The day before Jack Sock was supposed to leave for the Rio Olympics, a chest X-ray determined that his weeks of coughing and aching and increasing listlessness was, in fact, from walking pneumonia.
But Sock just shrugged and stayed the course.
Because the chance to represent his country this way felt like a rare and fleeting and profound thing.
Even with the near-hysteria about safety and other potential issues in Rio, even with some top tennis players declining to go because the International Tennis Federation was offering no financial motivation or points for performing there, the Blue Valley North graduate currently ranked 23rd in the world was adamant.
“I would have come down here,” he said in Rio, “with anything but a broken bone.”
The trip would have been validated enough by the surreal opening ceremony.
Sock, 24, considered it “the coolest thing I’ve ever been a part of” — a scene that felt as if he were in the middle of some sort of video game, with pulsing lights and action all round him.
It briefly seemed like that would have to stand as all he would get out of it, too, when he was instantly eliminated from the singles competition after losing his first-round match to 118th-ranked Taro Daniel.
But even as the effects of the illness lingered, Sock rallied for two medals: a gold in mixed doubles and a bronze in doubles.
The display of resolve and character takes us to these busy few days for Sock, who lives in Overland Park.
On Saturday in St. Louis, he was recognized among others at the terrific Musial Awards (formerly the National Sportsmanship Awards) that “honor the legacy of Stan Musial by celebrating the greatest moments of sportsmanship in North America.”
This was a profound acknowledgement of maturation in Sock, who has had some brash and bratty moments.
Sock was rewarded for an approach to Rio seen by the selection committee as “a wonderful example of class, humility, respect and appreciation” that affirmed why he had been on their watch list: for his gracious gesture competing at Australia’s Hopman Cup earlier this year.
That was where Sock shouted to opponent Lleyton Hewitt he should challenge a call by the linesman that Hewitt’s serve was out.
“That was in if you want to challenge it,” Sock said, smiling, as Hewitt stood startled and amused. “Challenge it!”
When the point was ruled in Hewitt’s favor, Sock gave a thumb’s up and the Australian announcer said, “Don’t you love that? Good on you, Jack.”
In a phone interview on Monday, Sock said he not only was thrilled by the award but also was moved by the event itself.
“Every story, every person that went up there, was beyond inspiring,” he said.
Now there’s what’s coming on Thanksgiving Day at an event which, unlike the Musials, Sock is quite familiar:
Sock will be flipping what he called “an oversized switch” to turn on the holiday lights at Country Club Plaza, an honor previously bestowed on the likes of Walter Cronkite, Tom Watson, Buck O’Neil, George Brett, Paul Rudd, Jason Sudeikis and Rob Riggle.
He’s attended the event more than a few times with his family over the years.
And after seeing fellow Nebraska native Alex Gordon be part of it in 2014, he hoped that he could might get to do it himself one day.
So it’s all “pretty cool,” said Sock.
And maybe a few more reasons it was worth fighting through being sick to represent his country and our region in Rio.
▪ Speaking of local Olympians and lighting ceremonies … Wellington’s Zach Garrett, an archery silver medalist, did the honors in Independence Square by shooting an arrow a few feet.
▪ As someone who was on a Pop Warner team in Austin, Texas, that lost its first two games 79-0 and 63-0 (and has compartmentalized the rest) …
As someone who was a (minuscule) part of a University of Pennsylvania football program that won two games in three years before an Ivy League championship in 1982 …
As someone who covered a lot of rough days for University of Missouri football in the 1980s and 1990s …
As someone who wrote a book with Gary Barnett (“High Hopes” — you can probably find it for a dollar or two online) on what it took to turn around Northwestern …
As someone who long has admired Bill Snyder’s miracle(s) in Manhattan …
The agony of defeat is a familiar thing.
It’s miserable enough to lose and lose and lose, but maybe especially so in a sport as physically and psychologically demanding as football.
That’s why I’m elated for the Kansas football team after it broke its 19-game Big 12 losing streak by beating Texas 24-21 in overtime on Saturday.
I certainly had no idea that was coming after seeing KU lose to then-1-8 Iowa State the week before — and got a bit snarky about not seeing any evidence of progress.
(As I told a few fair-minded readers, sure wish I’d been at the Texas game instead but … I wasn’t.)
There’s no way to know if this is a blip or the start of something.
But it at least was a great reprieve and something tangible for young men who desperately needed that.
▪ MU fans may resent this nod to KU.
So here let’s turn to the wisdom of Mizzou wrestler J’den Cox.
In the aftermath of winning a bronze medal at the Rio Olympics, I asked him about why he consistently offers defeated foes hands-up and pats on the back and even rushed to hug an adversary who beat him.
“It matters to me because … this is a tough, grueling sport,” he said. “We all travel hundreds of thousands of miles to come to one venue (and) … get our faces ripped off by another human being.
“And for six minutes … excuse me for saying this, (of) going through hell and beyond of just pulling people and yanking people and pulling this and going through (that)… and losing weight and all this crud that’s going on and the crowd and the atmosphere. …
“It’s a beautiful, wonderful thing that’s out of pure chaos.
“So I want to show these guys … that I respect them from coming out on the mat, respect them for facing another human being and putting everything they have on the line. Every single time … They do that, and that’s amazing.”
We’re talking about football, not wrestling, and obviously MU and KU aren’t seeing much of each other any more.
But the point is that more will always link competitors than not.
▪ If you need a smile or possibly a good cry, or both, highly recommend the San Jose Mercury News’ terrific tale of the remarkable Rob Mendez, a high school quarterbacks coach born with no limbs:
“He’s kind of like the light in a dark room,” Mendez’s father, Robert Sr., told the paper. “He’s the same for us as he is for other people.”
▪ Marvel comic book geek that I am, felt disappointed in “Doctor Strange.” Some cool effects and concepts but just felt kind of blah overall.