Jeff Woody is a former running back at Iowa State University, who became friendly with former Iowa Hawkeyes and New York Giants safety Tyler Sash while the two worked at channel 5 in Des Moines. Sash was found dead yesterday morning at the age of 27, and no cause of death has been revealed yet, but Woody wrote this blog following Sash’s death which should be read by every athlete, ex-athlete and fan out there:
From The Des Moines Register:
Tuesday afternoon, I received a text message on my phone from a former teammate of mine.
Bro, Tyler Sash passed away.”
My immediate response was to call him a liar. He backed it up with dark, unsettling facts, confirming the depressing truth. I worked with Sash last fall on the CyHawk Rewind TV show on Channel 5 in Des Moines. When I first met him, he seemed nervous and jittery. I assumed it was due to his being on live television for the first time, which truthfully is a nerve-wracking experience. He seemed to loosen up when we got to trash-talking about the ‘Clones and Hawks, which were to play the following week. He had a tremendous light about him when he got to talk about his Hawkeyes, Giants, or any stories from his playing days.
“He had the dream he was going to go back to the NFL,” Longtime Oskaloosa coach Jerry Staton told The Register. “He kind of kept that hope alive.”
And now he is dead at 27. This is a cold, harsh, gut-punching reality. We don’t yet know the full details surrounding his death, other than that he was found dead Tuesday morning in his hometown of Oskaloosa. An autopsy is scheduled for Wednesday and more should be known soon. But I have a good idea as to what was going on in his soul though — Staton spoke to it too — and I was guilty of stoking the flame. I have felt what he felt too, and I had to deal with it the way I knew how.
Football is a great game. It is the ultimate team sport. In soccer, if your left midfielder isn’t as good as the rest of your team, you simply shade the defense over him and phase him out of the offense. If a right fielder in baseball isn’t an adequate hitter, you just assume him to be a liability in the lineup an bury him in the 8th slot. But in football, if your “Mike” linebacker or left guard are inadequate, the opponent will seize that opportunity and exploit the mismatch. The game teaches you how to be tough; it teaches you how to lead; it teaches you to follow; it teaches you respect, fairness, compassion, empathy, togetherness and citizenship; and it teaches you how to be a better human. It provides you an outlet for your aggression and passions. And it brings attention.
Attention is a two-bladed sword. With it, you can cut red tape and get where you want to be faster based on who you are. It also brings a huge amount of eyes on you and every little thing you do. You are under a proverbial microscope. You are not allowed to make mistakes. You are not allowed access to forgiveness that follows many people like a shadow. In a state like Iowa, this is especially true. We have no one else to watch, so the college kids are what we watch. And we tell them how good they are. And we tell them about how important they are. And we tell them about how much we love them. And we tell them how much they mean to the colors they wear and the state they represent. The only issue with that?
We aren’t talking to them. We are talking to a persona of them.
I was taught about “role assignment” in a sociology class in college and dismissed it as something some hokey professor made up to sell a textbook. The more I have been around in the world, the more I have grasped its truth. A “role” is how a person defines who they are to society. There are assigned roles from society, like an, Christian, Muslim, Texan or doctor. There are also roles in which we define ourselves like son, daughter, wife or father. These things all have a defined set of expectations and behaviors that come with it. To determine this, ask yourself: “Who am I?” The first answer is likely who you are most. It’s what you define yourself as. It’s the one thing that you would hate to lose.
Husband, wife, daughter, bride, cousin, father, athlete.
It’s postulated that this is why loss is so hard. If I identify myself as a son and my mother passes away, I am no longer able to be a son. The concrete cornerstone of my existence is gone. I now have a void that must be filled. If I identify myself as a father and lose a son, I no longer have a chunk of me that makes me me. I don’t know who I am. I don’t know what to be, how to act, what to do or how to think. I don’t know what existence means, because I am now markedly less complete in my own eyes.
We praise kids for touchdowns, tackles, goals, passes, hits, strikeouts and baskets. We abhor failure and take to the airwaves to voice our displeasures over how these positive expectations are unmet. We tweet at, text at, call out, and bark at our favorite players because they are doing well on the field. We tweet at, text at, call out, and bark at our favorite players because they aren’t doing well on the field. We tell them what we want from them. On the field. We tell them what they should do. On the field. We tell them what they mean to us. On the field. We tell them how much they make us feel good about ourselves. On the field. We convince them that they are at their best on the field.
Athletes take note of is how important everyone else sees us when we are in that role. That role then starts to take full shape within our minds. We start to think that we are valued most as an athlete. We are cared for most when we put on that uniform. We are exalted for what we do within the confines of those white boundaries. Slowly, we start to look at ourselves the same way. We are important. On the field. We are loved. On the field. We are cared for. On the field. We are valuable to society. On the field. We are athletes. We are what you say we are. That is me. I am an athlete.
Until I’m not.
I am an athlete until my legs no longer run fast anymore. I am an athlete until my eyes don’t scan the field quick enough. I am an athlete until my strength isn’t as strong as a new athlete. I am only an athlete as long as I can do what you want me to do. And my time as an athlete is short. And then my time as an athlete is gone.
You see, when the game is taken away and we can no longer be counted on to do all of the things we have been told we are valuable for, we are lost. We are no longer useful to society. That part of us is gone. If I identify myself as athlete and the sport is taken away from me, I am no longer me. I am no longer worthy to be myself. I have a hole where I used to be
I fought this every day. I knew the end I would eventually meet in this game, so I never let that be the cornerstone to me.
While I was developing into who Jeff Woody was supposed to be, I credit my life to my now wife, Hannah. She would always be the needle to my ego balloon. I never was allowed to be “Jeff Woody: athlete.” I was always encouraged to be “Jeff Woody: teammate, fiance, friend, student, athlete.” She knew what I could be, and she knew what I was worth, and it was far more than any grassy field could make me. And I love her beyond measure because of it.
Some men hear they are valuable in pads or behind a microphone. Some men build their existence on who they are told by millions that they ought to be. And some men then have the floor ripped out from underneath them.
I did not know Tyler Sash well. I interacted with him on only a handful of occasions. I only got to know him at the TV station or at the football stadium where we broadcasted from. I saw enough to know that his eyes encased a bright spark when he got to talk about his Hawkeyes or his Giants. His eyes came alive when he was able to identify himself as an athlete. His eyes lit up when he got to be who he was praised to be; a persona of himself that we collectively have pressed upon him to be.
We all share burden in this social makeup. We talk to athletes as superheroes regarding what they do on the field. We talk about them as disappointments when they don’t do what we want them to do.
While playing, we are told we are valuable to you only as an athlete; but we are much more than that. We are ambitious young men going into criminal justice so they can straighten kids from the ghettos out before something horrible becomes of them. We are engineers who have a passion for solving problems to improve people’s lives. We are musicians, painters, writers, singers, aspiring doctors, farmers, businessmen or teachers.
We are more than what you think, yet some of us may not understand who we really are quite yet.
I was lucky. I was told what I’m worth. I just wish I was able to talk to Tyler now to tell him what he was as Tyler. My plea is that in the next encounter with an athlete of any level, ask them about their sport, sure. But ask them about what makes them who they are beyond sports. The next time you think about cussing at a quarterback because he threw a bad pass, remember what you are telling them.
The next time you get the chance to talk to anyone, make sure you tell them how much you appreciate them and all that they are.
Athlete, son, friend, Hawkeye, Super Bowl champion, shoe geek.
Rest in peace, Tyler Sash. Every piece of you.