Sports can be fun, but has tragic side as well

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 29, 2005

The Associated Press

The day was picture perfect, and so was Augusta National. Tiger Woods had just teed off in the final round of a Masters for the ages, and the country tuned in to watch the thrilling outcome amid the brilliantly manicured greens of one of golf's most revered shrines.

About the same time, Al Lucas lay dying on the fake turf inside Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles.

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Sports can bring us pleasure and joy, the kind we get from seeing Woods making a magical shot or watching Pedro Martinez pitch a nine-inning gem, as he did Sunday in Atlanta.

It can also bring heartache and grief.

Woods had tears in his eyes Sunday night as he accepted the green jacket and dedicated it to his seriously ill father. About 125 miles away in Macon, Ga., Lucas' family surely was crying, too, over the loss of their son.

Lucas was 26 and trying to make a living in a game he loved when he was fatally injured during what appeared to be a routine kickoff return in the Arena Football League game between the Los Angeles Avengers and New York Dragons.

Before he died, the 6-foot-1, 300-pound lineman was just another athlete playing a fringe version of America's most popular sport. Though he was the top defensive player in Division I-AA his senior season and played for the Carolina Panthers in 2000-01, even the most dedicated Avengers fan would be hard-pressed to tell you who he was.

Sadly, the few moments of fame every athlete craves came posthumously.

His death allowed us to learn a little about his family - his father was a state representative in Georgia and his mother is on Macon's City Council.

We also found out something about Lucas himself from the guys who played with him. They described him as a deeply religious, fun-loving father of a 1-year-old daughter who never missed the team's weekly Bible study session.

''As great a player as he was, I think he was a better person,'' Avengers coach Ed Hodgkiss said. ''He had a great ability and with that ability came leadership.''

Lucas' teammates returned to practice the day after he died because, well, that's what players usually do. They mourned among themselves, spoke about their loss and talked of winning in his honor.

Those who knew Becky Zerlentes felt the same.

She died last week in Denver when she was hit by a punch to the head during a Golden Gloves competition.

Like Lucas' death, it didn't make much sense. She was wearing headgear and didn't seem to be in any trouble when she took that hit in the third round, staggered forward and collapsed in the ring.

We got to know Zerlentes briefly, too, because she was the first woman boxer to die in a sanctioned event and because it was partly a case of life imitating art, as in the movie ''Million Dollar Baby.''

Zerlentes was a 34-year-old college instructor who had a brown belt in taekwondo, organized group walks for charity, rode her bike everywhere, and lived her life to the fullest.

''She was the Energizer Bunny of our campus. She was turbo woman,'' said Mary Croissant, who taught with Zerlentes at Front Range Community College. ''She had a smile and a light in her heart that touched everyone she came in contact with.''

Zerlentes and Lucas died competing in sports that are inherently risky. Football players are taught to throw their bodies at an opponent; boxers throw every punch with the intent to injure.

Every year, a boxer or two somewhere dies from punches to the head; five died in Nevada alone in the past 20 years. Football players are even more at risk, probably because there are so many more of them.

The National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research, which studies these kind of things, reports that five football players died last year from on-field injuries, and another 10 died from football-related activities. Most were high school students.

Since research began in 1931, there have been 1,642 deaths in football, numbers that can hardly be comforting to parents sending their children off to practice.

Baseball players sometimes die, too, when hit by balls and bats, and studies show soccer players are more likely to die of heart attacks than non-players.

Sports are supposed to be fun. They're supposed to be a diversion away from the realities of everyday life, and most of the time they are.

No one was going to get hurt at the Masters, unless Woods hit one sideways or Vijay Singh and Phil Mickelson began swinging golf clubs at each other. But sports can turn deadly as the events of the last few weeks show.

Tragically, the families of Al Lucas and Becky Zerlentes know that all too well.