To an Athlete Dying Young

Pete McKeownAnalyst IFebruary 14, 2009

In high school, I never played football. It is still one of my biggest regrets to this day. I was always small growing up, so soccer seemed like the natural choice for my skill set.

By the time high school came around, I had to make a choice; risk being a tackling dummy for a sport I loved to watch but never played competitively, or play varsity soccer and basically use it as conditioning for hockey.

I chose the latter, and don't get me wrong, I had an unbelievable experience playing soccer at my high school.

The coaches were as good as I've ever had, but my heart was never in the sport. I was the semi-joke who could cover anyone, but had bricks for feet when dribbling.

On Saturdays, our games coincided with the football team's matchups, and the fields would be absolutely packed, as they were close to each other.

Our soccer team was a damn good draw, making the NE tournament multiple times in my tenure, but it was the football team that garnered the most attention and one star player in particular.

My friend Darren was an unbelievable running back, cornerback, and kick returner. He defined agility, and his No. 21 became his calling card. Odds are, if you were an opponent, you got to see the back of that jersey enough to have it memorized.

His senior year was ridiculous. He put up seven touchdowns—in one game—and this wasn't against the Perkins School for the Blind, it was a league game, and a huge one at that.

I can still remember watching (from my cozy view from the bench), as Darren ripped off huge run after huge run, and thinking to myself how fun it would have been to be a part of that.

Darren went on to have a historic season. He was a Boston Globe All-Scholastic choice, on the All-New England team, and he got into Harvard to play the game he was born to play.

His father, the director of football operations at BC, had close ties to the Flutie brothers. Darren was born the week of the Flutie Hail Mary, which is why his first name is for Darren Flutie, and his middle name is Douglas, for Doug Flutie.

Sadly, on Valentine's Day of our senior year, Darren was killed in a car accident, when his car slid on black ice and he wasn't wearing a seat belt. I don't think I'll ever be as shocked or sick as I was the day that I heard the news.

He was untouchable, the last person you'd expect this to happen to. It was literally like every news story that you've ever heard about with these types of tragedies.

Stories that, when you hear them, you never think it could happen to you or someone you know. Especially not to a kid like Darren, who had such a bright future and an all- American family.

The thing is, even with all of Darren's accolades in sports and academics, his big-man-on-campus status, and notoriety for his athleticism, when I think about him, it's his character and good nature that I remember.

I had the privilege of sharing a locker with him during the hockey season, and every single day he brought nothing but positive energy to the team.

You'd think a guy of his stature would be cocky, but he was far from it. He was the kid who had special, intricate handshakes with a solid 50 different people.

He was even trained as a classical pianist, though the only songs I ever heard him bust out were by 50 Cent or Biggie.

He loved having hockey hair flow out of his helmet, as did I, and, every time before a game, he would prep the look and look to me for approval.

Normally, our hair was brutal during the day, looking like a mop of spaghetti. But under a helmet? Pimp.

I could spew out a million other great memories that I have of him, but I think you get the point. He was a great friend, and I didn't truly grasp how many people he had touched until I went to his wake during the biggest blizzard since 1978, and there was a line out the door the length of, well, close to a football field.

It's been six years since this tragedy happened, and it is still as frustrating and painful now as it was back then. Something so senseless should never happen to good people, and it is the hardest life lesson I have ever had to learn.

Gen. George Patton once said, "It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather, we should thank God that such men lived." That's the resounding thought that has helped me cope with losing my good friend.

Instead of focusing on the negatives of his untimely end, I reminisce about our friendship and all the joy he brought to the people around him. I consider myself lucky to have gotten the chance to know him, and I will always be thankful for that.

I will always be grateful for the people I have in my life, and I think it is important for everyone not to take for granted the people that matter to you. You never know when life can throw you a curve ball, so you need to cherish the good things while they are in front of you.

Now, when I think hard enough, I can still see him from my spot on the bench as Darren sprints down the sideline for yet another touchdown, with the crowd roaring. I can still see his goofy smile as he preps for one of his many secret handshakes. I can still see my friend. And I miss him.

This is a poem by A.E. Housman that was the inspiration for this title:

                                   To an Athlete Dying Young

THE time you won your town the race    
We chaired you through the market-place;    
Man and boy stood cheering by,    
And home we brought you shoulder-high.    
To-day, the road all runners come,             
Shoulder-high we bring you home,    
And set you at your threshold down,    
Townsman of a stiller town.    
Smart lad, to slip betimes away    
From fields where glory does not stay,    
And early though the laurel grows    
It withers quicker than the rose.    
Eyes the shady night has shut    
Cannot see the record cut,    
And silence sounds no worse than cheers    
After earth has stopped the ears:    
Now you will not swell the rout    
Of lads that wore their honours out,    
Runners whom renown outran    
And the name died before the man.    
So set, before its echoes fade,    
The fleet foot on the sill of shade,    
And hold to the low lintel up    
The still-defended challenge-cup.    
And round that early-laurelled head    
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,    
And find unwithered on its curls    
The garland briefer than a girl's.


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