Understanding, repetition, preparation, gameday.

Those for 4 words have been a motto in my “football career” in China with the Shanghai Nighthawks. A football career that put me closer to some of the most important people in my life, friends, colleagues, and the love of my life. At the same time, it has been a “safety net” when I was heartbroken, when I needed to escape other types of pain, when I felt everything else was going wrong in my life.

American football has taught me so much in these past years that I can say I fall into the cliché that many said: “I am a better person thanks to what I have learned on and off the field”.

Sadly, the only thing that American football has not been able to prepare me for is saying good-bye to a friend. And ironically, I think I understand death a little bit better now thanks to each one of those four words.

Understanding

The first time a close friend and teammate passed away I was not prepared; the event came as abrupt as the first face to face contact you have on the football field. It hurts, it comes out of nowhere, and even if you think you know, you are NOT prepared. It happened on a Sunday night, when a student, using the silence of the night to concentrate and work on one of my many research proposals, kept checking my cellphone to stay awake. The data I was trying to find was important but it was also important to know what my friends were sharing at that time of night. Out of nowhere, some characters started repeating in the main team chat group:

  • Michael车祸*had an accident*
  • 祸*Accident*?
  • 车祸*Car accident*
  • 他的家人打电话给我们,我们正往医院We are going to the hospital?

My basic understanding of Chinese made me rush to the use of my PLECO app and write to one of the guys, what happened to Michael? As my grandma used to say: Bad news travels fast.

My teammate confirmed my worst fears. Michael had been driving his motorcycle, he got hit by a car, he was in the ICU, he was fighting for his life. He may not make it through the night.

I rushed to the street, took the first cab that I could find and pointed out to the Chinese address that was on my screen. Arriving at the hospital and seeing the face of concern on my teammates started to create a black hole in my chest, “Michael may not make it through the night”. My brain couldn’t accept that notion, Michael was still that friend that would drive me home after practice, a positive guy with high hopes about the future of China (even though he wanted his daughter to go to NYU), the same Michael that would send me pictures of the practices I missed, he was fighting for his life.

Michael died that night while he was in the ICU, the doctors told the family and some of us, close to him were allowed to see him one final time. After I walked out and let that darkness shallow me completely, when I was able to completely understand that he was going to die, I let myself cry for a long time.

I can’t remember too many things about the event beside his family bowing to everyone there and thanking us for being there. I couldn’t say how much I was going to miss him in Chinese. But I think they understood my tears.

Repetition

I have always been amazed by how elite football players repeat the same drills over, and over again, just to get 1/10th of a second faster, to react in a seamless way when needed; to use repetition as one of the main tools to get the perfect throw, the perfect route, the perfect tackle. While other sports rely on imagination, in American football, repetition is the key.

Death doesn’t prepare you for death.

One year and two months later after the day Michael passed away, my football life would give my team a taste of the same event. TanTan, one of the most active members in the American football community in China would die after a heart attack.

I could write a whole chapter about all the things he did for us, with us, for every team that asked for help. He wasn’t the best athlete but he would prepare himself, he would repeat the drills over and over again just to get a fighting chance to play.

I got to talk share a meal with him two days before his death, we were talking about the times his university team faced my team, and how we would be forever Nighthawks but we would also be forever rivals between Strikers and Sakers[1].

He passed away in the early hours of a May morning, I read the messages from the chat group, I texted my girlfriend and boss, and I headed out to the hospital. I got there when his family was thanking some of my teammates that made it there earlier. The black hole in my chest was open again, I was prepared now to say how important he was for me, but I was not ready to say goodbye to him.

At his funeral we lined up in a similar fashion to what we did in our practices, we watched one line after another bow to his coffin and shake his family’s hands, share some words and walk away. Bow, shake, walk away. Bow, cry, stay strong, walk, shake hands, see his daughter trying to hold strong, try to smile, walk away and let the sadness sink again.

Preparation

Research about the enemy, the opposing team, is fundamental in American football, people will have scouts, breakdown every film you can get your hand on just to learn what is the hand signal a backup player makes on the sideline before the start of the play.

The last friend that passed away could have been seen as the one that “wouldn’t come as a surprise”. If I broke down all the information, I had about his family medical history, some of his habits, and even his life motto: “I’m here to live good, not to live long”, on paper, his stats could have predicted this high chance of tragedy. But I would be lying if I said I was prepared, even if the hospital called me directly, even when they asked me to contact his family back home, when the doctor said to us that he was not going to make it, I was not prepared.

The 2 weeks after his passing was a marathon against the system, we had to research and compare which was the best way to send him home in the USA, to get his personal belongings to his mom in the safest way, to rescue his pictures from a broken laptop, to find a way to raise money so his family wouldn’t go into debt. It was like playing a game with less than 15 players, with many of them rookies. I was not prepared.

He was without a doubt one of those human beings that lived his life to the fullest, he was extremely kind to all, very polite when needed, but protective when he felt others needed to be protected. Our last goodbye to him was a celebration of his life, listening to his best stories, to all the good things we would do to everyone, how we wanted to be a little bit more like him in our lives, hoping that would be a way for him to live on through us.

Gameday

And here I am, pushing myself to finish this short piece for the group, not because I need to but because I have been trying to find my voice again. Like Ryan prompted, the death of a teammate and friend was a moment in my life that surprised me, and even after all these times, I can’t say I am used to or that I will ever be used to it. But I have learned to say I love you more often, to check on my friends as often as I can, to enjoy my life as much as possible, and without a doubt to be thankful for every gameday I get to share with my fellow Nighthawks.

[1] The names of the football teams of our universities: Tongji and SUES ( Shanghai University of Engineering Science)

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