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DYING TO PLAY FOOTBALL

Written by: on Tuesday, October 2nd, 2018

 

Kerry Naylor

The sound and fury of the death of Richard Park

There may be no harsher penance than time alone in one’s thoughts. For those who are penitent, it can be a sentence with no end.

Such has been the life of Terry Fike for the last 56 years.

Fike never committed a crime – he neither stole nor harmed another person physically – but he’s lived for more than five decades feeling the weight of a friend’s death on his conscience.

It haunts him.

“To this day it still bothers me because he was such a good friend,” said Fike recently while waiting to get in line for a buffet dinner at the 55th reunion of the Tyrone Area High School Class of 1963. “I talked him into going out to play football. He never played any sports. I never went back out after Dick died. I felt so bad that I talked him into it.”

Fike’s friend was a 16-year old boy from Grazierville known around as Tyrone Dick Park. He would have been one of the 40-plus people at Monsignor Harkins Hall sharing high school stories over pulled barbecue chicken and homemade cakes had he never decided to play football in the summer of 1961.

It was a decision that killed him, and there are few people left carrying the pain of his death, but if ever there was one, it’s Fike.

“It was just a shame,” he said. “I think about it all the time.”

The weight of Park’s death has been a burden for Fike, a hair shirt few others connected with his passing have worn, a sad footnote to an even sadder story.

It’s a story about how things can go wrong in the blink of an eye, about how innocence can turn to tragedy, and optimism can turn to darkness all while the wheels of life keep turning.

It’s a story of different times, different cultures, and a bygone way of drawing the best from young athletes.

It’s a story of those not being the one dead turning to their affairs.

Above all, it’s the story of a poor player who had his hour upon the stage and then was heard no more.

“It was a very sad time. It was a time that was hard on everybody who was involved,” said John Shoenwolf, who was a young assistant on the Tyrone Area High School football team in 1961.

As a second-year coach Shoenwolf probably wasn’t prepared for the events of August 18, 1961, but is anyone ever prepared to watch a teenage old boy collapse on the brink of death at a football practice?

Is anyone ever ready to hear that a teammate woke up one morning and rolled out of bed excited for a day of practice, and never returned to sleep in that bad again?

That is the beginning of the story of Richard Lee Park, who as a junior on the Tyrone football team almost 60 years ago fell ill at a practice after a morning session of conditioning and never recovered.

Park died 10 days later at Mercy Hospital in Altoona. His death certificate explained it in antiseptic terms: peritonitis, which was brought on due to anemia, which was brought on as a result of nephritis. The layman’s translation reveals a little more, though it doesn’t tell the entire story – Park’s kidneys had failed him, leading to a series of further complications.

While explaining how Park, a seemingly healthy young man, came to his end on the eve of his junior year in high school, the diagnosis does little to reveal why.

What is true is that no one could have foreseen what was going to happen to Park. He had passed a physical and was cleared to participate in the rigors of a varsity football season.

However, there are questions that remain decades after Park’s untimely demise: how great a role did a single football practice play in the teenager’s death? Was the tragedy something that was preventable? Should Park have been playing football at all, particularly the brand of football that was being played in the early 1960s?

NOT THE SAME GAME

Sports in the 1950s and 60s was a different world when compared to today. As was the science of sports medicine and sports performance. As was the dividing line between affairs public and private.

All of those factors converge in the story of Richard Park.

Visually, the game on the high school level in 1961 would have born some similarities with the game in 2018. Players wore helmets with facemasks. They strapped on shoulder pads and padded pants. There were kickoffs and extra-points. Players tackled and blocked.

Beyond that, the game has evolved dramatically. In 2018 the trend is open offenses that spread the field and force favorable matchups for athletic skill players. The process involves no small amount of decision-making and reacting from the players on the field; one missed read by the defense or the right audible from a signal caller who has become more and more in tune with defensive schemes thanks to vast amounts of information available on the internet and your team is picking up 50 or 60 yards in just one play.

That was not the look of gridiron in the 1960s, when teams were still operating under the philosophy of three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust. Formations were tight. Often running backs lined up close enough to the line of scrimmage to count the hairs on the legs of their linemen. While every good team begins with a strong offensive line, in those days the trenches were more than a metaphor. The battle was won there in a man’s game being played by boys, and that was how it was approached from the standpoint of preparation.

