Trite-but-true: The end of a year compels reflection on the last 365 days and an impulse to take inventory and reconcile it as best we can.
Also trite-but-true: How we contend with adversity is hard-wired into the lessons of sports. It’s not what happens to you, we see again and again, but how you react to it.
These two concepts seemed to converge more than usual on the local sports scene in 2017.
So much so that what I’ll remember most is working on stories about profound senses of loss and challenges in the sports world — and the amazing resilience of the human spirit that always seemed to define those episodes.
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So while it’s at least symbolically a great thing to see 2017 melt into 2018, let’s also remember the light that pierced the darkness and reminded us of the powerful examples of grace and resolve and love and even humor that showed the way forward.
When Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura died in a car accident in his native Dominican Republic on Jan. 22, a region mourned along with a country.
Nothing can make that go away, but the Royals’ organization, guided by general manager Dayton Moore, offered transcendent consolation to the family and the city by their gestures in the immediate aftermath.
I’ll never forget Moore hugging a weeping Jarrod Dyson near Ventura’s casket in Las Terrenas, or Moore taking the hands of family members and somehow saying just the right words:
“We’re very sorry, and you’ve reminded us today that Jesus speaks to us through pain,” he said. “We’re all family. We’re all hurting together. We loved Yordano, and we love (your) family.
“And we’re proud and honored to share in this sorrow and pain with you.”
I’ll never forget Moore and other Royals officials walking the mile-plus or so in the sweltering heat among the Dominican people, including past a woman who stood on the side of the road with a sign that said, “Thank You Kansas City For Your Love and Support.”
And I’ll never forget that he thought it was important to allow Star photographer John Sleezer and me to be embedded with the Royals for this trip to be able to help Kansas City deal with the tragedy.
The architect of two World Series teams and a 2015 championship was at his finest in an hour of need for many.
About 48 hours after returning from Ventura’s funeral, I attended the Native Sons and Daughters of Kansas banquet in Topeka, where former Kansas and Chicago Bears great Gale Sayers was honored as one of its Kansans of the Year.
I was two seats from Sayers during the dinner, which included a riveting KU-produced tribute to him that featured clips from “Brian’s Song.”
As it played, Sayers hardly looked up at the screen, and you wanted to believe he was averting his eyes out of modesty.
But the cruel reality was you couldn’t know what he was absorbing because Sayers had been diagnosed with dementia four years before and had been demonstrating signs of it for years before that.
Weeks later, I had occasion to visit Sayers and his wife, Ardie, at their home in Wakarusa, Ind. He barely spoke during the seven-hour visit, and it was chilling to see him at one point try to wash his hands with carpet cleaner before Ardie stopped him.
It’s a sad story, but you couldn’t leave there without being deeply moved by the love of his wife, who had just brought him home from a facility he’d been in because she thought she could take better care of him at home with the help of nurses.
She had resolved to do all she could to help him get out what she believes is still inside — whether by trying to engage his mind with jigsaw puzzles or a documentary about Jacqueline Kennedy or even working with him to practice signing his name.
“I say, ‘OK, come on, let’s fill up this page,’” she said then. “‘I’ll write one, and then you write one.’
“At times you can wait 30 minutes, or maybe 10 minutes. And then he’ll do it like there’s never been anything wrong. It takes a lot of patience.”
Her devotion was incredibly moving.
“That’s a part of relationships, that’s a part of marriage: You don’t walk away from a person when they’re sick,” she said. “That’s when you dig in and help and do what you have to do.
“It’s hard, yes, I’m not saying it isn’t. And it’s challenging at times.
“But then when I stop and think about the people around me and people that are willing to help and family that are willing to come … we’re blessed that way.”
Visiting the Sayers family reminded me of working on a story in January about former Chiefs coach Marty Schottenheimer, who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
Even if he’s still “Marty all the time,” as his wife, Pat, put it, even if he was happy to come to the phone, they’ve seen the changes and lapses that make Pat know she’s his 24-7 caretaker, too.
Like Ardie Sayers, the Schottenheimer family is participating in various forms of medical trials in hopes that they not only could help their own loved ones but make a difference for others in the future.
The Schottenheimers also were making use of one of their own remedies to deal with it all: trying to laugh so they don’t cry.
“Obviously, it’s a very tough disease, and it goes in different stages,” Schottenheimer’s son, Brian, said. “But if you can’t laugh at it, you can’t enjoy some of the silliness that goes with the disease, that’s where it becomes heartbreaking.”
