When 22-year-old athletes die -- be they Cy Young candidates or fifth-string Division III punters -- we take notice. There's simply something irreconcilable about a physical specimen suddenly ceasing to exist. One day, he is enthralling the masses, the next nothingness.
That said, the indifference which greeted the passing of Isak Bjerknes, one of the world's rising professional wrestlers, was downright heartbreaking.
A native Norwegian who wrestled in the England-based WAW (World Association of Wrestling) under the moniker "Isak Rain," Bjerknes died on the morning of Oct. 10 when, while driving to his construction job outside of Darbu, Norway, he lost control of his car and crashed into a tree.
Beginning four years ago, when he first attended a tryout for the Norwegian Wrestling Federation's training school, Bjerknes earned a reputation as one of his sport's true success stories. As a young teenager, he battled depression and paranoia, as well as drug addictions, and attempted suicide on multiple occasions. If one thing saved his life, it was the mat. Reads his biography on the Web site, isakrain.net: "Since the age of 6, pro wrestling was one of Rain's few passions, so whenever things got rough, Rain would find peace with the wrestling, and the dream was there to once achieve the opportunity to become a pro wrestler himself."
Though neither especially large (he was 5-foot-9 and 176 pounds) nor a Jordan-esque athlete (the NBA legend was, however, his hero -- along with Eminem, Superman and Jesus), Bjerknes opened eyes in the WAW with an unparalleled work ethic and dashing good looks that reminded some of a young Matt Dillon. "His charisma was great," says Erik Isaksen, Bjerknes' tutor at the Norwegian Wrestling Foundation. "He simply had the 'it' factor which is so important in wrestling. If his life was not taken away from him far too soon, he could have become an international star."
Bjerknes also possessed a sly sense of humor. Once, while he and Isaksen were flying to a wrestling event, Isaksen rose to use the bathroom. Upon returning, he struggled for 10 minutes to put his seat belt on. "To my surprise they could not lock," Isaksen says. "He had swapped the seat belts so they did not match."
In the years before his death, the once-troubled Bjerknes seemed to have straightened himself out. He appeared in a handful of Dutch Christian youth movies and became increasingly involved in his church.
The demons that had dominated his existence were gone.
"As the time goes by," he wrote recently on his MySpace page, "I hope to wrestle as much as I can in as many countries as I can."
Jeff Pearlman is a former Sports Illustrated senior writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
PAGE 2 TRIBUTES
Page 2 tells the stories of some of those who passed away this year.TAYLOR BRADFORD, 1986-2007
Taylor Bradford was a defensive lineman for the University of Memphis. He was also a thoughtful, intelligent brother and friend.
ABE COLEMAN, 1905-2007
Abe Coleman was 5-foot-3, 220 pounds and wrestled before a crowd of 60,000. He was one of a kind.
EDDIE FEIGNER, 1925-2007
Softball pitcher Eddie Feigner was more than a traveling sideshow: he may have been the best ever at any craft.
JOHN FERGUSON, 1938-2007
John Ferguson isn't in the Hall of Fame, but the Montreal Canadiens wouldn't have won five Stanley Cups without him.
BUDDY HANCKEN, 1914-2007
Buddy Hancken played just one inning in the major leagues, but he had a lifetime of stories to tell after spending 50 years in pro baseball.
MARQUISE HILL, 1982-2007
Patriots defensive lineman Marquise Hill tried to do what was right, and he had a perspective far beyond his years.
JESSE MARUNDE, 1979-2007
Jesse Marunde was one of the strongest men on the planet. Did he push himself too far?
ISAK RAIN, 1985-2007
Isak Rain was a budding star in the wrestling world, but an auto accident took his life far too soon.
BILL ROBINSON, 1943-2007
Bill Robinson enjoyed a long, productive major league career. He also knew how to take a joke.
VERN RUHLE, 1951-2007
Did he catch it or not? We can't say for certain, but either way, Vern Ruhle is a part of baseball history.