This was as true in Tyrone as it was at almost every high school football practice in America.

“They worked us really hard,” recalled Tom Miller, the team’s star quarterback in 1961, who later went on to play at Colorado State University before returning to coach the Golden Eagles during two terms in the 1980s and 90s. “We did our conditioning before practice even started. The coaches said once we got that out of the way everything else was easy.”

Leading it all in Tyrone was a man who didn’t completely look the part of a rugged World War II generation football coach, Ron Corrigan. He was in his second season as the team’s head coach, and he had done a solid job during his first season of revitalizing a program that was on a downswing when he arrived. One year before Corrigan took over the team finished 2-7-1 under John Chuckran, just slightly better than the 2-8 record Tyrone posted in 1958.

coaches (2)
Tyrone football coaches in 1961: (l to r) Mitchell,Corrigan, Shoenwolfe, Livingston.

But in 1960 Corrigan took a junior-heavy team and went 4-6, creating a bit of hope and excitement for what could be in 1961.

Corrigan was organized and meticulous – the brains of the operation, according to those who played for him and worked under him.

“He had a great football mind,” explained Shoenwolf. “He was very much an organizer down to the T. He believed in being efficient. How well you executed was the big thing to him. The kids gravitated to that, and it all seemed to mesh that year.”

“You would look at him and you thought he was a professor, not a football coach,” Miller said. “He was about 6-foot-2 and he wore glasses. His theory was the team that ran the most plays usually wins. So we were in and out of the huddle in seconds. By the end of the third quarter, other teams couldn’t run with us.”

While Corrigan handled the X’s and O’s from a cerebral standpoint, it was Shoenwolf who provided the grit, with a fiery approach that endeared him to his players as much as they were drawn to Corrigan.

“Shoenwolf was the leader,” said Dick Hoyne, a junior lineman in 1961 who later went on to play for Kent State University. “He was the one who kept everyone fired up. If you did something wrong, he was going to tell you about it. I remember one time in practice I made a mistake on defense defending an option play. The quarterback made the fake and I tackled the guy he faked it to. Shoenwolf picked me up and threw me on the ground and said, ‘That’s the way you’re supposed to do it!’ But I didn’t even think anything of it. He was right. They helped me a lot for when I went on to play later in college.”

For Miller, there was a bond between players and coaches that was quite real.

“It was all blood and guts with the coaching staff. We loved and admired those guys,” he said.

Tempo, intensity, and discipline were emphasized on the practice field, as was toughness.

Hydration was not. In some ways that reflected the limited medical knowledge coaches were working with at the time – early marathon runners were encouraged not to drink fluids during their races, with James E. Sullivan, head of the AAU, proclaiming in 1909 that “some prominent runners do, but it is not beneficial.” In many ways, limiting water intake was a challenge to a player’s manhood. To make it through practice or a game without being distracted by water breaks was a sign of toughness.

The world then was still four years away from the creation of Gatorade, and few in the sports field truly understood the importance of replenishing fluids lost during intense exercise. Drinking too much or at all during practices and even games was taboo.

“They told us it was bad for us, that it would make you get cramps,” recalled Hoyne. “They thought it would make you sick. They just didn’t know then what we know now about hydration.”

“In those days we got zero water,” said Miller. “During games there was no water on the sidelines.”

In the heat of the dog days of summer, practicing on a dried up patch of grass behind Gray-Veterans Memorial Field that now is home to the Church of the Good Shepherd, the lack of water and water breaks was an issue, though the coaching staff may not have known it.

“I can recall being at a practice where the grass hadn’t been mowed and some of the guys hid some fruit in the tall grass off to the side of the field just to get some fluids,” remembered Bill Elder, a senior end in 1961 who later played at Clarion.

“Even during games they came out to timeouts with a bucket of water with a sponge in it, and you just had to suck the water out of a sponge.”

This was in no way unusual. As the scrutiny of concussions and the long-term effects of head injuries over the last decade have demonstrated, all sports, but football in particular, operated in that era using a set of standards that appear almost primitive when compared with those of today. Where once a player who had his bell rung was expected and encouraged to “shake it off” and continue to play, now we understand that even the smallest injury to the brain can deteriorate into something much more serious, and so head injuries are treated with all caution.

