Saunders

Pettigrew's life outran his lapse

Staff WriterAugust 17, 2010 

C'mon. Y'all didn't have to do that to the man, did you?

Reporting the death of UNC assistant track coach Antonio Pettigrew last week, The New York Times ran this headline: "Antonio Pettigrew, Sprinter Who Doped, Dies at 42." Even a story at newsobserver.com, after listing many of Pettigrew's attributes, contained this beaut: "[H]e had a checkered past."

Say what? The man made a mistake. Was it the magnitude of the mistake - played out on an international stage - or the mistake itself that gave him a "checkered past"? If it's the latter, then, pal, we all have one.

That is, of course, what the Rev. J. Jasper Wilkins Jr. meant when he said during the eulogy, "We'll take a single, solitary episode and say that describes a person's life."

The Times did that in Pettigrew's case, but not in two other notable, relatively recent deaths.

When Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts died last year, the paper's headline was "Senate Stalwart Dies." When Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia died two months ago, the headline referred to him as "Respected Voice of the Senate." In both instances, you had to read through hundreds and hundreds of words to get to two of the darkest periods in those great Americans' lives, Chappaquiddick and the Ku Klux Klan, respectively.

That's as it should have been, because both those men showed an ability to change, grow and outlive their "checkered" pasts.

So did Pettigrew. I'll tell you what. Had that New York Times headline writer been at his funeral and seen the sorrow-bowed young athletes whose lives the former St. Augustine's College sprinter had touched, it's unlikely he'd have so blithely dismissed him as merely the "sprinter who doped." Some of those grieving athletes will, because of their association with Pettigrew, become world-class runners. Even more will become world-class people.

Of equal importance to the mistake Pettigrew made as a track star was his response to it: "He said 'I was 100 percent wrong,'" Wilkins quoted Pettigrew as telling him.

Maj. Gary Blankenship of the Chatham County Sheriff's Department said his office still hadn't determined Monday whether Pettigrew's death was an accident or suicide. "We're awaiting the toxicology report," he said. "That'll tell us more than anything."

In his transcendent poem "To An Athlete Dying Young," A.E. Housman wrote:

The time you won your town the race

We chaired you through the marketplace

Man and boy stood cheering by.

And home we brought you shoulder-high.

In the next paragraph, Housman's athlete is once again being borne shoulder-high, not to cheers, but to the grave after his final race has been run. Olympian Antonio Pettigrew was borne shoulder-high back to a cemetery in his hometown, Macon, Ga. Yes, the dude made a mistake, a grievous error in judgment - one that any comprehensive obituary must mention. He should not be defined by that error, though, but rather by how he tried to atone for it.

barry.saunders@newsobserver.com or 919-836-2811

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