There is a simple plaque right outside the Basilica de Superga, a tall and beautiful church high in the Italian Alps. The plaque is not for the Italian kings and princes that have been buried there. It is not for the warriors who, in 1706, broke through the French siege, a stunning victory that led to this church being built in triumph.
No. The plaque is for a soccer team, Calcio Torino, and the players who died in a plane crash in these mountains 60 years ago.
The plaque reads:Let this serve as a memoryOf a championPlayed for the glory of Italian soccer.
There is something about athletes dying young that crystallizes our pain. It isn't that these tragedies are somehow sadder or more heartbreaking than the harsh news that confronts us every single day. They are not. On Wednesday night, a 22-year-old pitcher for the Los Angeles Angels, Nick Adenhart, was killed in a car crash. In Kansas City, a 4-year-old girl died of cancer. In Minneapolis, a father of two succumbed to muscular dystrophy. In Pittsburgh, a 15-year-old girl was murdered. In Charlotte, a promising 18-year-old high school senior was shot to death when an argument raged out of control. In Delaware, the remains of a dead American soldier was placed on a truck for transfer. And the soldiers who had carried the case stepped back and saluted.
There is so much sad news in the world -- in every city, every day -- that it overwhelms us. And I think that's why a young athlete dying touches us in a deep place. It is because the contrast of an athlete dying young is so powerful, and the promise so unmistakable.
On Wednesday evening, against the Oakland A's, Adenhart pitched the first brilliant game of his young career. He pitched six innings without allowing a run. He struck out five. You did not need to know a lot about him, and you probably did not know that he grew up in Maryland, that he was a tremendous pitching prospect, that he tore a ligament in his elbow his senior year in high school, that he had Tommy John surgery when he was 17 years old. You probably did not know that he worked hard to come back, that he did come back, that he had a low 90s fastball and a sharp curve but what impressed scouts most was an easy pitching delivery. Effortless, they called it.
You probably did not know these things unless you were a hardcore Angels fan, but what matters is that you did not need to know them. As a sports fan, you could understand the promise of a 22-year-old pitcher throwing six shutout innings in the first start of his rookie season. As a sports fan, you could anticipate what was possible. Adenhart wanted all his life to be a big leaguer -- the same dream so many young boys have in America. He had a chance to become a star.
Then, in a moment, the chance is gone. A minivan reportedly rushes through a red light. It smashes into a car with 22-year-old Nick Adenhart coming off the best pitching performance of his life. The police arrest a man whose blood-alcohol level, reportedly, was above the legal limit. A young man and woman in the car with Adenhart are pronounced dead on the scene. Adenhart is rushed for emergency surgery and dies on the operating table.
And the sad story hits hard. I can remember the way people huddled together outside of Arrowhead Stadium after Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Derrick Thomas died in a Miami Hospital room. I can remember the feeling of mourning in my high school in North Carolina when the brilliant young basketball player Len Bias died. I can still feel the dull and hollow sorrow that lingered in Cleveland after a terrific young relief pitcher, Steve Olin, died in a boat accident on Little Lake Nellie. I can remember my neighbor crying after the brilliant young outfielder Lyman Bostock was killed, and I can remember my father leaning out the kitchen window to tell us that, in a choked up voice, that the great Yankees catcher Thurman Munson had died in a plane crash.
I guess it's because we cannot help but think what we missed and what we lost. Those are the feelings of loss, but maybe it's easier to grasp those feelings when it's an athlete who dies. They are young and strong and gifted. They are, in a sense, youth. And then they are gone. There's too much to feel.
The plaque at the basilica just in the Italian Alps still draws many visitors every years. Calcio Torino was the dominant soccer team in Italy in the years after World War II, when the country was rebuilding and the people needed something to believe in. The team played wide open soccer -- beautiful soccer -- and they scored many goals, and they won championships, and they won the country's heart.
After the team's plane crashed and all 31 people on board died, it is said that 500,000 people poured into the streets of Turin for the funeral. It is said that, even now, there are always fresh flowers around the tomb. It is said that people never forget.