Now every team has a full-time professional trainer on staff, and they’re immediately on hand to address any injury sustained during games and practices.

This wasn’t the case in 1961, and it wasn’t the case for decades afterwards.

“When I played in college at Clarion, we didn’t have a full-time trainer,” Elder said. “What we had was a student-athlete, just a guy who was injured and couldn’t play. I remember one time when I had a knee injury, I had to wrap my own knees.”

After college, Elder held a number of football coaching jobs at schools ranging from Brookeville and Mount Pleasant in the high school ranks to Washington and Jefferson on the college level. Even there, he said, it took decades for coaches to allow even moderate time for water breaks at practices.

“At the beginning of my career I never allowed water at practices. It was just the way I had been taught,” he said.

This was the athletic world Richard Park stepped into on August 18, 1961. It was a Friday, the opening day of scholastic football practice.

1961

As August ripened in 1961, the newspapers were dominated by two subjects: communism and baseball.

Politically and socially, the focus was on Berlin and how a young president named John F. Kennedy, just four months beyond the military fiasco at the Bay of Pigs, would respond to another international crisis. On August 13 the German Democratic Republic, with the blessing of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, began erecting the Berlin Wall, creating a physical and symbolic barrier between East and West.

Meanwhile, far from Germany, in the Bronx, Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle were staging a war much more friendly than cold. By August 16, Maris had hit 48 home runs after tagging Chicago’s Billy Pierce for a pair, while Mantle was just three behind in the chase to break the single seasons record of 60 set by the legendary Babe Ruth in 1927.

On August 17 in Tyrone, teenagers may have been relaxing at Sully’s, a soda fountain on Pennsylvania Avenue, feeding the jukebox to hear “Runaway” by Del Shannon or “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” by the Shirelles. Some of the kids were probably making plans to head to Reservoir Park that weekend, where dances were held every Tuesday and Saturday. Teenagers would parade to the park through town dressed to the nines heading to the dance pavilion, ready to cut a rug to the latest 45s or – if it was a Tuesday – the sounds of a live band, all free of charge.

Corrigan, no doubt, was preparing to open camp the next morning with 43 boys on the roster and three-a-day practices scheduled for 9:30 a.m., 2:30 p.m., and 7 p.m.

When the day finally arrived, there were no portents of dire things to come. August 18 was not intensely hot for mid-August, reaching a high of 79 degrees. There were no thunder clouds on the horizon.

A Gentle, Kind Soul (He Must Have Given the Hand)

It was, in all respects, your average day, and Park was your average teenager growing up in the early 1960s. He lived in Grazierville, the only child of George and Theda (Chilcoat) Park.

Known by his friends as Dick, he was quiet, shy, and hardworking. A tribute to him in the Daily Heraldpraised him as “one of the best, most reliable newspaper boys the Daily Herald has ever been privileged to employ.”

It went on the describe him as a “friendly youngster,” “well thought of by everyone he came in contact with,” who was an above average student known for working hard at his studies. He was, in fact, at the top of his class, according to Fike.

Stuart Naylor, who was a junior fullback and kicker and 1961, said Park had a passion for go-carts, which he built along with his father.

“They had just put two engines on a cart they had built,” he remembered. “Dick was very proud of it. He was always doing stuff with his dad.  It was all he talked about when I talked to him. Go-carts, go-carts and more go-carts.”

Naylor said Park was someone who “kept to himself.”

“He mostly did things with his dad. It wasn’t until I was talking to him about football that I got to know what he did outside of school,” he said.

Park was also an avid outdoorsman. Classmate Gary Bonsell said he was “quite the fisherman. He used to catch softshell crabs in the Juniata River and then use those as bait when he went fishing for carp.”

Fike remembered him as someone who loved to be in the woods, a passion instilled in him by his uncles. “He got me into archery hunting, which I still really love,” said Fike, who lived in Birmingham, a village about five miles from Grazierville that might as well have been in another state for a child in the 1960s who didn’t yet have his driver’s license.

Like most red-blooded Baby Boom boys, he was also drawn to the National Pastime.

