When Football Becomes a Visible Metaphor for an Invisible Battle

I don’t follow football, but it would have been impossible to avoid this past weekend. From afar, it seemed like every single person from my hometown was at the Saturday game cheering on the home team. Sure, Purdue handily routed previously ranked #2 Ohio State, but it seems that the bigger story was one that took place behind the scenes.  From what I hear, the echoes of “cancer sucks” reverberated from the stadium, a mantra chanted by a crowd of people championing one young man watching the game from a suite above the field. His defiant strength in the face of adversity captured the hearts of a team, a university, even an entire state.

There is something enthralling about strength in the face of affliction, isn’t there? Something that draws us to gather ’round and watch, holding our collective breath while brilliance blooms in the desert. I am reminded of my dad’s battle with cancer. Students rallied and raised money in honor of their beloved Mr. Heath. His words and personal reflections on his cancer journey were posted on the internet and shared over and over again. A few thousand people showed up at his memorial service. All of this crazed attention was, no doubt, a testament to the life he lived and the way he loved people. But I also think there is something breathtaking about a human being looking pain and death in the face and saying, “You can’t stop me.”

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Two weeks before my dad breathed his last, I wrote these words: “Death is just wrong. I cannot explain it any other way. While we have done so much work to convince ourselves that dying is ‘natural,’ it is just the opposite. It is the ugliest thing I have seen in my 19 years, and it makes a person wonder about deep and probing things. Watching the body slowly begin to shut down, to stop doing the processes it was made to do, is disheartening, to say the least. I think this is why so many people begin to ask questions about God, to look for the divine, when death occurs…because they know in their deepest heart of hearts that it is not supposed to be like this.”

It is not supposed to be like this. College sophomores should not be fighting for their lives against some invisible disease. Middle school kids should not suddenly find themselves fatherless. My 19-year-old self should not have had to watch my beloved hero waste away. Death is just wrong. So when a young man stands up to the disease ravaging his body and says, “Not today! You will NOT steal my joy, my spirit, my STRENGTH today,” we as spectators find ourselves on our feet, whooping and hollering with the exuberance of a victory-starved sports fan. The magic that happened on the Purdue football field this past weekend became a visible metaphor for an often invisible battle, a battle that pits the human spirit against pain and death. There were plays made and touchdowns scored, but my hometown also got to see a young man stare the scourge of pain and death in the face and say:

“You will not win today.” 

To be witness to that kind of victory? I’m sure most everyone who was there Saturday would tell you, that is the kind of magic that will not soon be forgotten. 

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