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A Nasty Habit

[In yesterday’s post, I told the story of how, in January of 1991, one of my players was killed in a vehicular accident right in front of school. Regrettably, I lost another player in just 23 days. I gave up trying to understand the unfortunate events long ago. All I continue to do is to tell their stories to whoever is prepared to listen so that the boys are not forgotten.

While I wrote yesterday’s post from memory, the second accident – perhaps from the sheer trauma I had to undergo – had become hazier in my mind. Thus, I turned to the yearbook of 1991, for which I had written a long article for the graduating class of seniors. This post contains excerpts from that article, updated towards the end just to tie everything together.

If you have not read yesterday’s post, please make sure that you read that one first before coming back to this one.]

The beginning of February was for the STRAA. My team and I wanted so badly to bring home the bacon for Ariel. Yet, even as we left, I still had my doubts. My team never knew I had them, of course!

It was just that, having coached teams for nine years, I could almost sense what chances my teams would have in tournaments. In 1989, the last time we won the STRAA, I knew even before the tournament started that there was no way we were going to get pipped for the title. Not so this time!

I wondered if the choice of Erick Kalalo as Ariel’s replacement was not more an emotional rather than a pragmatic decision. Though I had the highest regard for Erick’s talent, he was a long, long way from match fitness. Perhaps Rommel Bautista would have been a wiser choice?

I also felt uncomfortable about taking Don Ilagan along. Not only had he missed most of the RIFA season because of hepatitis; he also missed several intensive fitness build-up sessions for the STRAA.

Three straight wins hardly justified my fears. However, on the last day, as we fought for gold, the team inevitably collapsed. Two of my only three substitutes were in sick bay; the third was suspended. There was also this little matter of my best player lying six feet under the ground, a long way from where we were. In the heat, my jaded crew had only enough wind for a bronze finish.

Still, it was a pretty nice outing. I always enjoyed taking my teams out, the closeness almost like a family affair. If only the conditions were more civilized! The comfort rooms were downright barbaric, a throwback to the days of the datus and the alipins. I mean, you had to squat on the ground, get it? There was just this hole in the ground and never mind!

Eventually, I had to check in at this seedy little hotel each morning for my morning baths and nature calls. It cost me an arm and a leg, but it was better than adding to the supply of organic fertilizer at the Lipa camp.

Didn’t I say that, as coach, I also often had to be the one to fire the bullet? Sometimes, I also brought bad tidings! On the last day of the STRAA, as my team sat bitterly disappointed over our failure to win the gold, I had to break the sad news about Archie Perez’s death by vehicular accident in the same afternoon that the STRAA was just starting. How traumatic could a day get? For me, at least, it was a load finally shared.

Sid Villegas, Doc Africa and Taxi Catalan had called home via long distance and were told about the accident. Eric Doria and I were at the LBC desk writing to the rest of the team when the trio arrived to tell me what little they knew of the details of the accident. Between us, we agreed not to break the bad news to the rest of the STRAA team until after the tournament.

For three days, we lived under tremendous strain, trying to pretend everything was normal whereas, in fact, the whole world seemed to be falling apart. I barely held myself together. I was still struggling to come to terms with Ariel’s untimely demise; now here was Archie going the same route!

If only I could have done something to prevent the accident! I swear to God I knew something nasty was going to happen, though the blips on my radar screen got all mixed up. For at least a week before Archie’s death, I had become almost insanely protective of Taxi. I was so sure something terrible was going to happen to him!

I would stay awake at night, just fretting; or my sleep would be frequently interrupted by wild palpitations. The premonitions only stopped in the afternoon of February 3, the heaviness in my chest finally lifting. Taxi had, from all indications, survived. Archie, though I was not to know it until later, didn’t. In retrospect, perhaps I was not really all that surprised when I was told about the accident. If only I could have done something to prevent it!

On the day that Archie was buried, Erik Carbonilla bitterly remarked that attending funerals was becoming, for us, a nasty habit. How painfully true! For almost a whole decade of coaching football teams, none of my players had anything that was even remotely life-threatening. No, not even a bone fracture! Yet now, we had two deaths within a mere 23 days!

Whenever people pass away, people find symbolisms in just about the most far-fetched things just to come to terms with their losses. We were no different! We noticed that both players’ names started with “Ar.” We also noticed that Ariel was from the classroom 205, while Archie was from 305. Both were members of the same fraternity. Creepiest of all, when the two grieving mothers met to console each other, we found out that the two mothers had the same name!

The coincidences were too many for us to accept them as mere coincidences. Yet, if they were not, what did they mean? Alas, if there were answers at all, we eventually came to the conclusion that we would not get these in our lifetimes.

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