Somber look into diversities some athletes face

Sideline Scholars: Jesse Epstein

Athletes live for defining moments, the one instant in which their name is forever etched into the annals of time. Just this past week, we saw Pedro Martinez's defining moment as he pitched his Boston Red Sox into the ALCS.

And Peyton Manning may have had his defining moment by bringing the Colts back from 21 points down with four minutes left against the Super Bowl Champions.

But none of these defining moments can even compare to Jim Valvano's. Many would think leading a team to an NCAA Title would be a coaches' defining moment. Not for Jimmy V.

In what will forever be the most emotional speech given at a sports event, Valvano tore the hearts out of every spectator at the 1993 ESPY Awards as he spoke about cancer, the disease which would soon take his life.

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. While breast cancer is one of the most severe forms of the disease, cancer as a whole must be observed during this time.

How does this fit into a sports column? Well, over the past ten years, some of our greatest athletes have been affected by cancer. Tug McGraw, one of baseball's all-time superstars, was diagnosed with brain cancer and given weeks to live - that was over a year ago.

Super Bowl hero Kurt Warner stood by his wife while she battled cancer. Current professional athletes such as Andres Galarraga, Sam Mills and hockey superstar Mario Lemieux are just a few of the pros to be afflicted with this disease. In 2000, the sports world lost Kim Perrot of the WNBA's Houston Comets, to an aggressive form of breast cancer.

It's not often you'll hear me say this, but in the grand scheme of things, sports do not matter. Sit back and look at Lemieux, who came back from non-Hodgkins lymphoma to lead the NHL in scoring. He is a hero not because of his proficiency on skates, but because of his success in strength, morality and perseverance.

Sports are games. Games that take place on ice, grass, wood and dirt. Well, I shouldn't jump to conclusions and say sports don't matter, because life is a game as well.

In life, there is a goal, which is different for all of us. In order to achieve these goals, we must overcome obstacles. Unfortunately, one of these obstacles has become cancer.

The difference between life and sport is that in the game of life, there are no winners and there are no losers, merely those who play the game. One man who certainly contends for Most Valuable Player is Valvano. Without his disease, we may have known him just as a good coach with a fiery passion for the game. The sad thing is that it took this horrific disease and subsequent end to his life for us to see him as a phenomenal person with a fiery passion for everything he did.

Valvano once said, "there are 86,400 seconds in a day. It's up to you to decide what to do with them."

Looking back, he spent all 86,400 seconds doing something productive. In addition, Valvano once wrote down on an index card every dream he had. By the time he was on his deathbed at the age of 47, he took out the index card and crossed off every dream. He had achieved everything he wanted to.

How many of us will one day be able to say we achieved everything we wanted to in life?

People mourned when Len Bias died. The same fans wept when Magic Johnson announced he had AIDS. And this past summer, spectators cried as Kobe Bryant, the NBA's poster boy faced a rape charge. However, it's hard to compare their trials to those of Valvano, Perrot and Lemieux.

Drugs and sex led to the demise of Bias, Johnson and Bryant. Cancer is not nearly as preventable.

I said earlier that every athlete lives for a defining moment, but it's broader than that. Every person yearns for a defining moment. We all hope it's for winning the lottery, saving someone's life or succeeding in our jobs, but some people experience their defining moment in the face of tragedy.

We may sit with tears streaming down our faces while cancer patients emotionally tell their tales, but those defining moments are sometimes the most important.

As October continues and "AU Feel your Breasts" shirts are distributed and you pass them up because the $10 looks a lot better in the form of pizza or beer or the latest CD, think about the millions of people affected by this disease and realize that the purchase is so much more than a piece of cotton with some letters on it.

This month is not one of excitement or happiness. It's a month in which we allow sports and television and other trivial matters to take a backseat and focus on one of the demons in this world. Cancer (and breast cancer, in particular) is an epidemic that is gaining strength, but one that can, and one day will, be solved.

With that, I'll leave with some words from Valvano's defining moment: Don't Give Up, Don't Ever Give Up.

Never miss a story

Get our weekly newsletter delivered right to your inbox.

More from The Eagle