I remember February 18, 2001, well. I remember it like it was yesterday. It was a momentous day in sports for me personally. Why?
A mediocre Clemson basketball team shocked the college basketball world by beating the #1 ranked North Carolina Tar Heels. I remember watching it by happenstance, eating lunch in an Applebee’s with some friends in college. The game was on TV in the background, and I had nearly forgotten all about it because, to be honest, Clemson’s basketball team sucked. I mean they were really bad. That win over UNC was only their second conference win of the season. But there they were, cheering as time ticked down, knocking off the #1 team in the land for the first time in 21 years. It was a sight to say the least.
What I didn’t understand then, or even days later, and even months and years later, is that the same day I watched a pinnacle moment in one sport take place, one of the most devastating and tragic events was taking place in Daytona. Just a few channel clicks on the 32 inch Applebee’s TV, we would’ve watched something unthinkable happen. Dale Earnhardt was killed on the last lap of the Daytona 500.
I didn’t grow up a NASCAR fan, so the Earnhardt name to me was synonymous with Bach or Beethoven in the musical world. I’m sure he was good, if not great, but I didn’t know why exactly and truly didn’t care. NASCAR was what rednecks watched for a lame excuse to drink beer after church on Sundays. The drivers weren’t athletes, the races weren’t enticing, and after all, why watch the Super Bowl of racing when my beloved horrific Clemson basketball team is on TV?
Growing up in the South, I should have known better. Racing is a big deal, and just because it’s not MY big deal doesn’t mean it’s not juxtaposed alongside SEC football as an oddball if not endearing religion in the South. When I found out later that evening that Earnhardt had died, I admittedly shrugged. “Sad day, I guess”, I thought. How stupid was I?
Just to rattle off The Intimidator’s resume (that was Earnhardt’s nickname, but you already knew that I’m sure): he won 7 Winston Cup championships, 76 races, and had 428 top-ten finishes. He was included in the inaugural class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame. He was the NASCAR Rookie of the Year in 1979 and was named as one of NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers in 1998. Intimidating indeed. Dal was, in every essence of the word, the “man” in the NASCAR community.
Over the years I’ve had opportunities to attend various races at Charlotte and Bristol. I’m still not a huge NASCAR fan, but the respect I’ve garnered for the sport has increased tenfold. Partly because of the danger involved and the skill it takes for a team to make every necessary adjustment to a vehicle in mere seconds.
But to grasp the reality of Earnhardt’s death, to truly understand what it meant, I had to apply it to the sports I knew, the games that I loved.
This was Michael Jordan collapsing dead during the NBA Finals. This was Roger Clemens taking a comebacker to the face in the World Series and passing away right there on the mound. This was Peyton Manning, taking a blow so hard from a linebacker during the Super Bowl that he never gets up from the field.
Earnhardt didn’t just die a tragic death, he died doing the exact thing he was made to do. He was a raucous artist that was killed while at the crescendo of his craft. You don’t have to love a sport to empathize with the pain felt when a loss like that happens.
The following year, during the third lap of the Daytona 500, fans in the stands all held up three fingers. Earnhardt’s famous #3 was affixed on the TV screen. The fans and the announcers all fell silent. This was the respect Earnhardt had earned. This is the honor he deserved.
I don’t know how closely I’ll watch this weekend’s Daytona 500. There will probably be a dozen things pulling my attention away. But one thing’s for certain: I won’t ignore the beauty of sport when its participants race with sheer passion. I won’t forget the day Earnhardt died. And I won’t forget what he meant to so many who hold up three fingers on race day.