“The summer he died, he and I went out to see the Pirates three times,” Fike said. “He used to come down and spend the weekends with us, and his mother and my mother would take us up to the Altoona station and put us on a train, and we would go down into Oakland. We would go eat breakfast and then go to the ballpark.”

Among the players Park and Fike saw play at Forbes Field on $2 tickets that summer were Ernie Banks, Willie Mays, and Roberto Clemente, but by the time August rolled around Park wasn’t thinking baseball. Something the boys back home had said to him must have struck a nerve because what he wanted by then was to play football.

park yearbook
Richard Park, top row on the end, juts out over the head of Sandy Naylor in his sophomore class photo.

A letter to the editor published in the Daily Herald in November of 1961, in the days leading up to a showdown between Tyrone and Lock Haven, made that much clear. It was signed by Mr. and Mrs. John Park of Bellefonte, relatives and one-time Tyrone residents who maintained a strong relationship with their hometown and still attended Tyrone football games. They had hosted Richard at their home that summer.

The couple said that Richard was “very much in hopes of playing in our town as he was here this past summer for a weekend and said he would like to upset Lock Haven.”

It was a strange move for Park, who until then had never played sports, according to Fike, though he had the stature of a rock-solid athlete, standing about 6-foot-4.

There was, however, one obstacle, and that was Park’s mother, who was against his playing from the start.

“She didn’t want him to play at all,” said Dana Miller-Barto, Park’s second cousin who was also a member of the Class of ’63. “In fact, when he died, I think his mom and dad both just died in spirit. He never really wanted to play anything, but one year he decided he wanted to go and play football.”

If playing football for Tyrone was Park’s dream, it was a dream not unlike that of Moonlight Graham, the doctor in the 1989 baseball film Field of Dreams, whose only wish was to have batted one time in the big leagues.

Graham got his wish on Ray Kinsella’s magical field, where legendary players emerged from the great beyond, but the fulfillment was short-lived. After driving in a run on a sacrifice fly one day, the next he was ousted from the game for eternity after crossing over from one world to the next in order to save a young girl’s life.

The scene can be viewed as a metaphor for how quickly life can change based on our own choices, so therefore decisions should come with conviction – choose your path and believe in it. Above all, have no regrets.

Were there regrets on the part of Park as he malingered for 10 days in two different hospitals? Were there regrets from the father with whom he had such a strong bond, or from the mother who never wanted to see her son put on a football uniform in the first place?

Of this, we know only partially, but what we do know is that Park’s career as a Tyrone Golden Eagle lasted just one practice.

Little, Less, Nothing

When it comes to the recall of events long since passed, time can work like a narcotic on the memory. For some it dulls the senses. Sixty years out from even the most traumatic experience, one may look back and recall only a haze of emotions. For others time will heighten the emotions, bringing with it what may seem like sharp clarity rather than a din of fuzzy images.

That phenomenon of time affecting the bystander in polarizing ways makes the framing of Park’s last minutes on a football field difficult.

One man who has a strong idea of the order of events is Hoyne, who like Park played on the line, and who was waiting his turn in a conditioning drill on August 18.  In front of him was Park.

1961 football
Senior members of the 1961 Tyrone football team.

“We had to crab up and back. I was going to be next in line,” Hoyne remembered. “He came back down the field, and right in front of me he collapsed. We knew instantly something was wrong. His face was all red.”

Hoyne is unwavering in his recollection of the sequence of events and is emphatic when recalling Park’s medical emergency beginning on the practice field.

Miller also remembered Park passing out during practice, but for others on the field that day, the image of Park collapsing on the field itself is not a strong one. Shoenwolf and Bill Elder each remembered his collapse coming in the locker room, which was the in the same general area as the one used today at Gray-Veterans Memorial Field.

Naylor said it all really began in the shower room.

“He was taking a shower and just collapsed,” Naylor said. “We drug him out and laid him on a bench and went to tell the coaches. They didn’t seem too alarmed at first but then called an ambulance.”

“When we got in there we saw him laying on a bench,” said Elder. “That was unusual. I don’t recall any other player in my time being taken from practice in an ambulance.”

