I'm just gonna be honest: I looked up A.E. Housman's "To An Athlete Dying Young" for potential use as an epigraph to this post, but there's no line that can be pulled out to make my point.
It's about the small mercy of having won glory before dying young, about having done something worth doing, even in a too-short life. John Updike's Rabbit Angstrom series covers the same ground, telling the story of an athlete's post-athletics life; his works are fiction, but uncannily mirror some of the ennui and emptiness that we see in real athletes whose sunsets come before they want to come inside.
We treat death, whether in true physical form or in the metaphorical death of a career, as a sad ending for athletes, whose vitality we regard, rightly or wrongly, as greater and more valuable than our own. It is heartbreaking to see Paul George's leg shatter, to hear of concussions forcing a player out of football, to hear of a young pitcher's arm trouble. Athletic gifts should be used, we think.
But the good thing about the metaphorical death of athletes is that injuries, while permanent, can be relegated to scars. Florida can do that this year.
Florida's injury troubles in 2013 have been covered so much here that discussion of them is met with almost reflexive disgust by some, whether using them as explanation or excuse or dismissing their use as such. That's fine: This post isn't about that.
It's about what happened afterward.
When Florida players went down, practices got smaller, but no less difficult. Trenton Brown talked about this on Tuesday: It's simply not as easy to do as much in practice with fewer bodies as it is with more bodies. Players wear down. Nagging injuries can't be rested on a day-to-day basis. Fewer guys get more reps.
That hurt Florida in 2013, obviously. And it will make having depth something that no one takes for granted in 2014.
The players who ended up with season-ending injuries vanished from the practice fields, or did work by themselves at practice, and ended up on training tables and in rehab programs. Andre Debose, Jeff Driskel, Chaz Green, D.J. Humphries, Matt Jones, Jeremi Powell, Matt Rolin and Nick Washington were all done for the year by Halloween, and Tyler Moore and Antonio Morrison joined them in November. (Alex Anzalone, Joey Ivie, and Michael Taylor suffered "season-ending" injuries in 2013 that really only kept them out of Florida's loss to Florida State.)
A whopping 13 players who spent at least a month last fall knowing they would not finish 2013 on the field, in control of their destinies and Florida's record, and are still Gators today. (Tyler Murphy, Marcus Roberson, and Colin Thompson had season-ending injuries, too.) Those 13 players spent Mondays through Fridays in cold tanks and pools and operating rooms, and spent Saturdays on the sideline in crutches. Those 13 players who would be fools to take even a second of their careers for granted.
They're healthy now.
Florida is healthy now, far more so than it was at the beginning of fall camp in 2013, and though the superstitious among us probably think noting this much is a cue to the heavens to strike someone down, it's just a fact for the moment. And I may be overstating the value of having football taken from football players, instilling wisdom and desperation on their second chances — but, then, I remember Dominique Easley, who went from fine player to holy terror after a torn ACL. And I remember that these players knew and loved and bled beside Ease, too.
And I remember that Easley talked about wanting other players to feel the pain of losses in their hearts even before Florida's worst season in decades.
It's not just us fans who suffered through the 2013 season, and the 2014 offseason. Players hear the terrible jokes dittoed by Twitter just like we do, and they hear our boos and bear our disappointments in ways we cannot.
Unlike us, they can do something about it on the field in less than a month.
If you think the Gators aren't going to rage against the dying of their lights, you've got another think coming.
Let us hail the fact that Florida is hale.
Let us hope that a hale Florida heals wounds by inflicting pain of its own.