Mikaela Shiffrin didn’t want to drive home. The blizzard roaring outside her car windows wouldn’t let up. Snow pelted down as if it were angry—rebelling against something, someone. Shiffrin, riding with her mother, Eileen, thought it was a sign. A sign that she shouldn’t be in the United States. She should have been in Italy, in Cortina d’Ampezzo, competing in the World Cup Skiing Finals, but the event was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The snow raged on, turning a two-hour drive from Denver to Edwards, Colorado, into an eight-hour feat. A nightmare drive to culminate a nightmare season in which the people Shiffrin loved most fell away, one by one.
Four clear jars sit atop a wooden shelf, each containing a human brain. An actual human brain. A faded-yellow liquid, the color aging books turn, surrounds each brain, almost seeming to make them float. These brains are just for display, but nearby a hundred or so others are waiting to be examined for various neurodegenerative diseases on this morning in early August at Boston’s VA-BU-CLF Brain Bank. There will be a brain dissection in a few hours. Most of the brains are housed in large freezers, set at minus 80 degrees Celsius. It’s eerie, peering inside those freezers. Each is filled with dozens of small, square containers, which hold various portions of brains. The containers are stacked on top of one another, identified by seemingly indecipherable coding.These are people. People who had dreams, athletic prowess. Families, memories. Shortcomings, talents. Joys, disappointments. People now reduced to letters and numbers.
Some nights, Roberto Aguayo would just stare at the wall in his home and cry. Think to himself: What is happening? Stare at his foot: Why aren’t you doing what you’ve always done? Stare at himself in the mirror: Why can’t you do this? The pressure weighed on him. Consumed him. Pressure of missing another kick. Of being drafted in the second round out of Florida State in 2016 after Tampa Bay traded up for him in a stunning move. Of letting everyone down. He was angry. Angry at the fans who called him a “bust” and a “headcase.” Angry at the reporters who’d ask him over and over why he was failing. Angry because the painful reality was that they were all right. He was being paid to do a job that he could not do. He was not delivering. He was not living up to expectations.
There are people who do not want Andraya Yearwood to run. They are bothered by the sight of her. Angered by the thought of her. The black scrunchie on her wrist, the ponytail down her back. The steely stare she offers as coaches, parents and fans hurl insults toward her at track meets, not caring that she’s an earshot away. The vitriol intrudes before races. Afterward. In her Instagram comments. They say she has a “biological advantage.” They say allowing her to run isn’t fair. They do not recognize her as a girl. They insist she is a boy—a boy who shouldn’t compete in the girls division.
“I hope Bru dies.” That’s what one man said when Horace McCoy Jr. answered the phone. Others found him on LinkedIn to threaten death to his son. Shelby McCoy remembers being stopped at the supermarket. The dentist. High school games. Remembers receiving a Twitter direct message saying the NFL would never touch a headcase like her son and that she had raised a failure. Alexa McCoy heard it at parties at her college. What the hell is your brother doing? Why would he ever do that? In the aftermath of Bru McCoy’s transfer from USC to Texas and then back to USC, all in the span of six months back in early 2019, he was called every name you can imagine. And no matter how much the 5-star receiver tried to not read the comments, he couldn’t escape them. They found him. Hounded him. The internet was not some abstract place, something that shut off once he closed his laptop
Natasha Cloud was on the phone with her mother, Sharon, when she saw that she was being pulled over. She told her what was happening, and Sharon instinctively asked to stay on the line. Cloud agreed. Whatever could happen, whatever would happen, she needed her mom to hear it. Be there for it. Call for help if necessary. Just in case, Cloud thought to herself. Now she saw the police officer getting out of his car. The cop, who was white, approached Cloud’s Audi S4 walking sideways, slowly. Crouching low, clutching his gun. He looked angry. He looked like he was about to do something.
Sergio Rivas could hardly see. Could only find the soccer ball when it was right in front of him. Could barely make out teammates’ jerseys, and not their faces. He squinted, as if scrunching his face would yield clearer vision. Didn’t help. He sprinted ahead, but the grass was blurred, a faded forest green. Dusk was approaching—the pitch turning a muddy brown, the sky a charcoal black. Now Rivas really couldn’t see. Only feel. But he had to perform. The now-22-year-old soccer player still remembers how the college scouts huddled in the stands at that tournament in Dallas back in 2013. They looked like tiny dots to Rivas, who at the time was a high school junior. His defender pressured him, but his feet knew where the ball was, where it was supposed to go. They moved the ball, quickly, before the pressure closed in. For years, Rivas had been playing this way. He could barely see, but growing up he didn’t have anything to compare that to—didn’t know it was different for anyone else. He figured everyone else just saw faint colors, faint shapes, as he did.
Nassir Little mixes up a defensive rotation. The freshman is in the wrong spot now. Confused. Frustrated. North Carolina head coach Roy Williams halts practice. “What were you doing?” Williams asks him on this recent afternoon in Chapel Hill. Little doesn’t know the answer. Just doesn’t. He wishes he did. He lifts his chin. Doesn’t hide. Doesn’t give lip. “I don’t know,” he admits. “Where should I be?” He never found himself searching for answers like this in high school. He was so athletic that if he wanted to block a shot, he’d simply stretch his long noodle arms and swat away the ball. If he wanted to steal a ball, he’d simply roll his arms into the passing lane, and magic happened.
Bowen II was forced into exile, his childhood dreams possibly over. He should have been where other members of his 2017 class—former Arizona center DeAndre Ayton, former Duke forward Marvin Bagley III, former Missouri swingman Michael Porter Jr., former Texas center Mo Bamba—are: in the NBA. Instead, Bowen became somewhat of an unknown who needs a good showing at this week’s 2019 NBA Draft Combine simply to make the league. The irony of exposing the dark underbelly of college basketball was that people like Tony Bland and Brian Bowen II got lost in the light. One day they were coming up through, and entrenched in, a system. The next, they were on the outside, looking in.
Onyeka Okongwu walks into USC’s locker room and finds his cubby in the far corner. He touches the band around his wrist, black with green letters—NNAMDI OKONGWU #21, WE WILL NEVER FORGET YOU—and kisses it. He takes a seat, clasps his hands, shuts his eyes and begins to pray. In these moments, Nnamdi, his older brother is there. With him. In his chair, in his locker. On the whiteboard, on the door. Inside his sneakers, inside his jersey. Onyeka can feel it. Feel him. Nnamdi died in 2014 after suffering a brain injury from a skateboarding accident. He was 17 years old, a promising basketball player himself. “I think about him every day,” says Onyeka, now 19. Some days he wants to talk about it. Some days he doesn’t.