|Wednesday, August 1
Updated: August 2, 3:46 PM ET
Vikings' grieving process will take time
By Len Pasquarelli
Stunned by the sudden loss of teammate and friend Korey Stringer early Wednesday morning, Minnesota Vikings players and coaches could require months of grieving, and part of the process likely will include an examination of their own mortality.
That was the opinion of some NFL players who have experienced the loss of a teammate and of several sports psychologists familiar with such a tragic situation.
"Because athletes earn a living with their bodies, even the slightest dysfunction sets up a red flag, affects them exponentially more than it would the normal person," said Los Angeles-based sports psychologist Ken Sylvestri. "And in this case, we're talking about more than, say, a knee injury or a hamstring strain. This is the extreme, and you can expect teammates to react appropriately, without a doubt. There can't help but be a dramatic effect on the Minnesota players this year. Suddenly there is a feeling that, as a team and more so as individuals, they aren't invulnerable. You realize that you don't always control your own fate and that reality can be painful."
That feeling certainly pervaded the 1989 Atlanta Falcons, a tragically star-crossed team on which three players died in a span of about nine months.
Defensive back David Croudip died in the spring of that year from a drug overdose. Then rookie offensive tackle Ralph Norwood, the team's second-round draft choice, was killed in a one-car accident when he failed to negotiate a tricky curve while returning from a Thanksgiving party that teammate Jamie Dukes and his wife annually hosted for first-year players and those who had no family in town. Less than three weeks later, tight end Brad Beckman was killed when the car in which he was a passenger was struck by a truck.
It was, for Falcons players and coaches and even the media that covered the team that year, the most miserable season imaginable. Team president Rankin Smith Jr. allowed that there "must be one big, dark cloud floating over this franchise," and it certainly seemed that way.
Expected to be an improved, young team that year, Atlanta won just four games. Preoccupied by the deaths of the players, the team quit on coach Marion Campbell and he finally quit on it, too, announcing his resignation with four games remaining on the schedule.
It might be an overstatement to assign all the blame for that season on the lingering funk that hung over the locker room, but certainly the three deaths made an impact and played on the psyches of the Atlanta players and coaches. All three players were popular with teammates, as was Stringer in Minnesota, and that contributed to the season-long malaise.
"There was never any normalcy to that season, even after the death (of Croudip), and I think it weighed on the minds of a lot of guys," said former Falcons guard Bill Fralic. "At least back then, you led a fairly insulated existence as an athlete. You didn't always concern yourself worrying about all the 'real world' stuff. But death is about as real world as it gets, and the Vikings will have to deal with that, and it's not as easy thing. You can't just snap your fingers and be over it."
The truth is, athletes might reflect even longer than people in other walks of life over the sudden death of a teammate, suggest some psychologists. By nature, professional athletes tend to easily adopt a sense of invincibility, a feeling that they are not subject to the everyday problems with which everyone else must deal.
They are in their own minds, said Dr. Suzanna Feldman, "above the nomal stuff. They fancy themselves as Superman. But an event like this tends to remind all of us that they are only human. The players left behind in Minnesota realize that now, unfortunately, with a sudden jolt. It can be a tough thing to swallow. Players who were with (Stringer) won't easily forget this."
More than 20 years after the death of tight end J.V. Cain during a St. Louis Cardinals training camp practice in 1979, former teammates still remember the shock of watching such a big man succumb to heart failure. The tragedy occurred on Cain's 27th birthday.
"You never forget the shock," said former Cardinals running back Ottis Anderson. Added former St. Louis receiver Roy Green: "You can say all that stuff about, 'Well, we'll devote the season to our fallen teammate,' but it's not as simple as that."
It is believed that, in the modern history of the game, former Detroit Lions wide receiver Chuck Hughes was the most recent player to die during a game, passing away in a 1972 contest against the Chicago Bears. The feeling is that players are more adversely affected when a teammate is severely injured or dies on the field of battle. But former Philadelphia players who were friends of defensive tackle Jerome Brown, killed in a 1992 automobile accident, disagree.
So do athletes who were teammates of other players killed off the field.
"In the case of Jerome," said Randall Cunningham, "he was such spirited guy. To just have him suddenly gone, well, none of us could believe it. I know those guys in Minnesota, knew and had played with Korey Stringer. This is going to hit hard."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.