The chilling video of Damar Hamlin collapsing during Monday night football instantly took me back to 1995. That’s when I watched a college basketball player collapse during a game and later die. Witnessing such a scene is not something you soon forget; those images and emotions are burned into your brain.
Back then I was a TV reporter for a station in Mobile, but I also freelanced as the play-by-play radio announcer for Faulkner State Community College in Bay Minette, now known as Coastal Alabama.
The Faulkner State Sun Chiefs were in a playoff game that night. Legendary coach Jack Robertson had put together a terrific team, and the gymnasium was packed with about 2,000 people. In the middle of the first half, a bunch of players were fighting for position under the basket and one ended up on the floor.
The referees stopped play, and I assumed one of Faulkner’s players had twisted an ankle or hurt a knee. I could see the player’s number from my table at mid-court. Number 24, a tall, skinny guy named Earnest Pettway.
Everyone figured this was a typical injury, no big deal, so we went to a commercial break. But after a few minutes Pettway was still on the floor.
Several more minutes went by. I couldn’t see what was happening from my vantage point, but when I glanced at Pettway’s teammates on the sideline, I saw a line of grim faces. Something was obviously very wrong.
Then the paramedics arrived, and the gym got eerily quiet. When one of the players grew pale and tears began running down his face, I knew the situation was serious. The crying spread to the stands; one person screamed. Coach Robertson cleared the bench and forfeited the game. The season was no longer important. All that mattered was Pettway’s life.
Pettway was put on a stretcher and quickly wheeled out of the gym. Many went to the hospital, hoping and praying for good news, but a short time later we were told Earnest Pettway was gone.
We later found out he had a heart condition but had been cleared to play basketball. Basketball takes a lot of cardio, running up and down the court without a lot of breaks, but you don’t think of basketball being nearly as physical as football. Sure, there’s contact, a lot of flying elbows and shoulders, but no body blows. Thus, you never expect a young, seemingly healthy athlete to have his heart suddenly stop while playing.
At the funeral Pettway laid in the casket dressed in his basketball jersey, a ball at his side. The card handed out to mourners called it a “homegoing celebration,” and despite the sadness of that youthful figure lying there, it was a very uplifting ceremony.
The death of an athlete in any sport is rare, but after the very visible collapse of Damar Hamlin, the potential for it is front and center in minds across the country. Some think there need to be big changes in football. It’s too dangerous, they say, with too many long-term effects.
But athletes love what they do, and many will tell you they’re never more alive than when they play, getting that rare chance to play a kids’ game as an adult. It’s a natural high that cannot be described. They know the risks, and don’t want to go around bubble-wrapped, worrying about what might happen.
They’re right. If we had to take every risk out of our lives, we’d never get in a car or leave the house. Many of us would trade places with those athletes in a heartbeat.
But sometimes the heartbeat doesn’t last. Earnest Pettway died way too young, but he left this earth doing something he loved. And to an athlete, that’s probably worth the risk.
Randy Tatano is the author of more than 20 novels, writing political thrillers under the pen name Nick Harlow and romantic comedies as Nic Tatano. He spent 30 years working in television news as a local affiliate reporter and network field producer.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to Commentary@1819News.com.
Don't miss out! Subscribe to our newsletter and get our top stories every weekday morning.