The Coolest Side of the Pillow

When did you hear the news? My memory has the exact day on rewind, every detail of that morning bookmarked.

I sat in the basement of my Yia Yia and Papou’s Worcester home, an unseasonably warm winter day for a Kotsopoulos gathering. My grandparents wanted the cousins together one last time for a pancake breakfast before everyone headed back to school. I sat down enjoying the smell of maple syrup and sausage until my younger brother nudged me hard in the ribs. At first, I thought nothing of it— simply Maxy trying to distract me with old pictures he found of my dad at prom. Right? I continued throwing my younger cousin his toy football until I felt another sharp jab at the waist. I turn around, seeing Maxy wide-eyed, practically throwing his iPhone into my face.

On his Bleacher Report App, the headline read something like: “Longtime ESPN anchor, Stuart Scott, passes away at age 49.”

Honestly, I doubt it actually said that. I took one long look and blinked. I didn’t want to see that. I still don’t believe it.

Stuart. Scott. Dead: Three words with no business next to each other. The man epitomized a sincere love for sports—the same love that held my three brothers together for twenty plus years. We woke up every Saturday morning, turning the dial to Channel 36 for the morning episode of SportsCenter. Per Usual, Stuart Scott smiled back from his desk in Bristol, spitting out sports headlines that held the world captive just a night ago. We sat in awe, filling our backpacks before school or putting on our shin pads before a 9 AM soccer game, eating up every “Boo-yeah” of a Top-10 play. We ate up every ounce of swagger the man brought to the table. Our cup runneth over to the point where our mom no longer understood the lingo spewing from our own mouths.

I remember the first morning I met Stuart Scott— nearly a dozen years ago.

The man introduced me to an unceremoniously bittersweet marriage to sports one bitter night in October 2003. It feels just like yesterday. The Red Sox, straight off overcoming a 0-2 to deficit to the Oakland Athletics, played against the New York Yankees in arguably the greatest American League Championship Series to date. Forever defined by Pedro Martinez throwing Don Zimmer off his rocker, the ’03 ALCS climaxed in a Game Seven that unfathomably lived up to every ounce of its hype. The game meant everything. The Evil Empire vs. Cowboy Up. Nomar vs. Jeter. Pedro Martinez against Rodger Clemens. Two of the greatest pitchers of our generation in a heavyweight battle, with a trip to the World Series on the line. With no love lost between the two teams, not even Spielberg writes a better Hollywood script.

Just a third grader, I tried my best to stay up for the entire game. Despite fighting off sleep, I lived a nightmare. Red Sox manager Grady Little sold his soul, and my heart, leaving Pedro on the mound until his shoulder hung by its last string. A late Yankees rally erased the Sox’s comfy four-run lead. Before I knew it, Aaron Boone took a Tim Wakefield knuckleball deep into the night. Game over. Series over. See you next year.

I went to bed crying, upset and feeling cheated.

Of course, the sun rose that next morning and I woke up shocked the world hadn’t ended. Eating breakfast, I watched the morning broadcast of SportsCenter. To my demise, the network replayed Boone’s moonshot over and over. This time, a man retold the story, making me believe I watched that game for the first time. That same man filled me with hope—the cruelest joke possible.

He convinced me Grady Little hands the ball over to the bullpen. That Johnny Damon remembers how to play centerfield late in the game. Perhaps that calm, cool, composed man breathed a life of his own into the headlines surrounding the game, playing with my emotions worse than a yo-yo. With one Aaron Boone moonshot replay, Stuart Scott murdered any last hope of the Sox breaking a century long curse.

How agonizing. How sad. How beautiful. At that moment, I felt hooked. I needed more. Scott left me on a hundred-story cliffhanger, needing a hit of sports on a daily basis. His presence traveled far beyond watching the Red Sox, even though his echoing catch phrases heightened the sheer bliss of David Ortiz’s heroics that next postseason.

Scott sat in our living room the night Rodney Harrison picked off Donovan McNabb to secure a Patriots dynasty and the day Danny Ainge formed a coup with the likes of Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett in 2007. At the same time, he lingered in the shadows, echoing tales of David Tyree ruining a perfect 19-0 season with his helmet. His damn helmet! The dog days of summer featured backyard wiffle ball games smeared by Stuart Scott’s fingerprints. Commentating our own highlights, each home run ended with your typical, “Call that man butter, ‘cause he’s on a roll!”

Sports never felt so real, so alive, thanks to Stuart Scott. People looked up to the ESPN anchor. They found solace in Scott’s swagger, his unwavering confidence that offered a fresh, new start to the day— simply untouchable. He made every headline larger than life, adding his own zest and street-cred that captivated the hearts of kids, and adults everywhere.

That swagger and sheer confidence makes his death so unbelievable. It scares us to see those we idolize look weak or vulnerable. Not even scary, but alien. These people represent invincibility. They need to stay strong. When they fall, they get back up, each and every time, no matter how mighty the fall.

Oftentimes, we selfishly care too much and forget their mortality. Their tremendous feats often overshadow their humanity, so much so that their own person struggle goes forgotten. What happens when the weight grows too heavy? When the fall proves too strong and getting back into the ring feels impossible, who has enough strength to uplift these living monuments?

Anybody and anything. Just reach for that outstretched hand, swallow your pride and accept the returned favor.

Stuart Scott knew this. Upon receiving his 2014 Jimmy V Perseverance ESPY award this past summer, Scott barely made it to the ceremony. In fact, just days before, Scott clung on to his life, undergoing aggressive chemotherapy sessions that left him emotionally and physically drained.

Of course, the man persevered. Anchors at ESPN marveled over the naps Stuart Scott took in between commercials to stay sharp and focused despite his ongoing cancer treatments. His passion and commitment to sports, his beautiful craft, kept the man alive.

For a brief shining moment, Scott shared that struggle as he held his silver ESPY trophy in front of the stage, once used by the likes of Jimmy Valvano himself. Thin, weak, and clearly beaten—Scott got back up on his feet for one last, fight in the ring of life:

“When you die, it does not mean you lose to cancer. You beat cancer by how you live, why you live, and in a manner in which you live… So live. Live. Fight like hell, and when you get too tired to fight, then lay down and let somebody else fight for you.”

By those standards, Scott beat cancer by unanimous decision— an absolute knockout punch. The proof? It oozes everywhere. It lives in this column. It lives in the sheer shock of my little brother that early Saturday morning, in the tears dropping from the eyes of every ESPN anchor, in the little kid on the playground screaming, “Boo-yeah” after drawing an “And-One” for a layup. Scott made sports into more than just a game.

To say the man made sports poetic fails to offer any justice. No, not that simple. Stuart Scott made it a way of life. The way he lived, his legacy, changed sports forever.

So, before you go to bed tonight, take a moment to think of those athletes you idolize, those who inspire greatness every single day. Think far into the future. Maybe twenty to thirty years from now when you turn on CNN or ESPN, seeing a headline that reads, “Tom Brady dies at the age of seventy-something” or “Steve Addazio passes away after battling…” Stop. Like I said, unfathomable right?

These idols, although human, never die. They live by the profound impact they left on our lives. Sitting in my grandparents’ basement that morning and hearing that headline, I had every reason to label that headline a lie. I still do.

Thank you Stuart, for reminding me of the cool side of the pillow.

Thank you for teaching me bravery, strength, and humility.

Thank you.

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