Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Why Stuart Scott won

The last few days have been hard for Tar Heels. Longtime ESPN journalist Stuart Scott passed away Sunday morning after a seven-year battle with a rare form of cancer. He was 49. He is survived by his parents, siblings, girlfriend and two loving daughters.

The loss of Stu is not unique to those who share his alma mater. Stu belonged to sports fans of all colors, even the ugly, darker blue, because of what he did. He brought life to the joy and anguish of our fanatical existence, which is an enormous part of some of our lives.

I didn't grow up on SportsCenter like many of my peers. In fact, I didn't start to watch entire episodes until I went to Carolina in 2003. But well before I became a regular viewer, I knew who Stuart Scott was. I couldn't attribute it to him at the time, but my high school basketball teammates used to relive each other's highlights in the post-game locker room back in 1999.

"Boo-yah!" point guard Jason Epner would say while stroking the air with his eyes closed. "Just call him butter because he's on a roll!"

Playing sports was cool long before Stu arrived at ESPN in 1993, but talking about sports was no different from talking about the daily news. In 1992, you might have heard someone say "Did you see Jordan's dunk? That was fun to watch." Now you're more likely to hear "Did you see Jordan's dunk? He was breakin' off somethin' proper!" Stu made talking about sports cool.

And he did so in the face of criticism from people who could sense his charisma taking the sportscasting world away from the old guard. Even as a rookie reporter at ESPN, Stu held his ground while complimenting his forward-thinking peers in his columns. Stu worked for everyone, even middle-aged white guys, but he opened the door for sports fans who were young and creative.

Stu was diagnosed with cancer in 2007 and began to disappear from his regular ESPN gigs. We heard that his cancer was tough, but we also heard he was tougher. He beat it, but it came back. Then he beat it again. Then it came back again. As sports fans, we felt his battle morph into a war, and the sports metaphors worked their way into our unwilling subconscious. Stu was fighting, and we wanted Stu to win. We hoped for a day when he would return to the desk as a permanent fixture in our daily lives. That day never came.

I knew we had lost Stu, but I also couldn't shake the thought that Stu lost an unfair fight with brass-knuckled cancer. We didn't know about the brass knuckles until this week. To give you my perspective, my mother was diagnosed with cancer in 2010, and I am thankful that she has now been cancer free for years. I know the "beat cancer" story better than I ever thought I would. Stu's passing is a reminder of how far we still have to go.

This past fall I enrolled in Notre Dame's full-time MBA program. As unsettling as it occasionally was to be a part of a rival institution of my alma mater, I also giddily awaited Carolina football's Oct. 11 appointment in South Bend. I hoped that Notre Dame would be 5-0 atop the rankings so we could spoil their season. I got my wish.

A couple days before the game, I went to the Grotto to light a candle and pray for a few things including the Heels. To my surprise, I didn't pray for a win. I prayed that Carolina would fight hard and make me proud in front of my new friends and classmates. I knew I could plan to have a great time with the many Carolina friends and family who were on their way, but I also knew that I couldn't control what seemed to be the most important thing to everyone: the outcome of the game. I didn't want to ask for too much.

Carolina's maligned defense earned an early 14-0 lead in what I describe as the third-most exciting five minutes of my life (I'm married, and I was at the 2004 Miami game). That and the rest of the game were an unforgettable experience shared with the people I love. We lost by the narrow margin of one possession. Carolina had fought hard. I walked out of Notre Dame Stadium disappointed but proud. I got exactly what I prayed for.

After Stu's passing, I watched a bunch of tribute videos and old broadcasts of his. For some reason I scrolled past his Jimmy V Perseverance Award acceptance speech. I think I wanted to see him at his professional best aside from his illness. But because his speech was at the top of any search results list, I eventually clicked on it and watched.

I discovered that in his last year, Stu came to understand that beating cancer wasn't about the length of his life as he had stated. Beating cancer was about how and why he lived. For him, that meant being with his daughters and training through mixed martial arts, the latter to prove to himself his own physical mettle. For each moment he did what he wanted to do with his life without regard to cancer, he won.

The final score didn't matter.

I heard that message hours before last night's tip off between Carolina and Notre Dame. I didn't go to the Grotto this time because it is butt-cold in South Bend, but I'd be lying to you if I said the end result didn't hurt. I wanted the Heels to extend their pregame tribute to Stu for 40 minutes of determined basketball. I went to bed feeling like we lost a game we should have won not because our team deserved it but because Stu deserved it.

This morning I thought of what Stu would have said over last night's SportsCenter highlight reel if he was behind the desk. Despite his rooting heart, he would have been as cool as the other side of the pillow.

Tar Heel.

You are in our hearts, Stu.

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