- The Washington Times - Monday, August 6, 2001

Korey Stringer is dead, and the grieving process is in full swing.

People want answers. People want to understand. People want a suspect. People want this to be a lesson, a warning to anyone who ever tries to go against Mother Nature.

The young die, too, not just the occasional player in the NFL, and sometimes it jars the expectations of what we think we know to be true. Everyone eventually achieves death, some sooner than others, some deaths more unsettling than others. So it was with Stringer's death. How could it happen?

Americans don't even know how to grieve on their own nowadays, perhaps because religion is not part of the culture's fabric the way it once was. Americans require grief counselors to get them through the awfulness of being mortal, of being here today and possibly gone tomorrow. We have made great medical advances in the last century, doubling the lifespan, but we remain 0-forever against the Grim Reaper.

Stringer died too young, of course, died unaware of the forces against him. He ignored the forces, as he undoubtedly had done in the past. Football players overheat themselves under the scorching sun each July and August.

They ignore the body's cries, the things that might incapacitate the average individual. They push through the fatigue, the discomfort, the pain, as they are paid to do. If they did not push through it, they would not be where they are. They would not be playing a child's game. They would not be our Sunday afternoon gladiators in the fall. They would not be involved in this violent game, this game that damages limbs, joints and the skeletal structure.

They pay a price, a terrible price in some cases, which is part of the game. You have to be half crazy to be a player on the special teams, to be a player who runs full throttle for 30 or 40 yards, with the explicit purpose of colliding with another overly pumped-up soul.

Something has to give. Sometimes it is the brain, knocked woozy, as it is said.

Most try not to think too hard about this, because, on some level, it makes no fundamental sense. Why put your well-being in jeopardy over a game? This is the question that has attached itself to the fight game, a barbaric exercise, no matter how many rules are in place.

Mark Schlereth finally walked away from the game, if walk is the right word, after a zillion knee operations and a lifetime more to come. Is this mind-set to be applauded? It was. It also is this mind-set that contributed to Stringer's death.

We can't have it both ways, as convenient as that would be. We can't admire Schlereth's fortitude and then criticize the same in Stringer.

We now wonder if one of the medical practitioners around Stringer fumbled the ball when, most of the time, we take a dim view of those players who are perceived to be soft or prone to injury or who skip out on practice.

Steve Young and Troy Aikman took way too many hits to the head, and even as the number of concussions accumulated, we held a debate on whether each quarterback should retire. What's a little gray matter if there is the prospect of a game-winning touchdown pass?

You have to be incredibly tough to play football, impervious to the usual human parameters of pain and fear. This creed is ingrained in football players at an early age. This is the essence of the game. There is no game otherwise.

The game has evolved at an astonishing pace. The players in the NFL today are larger, stronger, faster and quicker than they were a generation ago. The intensity of the game is up, along with the vulnerability of the players.

There are no easy answers, not really, not as long as football remains a big business that has America's undivided attention each fall.

Stringer literally worked himself to death. The surprise is not really that an NFL player died of heat stroke. The surprise is that he was the first to go in that fashion.

Athletes may know their finely tuned bodies better than the average person. That is both a gift and a curse. They know the body is a miraculous instrument, capable of unthinkable feats if only the pain can be pushed aside. They push the body, and push it some more, demanding things from it that would be unnecessary if it weren't for the game.

That's where Stringer was in training camp last week, in a place where so many others before him had been.

Why him and not them? Why was it his turn and not theirs?

That is life, the eternal mystery.

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