Back to Boston: The Power of Sports to Heal

The elite women's field (above) led the charge from Hopkinton to Boston last year. This year, every runner's step along the venerable course will carry extra meaning.

On April 20, 1981, the two sons of a dying man lifted him from a golf cart and carried him up onto a platform in the center of the town of Hopkinton, Mass. A crowd of thousands waited. A gun was placed in his hand. The man was George V. Brown Jr., and those close to him mightve found it glorious if it hadn't been so brutal. Cancer had cored out nearly all his strength and will.

"I remember the pain my Dad was going through," said one of those sons, Walter F. Brown. "But he absolutely wanted to go to it. I think it kept him alive for the last couple of months."

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It was the Boston Marathon, and his father was then the keeper of one of sports' great and enduring traditions. Since 1905, in every year but one, a member of the Browns -- the clan that helped found and long nurtured the venerable road race, the clan that owned the original Celtics and saved the Bruins in the 1950s -- has fired the official starter's pistol. That day George V. Jr. squeezed the trigger again, for the 38th time, and the runners set off. Four months later, he was dead.

That Brown insisted on making just one more marathon speaks to many things -- real human toughness, the force of family lore -- but don't discount the rejuvenating power of the event itself, a vague hope that the odd chemistry created by a milling crowd and a flood of fiery-eyed athletes could, for a few hours, serve as distraction or balm. This year, of course, you will hear a lot about that. As far as narratives go, the 118th Boston Marathon is all about trying to heal.

This isn't exactly new, at least on its face. Sports was used as rallying point, a sign of normalcy and the crucible of communal emotion, in the aftermaths of the 1989 Bay Area earthquake, Hurricanes Andrew and Katrina, the Washington D.C. snipers, and 9/11; 13 years on, we still sing "God Bless America" during the 7th inning stretch. But last year's bombing remains singular: Like the 1972 Munich Olympics, the athletic event itself suffered a bewilderingly vicious violation -- but the Olympics didn't return to Munich a year later. That will make this Monday's run an almost unbearably charged event.

Some 9,000 additional runners, most running on missions of completion, or honor, or remembrance, have been added to a field of tens of thousands. Expect record crowds. After seeing, two days after the bombs blew, the TD Garden faithful spontaneously bellow the national anthem during the Bruins game, after spending weeks then and since talking to victims, officials and locals, I can assure you that, along all 26.2 miles of the course, there will be countless whispered prayers and unseen tears behind the Boston Strong signs. Lord, do they take this personally. All of them.

So if anyone -- especially those who lost family, lost limbs, lost sleep over last year's crime -- finds even a second of this marathon cathartic, well, that's only a blessing. But it bears asking why we so often look to sports now as the place to heal wounds, serve as a tonic, lead a populace to whatever we mean by "closure". Along the way to this Monday's start, Bostonians found solace in that Bruins game, in the win at Fenway the day after one bomber was killed and the other captured and David Ortiz proclaimed it "our ----ing city", in the solemn trophy presentation on Boylston St. by the Red Sox after their run to the 2013 World Series title. Now comes the final stage -- preordained, ready for prime time -- of public grieving.

The problem, though, is that the stadium always empties. I was in San Francisco after the quake, in Miami after the storm, in Washington, D.C., after the plane crash and rifle rampage; I have seen Iraqi war veterans train, with stumps bloodied and bruised, so they could run 10 miles on artificial legs. I think sports help. But I know that this race, too, will pass and the reporters and cameras will move on. And I know that loss and grief, fear and loathing, don't follow a pocket schedule and don't stop at anniversaries.

Cheering the anthem, venting rage in a crowd of thousands, can prove a tonic for those affected only by news reports, but the anguish stirred by an empty chair, a sudden song or scent, lasts forever. Even those with the marathon in their bones know its limits. Rosalie Baker-Brown grew up in Hopkinton watching Tarzan Brown and Johnny Kelley, married a Brown, and has attended every marathon for at least the last 75 years. She's giving it a pass this year.

"Isn't it sad? I'm not going to go, because I'm 85 years old," said Baker-Brown from her home in Yarmouth, Maine. "My son, a police chief up here, said, 'Come on! Get in the car; we'll go down....' No, I'm going to take this year off. I've never felt so badly for anybody as those families who suffered through that tragedy last year. It's going to be a lifetime of recovery for all of them, with the prosthetics and the trauma of it. I don't care what you say."

In the fall, I visited with the parents of Jack Pinto, one of the children killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in December 2012. The family loved sports; Jack was a fine athlete, a New York Giants fan like his dad. But all the public gestures -- the moments of silence nationwide, Giants receiver Victor Cruz writing Jack's name on his cleats and visiting the family -- did nothing to ease their anguish. Dean and Tricia Pinto couldn't have been more gracious about the kind messages and tributes; they're sure that Cruz only wanted to help. But the attention of a sports hero, a U.S. president, all the gathered goodwill moments in arenas?

