The Resilience Game

Oct. 21, 2013
Oct. 21, 2013

Table of Contents
Oct. 21, 2013


The Resilience Game

The ability of Adrian Peterson and other athletes to return to the field in the face of personal pain may make them more like the rest of us than we think


Adrian Peterson played football on Sunday, 48 hours after his two-year-old son died as a result of alleged child abuse. "Football is something I will always fall back on," Peterson said days before he ran for 62 yards and caught three passes for 21 yards in a 35--10 loss to the Panthers.

This is an article from the Oct. 21, 2013 issue

In the face of profound tragedy, the notion of returning to work—never mind having a productive day at the office—strikes most of us as unfathomable. But doing so in sports has hardened into convention. Consider September 2012, when 19-year-old Tevin Chris Jones was killed in a motorcycle accident after veering off a Virginia roadway. Less than 24 hours later Tevin's brother Torrey Smith, wide receiver for the Ravens, caught six passes for 127 yards and two touchdowns as Baltimore beat the Patriots 31--30. "Just to come out and show up and play is one thing," said Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco that night. "To come and play the way he did ... it was really unbelievable." It's not just football. Weeks after his mother's death, in 1990, Buster Douglas knocked out the hitherto indestructible Mike Tyson. Later that spring Loyola Marymount began its memorable run to the Elite Eight days after the sudden death of its star, Hank Gathers.

The game must go on. When it doesn't—say, when Westfield-Brocton (N.Y.) High canceled its 2013 football season after a teammate died as a result of a helmet-to-helmet hit during a game—it's news.

When athletes return to work so soon after tragedy and hardship—and perform so well—it furthers the notion of their exceptionalism. It's not simply that they run faster and jump higher and shoot more accurately than the rest of us. They are also mentally stronger, endowed, as they are, with superhuman powers to compartmentalize. They are wired differently. Except ... they're not.

We work on the assumption that grief is a process that needs to be negotiated. Lose a loved one and you're expected to take time to "work through" the ordeal. It was Freud who called grief "work." It was Elizabeth K√ºbler-Ross who gave us the five stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

And, we're told by our popular culture, bad things happen when we resume our normal lives too soon. In AMC's Breaking Bad, Jane dies after a drug overdose. Her father, Donald, an air traffic controller, returns to work, but distraught and distracted by his daughter's death, commits an error that causes a 737 to collide with another plane over Albuquerque. While newscasters question whether Don was allowed to return to work too soon after his daughter's death, the poor guy attempts suicide. If he had only been more patient, let "nature run its course," let "time heal his wounds."

Here's the reality: Confronted with tragic or painful events (death, injury, other exigencies we dread) humans cope well. Really well. Within days, even hours, of horrible events, we can regain our equilibrium and function. What's more, emotions during times of grief may oscillate. We may be serene shortly after a death only to be despondent a month later.

In a study titled "Loss, Trauma, and Human Resilience: Have We Underestimated the Human Capacity to Thrive After Extremely Aversive Events?" George A. Bonanno, a professor of clinical psychology at Columbia, found little evidence that grief is incapacitating. "Resilience is the norm," he says. "Not the exception."

If so—and when subject after subject reports that returning to normal rhythms accelerates recovery—why don't the rest of us emulate Peterson, rather than permit ourselves weeks, sometimes months, after unfortunate events? Socialization explains a lot. A wife returning to the office the day after her husband's death? The father who goes back to his sales route after losing a child? They would likely be regarded as cold and soulless.

Beyond that, few of us are in the same position as Peterson was last weekend or Torrey Smith before that big Patriots game. That is to say, most of us have jobs that assume you will take an absence from work soon after trauma. We are encouraged to take bereavement leaves.

None of this is meant to minimize the profound impact of death or trauma. Nor to imply that resilience is the same thing as recovery. The particulars of Peterson's tragedy are almost unendurably sad. Still, the next time we encounter athletes performing—and performing well—so soon after experiencing a horrific event, we shouldn't be quite so awed. We can take comfort, the cold variety to be sure, in knowing this: We could do it too.

P. 16



P. 17

Extra Mustard

P. 21

Faces in the Crowd

P. 22

Dan Patrick

A.J. Hawk

P. 24

Big Board

Jameis Winston

P. 31

The Case for

Maya Moore

Go Fig


Amount Bears WR Brandon Marshall—who has been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder—was fined for wearing green shoes in honor of Mental Health Awareness Week. Players are required to wear the same color shoes as teammates or, in Breast Cancer Awareness Month (October), pink.


Height difference between boxing champ Wladimir Klitschko (6'6") and Nashville actressHayden Panettiere (5'2"), who last week announced their engagement.


Buccaneers this season who've been found to have MRSA: Lawrence Tynes and Carl Nicks were diagnosed in August with the antibiotic-resistant staph infection, and last Friday—a day after Nicks's infection returned—a third, unidentified player was announced.


Ticket requests for World Cup 2014 in Brazil that FIFA received in its initial lottery, through which roughly one million tickets will be awarded. More than 6% of requests came from American fans, second only to Brazilians.


NFL record number of consecutive games in which a Texans QB has thrown a pick-six—the first four by Matt Schaub, then one on Sunday by T.J. Yates, who replaced an injured Schaub.


SEC teams in the AP Top 25—Alabama, LSU, Texas A&M, South Carolina, Missouri, Georgia, Florida and Auburn—the most ever in one week by any conference.