Not Even The Strong Survive

Mitch MansfieldContributor IJanuary 3, 2010

CINCINNATI - DECEMBER 27: Cincinnati Bengals fans remember Chris Henry #15 before their teams game against the Kansas City Chiefs in their NFL game at Paul Brown Stadium December 27, 2009 in Cincinnati, Ohio.    (Photo by John Sommers II/Getty Images)
John Sommers II/Getty Images

Nothing shakes up the world of professional sports like the premature death of an up-and-coming superstar. Just like that Guido’s knockout punch to his girlfriend’s face on the “Jersey Shore,” Chris Henry’s death was shocking and unexpected—no one saw that shit coming.

Hearing about the latest dead athlete causes acute scrotal pain, even for those that didn’t know Henry personally or even care about the Bengals. The reason we are all affected is because athletes are modern day superheroes. They rarely get hurt, and they obviously never die.

In our minds, professional athletes are invincible. They overcame impossible odds and became what every young boy dreams of becoming—a pro. Because they were one of the lucky few to make it, they are by their very nature, invincible. An athlete’s body and physical skills brought him fame, fortune and fellatio. Any human body that can run 25 mph or 360 jam is not going to fail and wither away because of a little too much blow or reckless driving.

Even more, they don’t face the normal problems of the ordinary man. No need to find a job, worry about cash flow, or stoop to the level of trolling for fatties at the local dive bar at 3:15 on a Wednesday morning. All of these things are handed to superstars the first time they dunk at age 11.  Because of all of this, athletes have an aura of indestructibility; and they certainly don’t die in their early twenties.

But they do. We assume athletes are older because they are rich and on TV. Chris Henry was 26, Nick Adenhart was 22, Sean Taylor and Darrent Williams were 24, and Pat Tillman was 27. No one likes to think about death, and know one likes to think about death at the prime of life.

What is more of a mystery is which dead athletes become immortal figures and which do not. Some become legendary “what-ifs” like Len Bias and Steve Prefontaine, while others slowly fade to forgotten like normal humans. What determines who becomes legend, and who becomes mortal? The formula is simple. Any well-known athlete that dies at the peak of his ability and public hype will become a part of sports lore.

Those athletes that die too soon to become nationally recognized, or too late to still be relevant will show up TMZ initially but will ultimately be forgotten. Steve McNair was only 36 in regular human years when he was killed, but he as 98 in NFL years. Did you honestly even remember he was dead? No.

Chris Henry’s death formed a dark cloud over my Thursday. I am unique in life in that no one I know that well has died. No one. I am either extremely lucky, or I truly don’t give a crap about anyone but myself. Either way, because of this I too have never been forced to face my own mortality, and I willingly lead a life of mislaid invincibility. Playing “oops the condom broke,” mixing vodka and painkillers, and my 115 mph speeding tickets can attest to that.

In the end, we are all mortal, and we all die. If you’re on the way out, you might as well go out with a hangover, your credit card maxed, and your last piss burning.