First, understand: The deaths of 71 people will always be an unimaginable tragedy, particularly when they occur during an activity most of engage in at least a few times each year.
Yet somehow knowing several pro soccer players were killed in that plane crash makes it even more disturbing.
We think of young people in peak physical condition with their whole lives ahead of them. And in an instant it’s all gone.
Even if we never saw Chapecoense play—even if we never watch soccer or any sports at all—we hear that information and think of young people in peak physical condition with their whole lives ahead of them.
And in an instant it’s all gone.
Athlete deaths shape cultures, even nations. The 1958 plane crash in Munich will always be a key event in the history of England’s Manchester United. In 1994, a million Brazilians attended the funeral of Formula One great Ayrton Senna after he was killed during a race. Lou Gehrig’s “Luckiest Man on Earth” speech resonates far beyond sports. And even though 25 years have passed and Earvin Johnson remains as healthy as ever, millions of fans remember the shock of hearing his HIV announcement and thinking, Magic’s gone.
Indeed, A.E. Housman masterfully captured this sense of loss with his poem “To an Athlete Dying Young,” published 120 years ago.
Yet even when athletes are long past their primes, we still tend to think of them at their peak. Within a week this year, we lost both “The Greatest” Muhammad Ali and “Mr. Hockey” Gordie Howe. Both would have been almost unrecognizable to their younger selves: Ali was 74 and ravaged by Parkinson’s; Howe was 88.
But the mind doesn’t picture them in that condition. We think of Ali taking down the unbeatable George Foreman, just as he’d taken down the unbeatable Sonny Liston years earlier. And we remember that Howe flat-out refused to age for decades, to the point he could still perform at an All-Star level while playing on a team with two of his two adult sons.
Quite simply, we see athletes as being as close to invincibility as mere humans can come.
When even they can abruptly be snatched away, it’s a reminder that whatever we do, life is a limited time offer.