7:59 PM EDT, April 21, 2013
After a marathon that danced with joy and ended in horror, surely we see what sports can mean to a city. By now, after pregame tributes marked by an anthem singer's fist pumps and the most appropriate f-bomb in New England history, yes, we see how sports can serve as the great stage to unite a region and lift its spirit.
By now, we even have discovered that Neil Diamond, at age 72, still could sound so good, so good, so good.
Through a week of shock and heartache, through this 21st century tableau of fear, social media suspense and ultimately a great degree of relief, sports served as the backdrop for a city that loves sports, lives sports, whose fandom runs the gamut from Puritan fatalism to pink-hat vogue to radio call-in omniscience.
When Rene Rancourt put down his microphone at "so proudly we hailed" before the Bruins game Wednesday night and allowed the sellout crowd at TD Garden to complete the national anthem, "Boston Strong" took on an especially powerful and profound meaning.
And when 35,152 fans at Fenway were rendered somber and reflective Saturday during a pregame video montage of images that spanned from Monday morning to the nerve-wracking hours of Friday night — set to "Hallelujah" by Jeff Buckley — David Ortiz grabbed the microphone. He grabbed an old town, lifted it up. Then he grabbed its heart and lifted its spirit, too.
"This is our [expletive] city!" Ortiz said. "No one is going to take away our freedom."
With those 14 words, 14 beautiful words, all I could think of was, step aside Nathan Hale and Patrick Henry, step aside John Winthrop, John Adams, John Quincy Adams and all you Colonial John quote-meisters. Papi's in town.
There are times when Americans come off as rowdy cowboys to the rest of the world.
There are times when we are more yahoo than urbane, and it can be embarrassing.
This was not one of those times.
Boston had been knocked to its knees, terrorized. And now, in tune with it sports culture, Boston collectively was rising, true, strong, once more.
Yet as someone who has made his living covering sports for 35 years, 29 of them in New England, as someone who believes that athletics, for all its warts and periodic shame, holds a rightful place in the human experience, there is another side of this for me. Others may hold no such unease. Others may better connect the dots of geopolitical and generational rage. Others may not care about connecting the dots at all and would instead encourage me to call the Tsarnaev brothers subhuman cockroaches and leave it at that.
Yet as someone who believes in the Latin phrase "mens sana in corpore sano" and the Athenian code of a sound mind in a healthy body, as someone who believes in the power what of sports can do for to a city and for an individual, I am haunted that the two suspected terrorists, particularly the younger brother Dzhokhar, were athletes.
I do not count myself as one so naive and idealistic to chain myself to the notion that sports builds character. We have seen far too many examples of men who spend a lifetime in sports do stupid, violent and immoral things. Yes, the discipline of sports helps character. Yes, learning and experiencing teamwork helps. Yes, dealing with victory and defeat helps.
Still, I have long subscribed to the words of John Wooden, perhaps the greatest coach in athletic history, who said, "Sports do not build character. They reveal it."
And that's what strikes so deeply, remains so perplexing about Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. His older brother Tamerlin was a Golden Gloves boxer of some note. Having spent much of a week reading and watching this tragedy unfold, I can understand some of his misguided rage. But Dzhokhar is only 19. He's two years away from being a top wrestler for Cambridge Rindge and Latin. He was a Greater Boston League all-star. More than that, he was the team captain for two years.
"He was a dedicated kid, and all the kids loved him," assistant coach Peter Payack told the Boston Globe. "We only name captains who are good, but who also gain respect from his fellow wrestlers. He had to be a leader, and he had all those qualities. He was one of my guys.
"He wasn't a loner, the complete opposite. He seemed like one of the most well-adjusted kids on the team. Never in a million years did [we] expect anything like this … It was like a bomb going off in my heart."
Sports had revealed Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's young character, and it appeared to be impressive. Speaking to Jenny Wilson of The Courant, his former teammates added to that impression. Sanjaya Lamichhane talked about how Tsarnaev would motivate him as a wrestler. Peter Tenzin talked about being involved with Tsarnaev in a Best Buddies program that helped youngsters with learning disorders. On TV, there were Lamichane and Ashraful Rahman again talking about how Tsarnaev had mentored them.
Watching Payack on television was especially painful. He talked about having run the marathon 24 times, and for one of his special guys to have done this to the race, to Boston, tore apart his heart.
Is it as simple as a younger brother doing what an older brother told him to do? That's how some of the narrative is being bent. C'mon. Most of us are younger brothers and sisters and none of us would say, "OK, I'll do that, I'll go blow up innocent people." That's insanity.
And that's why, as a person who believes in the great power of sports for a city and for an individual, I am so troubled by the life of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. What is this dark, insidious power that would draw him from responsible young leadership to insanity and evil over the course of months? Is it a power that hides within a human and later can be exploited? Is it hidden in religion or ethnicity? Or both? Or neither? Is real character something that must be mentored over time from generation to generation and developed over many years? Or is it more genetically determined than any of us wish to believe?
In explaining why sports don't build character, University of Colorado sociologist Dr. Jay Coakley, in his book "Sports in Society," insists we wrongly assume all athletes have the same experiences in all organized sports and that organized sports provide unique learning experiences not available from other activities. Maybe this is so. But what about the young men who already are revealed to be of character to others? Is it real or a charade? In the face of tragedy, a tableau of terror against the backdrop of sports that define a city, I search for answers. So far I have found only one.
"The true test of a man's character," John Wooden once said, "is what he does when no one is watching."
When no one was watching, the Tsarnaev brothers built explosives that would kill three innocent young people, including 8-year-old Martin Richard. When no one was watching, they hatched an escape plan that ended with the death of MIT police officer Sean Collier.
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