Chances are they are all correct. Fike remembered Park falling ill on the field before being taken to the locker room to cool off. Things escalated afterwards, but the thought of the young Park, stripped to his skin and lying semiconscious, alone, on a bench in a dimly-lit locker room, his grip on his own existence failing, with no parents or teammates to give him comfort, is particularly haunting.

Shoenwolf said once the coaching staff got word of Park’s situation, all the focus turned to his health.

“We got to him quickly and called the ambulance,” he said. “Every action was taken for the boy to try to get him the help he needed. Once the medical people arrived, he was in their hands. Everyone was concerned, upset, worried. I don’t know if any of those words accurately describe exactly how we felt.”

School physician Dr. David J. Kirk was on hand in the locker room, and he accompanied Park when he was rushed to Tyrone Hospital, where he was admitted. Two days later, he was transferred to Mercy Hospital in Altoona for treatment that, according to his parents in a Letter to the Editor published in the Daily Herald on September 21, 1961, was not available in Tyrone.

In short, there were complications. According to the records of the time, Park was not the victim of heat stroke or even dehydration. Instead, he was diagnosed with acute nephritis, which is an inflammation of the kidneys not completely uncommon in athletes participating in strenuous exercise. In fact, there is a type of nephritis called pseudo-nephritis, often seen in long-distance runners, but it normally clears up within three days, without further complications, like sepsis and anemia.

Park’s death certificate indicated that his nephritis led to anemia, which then led to peritonitis, an inflammation of the lining of the inner wall of the abdomen that can be brought on by a number of factors, including a ruptured appendix.

death certificate
Park’s death certificate from 1961.

However, no documents suggest Park suffered any issues with his appendix. Something else had happened, and it was something that, in 1961, may have been beyond the scope of Park’s doctors.

Just ten days after falling ill on the practice field, Park was dead, and it’s difficult to say what could have been done to prevent his death, if there was anything at all.

Dr. Tyler Gillmen, who played for Tyrone from 2004-2006 and is in the midst of completing his anesthesia residency, looked at Park’s death certificate and examined the evidence surrounding his collapse as it was shown to him. Upon learning that Park did not die suddenly, but instead malingered for 10 days, Dr. Gillmen speculated that the cause of his death may well have been rhabdomyolysis, an excessive breakdown of skeletal muscle that can lead to kidney failure.

All of this, he said, could have been brought about by stress related to intense practice, including dehydration and heat-related issues.

The problem is, the fixes immediately available in 2018 were not there in 1961 because the science of the time prevented it.

“The treatment for rhabdomyolysis to avoid acute kidney injury involves aggressive intravenous fluid resuscitation to essentially add more water to the river so that flow distal to the obstruction is possible, thus restoring blood flow and returning the kidney to normal function,” said Dr. Gillmen.

Had Park suffered the same issue just a year later, his fate may have been different because treatment methods improved dramatically in that time. He would have been able to receive hemodialysis, which, Dr. Gillmen said, “essentially uses a circuit for the patient’s blood to pass through to dialyze and then return the blood to the patient. But the problem was, this was 1961 and the availability of hemodialysis was scant, and it’s first ever use for renal failure was just the year before in March 1960 in Seattle, Washington.”

A non-functioning kidney could easily have led to the peritonitis Park suffered, Dr. Gillmen said, which was the ultimate cause of his death.

However, while providing a clearer picture of how Park could go from his first day of football practice to losing his fight for life, Dr. Gillmen stopped short of saying there were any precautions that could have saved Park’s life entirely.

“(Lack of water at practice) is not conducive to sustained intense physical activity, especially during the summer heat. Maintaining adequate hydration can decrease the chance of developing rhabdomyolysis, but it certainly does not exclude the possibility,” Dr. Gillmen said. “Murphy’s Law is true. Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong. We can deduce that what is probable will likely happen and what is improbable will still happen at some point given enough opportunities. This is the way probability works.”

Dr. Gillmen made clear that his opinion was just that, and that speculation on an event 50 years ago based on limited information is dicey. (“I am simply offering a modern medical opinion on an event with limited information that not much is known about in order to better elucidate the story and hopefully bring closure to those close to Richard Park,” Dr. GIllmen said.)

