“You doing all right? Just read the sad news from the MotoGP world.”
That’s the text that I received this afternoon, from a friend in Mexico City. I was surprised and touched that he’d reached out — after all, I was indeed sad today upon reading that Nicky Hayden had passed away. Hayden was struck by a car in Italy last week as he was riding his bicycle, and the motorcycle racing world had been holding its collective breath for the past few days wondering if he would pull through. Today on my lunch break I discovered that the hashtags had drifted from #GoNicky to #RideOnKentuckyKid, and I couldn’t help but read the news and the memorial posts through a haze of tears.
And I wondered a bit at that. After all, I’ve really only gotten into MotoGP in the last couple of years. And it’s not like I was a die hard Nicky Hayden fan. What was this sinking feeling all about? And then the answer arrived in the form of the next text from my friend:
“It’s just as a long time sports fan, I know it can affect you when an athlete dies who you’d become familiar with.”
“Yeah,” I responded. “This is a new sensation for me.”
My friend is one of the biggest sports fans I know, and a great writer. I always felt, as someone who wasn’t a sports fan myself, that I could kinda get it when I read his work. But now, here I was on the inside of it, a fan myself now, and experiencing something I hadn’t anticipated. The excitement and joy of racing, sure, but not this surprising sadness. What is it about the death of a stranger that can set us to feeling adrift like this?
Maybe because athletes are more than just strangers somehow. They are representative of something we wish we could be, a level of greatness we long for. They’re larger than life to us, so when they’re unexpectedly cut down young, it feels like the void is larger, too. To fans, they are our gladiators, the warriors who head out into the ring on our behalf week after week, year after year.
And in this case, part of this helpless, hopeless feeling is the ironic futility of it all: here is a man who has raced motorcycles at 200+ mph for years, and he loses it all riding a damn bicycle, something the vast majority of us have been doing our entire lives. It could happen to any of us, anytime. And the passing of the last American MotoGP champion feels like the end of an era, like we lost more than just a kid from Kentucky.
Ah… there it is. We. Maybe that’s what being a sports fan is really all about. I may be feeling unexpectedly adrift at the death of a motorcycle racer — but I’m not alone. And there’s a comfort to be found in that.