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The healing power of sports

Times Observer photo by Brian Hagberg Warren football players Marvin Bryant (3), Jamo Douvlos (55) and Aidan Morrison (9) congratulate teammate Collin Salapek (70) following his second quarter touchdown run in a game against Corry at Corry High School, Friday, Oct. 12, 2018. The Dragons had big smiles on their faces, in large part because of the significance of the scoring run for Salapek, who lost his brother and former Dragon standout, Hayden, to an ATV accident two weeks prior. The play allowed the Dragons to welcome their teammate back and provide him with a measure of healing.

Sports are often seen as an escape. A way for people to forget about their “real world” problems for a couple of hours.

It’s one reason why many can get so caught up in the moment of a game, whether it’s in person or watching on television. From Beijing to London to Moscow, fans pack stadiums, sports bars and the neighborhood living room for sporting events.

What I think makes American sports different from those the world over is that they also provide a means of healing.

This is not to say medicinal healing, or the type of healing you get from the local televangelist putting his hands on you and taking the injury or disease away. No, this is more a healing following a profound sense of loss or a tragedy.

Think about it. After 9/11, the first large gathering of Americans didn’t take place at a church, or a memorial service, or a business in downtown Chicago or Los Angeles, it was at a WWE Smackdown! show (the merits of WWE as “sport” are a debate for another time).

When the Yankees took the field in Chicago for a game with the White Sox a week after the attacks, there wasn’t the typical animosity. Chicagoans were showing their support for those in New York. The first post-9/11 game at Shea Stadium served not only as a catharsis, but as a step to regaining normalcy for many.

The same held true for people in Boston after the Boston Marathon bombing, and in Las Vegas after last year’s mass shooting.

It doesn’t take a national tragedy, or even a professional team for this phenomenon to take hold. Quite often, it can be as simple as a local team creating a special moment for one of its own. Such an instance occurred Friday night in Corry during the second quarter of a game between the Beavers and visiting Warren.

The Dragons drove down to the 2 yard line, lined up in a heavy package and handed the ball to an offensive lineman to punch it in the end zone. There’s not anything unusual, or special, about this sequence on the surface. Teams have been using linemen in short yardage situations for decades.

What made this particular play stand out was that the lineman, Collin Salapek, had missed the previous weeks game as he attended to family matters surrounding the death of his older brother. Hayden Salapek, himself a former Dragon standout and region all-star, was killed in an ATV accident. While the family grieved, his teammates, many of whom shared the field with Hayden, wanted to show their support in any way they could.

All players are wearing a No. 70 sticker on their helmets, Hayden’s number, and the staff allowed Collin to switch to that jersey number. Getting him a touchdown in his first game back was just another way of showing that support.

Reactions from Collin’s Dragon teammates really told the story. All were happy for him, and not just because he put points on the board. Senior quarterback Jake Kupchella had a smile from ear-to-ear. Over the last two years, I’ve seen Jake score a number of touchdowns, never has one brought that bright a smile to his face.

Healing, for Collin and healing for his teammates.

Just before the team went into the locker room, Collin called his father, Matt over to the fence separating the field from the spectators. Collin handed the ball he scored with to his father. A memento for that step to regaining a sense of normalcy.

Healing, for a family.

Nothing will ever fill the void when a loved one is lost. But sometimes, having that camaraderie from being part of a team, or fanbase, can help ease the pain. But for some reason, these athletic contests, these games, have an uncanny ability to bring people together in ways that other things simply can’t.

Collin told me about his teammates after the game, “We’re all brothers.”

Sports, in many ways, gives us an extended family. And being with family is how we heal.

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