The Write Reasons: We Persist

(Pat Shannahan/ The Arizona Republic)

I’m pausing in the middle of packing for a vacation in the woods of California and Oregon to ruminate on the idea of persistence. Why do we do what we do in the face of fear, failure, tragedy, risk, loss, pain and strife? Why do we insist on walking paths in which we’ve seen those who walked before us stumble, or perhaps paths we have ourselves stumbled upon? Is there honor and glory in our persistence, or could our persistence be attributed to audacity, arrogance, naïveté, or some mixture of the three?

As a sportswriter, I’ve watched friends over the last few years fall victim to a shrinking print industry, as well as the increasing demands, yet stagnant rewards, of a cutthroat online market. Men and women who write and produce sports content, knowing the end may be near, continue to push forward in an industry that will never love them as much as they love it. Why?

Perhaps this is on my mind because I spent the previous week out in Atlanta, Georgia at the Rivals100 Five-Star Challenge, watching South Carolina commit Ryan Hilinski throw perfect spirals to some of the nation’s best wide receivers merely hours after the results of his brother Tyler’s autopsy revealed that the former Washington State quarterback had Stage 1 CTE at the time of his death. Tyler Hilinski died due to a self-inflicted gunshot wound in January of this year, and his father revealed that doctors told him “he had the brain of a 65-year-old.” Ryan spoke with Rivals national recruiting analyst Adam Gorney while out at the camp, and when Gorney broached the subject of whether it was worth it for Ryan to pursue football given what he had learned about his brother, Ryan told him, “My parents sat me down and my older brother Kelly sat me down and said, ‘Look, you’re going to be great, you’re going to do all these great things but you have to listen to this. Is this something you actually want to do?’ I thought for two days about it and people asked me about it. It scared me a little bit at first and I said, ‘I don’t want to get that (CTE) at all. But then I thought Tyler wouldn’t want me to quit, he’d want me to be careful, he would want me to tell people if I was going through something. But if I quit, I’m quitting on him and it’s something I don’t want to do.” (link: https://n.rivals.com/news/ryan-hilinski-finds-light-in-the-darkness)

Ryan Hilinski loves football. He understands the risks. He’s even fearful of the consequences of those risks. But, for himself, and for the memory of Tyler, he persists.

Thinking of Ryan Hilinski’s persistence makes me also consider the high school football players at Moon Valley, who will take the field this August as they did last October, suiting up in the wake of the tragic loss of teammate Carlos Sanchez due to a traumatic head injury on the field of play. The Moon Valley Rockets persist, they say, not in spite of what happened to Carlos Sanchez, but for Carlos Sanchez.

Is that courageous? Foolish? Who is ultimately responsible for defining and setting the value in taking into account and setting aside the inherent risks involved in doing what one loves?

It’s possible that the real reason this is on my mind is that today is the fifth anniversary of the death of my cousin, Andrew Barnes. In his own right, Andrew was a fantastic athlete. He played football at Cherry Creek High in Colorado, and was asked to walk on to the football team at Colorado State. A world class climber, Andrew conquered summits on several continents, lived for months at a time outdoors in the rugged wilderness, and braved conditions in order to pursue his passion that ultimately ended up costing him his life. He fell while free-climbing in the Black Canyon of Gunnison National Park. Andrew and I had been best friends growing up, but as my life veered toward the suburban cliché of kids, a mortgage, and a cubicle, his life continued on a path of wonder and adventure. Our paths crossed less and less, and at the time of his death, I hadn’t seen him in nearly two years. 

At Andrew’s funeral, I was surrounded by his climbing friends- acquaintances with whom he had shared some of the most breathtaking views on earth. In the ensuing months and years, these eclectic adventurers continued to climb in his honor. They were not deterred by his demise. If anything, they were more motivated to climb higher, push harder, and capture the essence of every single thin-aired breath.

The purpose of these thoughts are not to discourage anyone from pursuing their passions in the face of inherent risk. Nor is the purpose to compare the dangers of extreme sports, or equate the pain of losing a loved one, to the built-in anxiety of existing in a sometimes unkind industry. The purpose is ultimately to identify the seemingly illogical “why?” behind metaphorically putting one foot in front of the other in a world full of land mines. 

I write because it’s where I feel most at home. It’s where I feel I can make a difference. It’s where I feel that every risk I take, no matter if there’s a personal cost, will be worth it.

Why do you persist? What drives you? What inspires you? For whom or what are you willing to risk it all?

In memory of my cousin, I’ll be disappearing into the woods for two weeks. When I get back, I’ll persist.