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“If you have an opportunity to accomplish something that will make things better for someone coming behind you, and you don’t do that, you are wasting your time on this earth.”
Baseball great and humanitarian Roberto Clemente

Every day 150,000 people die. On Sunday, nine people died in a tragic helicopter accident in Calabasas, California. One of those was 41-year-old basketball great Kobe Bryant.

Some younger sports commenters said that Bryant’s death was the biggest shock of their careers. Another said it was the biggest shock since Magic Johnson announced he was retiring from the NBA because he had AIDS.

When bad things happen to celebrities, it has a unique way of giving people an instant perspective on life. And one of the shifts is our understanding of the fragility of life. That the most talented, the most athletic, the most physically fit, the most charismatic, the most financially secure, can die before they reach a ripe old age.

For me, I learned that lesson as an 11-year-old when Roberto Clemente died in a plane crash on December 31, 1972. Just a year prior, Clemente earned MVP honors during the 1971 World Series. Clemente was fun to watch because he was such a complete player—hitting, fielding, and base running.

But more than that the Puerto Rico born Clemente was also a humanitarian. The plane he was on was delivering aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. And the only reason that Clemente went on the trip personally is food and supplies in pervious trips were, according to Wikipedia, “being diverted by corrupt officials of the Somoza government, never reaching victims of the quake.”

Clemente was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973 and each year MLB gives the Roberto Clemente Award “to a player who demonstrates the values Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente displayed in his commitment to community and understanding the value of helping others.”

In the late ’70s, I was a high school football player when NFL wide receiver Darryl Stingley was permanently paralyzed by a hit during a game in 1978. While it caused me to reflect on the dangers of the game, I did play for a few more years. Just like players in contacts sports do today in light of studies of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) and its connection to dementia.

Sports Illustrated named Muhammad Ali “the greatest athlete of the 20th century,and no single athlete left a more significant impression on me as a physical real-life superman as the boxer nicknamed as The Greatest. So it was incredibly sobering to watch Ali shaking from Parkinson’s disease slowly light the torch at the 1996 Olympics.

Clemente, Stingley, and Ali sit deep in my psyche as a reminder of the fragility of life. I’ll never forget watching the original 1971 movie Brian’s Song (the first movie I ever cried watching) about the death of Chicago Bears running back Brian Piccolo from cancer.

Sports and movies of my youth prepared me for hardships and pain in my adult life. We all must come to terms with the fact that no one gets out alive.

I’m not sure how to end this post, but in the spirit of Robert Clemente let’s look at the citizens of his homeland Puerto Rico (and the surrounding islands). Numerous earthquakes have hit there in the past month. And that after not having fully recovered from the damage by Hurricane Maria in 2017. On top of reports about aid not reaching the people in need and other funding complications.(This is not Nicaragua in 1972, but a United States territory in 2020.)

Seek ways to help.

“If you have an opportunity to accomplish something that will make things better for someone coming behind you, and you don’t do that, you are wasting your time on this earth.”
–– Roberto Clemente

Related post:
Don’t Waste Your Life (2.0)

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

 

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