So in keeping with a family Christmas tradition of customizing pajamas and Santa Claus hats that tease the recipient, Marty’s hat last year was adorned with the words, “Where’s Pat?”
In turn, Pat’s said, “Papa’s Blanket” — as in for security.
“It really summarizes our family,” said Brian’s wife, Gemmi, who orchestrates the Christmas shenanigans. “We love so hard, and we laugh so hard.”
When Kari Driskell’s husband, Eric, the beloved teacher and football coach at Blue Valley High, died from a brain aneurysm in February, she of course was devastated.
“He did such good. Did good,” she said through tears last summer. “I just didn’t think God would be done with him yet. But miracles come in a different way.”
Enter Midwest Transplant Network, which became part of her vast support network, especially because of the compassionate work of Lisa Heideman, a family services coordinator.
Months after Eric’s death, she pulled out a letter from the organization and read excerpts.
“Both of his corneas were donated for the purpose of transplantation, and one of his corneas is awaiting transplantation,” she read. “It provides a better quality of life by giving the gift of sight.”
She continued, “Somebody got a kidney who has been married for one year, you know? Another kidney went to a 65-year-old gentleman from the Midwest.”
Eric’s liver, she went on, gave “a 58-year-old gentleman from the Midwest a new beginning. He had a disease that required a transplant. He was on the waiting list for four months. He’s married and has two adult daughters,” and enjoys hiking and reading.
She later added, “The fact that I can tell my girls that their daddy was a hero to somebody else, because they didn’t have to lose a grandpa or an uncle or a brother or a father in an untimely way like we lost Eric, that is comforting. But it’s not because a part of Eric is living on in someone else. Because his kidney is not Eric.”
Nothing is. But at least she found a purpose in organ donation — in giving.
Which is why along with daughters Rachel and Laurel she will be attending the Rose Bowl Parade on behalf of Donate Life on New Year’s Day in Pasadena, Calif.
“When you lose your husband, you can wallow and put the blanket over your head in the corner. Or you can get up and be sad and take a step forward,” she said last summer. “I mean, nobody wants to go through that. … That hurt’s not ever going to leave.
“But the story is more important.”
In November, Star photographer David Eulitt and I spent a day in Austin, Texas, with the family of Chiefs center Mitch Morse, whose brother, Robbie, has had special needs since he was shaken by a babysitter as a four-month-old.
That was 21 years ago, but it’s an every-day reality for the Morses, and one day Mitch will be entirely responsible for Robbie — who survived with brain injuries after suffering a bilateral subdural hematoma.
“There’s no word to describe all the symptoms,” said Mitch Morse, who is out for the season with a foot injury.
It’s also almost impossible to describe all the meaningful examples you could see in the Morses, but some are more tangible than others.
First, there is perspective: The Morses believe it was a miracle that Robbie survived, that he isn’t blind and that he can walk and non-verbally communicate love with his smile and otherwise makes his thoughts known with squeals, groans and hand gestures.
They also came to believe that Robbie gave new meaning in life to the caretaker with whom he now lives, Mia Spiller, who had suffered third-degree burns over 80 percent of her body in a gas explosion and has come to love Robbie like he’s her own child.
“Ain’t that a Cinderella story?” said Spiller, whom both Morse boys see as a second mother.
Then there is the sense of mercy they live by, epitomized by their forgiveness towards the babysitter they were glad received no jail time.
“What a horrible thing to go through life knowing you did,” said Catherine Morris, their mother. “And she didn’t mean to. She just lost control of herself.”
Referring to various readings by such authors as Richard Rohr, a Roman Catholic priest and inspirational speaker, she later added, “A lot of people go through life feeling they’re cursed by misfortune and illness and bad luck and everything. But in truth, if you don’t … experience suffering and you just go through life from one success to the next, then you really can’t live in solidarity with anyone else who suffers. And you know very little about your soul.”
Her husband, Kevin, says, “Had it not happened, I don’t know where I’d be now” in terms of being grounded about life.
That’s all encapsulated in Mitch Morse, who grew up rubbing his brother’s feet and putting him on a toilet and literally carrying him from place to place when he was in his “Gandhi phase” and unwilling to move.
“I don’t think I would be quite the person I am today … without that tragedy happening to my brother,” Mitch Morse said. “People say it’s a cross to bear, but he hasn’t been a burden at all. He’s been a blessing.”