‘PLAGUE’ AHEAD OF ITS TIME

Ca­mus’ pre­scient book makes one scribe sad for high school sports

Chicago Sun-Times - - SPORTS - RICK TELANDER rte­lander@suntimes.com | @rick­te­lander

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.

QUINN HAR­RIS/SUN-TIMES

Any­body who tells you they know for sure whether high school foot­ball will be played this fall isn’t telling you the truth.

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