"Nothing seems as important anymore," Tricia said then. "Those big things that seemed like a big deal? Big deal. Who cares? Where's my son? If my son were here, then this would be great. But everything else falls away."

It's only one of the surreal twists of last year's race that marathon officials began the day with a nod to Newtown. The Boston Athletic Association had dedicated the last mile of the course to the 26 victims at Sandy Hook, and conducted a 26-second moment of silence along the route before the start.

"It started with everyone shedding a tear about those poor children, and some people were running and raising money for Newtown -- and then by the end of the race it was all about us," says Richelle Harrod, whose mother, Christine Chesmore, read the dedication to Sandy Hook at the 3.1-mile water-station. "Now we need your help. We need your prayers. Unbelievable."

It's seems cruel to note that this cycling of good intention proved no hedge against chaos, but what's the alternative? Politics, technology and weaponry have only made our public spaces more fractured and isolating; better to stare at your phone than risk confrontation with a lunatic. A prayer or ovation alongside seemingly like-minded strangers is one of the few ways to feel empowered, in control, in a world gone random. A ballpark is one of the few places left where we can agree on something: That guy can't hit. That throw was astounding. I'm scared, but Big Papi's right. Our ----ing city.

And for Boston and its surrounding towns, more than any other American place, there's comfort to be found in the familiar. The same Red Sox and Celtics jerseys. The same marathon route, for more than 100 years. The same family, generation upon generation, starting every spring off with a bang.

First there was George V. Brown Sr., sports promoter and future Boston U. athletic director, who helped the BAA organize the race from his home in Hopkinton after seeing the inaugural race at the 1896 Olympics in Athens. After his death in 1937, his four sons, including Walter A. -- future founder of the Celts, president of the Bruins and member of the basketball and hockey halls of fame -- took turns on the starting gun. After George V. Jr. died, Rosalie's husband -- Thomas J. Brown -- started the race from 1982-89.

The one interruption came in 1990, when BAA president Francis Swift insisted on taking the starter's gun himself. "He wrote Tom," Rosalie said. "I just looked at his letter; it looked like he was blaming it on his kids: His kids wanted him to take his turn as a race-starter. He decided the tradition wasn't important. And I was so disgusted with him." Public outrage was such that, by the following year's race, Swift had been forced to resign.

For the next 23 years, Walter F. carried on the annual family rite. The feeling, he said from his home in Plainfield, Vt., is "indescribable." Last year, Walter F. was near the finish line when he heard the bombs explode. "I was just as shocked as anyone could possibly be," he said. "I had to feel: What jerks. What dummies to try to pull something like that off. And the tragedy, the meaninglessness of the gesture."

This year, Walter F., 68, struggled for months before deciding he could no longer perform his duty. He has cancer -- formed, perhaps, by exposure to Agent Orange during his tour as a Green Beret in Vietnam, according to his wife, Candace. He says it's "terminal". He's not going to bother attempting what his dad pulled off in '81. No mere sporting event -- not even this one -- can provide him any ease.

"I'm so disappointed to be an interruption in this process," Walter F. said. "I'm very sad about it. I just don't think I'm up to it doing it. I'm not even going to go."

A Brown will be there, though. George V.'s great granddaughter, Christina Whelton -- daughter of current BAA vice-president Thomas Whelton -- has been tapped to fire the ceremonial pistol on Monday.

"I'm very honored and very humbled -- especially this year -- to be able to carry on the tradition," says Whelton, who has attended the marathon for 43 of her 44 years. "It means everything to me. My family has a really long history not only with this race but a lot of sports in Boston. Over the years our involvement has dropped off, but this is the family tradition -- not just in good times, but always.

"All eyes are on Boston this year, but there've been a lot of years when there were no eyes on Boston, when the family came forward and funded the race themselves. It's always been a lot of work, even when there wasn't huge publicity and a lot of partners. We would have family meetings and as a very young girl I recall my father and uncle sitting on the porch for hours going over logistics, making sure everything's covered. It's been extremely important to my family."

You could tell. As she spoke of this and the way the race, every yard of it, every mile and town along the route, stands for so many other clans' deep connection to the marathon, to each other and Boston, Whelton's voice thickened. Once or twice, it nearly broke.

"It's a helluva family," Rosalie said.

And that's only the start. Get ready. It's going to be one helluva day.

Walter Brown, here beside the statue of his grandfather, and former marathon director, George V. Brown in Hopkinton, won't fire the gun this year, but the family tradition will still carry on.
Courtesy of Candice Smith

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