I told myself that I would never write an article on a story that already has a few dozen articles dedicated to it. Forgive me.
My rationale was that once a story has already been done so many times, what can I really add to it? This, however, is a special case.
I know Chris Lofton. No, seriously. I graduated from UT last year, and we used to talk on a fairly regular basis. It's not like we were tight; I haven't spoken to him since I graduated, but I got to know him well enough that I think I can add something unique to the coverage of this story.
For most of us fans, it's pretty rare to be able to say that we personally know the athlete in question. This is certainly a first for me.
Everything being written on Lofton right now gushes with the glowing praise that he is tough-minded, unselfish, a good person, and a good role model. Everything being written is dead-on.
The first time I met him, it was the start of his sophomore year. I was not impressed. I had heard that he was on the basketball team, but I had just moved to Tennessee, and hadn't followed the team before. I had no idea that a star, a big man on campus, was right in front of me.
His demeanor certainly gave no hints. He was very soft-spoken; quiet, yet friendly. Surely if he were any good, he would come off pretty cocky, I thought. I actually had the audacity to ask him if he was any good. His answer: "I guess."
Over the next few months, we'd talk about once a week. We'd talk a little about the NBA, a lot about classes, and a lot about video games. Whenever he saw me, his first question was always, "Got any new video games?" Seeing as he was probably just a benchwarmer headed nowhere after college, I didn't think much at first of how personable he was being to just another joe on campus like myself.
After all, he practically was one, too, I had thought.
Eventually, I did a little reading on Chris, and discovered that I had had the good fortune to meet the guy who was expected to become the star of the team. As basketball season started and he began fulfilling those expectations, he didn't change a bit. He was still humble, never talked about himself or his on-court accomplishments. He continued to go out of his way to say hi to me and talk some video games, even if he was with his teammates.
And he continued to struggle in class. We didn't talk much about his childhood in Maysville, but I imagine that somebody recognized his prodigious basketball talents early, and it resulted in a free pass in the classroom.
The real shame of it was, Chris had never asked for one. I could tell that he was willing to work hard in the classroom, but had just never developed basic study skills. I tried to help him out with a religion class he was taking, I had taken several religious studies courses as an undergrad, and gave him suggestions on how to improve his study habits.
Each time I did, the next time I saw him, he had taken those suggestions to heart. When the semester ended, Chris wound up with a B in his religion class. I think both of us were thrilled.
I didn't see him around nearly as much the next year, his junior season, but when I did, we would still talk just the same as the year before. This was one of my favorite exchanges:
Chris: "Got any new video games?"
Me: "Yeah, my wife bought me the new college basketball game as a present. You know what that means?"
Me: "We're teammates."
It drew a good laugh out of him, not that it ever took much. He was about as easy to make laugh as anyone I know. The best laugh I ever got out of him was when I told him that after my mother-in-law watched him play in the Texas game two seasons ago, she declared that he had sexy arms.
Even though I didn't see him around at all this past season, having graduated already, as a Vol alum, I obviously still root for him. But, the way I cheer for Chris Lofton is not quite the same as the way I cheer for other athletes.
Some athletes out there come off as real jerks. Maybe you pull for them anyway because they are exciting to watch, or they are on your favorite team. While I love to watch Kobe, it doesn't kill me to see him fail, because from what I know, he doesn't seem like a particularly good guy.
Most athletes don't come off as jerks, but you don't really know what kind of person they are. You pull just a little bit harder for someone when you are absolutely certain that not only are they a great athlete, but a great person as well.
It hurt me to see him struggle this year after his brilliant seasons past. Like most Vol fans, I wondered where his once near-miraculous three-point stroke had gone.
When my brother called me last night to relay the news of Chris Lofton's secret battle with cancer, I was shocked, but only by the news that he had cancer, not the way he handled it.
The humility in that unwillingness to make excuses or become a distraction, the perseverance in the face of difficulty, and the refusal to let it undermine his team—those were all things I had seen in him before.