“You lost your father today.”
Those startling words came from Fox Sports broadcaster Joe Davis with one out in the bottom of the eighth inning during the recent Field of Dreams game broadcast from Dyersville, Iowa. They were addressed to his partner in the booth, John Smoltz.
Three million television viewers had to be rocked. What did he just say?
Smoltz, a former Cy Young and World Series winner, affirmed that he had experienced the loss earlier that day. He decided to continue to offer color commentary for the game in spite of the circumstances.
“My Dad would be so mad at me if I didn’t do this game,” he explained, his voice suffused with emotion.
Smoltz said it had been an “incredible” day, especially considering the family-feeling engendered in the Field of Dreams setting. “What a day to honor him,” Smoltz noted. He indicated that his father instilled a strong sense of responsibility in his children, expecting them to “show up for work…I feel like tonight I am showing up for work.”
In an interview conducted by Will Cain, Smoltz said his father “never missed a game” in which the pitcher participated. He once drove 300 miles to see his son in a little league encounter.
“I am very much at peace because I know he’s at peace now,” Smoltz added.
Social scientists agree that bereavement is an individual matter. It’s a unique process we have to face on our own terms. Celebrities, like John Smoltz, have the additional burden of accepting the unacceptable in full view of the general public. Smoltz chose to openly share his feelings on national television. He certainly didn’t go into denial, a stage of grief many experience.
Therapist Dr. Shatavia Alexander Thomas has said, “Grieving is like breathing, but we act like we have to hold our breath. It’s a natural process. If you pretend like you don’t have to do it or that it doesn’t exist, you’ll end up choking or passing out.”
Another athlete who wasn’t afraid to share her feelings about personal loss is 17-year-old gymnast Konnor McClain. She had to face a dual tragedy when both her father and her grandmother passed away from Covid19 within a week’s time.
She described her two loved ones: “my best friends, my rocks, my twins, and the best Dad and Grandma I could have asked for.”
She told The Dallas Morning News when she heard of her grandmother’s death, “in that moment, I didn’t even want to live, I just felt like I was breaking down.”
It took all of her inner reserve, but McClain finally returned to competition: she recently won titles at the USA Gymnastics Winter Cup. During the event, she wore her father’s initials on her competition leotard.
She told The News, “There’s just something inside of me that kept me going but I don’t know what that is.”
One of the most inspired athletic performances following the loss of a loved one took place during the Monday Night Football game between the Green Bay Packers and the Oakland Raiders on December 22, 2003. The Packers starting quarterback, pro football Hall of Famer Brett Favre, had lost his father just 26 hours before kick-off.
Al Michaels, who called the game, told broadcast journalist Rich Eisen, the story really began on Sunday before the game. At a 1 pm production meeting, Michaels remembered that Favre was particularly expansive with the television crew, giving them an abundance of material.
After the meeting, Favre went to play nine holes of golf with Packer backup QB, Doug Pederson. It was during that round when Deanna, Brett’s wife, reached him by cell phone with the tragic news. Brett’s 58-year-old father — Irvin — just had a heart attack or stroke while he was driving his truck near the family home in Mississippi. The truck swerved into a ditch and Irvin could not be revived.
Michaels recalled that, initially, the Packers said Favre would not play in the game. Then, in order to honor the memory of his father, Favre reversed his decision.
Anyone who saw the game will never forget the electricity on the field that night. Favre was absolutely heroic: he completed 22 of 30 passes, good for 399 yards and 4 touchdowns. The Packers shredded the Raiders 41-7.
The courage Favre demonstrated galvanized the entire Packer squad. Michaels said every member of the team “ratcheted up their game for Brett…balls that should not have been caught were caught…it was one of the all-time NFL classic games as far as I am concerned.”
Greg Beacham of the Associated Press said it all: “Brett Favre dealt with the grief in the best way he could imagine. He played his heavy heart out.”