The seeming randomness and suddenness of Park’s death may be the most troubling aspect of an event that, through the lens of 2018, is extraordinarily traumatic. Park left that morning for practice carrying more than just a canvass bag of sports apparel. He was also carrying plans and dreams – maybe plans of heading to Sully’s for lunch with Fike, as the two often did, or dreams of racing with his new go-cart, the fruit of hours spent working with his father.

It was all snuffed out quickly and without warning, which gives Park’s story a universal quality. We are no different than Park, nor is anyone who came before him. We’re here for a period of time – a span of moments relatively short in the cosmic sense – and when that time is up, it’s up. Death often comes without warning, and the price we pay for the gift of our humanity is great vulnerability.

Park’s story demonstrates this sharply.

AND THEY … TURNED TO THEIR AFFAIRS

So how does one respond when a teammate, a classmate, a friend meets his demise so randomly, and so suddenly?

In the age of social media, it’s “Thoughts and prayers.” It’s black bands on the arm and inspirational quotations etched on the cleats. It’s Instagram posts and Twitter memorials, shares, likes, retweets, reposts, and views. In 2018 the magnitude of a tragedy correlates with how quickly it trends in enormous online communities.

But that wasn’t the case in 1961, when a border separating the personal and the public still existed.

Nor was there the same kind of scrutiny from the standpoint of liability as one might expect in 2018. There were no inquiries made into the incident from a legal standpoint, and at no time was there an investigation into what happened that day at practice and how it may have affected Park.

Nor was there much concern given to how the experience affected the players who were there that day.

“They never called any counselors in to talk to us,” remembered Hoyne, who said he recalled practice continuing after Park’s initial collapse. “We didn’t have social media. It happened, and it was bad is how we looked at it.”

As Elder remembered it, very little was said of Park’s death in its aftermath.

“I don’t recall it being brought up to any degree,” he said. “We missed a practice the day of the funeral. The coaches talked to us about it, and we just went on as if nothing had happened. I’m sorry to say that at this point. No one tweeted anything about it, and we didn’t have Facebook. There was no one taking any pictures in the locker room. You wanted to pay your respects and move on.”

Miller, a captain on the 1961 squad, remembered being a pall bearer at the funeral service, which took place at Johnson’s Funeral Home (now Derman’s), along with the other captains – Elder, Chet Wolford, and Woodsy Cunningham. Naylor said that the entire team was on hand for the service.

“It was a really sad day. Most of the school attended,” Naylor remembered.

Park was laid to rest at Bald Eagle Cemetery on August 31.

Even before he was buried, it was back to the business of football for the Tyrone football team. The season-opener against arch-rival Bellwood-Antis was in less than two weeks, and early in the preseason the Golden Eagles were looking strong. There wasn’t a lot of time for mourning, especially for a student who was a mystery to most.

“I was a cheerleader then, and I have no recollection of it,” said Gloria (Iadarola) Gutierrez, who attended elementary school with Park in Grazierville. “Things were a lot different then. We didn’t have cell phones, and I lived out of town in Thomastown and didn’t have a car.”

Naylor said what mention Park did receive in the wake of his death often circled back towards football, not to commemorate him but to be used as locker room speech material, though other players said he was never brought up at all.

“Corrigan and the rest of the coaches tried to use it as a motivational thing. You know, ‘Do it for Dick Parks,’ ‘In memory of Dick’ and that sort of thing,” Naylor remembered. “I thought it was kind of wrong, but you know coaches. Most of the guys on the team didn’t even know him.”

No mention was made of Park’s tragic death in the 1962 Tyrone Area High School yearbook, the Falcon, which did include a two-page spread in memory of the old high school building on Lincoln Avenue, soon to become Lincoln Elementary School; in 1963, the graduation year of Park’s class, the Falcon paid a special tribute to those who made possible the new state-of-the-art high school building on Clay Avenue, but not a word was mentioned about Park.

“They didn’t do that, and I don’t know why,” said Fike. “Now they would, I believe. That always bothered me that nothing was said.”

Apparently, there was talk around town about the way in which Park died, and whether he should have been on a football field in the first place. There was speculation that he may have had a condition that would have made his playing too risky.

