‘PLAGUE’ AHEAD OF ITS TIME
Camus’ prescient book makes one scribe sad for high school sports
The next time you see a sports column start with a quote from a French existentialist philosopher/author, run for the hills.
But just this once, stick around. The quote has pertinence, you’ll see.
For one thing, Camus, who wrote his scary and symbolic novel in 1947, knew what we recently have rediscovered in all our arrogance and supposed superiority over items such as brainless RNA: Nature doesn’t give a damn how advanced or tech-savvy we think we are, it’ll nail us whenever the moment is right.
Second, the red stamp on the inside of my copy of ‘‘The Plague’’ (Modern Library paperback, $1.65) reads ‘‘Property of Northwestern University Athletic Department.’’
This was a curriculum book I was supposed to turn in at the end of a literature course at NU, or maybe I paid a fine and kept it afterward. Who knows? It was so long ago. But I was a scholarship football player back then, and free books, board and tuition were my wages. Here was one remaining talisman.
When I pulled ‘‘The Plague’’ down from my bookshelf a month ago and read it, just as I had a half-century ago, my mind split and funneled down twin rabbit holes into a dark and painful place.
Not only are we humans at this very moment not free of ‘‘pestilence’’ — meaning we are not free as individuals, either — but if there had been a COVID-19 pandemic back when I was a high school senior, I likely never would have read ‘‘The Plague,’’ never gotten the athletic department stamp on any book, never gone to Northwestern, never played college football, never studied literature, never become a journalist, never . . . well, I really don’t want to think about all the things I never would have been or done.
My life would be entirely different. Of that, I’m sure. And I don’t think
‘‘They fancied themselves free, and no one will ever be free as long as there are pestilences.’’
— Albert Camus, ‘‘The Plague’’
for the better.
A scholarship freed me to pursue matters of the mind without worrying much about real-life pursuits because I owed my parents no money and all I owed the school was my body.
I feel heartbroken for kids who now are entering their senior years in high school, especially the fall athletes. I feel, too, for the just-graduated seniors, those who never went to their senior prom or walked down their graduation aisle.
But those boys like me — and girls now, though not back then before Title IX — with one more shot at a precious fall sport, one more chance to test yourself to the limit, to impress your folks and gal (or guy) and, above all, college recruiters — I feel for them as though my heart is shattering.
Will there be high school sports in the fall? High school, even?
Anybody who says they know for sure is lying.
You can’t do high school football in a ‘‘bubble,’’ like the NBA. You can’t test for COVID daily, like the big leagues do.
So if there is no high school football, think of the careers that are prematurely ended. And think of the ramifications.
Between my junior and senior seasons, from 16 to 17, I gained almost 20 pounds. Not uncommon.
My coach switched me from wide receiver to quarterback, where I’d never played. I started all 10 games, ran the ball a lot because I was a dubious passer and made all-conference. I got recruited as a defensive back by Northwestern, a school where I never would have gone — because of the expense, among other things — and decided to major in English because I liked to read.
If I hadn’t played my senior year of football, I would have been psychically wounded, stunted in a way that might have played out later in some antisocial form. I don’t know.
I don’t like to think about it.
I had the dazzling feeling that I was free back then, that I was creating my own future. I felt omnipotent in that way only hard-charging, hormonally flooded teenage boys can.
Those are the same kind of boys that create havoc in our streets when they have had their dreams curtailed, when they feel cast aside, lost, filled with ennui (something Camus would understand).
So I pray that high schools can open safely and that boys can play football this year, but I doubt it will happen.
And that’s a plague in itself.
Anybody who tells you they know for sure whether high school football will be played this fall isn’t telling you the truth.