… even when we know a lot, we know very little, UD still wants to pay attention to the suicide of 24-year-old University of Kansas football player Brandon Bourbon. It reminds her of Ohio State’s Kostas Karageorge’s suicide, and Derek Boogaard’s, and the suicides of some other super-macho way-young heroes of violent sports.
I know there are many differences among these deaths. Some of them seem to have, in part, physical causes – brain trauma, mainly. Boogaard’s might have been an accidental overdose, while Bourbon and Karageorge hid away and shot themselves in the head. Some of these men were always troubled, always struggling in life, while others – Bourbon – fell from a very great height.
Still, there’s a common plot line here having to do with sports-obsession…
Start with Bourbon’s funeral service being held on his local football field. Because he played football in a part of the United States (Missouri) where football is worshipped, “I don’t want to say he was looked to as a god,” [a friend] said, “but he was idolized.” Americans are baptized on high school football fields. Grieving Americans scatter ashes on university football fields. Young men who play football are high priests.
Bourbon did not merely grow up in a part of the world where football is very important. He grew up in a place where the very passages of life – including his own funeral – may take place on football fields. He grew up understanding that few things are more important than football.
Intelligent, handsome, genial, he was offered a football scholarship to (among other great places) Stanford, and he originally accepted Stanford’s offer, but ultimately turned it down for Kansas, where he studied a typical jock thing: sports management. UD wonders if this initial step – 100% football over a school that takes its big-ticket athletes seriously as students – already hurt Bourbon, one of whose friends reports that he was “struggling with his spirituality” at the time he died. Serious studies in the arts and sciences are about (among other things) broadening one’s perspective and giving one ways to think productively about existential questions. UD isn’t claiming that a capacity to think more broadly about life in a way that might have helped Bourbon survive would necessarily have been the outcome for him of a good university education. But it might have been.
And then there were the injuries. Bourbon spent most of his Kansas years with broken this and torn that, which kept him out of play, and one can only imagine his frustration. Eventually he had to transfer out of his Division I school to obscure Washburn (Div II), a move that must have been crushing for someone who had been recruited at the highest levels. When Washburn was over, Bourbon was back in his little home town, bedeviled by former worshippers who wanted to know why he wasn’t in the NFL by now. “He was just struggling to figure out who he was and what he ended up really wanting to do with his life.” Well, yes. He was only twenty-four years old after all. But his football path had been set very early, and he seemed unable to step out of it even a little.
Suicide, says A. Alvarez, reflecting on his own youthful suicide attempt, is one of the things some people do when they feel really really trapped.
UD figures Bourbon himself might have been rather sardonic at the sight of his football field funeral. Born to it. Died to it.