Sideline Slants

It has become so commonplace that you don’t notice parents taking photographs or taping their children during an athletic competition.

Imagine the emotion that one father experienced this spring while photographing his son as he competed in the pole vault. On this particular vault, 17-year-old Samoa Fili II was knocked unconscious when his head hit the pavement at the end of the mat.

The father immediately ran to his son, who was taken by ambulance to the hospital. The father was quoted as saying, “I just held him in my arms and told him I loved him. But he never answered.”

The boy died after two days on life support.

Samoa Fili II had competed in the pole vault for two years, finishing third in last year’s Wichita City League meet. According to the father, the boy was not injury-prone. In fact, he had never been hurt before.

He carried a 3.7 grade-point average at Southeast High School and was twice named Student of the Month. He was the second youngest among six children.

Words always seem inadequate after such a tragedy. What can you say?

Does it give you second thoughts about your children’s participation in athletics?

There’s a risk of injury in any athletic competition. How many football games have been stopped while a stretcher is used to carry an athlete off the field? How many times has a crowd-filled gymnasium gone deathly silent because a player landed badly and appeared to be seriously hurt? Have you ever turned your head in horror when witnessing a thrown baseball striking a batter in the head?

Injuries are part of the game. It’s a risk most athletes and parents accept. While most injuries are minor, some leave athletes paralyzed and suffering for a lifetime. And in extreme cases, young people die. That number is infinitesimally small, but that statistic is meaningless if you are the parent who loses a child.

Fili’s death is believed to be the first high school track and field fatality in Kansas and comes on the heels of the Feb. 23 death in Minneapolis of 19-year-old Penn State vaulter Kevin Dare during the Big Ten indoor meet.

There’s been some support in the past for a rule that would require all vaulters to wear a protective helmet, as well as a measure to require larger landing pads.

Topeka West boys’ track coach Joe Schrag, commenting on pole vaulting safety, said, “You can take all the precautions you can, but any time you get up in the air and lose control, you don’t know where you’re going to land.”

Living is hazardous to your health. We drive cars even though many people die in accidents each year.

About 25 years ago, some people questioned the sanity of my adventurer, explorer and mountain-climbing cousin Doug Wiens. How could he do something so risky as climb El Capitan in Yosemite National Park; complete an 84-day, 450-mile ski trek on Ellesmere Island, the apex of Canada’s crown of Arctic islands located less than 500 miles from the North Pole; or complete a historic 19-day journey around Mount McKinley, the highest peak in North America?

Featured in Christian Leader magazine in 1979, Wiens said, “I just enjoy doing it. I’ve learned partly how basic life is. After a month in the wilderness, returning to civilization is a real feeling. There’s an extremely intense desire to turn a shower knob and watch hot water come out. You find out that what we consider ‘necessities’ are really luxuries.

“This kind of life is simple. You put up your tent, eat, sleep? Success is easily measured-if you’re alive, make it to the top or finish a trip, you’re successful. And even if you don’t make it, you’re not a failure.

“Some would say it’s a form of escape, but like the saying goes, it’s an escape to, not an escape from.”

Wiens died from an explosion while working to prevent avalanches in the mountains of California. He didn’t have a long life, but he lived more in 34 years than most people who live decades longer.

Are sports worth the risk of injury? People have to answer that question for themselves. “Living a dream” is not an excuse to be irresponsible, but neither is “avoiding all risks” a prescription for living a fulfilled life. It is a matter of finding a balance, different for every person, between the two.

This much I know. Living a dream, even when it results in injury or death, is better than not living at all.

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