You get up in the morning and the first thing you want to know -- the first thing every person in the Washington area wants to know -- is: Did he shoot anyone last night? We are all in the grip of the sniper, no matter where we live, no matter where we work, no matter where we fill up the car with gas. Fear strikes deep.
In the world of sports some of us inhabit, it's the youngsters who have been most affected. Their fields of play have been closed. That may or may not sound like much of a burden, given that of the victims and their loved ones. But youngsters are making sacrifices -- and, to varying degrees, learning something.
High school sports, often more than games at the college or pro level, are part of our lives. Especially if there happens to be an athlete -- or a cheerleader, or a trombone player, or a member of the color guard -- sitting across the table from you at breakfast. But now, contests involving several sports in Maryland, Virginia and the District have been canceled or postponed indefinitely -- and so have some hopes of a bunch of kids and the people who coach them and teach them.
So there is great disappointment, which can give way to frustration and, in some cases, anger. Coaches and players tell you their feelings straight out -- and it's palpable. But immediately after relating them, sometimes even as a preface to their remarks, they also tell you that they believe there is no choice other than to close down the fields. It doesn't make it any better, any easier, but many who coach and play the games primarily for the love of it believe the powers that be in the counties and districts involved have been doing the right thing.
It's not just the right thing, it's the only thing. You don't submit the lives of teenagers to a lottery.
You don't figure the odds on whether or not they'll get shot on Friday night during the third quarter. You don't knowingly gamble with life. Some people actually think: There are four million people in the area, nine have been killed, "the odds of any person being targeted are almost nil." That quotation comes from a Letter to the Editor in Thursday's Post. The writer said it was "cowardly" to cancel outdoors events, especially at schools, because such "responses submit to the needs of the sniper and exaggerate the threat."
So what if the long shot comes in? What then?
As Bob Hardage, the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference commissioner, said Thursday: "If I'm pumping gas into my car and I'm concerned, I don't want to be out on a field as a coach until such time as we definitely have closure to this situation."
The feeling extends to the sidelines. "I'm frustrated," Kreg Kephart, Gaithersburg's football coach, said Thursday. "I'm angry. Not at the decision over not to play, but at what's unfolded over the past week and a half. As a coach, you like to have things under your control. For the seniors, it's the last year. But it is a football game and not worth the life of one person who might be the victim of this person out there."
"These are extraordinary times," Dick Adams, Annandale's football coach, said Friday. "This is not a snowstorm. This is not a hurricane. You have to be very cautious because one life is one life too many.
"Yes, it's a pain. It's tough. It puts people out. To practice in the gym and not have the time outside. And to take away from the opportunity to play and from the hard work that all these kids -- field hockey, cross-country, cheerleaders, the band -- have put in. But there are more important things, such as someone's life.
"On the one hand, we would like to move on and not let this person dictate to us. That's our sense of pride and commitment, that, by golly, this guy's not going to stop us. But on the other side, it's that you're one shot away. And that just isn't worth it, that potential chance that a person could be shot."
Adams and his players were preparing to take a 21/2-hour bus ride Saturday to play their scheduled game as a result of the Fairfax County schools' decision Thursday to play football games at sites out of the area. (Gaithersburg's Kephart said he wished Montgomery County would institute such a plan.) How it will work for the Fairfax schools remains to be seen, but there's no doubt the players are champing at their mouthpieces.
Travis Johnson, Annandale's senior quarterback, noting the limitations of practicing inside the school's gym and the players' eagerness to get outside, said, "We're bouncing off the walls right now." But a game missed and uncertainty earlier this week about playing this weekend seemed to heighten his appreciation for the opportunity that he has had all along to play and to compete -- and that would be his again on Saturday even if it meant a long day back and forth on the bus. "We've made the best of what we have," he said. "But when there's a killer on the loose, you can't put yourself at risk out there."
Steve Spurrier, the Redskins' coach, yes, but more to the point, the father of a high school football player in Loudoun County, understands well the frustrations being experienced in the high schools. "All these players want to play," he said this week at Redskins Park. "It's a tough call. It's a difficult choice and I'm sure the administrators are doing what they think is best. I back the administrators, whatever they think is best. But hopefully, hopefully, they can get to where they allow them to play here real soon somehow." Loudoun County, on Friday, also decided to play its games at distant sites.
As much as any Redskins player, Danny Wuerffel has a lasting appreciation of senior year as a high school football player. In college, Wuerffel won a Heisman Trophy. He's had the chance to play professionally. Yet he can recall his high school days as freshly as if they happened last week. "I, for one, have great memories of my senior year," he said. "Pep rallies. Games. Hanging out after the games. All those things were real special times. But, in all of life, you have your priorities, and certainly safety in this case is easily the highest priority. It's a sad situation that it has to be faced the way it is, but that's the way it has to be."
True enough. High school is a great time in life. But many Washington area high school athletes, in a sense, are being introduced to unexpected sacrifice.
The Redskins' Darrell Green suggests that that is an elemental part of life, and that youngsters may as well learn about it now. The disappointments, the frustrations being felt by athletes, coaches and others can be turned to positives, he said. "There will be times in your life when things won't go the way you want them to go," he said.
Green stopped on the way to a team meeting Thursday, sat down and earnestly offered his thoughts.
"I think it's very important that the parents who represent the leadership, the coaches and all those who represent authority recognize the emotional letdown that the kids may have and be sensitive to that first," he said. "But I think a very close second, immediately, would be, let's take and refocus these energies on ideas of community service, volunteerism. It's an opportunity we did not create but we need to make the best of."
As Green would have it, this is time -- for all, basically -- to reflect on what's happening, on others' situations that might be very difficult, on lending a hand to someone.
"Yes, there's a high school senior who's, like, gosh, this is going to be my year," Green said. "Let's identify the reality of that pain. I think that has merit, and we need to give respect to that. But then I would say, take these energies, these high energies, and release them back into our community. Focus on volunteerism, on service, on prayer, on reaching out to others. You'll be surprised, time will go by quickly and you'll be back to normal."
Except to add this: For those taking Green's approach and for those lives they might touch, it would seem that what had been "normal" in life would be better.