DURHAM, N.C. – As sport weaves back and forth through American life, it collides every now and again with reality, rendering the games we play—and the passions we have for each game’s outcome—trivial at best. Life steps in at these moments in a sobering way, belittling the euphoria we feel while watching elite athletes represent the teams and communities we adore, and unites us in celebrating life.
Or in mourning life’s end.
And so it is this weekend, on the eve before Duke and North Carolina’s men’s basketball teams square off on the hardwood, that a loss so jarring and so tragic forces us to remember what Saturday’s game means, and what it does not. The game, the zenith of a year’s worth of effort and anticipation, is but the focal point of a rivalry pitting two school communities, two fan-bases against one another. It brings joy and pride; elation and rage; anxiety and relief.
The life of Eve Marie Carson meant much more.
President of UNC’s student body, she was something quite other than a figurehead in Chapel Hill, but a beloved leader amongst peers, amongst the faculty, amongst administrators. Hers was a life of compassion, of spirit, of focused intelligence, of using her mighty gifts to better the lives of others.
And that she did.
“Eve Carson personified the Carolina spirit. She did perhaps more profoundly than anyone I've known in my whole time here," UNC Chancellor James Moeser said Thursday afternoon in front of 5,000 mourners. "She felt the very pulse and the heartbeat of this University."
In her passing, that heart now beats for her: North Carolina’s administrators arranged for a plane to transport Eve’s family from their home in Georgia to the UNC campus; the school’s Board of Trustees has donated $25,000 to the search effort to try and track down those responsible for her death; and the collective empathy emanating from Chapel Hill may hopefully begin to assuage the pain of Eve’s family and friends.
And it is there where sport may find its role in helping a community to cope. The game may be a distraction to some, or a source of displaced anger for others; the game may be a brief return to normalcy, or a sign of that inevitable truth that life marches on. As such, this edition of Duke-North Carolina will be quite different than it usually is—it shall not be framed with controversy and animosity, but with unity and sensitivity.
The student-athletes who will bear the burden of playing will strive no less hard for victory. Nor should they. The fans will cheer no less loudly, whether a Duke student sitting courtside or an alumna sitting in solitude, screaming at her television. The game will be no less significant in tournament seeding, or in what the win might mean for Mike Krzyzewski—it would be his 802nd, tying legendary UNC coach Dean Smith’s career mark after 33 years of coaching.
The tone of the game will be different, however, tempered by the fact that one person who should be enjoying the game from Chapel Hill will instead be enjoying it from Heaven.
None of us are strangers to loss, and we each cope with it in different ways. The greatest loss in my life came three years ago, when my father succumbed to cancer. In time, I found solace in the love of family and friends, in the shared love my father and I had for Duke basketball, and in the poetry of Mary Oliver. I offer one in particular, “Wild Geese,” with the hopes that it may be of benefit to those whose bereavement I’m sure all of us in the Duke community wish we could assuage for our friends at UNC.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Duke University or the Duke University Department of Athletics.