In the second decade of this century, an extraordinary young man, Hobart Amory Hare Baker, played football and hockey for Princeton University. Arthur Mizenerwrote, “With his almost incredible skill and grace, his perfect manners, his dedicated seriousness, Hobey Baker was the nearly faultless realization of the ideal of his age.” Even today, more than 75 years later, his example is passed down to those Princetonians who follow.
UNTIL NOVEMBER 30, 1983, Brad Urschel’s life of 23 years had been bathed in a light against which darkness would have seemed to have no chance. Brad’s high school and college careers were marked by a rebellion against anything second-rate, against half-heartedness, against a life pushed to anything but the limit. While he attended St. Mark’s School of Texas, there was never any question as to who would be the captain, who would be the class president and who best represented the standards for which the school stood. Read for yourself: Captain of the football team. First-team All-State. Defensive Player of the Year. Captain of the track team both junior and senior years. Set four state records in high and low hurdles, long jump and discus. All-Conference in basketball. Class president. Even the formidable obstacles posed by dyslexia fell in the face of the extra effort Brad was willing to invest in his studies. Last year, on the occasion of St. Mark’s 50th anniversary, Brad was named the best athlete in the school’s history. The summer after his high school graduation, competing for the first time in the decathlon-the most demanding of all athletic competitions-Brad placed first among the nation’s premier high school track and field competitors.
At Princeton University, where he followed his older brother and his father, Brad’s success continued. He was a fine wide receiver, and he continued to participate in the decathlon, a contest comprised of 10 events. Brad broke the Princeton decathlon record his freshman year and every year thereafter until he graduated. As you might expect, football and the decathlon are highly incompatible sports-except for someone with Brad’s prowess and sheer love of competition. He majored in psychology and became interested in theories of creativity, especially as they applied to children’s literature. His successes were unbroken and devoid of the calculation found among so many students who seem to be preparing a resume instead of preparing for life.
During his senior year at Princeton, a book was published: Princeton Reflections, a collection of photographs designed to touch alumni emotions. There were the Gothic buildings, the arches, the stained-glass windows, the feeling of history. Page 62 showed a photograph of Brad alone, un-posed, holding his javelin against a background of empty stadium steps. Taken in the late afternoon light, this photo of a well-defined, long-muscled body was a picture of what it must be like to be at the top-a portrait of confidence, gained not at the expense of others but from a clear heart within.
After he graduated in June 1983, Brad was selected to represent the East in a pre-Olympics sports festival held in Colorado Springs. His performance was encouraging enough that he decided to devote a year to preparing for the Los Angeles Olympic Games. He decided to go to Abilene Christian University to begin his pursuit (Abilene Christian is to track and field what Johns Hopkins University is to lacrosse), and he worked with four other decathletes under Coach Don Hood. On Thanksgiving, he wrote a poem as a birthday present for his mother in which he explored his own feelings about the decathlo:
Grit teeth, no jaw
Loose hands, run tall
Drive knees, quick feet
Stride out, feel beat
Bear down, be mean
To be around Brad was to think about possibilities, not limitations. In his company, one did not consider mortality or decline but great expectations and a strength impervious to weakness. He made us feel that the fight could be worth fighting.
ON THE EVENING of November 30, Brad and his father, Dr. Hal Urschel, an outstanding cardio-thoracic surgeon, were driving back from a hunting trip. About 25 miles south of Fort Stockton, there was an accident. Brad, sleeping in the back seat while his father drove, was thrown from the car. His father, crawling around in the darkness, finally found him, unconscious and barely breathing. Dr. Urschel was able to flag down a pickup truck. It was driven by the town sheriffs son, who knew exactly where to go. Together they placed Brad in the bed of the pickup, where his father held him until they reached Fort Stockton. It was near freezing, and the cold put Brad into hypothermia-something that doctors would later consider lucky. In Fort Stockton, the seriousness of Brad’s injuries was recognized; he was transferred to an ambulance and taken to the hospital in Odessa, about 130 miles away, where the medical resources would be more adequate. The doctors wanted to operate to remove a blood clot close to Brad’s brain stem; Dr. Urschel discussed this with another doctor in Dallas, who concurred based on what he’d been told. But the Urschels’ closest friend urged that still another opinion be obtained. The third doctor advised against the operation; the Urschels took his advice.
In retrospect, the family believes that Brad would not have survived such an operation, or, if he had survived, would have had the most minimal recovery. The blood clot eventually dissolved by itself. After three days in Odessa, an air ambulance flew Brad to Dallas’ Baylor Hospital. For nearly four weeks he lay in a coma; his mother and father moved into the hospital. His weight dropped from 195 to 130; his muscles virtually disappeared. On the day before Christmas, Brad Urschel awoke; the struggle began.
Editor’s Note: The second part of this column will appear in D ’s January issue.