The talk went on long enough that George and Theda felt the need to address it in their September 21 Letter to the Editor. In it, they praised not only the medical staff at Tyrone and Mercy Hospitals, but also the Tyrone coaching staff for their handling of Park’s collapse. “We shall never forget the four coaches (Corrigan, Shoenwolf, Melvin Mitchel and J. Livingston) who never left our side from the day Richard became ill. They are still keeping touch with us,” the family said.

They went on to address “rumors being passed around about us.”

“Richard was not a sick boy when we left him go out for football. We, as parents, wish everyone would pray for us in our sorrow, rather than say things that aren’t true.”

Never, at any time, did the family blame the coaching staff, blame the school, or consider litigation, according to Miller-Barto.

“They were Christian people, and very religious,” she said. “As sad as it was, they didn’t blame anything on anyone. It was a sad, sad time. You still can’t put it in perspective. You just think, ‘Why would that happen?’ But I guess that’s just the way he was supposed to go.”

From one point of view, it would be difficult to put the blame for Park’s death on the game of football. Park participated in a single practice, and no matter how demanding it may have been it was just a tick of his life. No other players fell ill that day, and none of the players recalled the practice being worse than any other.  The idea of leading players through grueling three-hour practices in summer heat with no water is archaic, but it’s not as if other players were collapsing or being rushed to the ER.

On the other hand, for a young person exhibiting the symptoms of rhabdomyolysis, a two-hour practice with no water in 80-degree temperatures is far from ideal.

Still, it’s hard not to return to the dignity and restraint shown by Park’s parents in the aftermath of their son’s death, with rumors circulating through small-town channels. It helps provide a clarity for the event that an inspection of the evidence alone could never give. His family sought meaning in their son’s death in a private and personal manner. Richard was gone; nothing was changing that. Any meaning there was to be drawn from the tragedy would be found by them alone, in their own solitude.

The restrained response from both Park’s family and the community in general reveal markers in our culture every bit as sharp as the lines drawn between 1960s practice methods we would consider reckless and those of today.

Americans had a different relationship with death in the years immediately following the Second World War. This was a time when some families still held wakes in their own homes, and beyond that the country was less than two decades removed from a worldwide conflict where Americans sacrificed their lives for the greater cause on a monumental scale.

Corky Lynn, who was the President of the Class of 1963, couldn’t help but view it in those terms when he reflected on Park’s death at his class reunion.

“People cared as much then as they do today, but it wasn’t something you wrote about or talked about,” he said. “Someone once said in a lot of other countries when something bad happens they try to find ways to solve it. Nowadays in America when something bad happens we try to find someone to blame. We didn’t do that in the 1950s and 60s. We accepted death as a part of life.”

63
The Tyrone Area High School Class of 1963, together at its 55th reunion. Terry Fike is the first on the left in the third row. Dana Miller-Barto, Park’s second cousin, is second from the right in the first row.

EPILOGUE

Few were passing blame for Park’s death in 1961, and fewer were dwelling on the loss. The football team played on and finished 8-2, with each of their losses coming by a single point.

What despair there was for Park quickly faded.

“I don’t think he was forgotten in a lot of minds, but I don’t know why it was never really brought up,” said Miller-Barto. “He’s like a forgotten soul. And he deserved so much better. He was just one of those people who was so nice.”

But just because Park wasn’t celebrated in his death doesn’t mean his memory was completely abandoned, and just because his family never pressed for restitution doesn’t mean a price for his death was never paid.

That’s apparent when talking to Fike, who feels the burden of his friend’s death every day.

He carries on his memory each time he steps into the forest to hunt with his bow, a skill he learned from Park when he was 14, and one he is now passing down to his own granddaughter.

And he pays a toll with the burden of knowing that, had he never pushed his friend to play football, the quiet 16-year old who loved to build go-carts might still be here.

“He was an only child. I went to the viewing and his mother and dad were pretty much devastated, and I felt responsible,” said Fike. “I just couldn’t go back after that. I turned my stuff in, and said I’ve had enough of this game.

“I had three girls, but I swore to God if I ever had a boy I’d never let him play.”

There’s always a price to be paid, and the price for the death of Richard Park continues to be paid, with Fike serving a lifetime sentence of penance for a crime no one committed.

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