This is not a column I expected to write. But then, I didn’t expect the package that arrived two days ago, either.
Some of you may remember a column from August, in which I enrolled in The Vic Braden Tennis College in Utah to learn the game that had always baffled me. I was pretty bad, but the instructors, Mark and Dave, became my friends. I wrote how they resembled tall, tan, California gods — like all tennis instructors. They liked that.
We had stayed in touch. Now here was a small package from them — a cassette tape. I figured, great, they recorded a song. This will be funny. I was on my way to an appointment. I got in my car, and popped the tape in the cassette player.
All I heard was Mark’s voice. He sounded shook up. He said the reason he was talking instead of writing was that “my fingertips have all been removed from my hands.”
“What?” I said to myself.
The tape continued: “It’s been about a week since I’ve had the strength or solitude to put this story on tape. . . . Last Sunday, I went to Zion National Park for my weekly workout. You remember Zion, right?”
I did. It was beautiful. Sandstone mountains. I knew Mark loved to go running there alone.
“Well, this time I tried a new hill. Most of it was pretty easy, and before I knew it I was halfway up. I was feeling pretty good. . . . I had been running maybe an hour, and suddenly, I was only 100 feet from the top. I said, ‘Man, I’m gonna go for it.’ . . . Night and day alone
“When I reached the top, I saw something that really discouraged me — a really, really difficult pitch. I said, ‘That’s it. I’m getting out of here.’ But I looked down and I saw it was one heck of a drop. . . .
“I realized I could not go down the way I came up. Just no way. I started to shake. I knew I couldn’t stay there. I was miles from anyone. I couldn’t yell. And I was losing strength holding myself on the side of this mountain. So I tried for that pitch. . . .
“I remember slipping and I started to fall. Later I would find out it was about 100 feet. I bounced and tumbled and rolled down the side of this mountain. I scraped all my fingers, ripped the skin from my back and my rear end and legs. I must have said, ‘Please God!’ about 10 times.
“I remember hitting a tree, bouncing off it, and landing real hard on a ledge. . . . “
I stopped the tape. I shook my head. Mark was in perfect shape, not an ounce of fat. Handsome, always in control, a great tennis player. This stuff doesn’t happen to people like that, does it?
“I couldn’t go back up; I was too weak and bleeding too bad. I worked my way into a crevice. It got darker and darker. I just hoped people would know I was missing. . . .
“Nights in Utah are pretty cold now. And here I was with just shorts and a
pair of high tops — no shirt, nothing. I put my feet against two bushes and laid my bloody back against the dirty rock. I laid there all night. I couldn’t stop shivering. I could taste sand in my mouth from the fall. I was so thirsty. . . .
“Finally the sun came up. I thought for sure some rescuers would come for me. . . . I stayed on that ledge, trying to pass the time. I thought about tennis. I thought about my life. . . . In the afternoon, the sun shone right on me. It was really hot, and I showed all signs of heatstroke. My skin was hot and dry, I had stopped sweating, I was dehydrated. . . .
“Finally, I tied my socks together and hung them on a branch of the tree. If I passed out, maybe the rescuers would find my body. . . . ” A lesson learned
By now I was late, but I had to hear the end. I pulled into a 7-Eleven parking lot as Mark talked about his second night alone, no food, no water. He counted the stars. He tried to yell. What would you do in a situation like that? What could you do?
“Just before daylight, to my amazement, I heard a voice and saw a flashlight. It was a ranger. I managed to get out a ‘help.’ Turns out he knew where to look because my scent was coming from this crevice; the search dogs were able to track me down.
“It took about five hours to get me out. They needed 10 rangers and rock climbers. They built a body harness, rappelled me out, and put me in an ambulance. You know what amazed me most? The dogs. They weren’t rewarded with food or treats; they were rewarded by being allowed to come up, one by one, and smell me and lick me. . . .
“My injuries? Well, I broke my thumb, there’s no skin left on my back or rear end, I’ve got bumps on my head and arms and legs, but that’s pretty good, considering what happened. I’m at home now. These things will clear up, and I’ll be a normal guy again.”
He paused. He said he just wanted to share this, because he felt he had to. He felt it was important. “Hope to hear from you,” he said, in closing.
“No rush, though. I’ve got all the time in the world now.”
The tape went silent. I was in a 7-Eleven parking lot, my engine running, and I was almost crying.
Maybe it’s not a typical sports column. But our sports pages are loaded with famous people’s trivial pursuits: Brian Bosworth cuts his hair; Michael Jordan gets a Wheaties box. I learn nothing from these. Yet here, on a little tape that I never expected, was a wonderful lesson.
“All the time in the world,” he said. And I bet Mark, like most of us, never knew how sweet those words can be.
Mitch Albom will host a new weekly sports talk show, “Sunday Sports Live!” beginning Sunday, Nov. 6, 9-11 p.m. on WLLZ 98.7- FM. His featured guest this week is Kirk Gibson.