Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Dealing with Tragedy: My Saddest Day as a Commodore and a Tribute to Chris Meriwether

In the wake of the Boston Marathon tragedy, it reminded me that often times in life, tragedy is most shocking to us when it occurs in a sphere of life that we use as an escape or outlet for our daily struggles. I feel like that is why when violence or sadness touches the sports world, it is an all too painful reminder that this part of our lives that delivers such great pleasures can also provide us with excruciating pain. I wrote on this subject during my 2010 internship at Dime Magazine and you can read that story here, but today I will write on my saddest day as a Commodore: January 29, 2011.

On that Saturday, we faced the Arkansas Razorbacks at Memorial Gymnasium. Most people will remember that as the day Rotnei Clark scored 36 points on us and Arkansas center Mike Sanchez had a career high 20 points, but I will remember that day for very different reasons. Earlier that week, the Vanderbilt family lost Curline Meriwether, the mother of walk-on guard Chris Meriwether, and the funeral was held the day before that game.

It would have been tough to learn of the passing of any player's mother, but for me and I think for a lot of guys on that team, seeing Chris lose his mother was one of the hardest things we ever had to deal with. Chris is from Nashville and his parents were at every game, sitting in the first row along the baseline. Like Chris, his mom was an incredibly welcoming person, making you feel like an old friend each time you said hello to. His mom was and his dad is a great person, and you can see the effect they have had on Chris, who is far and away the nicest person I have ever encountered in my life.

Chris brings a relentless positivity and infectious personality to any room he is in. I have never heard Chris say a bad thing about anybody or complain about a situation and I probably never will. While Chris hardly played that season, he was by far the most respected player on the team. Chris had an unbelievable work ethic and took incredible pride in putting on the Vanderbilt jersey each and every day. Chris did not make the team until his junior season, and I think not being on it for two years then finally making the team gave him a sense of appreciation for being a Commodore that not every player in this program has.

He knew what life was like without the unique brotherhood you form on a college team and he didn't want to give that up. It was almost as if he felt that if he didn't give 110 percent each day, he would be cut, and he just didn't want that to happen. He brought his energy to practice each day, always encouraging others and willing to lend a helping hand, and was laser-like in his focus on the court.

In December of that year, Chris sustained a neck injury and while many guys would have taken the rehab process lightly, Chris rehabbed like his life depended on it. When he got healthy again, he wasn't going to play, but he cherished being on the team so much that he felt guilty if he couldn't be out there doing his job as a member of the scout team to make others better. I remember one day during his rehab, one of our assistant coaches, King Rice, remarked to another assistant, "No player in Division I wants to be back as badly as Chris does. He's unbelievable." And that statement was true, nobody wanted it more than him. Nobody.

That is what made seeing Chris lose his mother so terrible for all of us. Everybody on the team looked to Chris as a steadying presence. While other players may have gotten caught up in petty drama over playing time, girls, or other things, Chris was always seemingly above that. He was the type of person we all wished we could be because he was just good to his core. It seemed like nothing would break Chris or the consistency with which he approached  his role on the team or his upbeat attitude, but it all came crashing down when his mom died.

Before the game, nobody was sure whether Chris would attend the game so the managers didn't put his jersey out in his locker. About 45 minutes before tip, Chris came into the locker room and said he would be dressing for the game. We handed him his uniform and Chris sat there, stone-like and expressionless. Some of the guys went over to hug him, others let him be, but there was an unmistakable sadness in that locker room. Someone from whom everybody had once drawn strength, now had no strength of his own. I remember talking with Rob Cross and we talked about how it was one of the saddest things we had ever seen and it was.

Before the game, the national anthem was sang and then a moment of silence was held for Mrs. Meriwether. During that time, Chris lost it. He was bawling and he couldn't control himself. The first game in his life without his best friend there to support him and he just couldn't hold it in, and it was hard for the rest of us to hold back tears as well. I remember when Chris started crying, Jeff Taylor reached his arm around him and let Chris cry on his shoulder and that is how they went back into the locker room, with Jeff literally supporting Chris the whole way.

That was a moment full of contradictions for me. On the one hand, I was torn apart by sadness for Chris, but on the other was incredibly moved by Jeff's gesture, similar to what the Louisville players did this year for Kevin Ware. When the game started, it was clear the guys just didn't have it in them that day. They were on the court because the schedule said they had to be, but they really didn't want to be there. Our defense was horrible as we gave up 89 points, but the result just seemed so meaningless that day.

So while I was disappointed we lost, I really didn't care that we did. It would have been nice to win the game sure, but either way basketball was just a game that day. It was no longer the two hour diversion where I pour my heart and soul into rooting for the team and doing my managerial duties while forgetting about whatever else is going on. Real life had intersected with that little heaven and made it into an emotional hell for two hours in what was without a doubt my saddest day as a Commodore.

Me and Chris on my Senior Night this year

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