Super Bowl season sees resurgence of somber memories

The meaning of the Super Bowl varies from person to person. Players and referees participate in the game, a network produces the telecast and 100 million plus viewers tune in while wolfing down too much taco dip.

That last one definitely applies to me. I felt helplessly immobile during the first half of Sunday’s game, bloated from inhaling tortilla chips and a family recipe cheese dip.

For me, the last eight Super Bowls have been a pattern, playing a film reel of memories that arise from dormancy this time every year. And it’s not about the game itself.

It’s the day after.

In 2005, I was an eighth-grader watching Super Bowl XXXIX in the family room. My four grandparents came over to watch Tom Brady’s New England Patriots defeat the Philadelphia Eagles for their third title in four seasons.

I don’t remember much from the game itself, except I that was rooting for the Eagles.

As a kid I went through phases of fandom because the “good” teams – e.g. Tennessee and Philadelphia – were way more fun to follow than my hometown Browns.

Rest assured, I’ve matured to accept my Cleveland sports fan suffering heritage.

But that year, 2005, the day after Super Bowl XXXIX, I received the news that Grandpa Kubacki – “Papa Gene” – suffered a stroke that morning. The kicker? He was perfectly fine the night before at the Super Bowl party.

The first hospital visit has always remained vivid, and at the time it was heartbreaking. Papa Gene lay in the bed, hooked up to machines and unable to speak without slurring.

Gone was the tall, proud retired real estate agent who never worried about money. Gone was the veteran carpenter who served in the military. Gone was the maintenance guru who continued to perform custodial work in my school system throughout his retirement.

Doctors were optimistic when describing rehabilitation and “life after strokes,” but Papa Gene’s condition only teased progress with harsher forms of regression. Five weeks after the first stroke, he died while in hospice care.

I was upset because to that age, I hadn’t lost a grandparent, but I was more shocked by how quick the sickness took him.

My somber Super Bowl memories even include Tedy Bruschi, a linebacker for the Patriots between 1996 and 2008. He, too, suffered a stroke just days after playing in the 2005 Super Bowl.

But at age 31 – 48 years younger than Papa Gene – Bruschi had a much better chance to return to normal. And he did.

After several months of rehabilitation, Bruschi returned to the field Oct. 30, 2005, and finished the season. That year he received a 50 percent share of the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year award.

Bruschi is one of the few (former) NFL players I’d want to meet. Just to tell him how his and my family shared similar moments of fear – and ultimately for my family, grief – and remind him to count his blessings each and every day.



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