EVERY DAY I FIGHT
By Stuart Scott with Larry Platt
Blue Rider. 298 pp. $26.95
Six years ago, I lost a sister to cancer. She was 42, she was loving and she was loved, and then she was gone. Since then I’ve had difficulty reading about the disease. Siddhartha Mukherjee’s “The Emperor of All Maladies” won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011; I couldn’t pick it up. John Green’s “The Fault in Our Stars” became a phenomenon; I skipped both book and movie. Why invite cancer into my life when it had already broken in?
But when I learned that Stuart Scott had completed a memoir shortly before dying at 49 of appendiceal cancer in January, I knew I would read it. Maybe because I was such a fan of his work on ESPN, with every “boo-yah!” making him as cool as the other side of the pillow. Maybe because my sister had also been in television broadcasting. Maybe because, after another family member was diagnosed and treated last year, I realized that avoiding something doesn’t mean it will avoid you.
I’m glad I read it. Scott writes about illness and loss with a relentless energy that makes this the happiest sad book I can recall. The book is a lot like Scott on television — over the top, irresistibly sincere. He has not produced a standard strength-through-adversity tale. “Trust me,” he says to the people praising his fortitude after his illness became public, “I ain’t courageous. I just don’t want to die.” And there are two simple reasons Scott did not want to die: his young daughters, Taelor and Sydni.
“I wish I could explain this moment,” Scott writes of learning his diagnosis in 2007. “It’s a sledgehammer to your gut, to your chest. It’s a feeling of pressure, like you’re about to burst.” His immediate thoughts: “I’m going to die. And then, worse: I won’t be here for my daughters.”
“Every Day I Fight,” which Scott wrote with journalist Larry Platt, is the only possible title for this book. That’s because fighting — for safety, for fun, for team, for family, for life — was a big part of being Stuart Scott. During his childhood in Winston-Salem, N.C., he threw down with the McCarthy boys down the street (“they were some tough Irish kids”) and slugged it out with bus-stop bullies Flatface and Fatface. He fake-fought with his best friend, waiting until a crowd gathered before letting on they were just kidding. He played football because “it’s just you and these other guys, and the prevailing ethic among you is: I’m going to fight for you.” His brother Stephen discouraged Stuart from joining him at Western Carolina University because of the racial tensions in town. “You’d be getting into a lot of fights here,” Stephen told him.
And when his daughters were babies, Scott would sneak into their rooms as they slept and imagine that he was defending them against unknown assailants. “It probably sounds like some stupid tough-guy thing, but every night I’d have the same thought: You can’t come in here and hurt them. . . . You’ll have to go through me and kill me. Not on my watch.”
How could a guy like this not fight for his own survival? “This thing growing inside me was trying to kick my ass,” Scott reasoned. “Well, I’ve gotta hit it first and kick its ass.” So he worked out after every chemotherapy infusion. “I’d talk smack to cancer like Ali talked to his opponents. A third set of push-ups? Take that, cancer. Twenty full-out sprint pass patterns? Cancer, you ever run up against this? Some kicks and punches right into the middle of the heavy bag after the elliptical? I got yer cancer right here!”
Though the foreknowledge of his illness looms over every page, the first half of the book is devoted to Scott’s upbringing; his college years at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he pledged Alpha Phi Alpha (“1-9-0-6!”); and his rise through local stations until reaching ESPN. His early years with the Worldwide Leader coincided with the rising influence of hip-hop in sports, and Scott was dubbed “the hip-hop Howard Cosell” for his transformative impact on the language of broadcasting. He has nothing but praise for his colleagues and the executives at ESPN, who valued “creativity and diversity in radical ways,” he says, but he seems less thrilled by Keith Olbermann, “the newsroom’s complainer-in-chief,” who, in Scott’s eyes, tried too hard to be cool.
Though known for his catchphrases — “Pitch, don’t kill my vibe!” — Scott took most pride in his writing and knowledge of sports. “Even in my earliest days [at ESPN], I knew I could write with anybody on that campus,” he boasts, and he kept a tally of which anchors offered viewers the most statistics.
Scott’s signature phraseology crosses over into his experience with cancer. As only he could, he describes a top doctor as a “colorectal Michael Jordan” and, during particularly invasive parts of his treatment, vows that “if catheters are playing the Ku Klux Klan in a football game, I’m rooting for the Klan.” Yet he is also skilled at describing — in simple, brutal sentences — what runs through the mind of a cancer patient. “There’s not any time of any day that you forget you have cancer,” he writes. “Every minute of every day I was afraid I was going to die.”
Facing a disease that makes patients and families feel so powerless, Scott made choices. He continued working, with a punishing travel schedule that had him flying from NBA Finals arenas to hospital wards. He kept exercising. And he told his doctor early on that he didn’t want to know the stage of his cancer. “I’m not going to be interested in how long you think I have,” Scott explained to a perplexed surgeon.
Scott was familiar with the body’s betrayals — including 18 eye surgeries to deal with a cornea disease — but over years of treatments, recurrences, blockages and surgeries, even a fighter grows weary. “I’ve been filling up these pages with this cancer talk, and it’s gotten to the point that I can’t stand my own voice,” he writes near the end. “I feel repetitive and pathetic and self-centered.”
Repetitive? At times. Self-centered? Understandable. Pathetic? No way.
In the fall of 2014, Scott spent 75 consecutive days in the hospital. For so long, he’d tried to protect Taelor and Sydni, but now he couldn’t. “I’m more worried now than I’ve ever been,” he told them. He saw their fear. The girls had been 12 and 8 when he was first diagnosed, but now Taelor was in college and Sydni a teenager. Now they understood.
But these most painful days also brought joy. “We could be watching some silly video on Sydni’s laptop and I’d say to myself: My girls are here with me now. Taelor could have her head buried in a book: My girls are here with me now. Even when they started snapping at each other . . . My girls are here with me now.”
In July 2014, Scott delivered a stirring speech at the annual ESPN awards show. “When you die, it does not mean that you lose to cancer,” he told a rapt audience of jocks and broadcasters. “You beat cancer by how you live, why you live, and in the manner in which you live.” That passage will define him more than any home-run call.
Early in his career, when Scott’s personality seemed to overpower a local station, the news director asked him to tone it down, to “save that stuff for ESPN.” Scott’s reaction? “This is sports, man. We ain’t curing cancer.”
Not yet. Stuart Scott was loving and he was loved, and then he was gone. But in these pages, this loudest of voices reveals the quiet dignity of his fight.
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