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Lessons from Bluffton

Until a month ago, I had never heard of Bluffton University, a tiny Mennonite liberal arts college of less than 1200 students in the northwest Ohio town of the same name and just as obscure.

And in a couple months, I won’t even remember the name. But right now, it’s a story we can all learn from.On March 2, the bus carrying the Bluffton University varsity baseball team to a tournament in Florida careened off of an exit ramp in Georgia and onto the expressway below, killing four players, the bus driver, the bus driver’s wife, and gravely injuring a fifth player.

The fifth student would die a week later.

Yet Bluffton was no St. Bonaventures, the Atlantic-10 conference school that decided to forfeit it’s final two basketball games four years ago because it played its first 26 with an illegible player.

No, Bluffton experienced something much worse, and on March 20, just 18 days after five of their closest friends died, the players voted to play their season. Unanimously.

And Friday, Bluffton played its first game.

And in spite of the other team scoring 10 to Bluffton’s 5, it won.

Playing with equipment donated from three major league teams and in black uniforms instead of the standard purple and white, Bluffton took the field against Mount St. Joseph for the first game of a three game series.

Coach James Grandey watched from the sidelines, as his jaw is wired shut.

“Once you get out here, you’re a baseball player,” said coach James Grandey to the Associated Press. “Obviously today had a little more meaning.”

The support didn’t stop there.

John Betts, whose son David was one of the five who died, wore his son’s purple cap to the game, the cap that his son had packed for the tournament Bluffton was scheduled to play in. However, he was happy that the team chose to play.

“There’s no question David would have wanted them to do it,” he said to the AP. “He would have said, ‘Please play; play on.'”

Local schools also were willing to do whatever they could to help out.

Ohio State University, which won the 1966 Division I NCAA championship, donated the proceeds from its first game Wednesday to two separate funds set up for Bluffton. One fund goes to the baseball team and the second to help set up a memorial on the Bluffton campus.

“It’s such a tragedy,” Bob Todd, Ohio State baseball coach told the AP. “I’ve been in the front seat of a bus many times and it easily could have been me and Ohio State. Anything we can do at all to try and help ease the pain is the right thing to do. Our thoughts and prayers are with those young men and their families.”

And no matter how little or big the proceeds are, it is a huge gesture. It is a gesture of humanity.

This is what college athletics is, regardless of whatever Miles Brand’s vision is.

It is not a business. It is something more.

These kids are still only kids, and sadly, five of them will not take the field, at least in body, again.

However, every person on that bus was alive Friday when Bluffton took the field, when Bluffton took a 3-1 lead before making too many errors and walking too many batters, as coach Grandey said after the game.

For about three hours, there was no accident; there was only nine men on the diamond playing ball.

That is all sport ever was and ever will be. It cannot be anything more.

I cried, not because I knew anyone on the team. Heck, until a month ago, I didn’t even know that the university existed.

No, I cried because that could have been me, that could have been my high school wrestling team or college lacrosse team. That could have been my five best friends.

And that could have been you.

When I see video of people rioting after their team wins a championship, I change the channel. That is not the point of sport.

No, the point of sport is to go out and play ball, even when your five best friends are dead and you don’t know why you are alive.

In high school, our athletic director at every awards night, for each of fall, winter and spring, would name three to five people that were his heroes. Some had come back from injury, one helped his team to its best season in ten years after his mother had died of breast cancer right before the season, and others overcame long odds to accomplish something less than spectacular but good enough.

I was honored enough to fall into the last category and be named one of his heroes my senior year. And now I will return the favor.

Every single player on the Bluffton baseball team is my hero for taking the field today as if nothing happened when in reality, everything did.

I know that I could not do that, although I would want to.

That is the essence of college sport. That is the essence of humanity.

I will forget Bluffton in a couple weeks like I almost did until I saw the article today about it choosing to play on. But that doesn’t matter.

Every single player on that team is my hero– even though I don’t know them.

Even though I’m going to forget that they even exist.

By bsd987

I have written for SportsColumn.com since 2004 and was named a featured writer in 2006. I have been Co-Editor of the site since January 1, 2009. I also write for BleacherReport.com where I am a founding member of the Tennis Roundtable and one of the chief contributors to both the Tennis and Horse Racing sections.

I am "Stat Boy" for Sportscolumn.com's weekly podcast, Poor Man's PTI.

I am currently a Junior at Rice University majoring in History and Medieval Studies. My senior thesis will focus on the desegregation of football in Texas and its affect of racial relations.

Please direct all inquiries to [email protected]

Thanks,
Burton DeWitt
Co-Editor of Sportscolumn.com

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