A Lesson from Jamie

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His death certificate says rhabdomyolysis and kidney failure but what really killed Jamie was words, couched in two bromides available over the counter - You Can Be Anything You Put Your Mind To and Never Quit.

Jamie died chasing them across a green grass field chalked off in ten yard intervals, where he went each day to run sprints, vomiting afterward into lined garbage cans provided by the trainers. After that he would stagger to the weight room, where the spotters were waiting. I watched him from the empty stands but on the day he started retching with dry heaves and shivering like a junkie I turned away, trying not to vomit myself. When the paramedics came I wondered if they said anything to each other about the narcotic pull of the bromides, looking over their shoulders at the men who dealt them out, now relegated to the role of folded-arm observers. And later at the hospital did the nurses sigh and say they can never quit until they hit rock bottom. Too bad for Jamie rock bottom was death.

As far back as Ecclesiastes Solomon said you can’t make yourself taller, no matter how much you put your mind to it. And what if you’re already tall, say six foot ten. If you put your mind to it could you ride a horse in the next Preakness? Coaches kept cutting Jamie but he never quit trying out, bolstered by the same coaches who cut him, one of whom showed off his manly pride with a Never Quit tattoo. I never asked him how he would handle the observation that since his tattoo says never quit and since he was once a player and since he’s not a player any more therefore at some point he himself must have quit. They don’t think that way. If Jamie had lived I wonder how many years they would have supplied his need for never quit – until he was thirty, forty...sixty?

I could imagine Coach Tattoo’s response. He would say that he knows the bromides are misleading but it’s like telling a little kid a gun is always loaded when it’s an obvious falsehood, otherwise you’d never run out of ammo. You lie because you want the kid to ingrain the number one rule of gun safety, which is to keep it pointed in a safe direction. So in some cases it’s okay to lie because it’s for the respondent’s own good. Likewise at the point of exhaustion your players will never quit the big game because they believe they can be they can be champions if they put their mind to it, even if they’re outmatched by a better team.

But what if the gun safety kid is out on a turkey hunt and instead of a turkey he scares up a rabid fox, who charges at him. Under stress he’ll remember that his shotgun is always loaded so he won’t bother to check the breech before he takes aim and pulls the trigger. What an awesome empty feeling when he braces for the blast and hears instead that deafening click. Which would be worse, the pain of rabies treatment or the tears of betrayal, wondering what other lies the authority figures in his life had told him for his own good.

From my place in the stands it was obvious which players were starters. They didn’t have to put their mind to it because they were simply better than everyone else, born that way. That’s what the coaches hid from Jamie. If your best time in the hundred is twelve flat you’re never going to run a ten flat, no matter how much you vomit. When I left the stands for good I knew that I would never forget that lesson. Contentment comes from living within, not beyond, the limits of your ability. That’s what I learned from Jamie.