We call games like Navy's 16-14 loss to Army last Saturday "heartbreakers." After an exhilarating fourth-quarter comeback, the game comes down to a fresh-faced plebe and the climactic field goal he has always dreamed of kicking. Eighteen yards from victory and . . . he misses.
The coach's face crumples. The kicker must be consoled. A devastating loss. A heartbreaker.
But we use the word too carelessly. Today, the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis only wishes it were grieving over a football loss. Instead, it mourns six of its own -- all promising, talented young people cut down violently, senselessly, tragically.
First came the horrific news from the Naval Amphibious Base in Coronado, Calif., where Lt. j.g. Alton Grizzard and Ensign Kerryn O'Neill were shot to death last Wednesday by Ensign George P. Smith, who then killed himself.
Ensign O'Neill (Class of '93) had been one of the finest female athletes ever to attend the Academy. Lieutenant Grizzard (Class of '91) was a star quarterback from 1987 to 1990; he was Navy's all-time leader in offensive yards gained.
Their deaths -- especially Lieutenant Grizzard's -- simultaneously robbed the big Army-Navy game of its joy and transformed it into something more than it otherwise would have been.
The Mids dedicated the game to the fallen former quarterback, wore his name on their helmets, believed he was looking down on them as they gave it their all.
In fiction, the field goal would have sailed through the uprights, TC symbolic righting of a world temporarily gone wrong.
In real life, the kick veered wide right.
Hours later, a carload of midshipmen returning to Annapolis from New Jersey, where the game was held, crashed into a tree that had fallen across Md. Route 450, just a mile from the Academy. Midshipman 1st Class Lisa M. Winslow, 21; Midshipman 3rd Class Autumn Pevzner, 19, and Midshipman 3rd Class Robin S. Pegram, 20, were all dead.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to find meaning or sense when terrible things happen. Are tragedies like these a part of God's plan? A case of human error? A matter of bad luck?
We have no answers, only sympathy for the families of these young people and everyone at the Academy whose hearts have been broken by their deaths.