Last Thursday, a high school basketball player in Minnesota named Zach Gabbard collapsed on the court during a game. Spectators, including a nurse and a doctor, rushed to help Gabbard, a junior at Perham High School. They used a defibrillator but he still didn't have a pulse when paramedics arrived at the Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton gym. Paramedics rushed him to a hospital in Fargo, where he underwent heart surgery. A few days later he was transferred to the University of Minnesota, where he remains in critical condition.
Online, tens of thousands of people - nearly 60,000, in fact - have visited a Caring Bridge website dedicated to Gabbard. More than a thousand have left messages of support for Gabbard and his family. The messages come from those who have known Gabbard all his life and those who have never met him. They express condolences, wish him well and pray for his recovery.
It's a heartbreaking story, crushing, devastating to his family and friends, but also to the entire state and, really, athletes everywhere. Gabbard is being treated at one of the best medical facilities in the country, but there's no guarantee the story has a happy ending.
And inevitably, someone will say events like that put sports in perspective. It's the same line you always hear after a tragedy, whether it was the shooting in Tucson, a car accident that kills several teenagers, someone being hit with a cancer diagnosis or even September 11. Perspective. Yes, tragedy puts sports in perspective.
I hate that line. Whoever says it or writes it is obviously sincere and well-meaning. It's a way to say health and life and family and friends are the most important things in our lives, not the result of a basketball game. All true.
But we only seem to hear it after a death, or a near-death. And by saying it then, the line begins to sound less like a declaration of correct priorities, and more like gratitude for a tragedy.
Without this event, we wouldn't be able to put sports into perspective. It makes the victims of the tragedy - whether they were in the Trade Towers, a Tucson parking lot or a high school basketball game - sound like they almost needed to be sacrificed so that we could finally put sports into their proper context. Without these tragedies, the thinking seems to go, we would lose sight of the fact they're just games. So, while we're sorry for your loss and for the heartbreak and for the fact your life will never be the same, your loved one's death served a greater good: it put sports in perspective for the rest of us.
Do people really mean that when they say it? Almost certainly not. But that's how it ultimately sounds.
Another question: Wouldn't one tragedy be enough to gain perspective? Instead, a person who says that line after one event, will probably say the same thing years later after another horrific event. So the first death put things in perspective, but then you forgot and needed another tragedy to be reminded? And in 10 years will need another?
Maybe for some people an event like Gabbard's collapse really does alter their outlook. Maybe a college kid who was thinking of becoming a coach changes their major to nursing. But most often it simply sounds hollow, a space-filler.
Sports are important. They do matter. Just like art, music, acting, dancing, laughing, writing and teaching. Sports still matter for the kids at Perham because they can bring people together. When the basketball team returns to the floor, Gabbard will be with them in so many ways, even though he's not there in the most important way. The next game Perham plays will be the most emotional of the season, the toughest of the players' lives. The game will unite the team and the town, the players and the parents. It will remind them why sports do matter, why they do invest so much in them - physically, emotionally and financially.
Yet at the end of the game and the end of the night, Gabbard will remain in a hospital room at the University of Minnesota, his future uncertain.
Is there anyone who really needed that outcome to keep things in perspective?
You shouldn't need to read about a high school kid collapsing to realize how lucky you are to be in good health. You shouldn't need an untimely death to appreciate life. And even when sports are your life, you shouldn't need tragedy to put them in perspective.