NORTHFIELD, MINN. — In the postmortems following the sudden and tragic Aug. 20 death of first-year professional football player Thomas Herrion, there is a good deal of speculation that at 6 ft., 3 in. and 330 pounds, the offensive lineman's collapse might well have had something to do with the enormous weight he was pulling. Repeatedly we hear that "he had a dream of playing in the NFL." But a slimmed down version of the man in the mirror would no doubt have been one without a spot among the San Francisco Forty-Niner "hogs" - the term that is universally and appropriately used to refer to offensive linemen.
As though living in the present weren't enough, young people are constantly told they have to have a dream and pursue it. There is seldom any mention of the importance of having the right dream. And for those young men who close their eyes at night and dream of stepping on the sacred turf where play becomes a vocation, the incubus may well be waiting.
A very marginal Division I wide receiver, I was possessed by the ambition to play in the NFL. Football was the one area of life in which I felt some confidence and acquired a modicum of respect. Naturally, the gridiron arts assumed enormous importance. In college it became evident that I was a step or three too slow to make it in the pros. But I had a dream, and you are not supposed to give those up in America. I could not imagine life without football.
Instead of trading my spikes for books and trying to develop another vision of myself, I started taking amphetamines to increase my speed. However, I injured my shoulder diving for a pass and my career hit the wall. It took me years to pick up the pieces.
Unlike Mr. Herrion's, my vision was a mere fantasy of self-fulfillment, not one of taking care of my family. Still, I know what it is like to be so far into a dream that you feel as if it has to come true or you don't want to wake up. Combine that dangerous level of commitment with the sense of invulnerabity common to young athletes and it is no wonder that you have many 18-year-olds taking what they actually refer to as "heroic doses" of supplements to try and make it to the next level.
Athletes on the borderline of being able to realize their ambitions are often the ones most vulnerable. I have seen high school football players who should have already been on diets trying to pack even more bulk onto their 200-pound frames. Invariably coaches pat them on the back for their hard work when they ought to be telling them that while another 50 pounds might improve their ability to defend against a pass rush, extreme obesity is not healthy.
But that is asking a lot, because it is the rare coach who will try to dissuade a player from doing anything that might potentially help the team.
It is very hard to tell a young person to shut down the very fantasies that you as a coach have invited. And yet, coaches are for the most part educators in the physical arts and, as such, have an obligation to teach their charges what is and is not good for them.
• Gordon Marino is assistant football coach and Boldt Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Humanities at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn.