Highwaygirl banner

May 15, 2005

Dee Harrell

This is a column I wrote for the Virginian-Pilot, a newspaper I used to work for. I've been cleaning out my office and happened to find a clipping of this hidden in the back of my filing cabinet.

For me, he will always be flying through the end zone, parallel to the ground, while time ticked away and the world around him stood in silence, ready to split apart at the seams.

The Catch will remain Deodus Harrell's most public legacy, a memory that is unlikely to fade from the minds of the 7,000 people who saw it, as well as the thousands of others who will claim they did.

It was, after all, the play that sent Deep Creek High School to the state football playoffs. It made Harrell a local hero, although one who credited almost everyone else – his linemen, his quarterback, his coaches – for his success.

Dee Harrell died last week. He was only 19. He had Hodgkin's disease, a rare form of cancer that afflicts only 8,000 people – about as many who were in the stadium that night in December – each year, many of them before their 30th birthday. It is considered a very treatable disease, with as high as a 90 percent five-year survival rate for those who are diagnosed early.

But it is still cancer.

Even though Hodgkin's disease is decreasing in morbidity faster than any other cancer, nothing in life is guaranteed. The people who loved Dee Harrell, and those who were simply fortunate enough to have known him, are aware of that now. Nothing – not being an athlete, or a good student, or a terrific parent – can protect you from life's ugliness.

I spent nearly two years in Chesapeake as sports editor of the Clipper. I live in Florida now, and I heard the news about Dee from Virginian-Pilot sports writer Paul White, who called me the day after Dee died.

It would have hurt no matter what the circumstances – I admired Harrell not for his athletic ability, but because he was a wonderful young man – but it stung even more because just two weeks before I had completed treatment for my own case of Hodgkin's disease.

I survived through six months of chemotherapy and three weeks of radiation. Dee Harrell did not. This doesn't make me feel special, or even particularly lucky – it just makes me feel sad.

I wish I knew why one of us did well and the other did not. Perhaps it is due to the amount of disease each of us had, the extent it had spread through our bodies, or our individual reactions to the toxic effects of treatment.

It hardly matters to me, really. I only know one thing – you're not supposed to die when you're 19. You're not supposed to die when you're a loved son, or someone's closest friend. You're not supposed to die when you're a hero to a whole school and your entire community.

I left Chesapeake weeks after that game. The following March, on the day before my 26th birthday, I got a diagnosis of cancer. To say that I was shocked at the news wouldn't begin to do my feelings justice. After all, young people just don't get cancer, right? All I had was a lump on my neck.

I'm sure it was even more of a surprise for Dee, who probably accepted the possibility of getting injured on the football field, or at the track, but never expected to be hit by a life-threatening disease.

Part of that is our fault. We expect athletes to be superhuman. We watch their exploits on the fields and courts, and stand in awe of their strength, their power, their ability to appear untouchable.

But they are, ultimately, just like we are, and subject to the same injustices that life often hands out.

I am thankful that I can say I am in remission. I hope to be able to say that every day for the rest of my life. Once you've had cancer, you cannot escape that it has forever changed how you see things. I will never be able to hear or read something about Hodgkin's disease, or cancer in general, and not have an uneasy sense of recognition.

There's an old song that says "Preserve your memories, they're all that's left you." If that is true, then Dee Harrell made the kind of impression that few people will ever be fortunate enough to make.

His life meant something, and not just to his family and friends. But if most people only remember him for one play, on one night, in one football game, that's fine.

Just as long as they remember.

Posted by Highwaygirl on May 15, 2005 12:46 PM to the category Stuff About Me

I don't know how, and I don't remember when, I stumbled across your blog.

But I am crying now, and this (and many other posts) are why.

Posted by: Mike at May 15, 2005 01:02 AM

Thanks for sharing this with us.

Posted by: Indigo at May 16, 2005 12:19 PM

Wonderfully written. Which is reason number 357 you need to be strapped down and forced to finish your book. Then maybe I'll think about collaborating with you on your website idea. Which would generate disgusting amounts of money. Proceedes that we would -of course- donate generously to charity. Or blow it all on hookers.

Posted by: Randomben at May 16, 2005 03:58 PM

Ben, you forgot about the cocaine. It's hookers and cocaine.

Posted by: Highwaygirl at May 17, 2005 09:13 AM

man this article touched me Dee by the way was my cousin at the time of his death i was only 10 years old, i mean i used 2 hear all the stories about how good he was in all sports but never got 2 see him play i wish i did touch me hi mom is my moms sister

Posted by: Larry Speight at December 26, 2006 01:34 AM
Post a comment

Remember personal info?

click to make your selection bold click to make your selection italic click to add a link
Highlight the text you wish to modify, then click on the bold, italics, or link button.

The bold, italics, and link buttons only work in IE 5+ on the PC.