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On failure

Joseph Monardo | Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Sports offer the opportunity to excel. Successful players can gain glory and wealth in excessive quantities. Ordinary people can become household names and athletes can even transcend the sport they dedicate their lives to.
Unfortunately, sport also offers the possibility of failure. Monumental, heartbreaking failure befalls a subset of athletes who never fulfill their potential. For those who are turned away at the threshold of success, the failure is especially devastating.
Several recent events have emphasized this fact. Three separate cases, with three completely separate sets of circumstances and actors, have hammered home what it feels like when transcendent athletes do what the public could never imagine: fail.
The story of Benjamin Wilson, a top high-school basketball project from Chicago, addressed this very phenomenon in last Tuesday’s installment of ESPN’s “30-for-30” documentaries. “Benji” described Wilson’s meteroic rise into the national spotlight and his subsequent murder in 1984 – he was shot and killed near his high school. Wilson did not so much fail as he was robbed of his future. Those interviewed in the film relay the sense that Wilson was supposed to have been the best of the city. The residents felt Wilson’s success could reflect in some small way on them, that they could share in his triumph. His death instead became a stark representation of promise unfulfilled.
Last Thursday the road to redemption of Tyrann Mathieu took what could turn out to be a damning blow. The former LSU football star was arrested, along with three other former Tigers, on drug charges after being found with marijuana in Baton Rouge. The Honey Badger, after forcing his way into Heisman discussion last season, has become another reminder of how tenuous athletic success can be. Not a victim of external forces, Mathieu has simply proven himself to be unable to handle the responsibilities that come with sports fame.
South Carolina senior running back Marcus Lattimore suffered a gruesome knee injury Saturday against Tennessee. A preseason Heisman contender, Lattimore suffered his second season-ending injury in as many seasons.  For Lattimore, and less so for Mathieu, the prospects for recovery seem bright.
For Wilson, however, the path to success was permanently halted. These headlines are dark news for all of us in that their main characters could have been the best. Wilson’s death remains tragic, Matthieu’s recklessness is disappointing despite its status as a product of individual weakness and Lattimore’s pain is our pain. Those who revel in the other-worldly success of athletes better be willing to stick around for the failures that come part and parcel.