HT: Mike DeSimoneCharles Drake, former Michigan safety, passed away this past Friday. He was 30 years old.
I was only in middle school when Drake wore the winged helmet for Michigan, so for me to attempt to say anything about his play on the field would seem foolish, not to mention incredibly unimportant. When I read the news, my heart sank.
Charles Drake: a name from the past, a ghost patrolling and striking your consciousness like a zone blitz, when you least expect it. His play on the field isn't important right now. What is important is that I--and hundreds of thousands of other Michigan fans--remembered seeing his name on the back of that Michigan jersey. He was a Wolverine. He was a part of my childhood as a young Michigan fan, just as every other Wolverine of that era was. So, when I read that he had passed, I was very sad, even while remembering very little about Charles Drake the hard-hitting safety and Charles Drake, the person.
I remember watching the NFL draft in 2003, during which Drake had been #1 on Mel Kiper's "Best Available" list for some time, with the draft was nearing its end. I kept wondering, worrying, whether or not he was going to get picked. He was picked, eventually, in the 7th round, and I remember feeling very good about that.
Without knowing the cause, it's nothing short of terrifying to hear that a player you watched as a kid has passed. Charles Drake was only seven years older than me. I don't need to tell you that this is all ephemeral, that the heroes of your childhood will go, no matter how entrenched they are in your mind as ideas impervious to the laws of biology. Rob Lytle, Vada Murray, Bob Chappuis, and now Charles Drake, have all passed on in the last couple of years. Each had a unique and rich history, each Michigan Men to the very end. Each brought something that was distinctly their own, and each took that something with them. I've mentioned this so many times, but if growing up has informed my sports fandom in any way, it's this: appreciate the players themselves, whether in victory or defeat. Not the results of their exploits, but how they go about things. Do they do their jobs with quiet aplomb or a cantankerous grimace? These make for better, more durable memories.
It is an inevitability, death, yet, in spite of this inevitability it seems to always be the last thing we find ourselves coming to terms with. I'm not sure that I will ever in my cease to be surprised or shocked to hear that a former player has passed on. Of course, to pass away at 30 is another thing entirely.
It is strange to feel as if you've lost a friend--family, even--upon hearing of the passing of someone you never knew. No matter how much we may or may not remember of a player's career, there is a shared Michigan experience that transcends petty boundaries, like the Big House brick wall dividing players and fans. That, I believe, is Michigan's essence, no matter how easy it may be to allow cynicism and irony to creep through at times. Michigan, as a concept, is more than wins, titles, enormous crowds, and even its indomitable traditions. It's about a grand, interconnected shared history, and in this way it is a bit of a double-edged sword.
When a Wolverine somewhere succeeds, whether on the gridiron or elsewhere, we feel proud, rejoicing as if the accomplishment was our own. We feel proud of the Wolverine in question, and we feel proud of Michigan, generally, the notion and the entity itself.
On the other hand, when a Wolverine passes on, it's as if a part of us has gone on too. I don't feel that it is too trite to note here that this is exactly the underpinning of the family, which, I strongly believe, is what Michigan is.
Memories can be summoned, but once the players, the people behind them are gone...they're gone. Forever, an eternity. RIP.