the game.

But that's football chaos, network chaos, BCS chaos. It doesn't compare to the chaos flickering across TV screens since late Tuesday, with ambulances and police cars and weeping relatives and shocked players - college-age kids - hanging onto each other for support.

Less than 24 hours later, the players decided to stick to the schedule, and Coker announced that decision. They'll be on a plane headed this way tomorrow. Coker barely looks like he's ready to coach the game, so imagine how the players must feel (one has to imagine; understandably, they've been sheltered away from the public since Pata's death).

Who here in the area is ready to watch the game, even with so much at stake for the Terps' program? Who will have the heart to root against the Hurricanes on Saturday? It would take some massive upheaval in a lot of areas to reschedule the game until at least Pata's family, his blood and football families, can say their farewells (a memorial service is scheduled for Wednesday). The upheaval would be worth it.

Somebody in a position of authority should step in and tell the players that it's OK, they don't have to carry that load, that they are allowed to mourn, to fumble around and get a grip on things, that football has its place but not here and not now, no matter what their confused heads are telling them.

Too bad Ray Lewis can't make that call for them. No wonder he's "kind of lopsided with that."

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