Last Saturday I was enjoying the rare (because of the time difference) opportunity to watch my favorite English football team, Tottenham Hotspur, in action live as they went up against rivals Bolton in the quarterfinals of the venerable FA Cup tournament. Shortly before halftime, with the teams tied 1 - 1, the whistle blew as a player went down in what 99 times out of 100 is a minor injury, or "knock" in footballing parlance.
But as the minutes passed the tone of the announcers and the stunned looks on the faces of players and fans told a more foreboding tale. The phrases "cardiac event" and "epileptic seizure" were mentioned, and the cameras caught Bolton manager Owen Coyle gesturing towards his heart. To the credit of Fox Soccer they never showed the stricken player after he went down -- which turned out to be 23-year-old Bolton midfielder Fabrice Muamba -- or ran a slow-motion replay of his sudden collapse (I doubt the same would be true if something like this happened during an NFL game). After several long minutes of uncertainty the referee led the teams into the locker room, and it was announced that the match was being abandoned. As Fox abruptly cut away to other programming I thought it very likely that those watching the match had just witnessed an athlete die on the pitch. Not supposed to happen, right?
Thankfully that turned out not to have been the case. Though if death means your heart and lungs have stopped working, then Fabrice Muamba was as good as dead as he lay on the grass surrounded by medics.
The always-excellent Brian Phillips tells the story:
Athletes fall down all the time. They get tackled. They lose their balance trying to make a move. They hit the ground diving for a loose ball. It's a little strange, when you think about it. I mean, who just falls down? If you're a stockbroker or a car salesman, chances are you don't hit the turf during the course of a normal workday. But in most sports, learning how to fall is part of your job. It's something you train for.
And most of the time, for those of us watching on TV or in the stands, this is no big deal. Athletes fall. Even when there's an injury, we know there's a procedure in place to take care of it as efficiently as possible. He's holding his ankle, here comes the trainer, they're helping him off, light smattering of applause. Cue Geico commercial. It's part of the game.
Every once in a while, though, an athlete goes down and it's … different. There's no good way to describe this, but if you've watched sports long enough, chances are you've seen it once or twice and never want to see it again. A player goes down, and almost immediately there's this miserable, crawly sense that something is different; something is wrong. It's a sensation, a sort of tingle that spreads from the other players to the fans in the stadium to the people watching at home. Oh no. You can tell when this has happened because within about 10 seconds, no one at the game remembers which team they're cheering for. Fans on both sides look on with their hands clasped in front of their faces. The top half of the player disappears under a dome of medics. You stare at the player's foot and will it to move. Did it just twitch? Please get up, please get up, no one is supposed to die playing sports, please get up …
On Saturday, March 17, 2012, just over 40 minutes into the first half of Bolton's FA Cup quarterfinal match against Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane, as Gareth Bale chased a long pass down the left flank toward Bolton's goal, Bolton midfielder Fabrice Muamba fell down. For a moment, nobody noticed. When the ball was whistled dead, the camera cut to a close-up on Bale, then cut to Bolton goalkeeper Adam Bogdan as he prepared to resume play. At that point the director found Muamba lying facedown in the grass, with a member of Bolton's medical staff crouched down beside him.
There had been no one near Muamba when he fell; he simply collapsed. Everyone could see that there was something different about the way the trainer was interacting with him. Why was Muamba not rolling over when the medic was pulling on his shoulder? More and more trainers kept running out; someone brought out a defibrillator. Pacing around the medical staff, the other players looked terrified. Tottenham's Rafael Van der Vaart covered his mouth with his hands, the universal gesture for helpless near-panic. The fans — the ones who weren't staring straight ahead in shocked silence — started singing Muamba's name. After two minutes, Bolton manager Owen Coyle ran out onto the pitch to be by Muamba's side. After three minutes, players started openly praying. After four minutes, the referee, Howard Webb, called off the rest of the game.
As Muamba was carried off in a stretcher, journalists at White Hart Lane reported that he wasn't breathing. A short time later, we heard that he was being rushed to the hospital in an ambulance, accompanied by Coyle and Bolton captain Kevin Davies. We heard that the medical personnel had administered CPR all the way to the hospital. And then, for around two hours, we heard nothing.
There's no gentle way to put this, so I'll just say it: I think everyone who watched this unfold believed that they had just seen a player die. Muamba had had a heart attack, was the (correct, as it turned out) assumption. On Twitter, in forums, and I imagine in a thousand conversations, there was optimism, but it was mostly of the hoping-against-hope variety. Something to cling to when you know that no one's supposed to die on a sports field. . . .
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