It was sickening to watch. Midway through the first half of Sunday’s epic Louisville vs. Duke Elite Eight basketball game, Cardinals guard Kevin Ware went up to contest a routine 3-pointer from Duke’s Tyler Thornton.
When he came down, he suffered one of the most horrific injuries in college basketball history, shattering his lower leg so badly that his broken tibia tore right through his skin. With the crowd sitting in stunned silence and traumatized teammates sprawled on the court weeping, television announcers struggled for any words to convey the weight of what had just happened. Louisville coach Rick Pitino wiped away tears as he pulled the team into a close huddle around their fallen teammate who, before they carted him out of the arena and rushed him to the emergency room, had only one thing to say: “Don’t worry about me. I’ll be okay. You guys go win this thing.” And win they did. But, as brave an exhortation as it was, and as epic a victory as it produced, it couldn’t change the tough reality facing Kevin Ware.
In a split second, his young life had changed forever.
In the days since, I have been as obsessed as anyone with Kevin’s injury and recovery, following every tweet and update about his surgery, about the steel rod they put in his leg, about how he was already up on crutches the next day, about how he will travel with his team to his hometown of Atlanta for the Final Four. Like so many others, I pumped my fist when I read his New York Daily News quote: “This is a minor setback for a major comeback.”
The kid’s got an amazing attitude and, by most accounts, could be playing again in a year. In between now and then undoubtedly lie some of the hardest days Kevin Ware will ever experience, not only building his physical strength back, but also learning to trust his leg again – an emotional aspect of recovery that many athletes say is far more difficult than the rehabilitation itself. Even though their post-surgery bones and ligaments may be even stronger than they were before, the residual trauma of having suffered a serious injury won’t allow them to believe it. It is only through repeated testing and retesting that they begin to regain their confidence and learn to trust the strength of their repaired bodies; no small task when every plant and pivot and jump feels just like the one that caused the injury and their brain is telling them to do anything to avoid feeling that kind of pain again.
Kevin Ware is going to have overwhelming support from millions of people as he makes his journey from injury to recovery, as millions of us have now been public witnesses to his pain. We cannot un-see what we saw and we won’t soon forget it. Though the struggle will be his own, he certainly won’t be going it alone. He’ll have Lebron and the rest tweeting their well wishes at him every step of the way, and he’ll have all of our thoughts and prayers to pick him up along the way. As well it should be for a great kid in the midst of a comeback, not just in basketball but in a troubled life as well.
As I’ve been trying to wipe the terrible image of Kevin Ware’s leg folding obscenely under him, replayed twice in slow motion on CBS before they quickly pulled it, from my mind ever since I saw it. There is something so indescribably awful about the way it ended up jutted out at nearly a right angle, skewed to one side, bones sticking through flesh. Such severe and grotesque injuries may bring out our worst gawker tendencies but they also compel us to be compassionate. I would bet there wasn’t a single person in Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday who wasn’t sending that kid every ounce of love and prayer they could muster, even the most rabid of the Duke fans.
Despite our love of competition, there is still something inside of us that can’t tolerate suffering.
But that thing, whatever it is – that instinct that drives us to rally around the fallen only engages when we are able to perceive pain. Kevin Ware’s pain was in our faces in a manner so real that we couldn’t possibly ignore or escape it. We could see his pain reflected in his mangled leg. We could hear it in his cries.
The trouble for us, though, is that most of our injuries are hidden from view.
All of this has me wondering how much differently we would treat each other if all of the pain we carry around inside of us suddenly became visible to the world. What if we could tell that our rude waiter just had his heart broken into a million pieces or that our conflict-averse boss had been abused as a child? What if we could see our emotional scars the same way as cuts or broken bones? Would we treat each other with the same empathy and compassion as a college basketball star with a badly broken leg?
Call me naïve, but I really think we would.
So, as we root for Kevin Ware to come back stronger than ever, let’s remember to root for each other, too.
Our hearts, after all, can take an awfully long time to heal.