I realized a dream come true last weekend, courtesy the game of football. And I came crashing back to reality Monday, with football merely the conduit for pain an entire community must now endure.
I never got to meet Taylor Bradford, the University of Memphis football player shot and killed Sunday night on the U of M campus. But Tiger football is a part of my life -- both casually and professionally -- every fall, and has been since I started writing this column more than five years ago. So it's a loss in the family, even if extended.
That dream I mentioned? A friend and I drove to Dallas last Saturday, with our pilgrimage to Texas Stadium -- almost 30 years in the making -- central to our Sunday plans. As children of the Seventies, Johnny G and I have carried Cowboy blue and silver in our veins since Roger Staubach first bridged the gap between comic-book hero and flesh-and-blood role model. From the Tom Landry statue -- every bit as rigid as its late subject was over his 29 years as Cowboy coach -- to the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders (their pregame kick line from one 25-yard-line to the other rivals any the Rockettes have ever performed), the experience made for an afternoon of goose bumps for two Memphians. And that was before the 28-point victory over St. Louis had been completed.
Over the drive back from Dallas -- 500 miles allow for some serious reflecting, even on the subject of football -- I had some thoughts on the difference between football in Cowboy country and the variety we know, love, and suffer here in the Mid-South with the hometown Tigers. A professional orange to a college apple, you might argue, but within the same pigskin realm. The contrast is dramatic, to say the least.
But then the crash. Then reality. Then murder in Memphis.
We sportswriters aren't deserving of the soapbox other journalists often stand upon when it comes to society's ills. Our job is to report scores, describe heroes, identify trends -- on offense, defense, and in between -- that shape the way we spend our down time. That's what sports provide: a distraction. Until the distraction is bloodied by the same horrid reality we all -- journalists and real movers and shakers -- must confront when the worst in us seizes the headlines.
Time and a criminal investigation will provide the details in Bradford's murder. But here's one variable that won't be affected, regardless of the investigation's details: no 21-year-old college junior should be dead having found himself on the wrong end of a gun. Which brings me to my unwanted soapbox this week.
When will we finally get it? When will we -- Memphians, Americans, human beings -- realize that guns are destroying our freedoms, and not protecting them? That guns turn grievances -- minor and otherwise -- into capital crimes? That guns in the hands of young people are tragedy on a stopwatch? That people don't kill people, not without weapons, and that guns are the weapon of choice for most killers?
Taylor Bradford certainly had dreams. Maybe he dreamed of playing in Texas Stadium one day (in a Cowboy uniform or otherwise). He certainly dreamed of closing the gap between football as Dallas fans know it and the football Memphis fans recognize. A track-and-field star at Antioch High School in Nashville, Bradford had come to focus on football, and took it seriously enough to transfer from Samford University to Memphis, where he could play for a program that would fulfill an athletic dream. Most tragically, Bradford was a dream realized -- all by himself -- for Jimmie and Marva Bradford, parents who now must find a way not to hate the word Memphis, forget whatever football is played here.
The Tigers will apparently play Marshall University Tuesday night at the Liberty Bowl, as originally scheduled. The game will be televised on ESPN2. Marshall's football program, of course, is most famous for having been rebuilt from the horror of a plane crash that killed in the entire team in 1970. I don't imagine there will be much excitement in the voice of your television analysts at kickoff.
The game shouldn't be played. If it means forfeiting to Marshall, that's what Tiger coach Tommy West should do. Football should draw us to society's margins, where we can cheer, laugh, even boo events that don't really matter. Whether performed in the glow of a stadium that has seen five Super Bowl champions or in an oversized arena clinging to life as a viable community asset, football should be that fun distraction a society craves.
A football player murdered? A human being murdered? The game stops. No time for distractions.
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