Death is an inevitable part of life. We will all at one time or another experience the death of a loved one where we are forced to cope, grieve and make amends to the realization that we must move forward with a firm grip on the memories shared.
Often times, those experiencing the loss are overwhelmed with sympathy from friends, extended family and even employers who normally give their employees time away from job responsibilities to grieve. However, the National Football League takes a much less sympathetic approach in regards to death in and around their brand.
With three tragic deaths occurring in the last 3 weeks, I’ve decided to share my personal experience as it relates to Death and Football.
It was a day that will vividly remain with me through the remainder of life, August 12, 2008. I was embarking on my fourth NFL training camp and entering week two of pre season competition when I found my phone abnormally flooded with text messages and missed calls following a Tuesday training camp practice.
“Sorry for your lost cuz”… “Stay strong and keep your head”… “I’m here for you in any way you need me, beyond shocked”… “I LOVE YOU SON”. Of course, I realized something was wrong. Before I could gather my thoughts, I receive a phone call from my father. With anticipation of hearing the worst possible news come through the phone it got worst.
“Son, Atlas is dead”.
My father’s lifeless tone made the worst news of my lifetime rapidly absorb to my core. I was numb, paralyzed to a degree, and breathless. Atlas Minor Fraley, my first cousin by title but “real life” younger brother as we had grown up under the same roof through childhood had tragically passed away after an endowment high school football game just before his senior year, he was just 17. It was only two days prior that I had spoken to my brother about entering his final season where he was receiving recruiting attention from a list of schools, he was excited.
We were each other’s biggest fans as he had DVR’ed my first few pre season games to keep tabs on his big bro. It had felt as though I had thumbed through an entire photo album in a matter of seconds, scanning for every memory shared. I immediately began to think about my mother’s twin sister, my aunt who had just lost her only son at a very tender age.
Teammates began to gather around my locker as my emotions weren’t to be contained. The comradeship shared between teammates would be the deepest sympathy that I would receive from those around the workplace. I immediately ran upstairs to visit my head coach to make him aware of my tragic situation. His message was simple, “Take the time that you need to go be with your family at this time.” I stuffed one travel bag and headed towards the airport without a ticket in hand or confirmed reservation. It was airport officials that realized the severity of the situation and pushed me through the security check, enabling me to make the last flight out to Raleigh Durham International Airport that night, no assistance whatsoever from my employer.
The next few days seemed to fly by in a breeze as more disturbing details were released surrounding the death of my brother that involved highly negligent acts. See Atlas Fraley Story here….
This had turned into a high profile tragedy that had garnered the attention of several local media outlets where my family received an unexpected high dosage of live TV interview requests regarding the new negligent findings. Calls, text messages and emails of support and sympathy poured in from everywhere; however I hadn’t received a single display of condolence from my employer.
Three days after returning home and just one day before funeral services I receive a call from our Director of Player Development. He had been ordered to check in with me to see how I was doing, but it quickly became more important to make sure that I found a flight to Cincinnati, OH on the next day because I was expected to play. I was forced to leave my little brothers home going services prematurely in order to catch a flight to Ohio where we were scheduled to play our second pre season game of the year against the Bengals.
It was on this flight that it all sunk in. I didn’t feel that I was able to properly say goodbye to my brother forever. The realization is that I was rushed back to the playing field for coaches and decision makers to further evaluate me as a potential key contributor for their organization having finished out the previous season on a high note and enjoying the best camp of my career before the incident.
I didn’t quite comprehend the amount of physical strain that death of a close relative can place on someone. My legs felt like tree trunks, my feet were slow, and I did not feel like the gifted athlete that I had been throughout my career. It was as if someone had played the game for me. This was by far the most difficult game to play in my career and allowed me to truly appreciate the athletes that have the mental fortitude to press through tragedy and raise their level of play.
We saw Torrey Smith do that very thing when he responded to the death of his brother with a memorable performance earlier this year, but our situations were different. Torrey Smith is a high profile budding star of a wide receiver for the Baltimore Ravens who wasn’t exactly playing with his job on the line, rather playing to honor his loved one. For me, the dynamics were different. Not only was I playing to honor Atlas Fraley, I was competing for the 5th and final cornerback position with a rookie whom had assumed my role while I was away.
This is the culture of NFL football as we know it. Where coaches maneuver around injured players on the football field to resume practice, unwilling to waste an opportunity to run another play and continue with preparation. There is no time for sympathy in this gladiator sport, for nothing is bigger than the brand.
Death as it pertains to the NFL is best handled by jumping right back into the fold as next to normalcy as possible. All tragic events that involve death in and around the NFL don’t make SportsCenter, but they do deserve to be heard.