Ben Cohen

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My Sportsman Of The Year

David Cutcliffe’s office is simple but not bare, coated with dark mahogany, covered with posters of Cutcliffe’s quarterback protégés and accentuated by a 52-inch plasma television across from his desk. When I visited him there in the beginning of September, sunshine poured through the wall-length windows that allows Cutcliffe to peer into Wallace Wade Stadium at will.

The topic of the day, his 2005 brush with death, was grim, and to mollify the tension, we extended the small talk and chatted as human beings, rather than with the awkward strain that seems to plague introductory interviews. I wanted to delay the inevitable, but his curiosity in learning more about me was genuine, and I was rather alarmed by it, even though I felt comfortable with him and our chitchat flowed organically. Cutcliffe said his wife’s affinity for Broadway shows put him in a delicate situation because he would rather watch a football game at a New York City sports joint; I told him I felt the same way, but passed on a few musicals I happened to enjoy.

He was gracious in our subsequent discussion, which ranged from shoulder pain to bypass surgery. Fear of death was the conversation’s undercurrent, invisibly lurking and powering discussion, as it has a habit of doing. After about 30 minutes, I reached for my recorder to cut the tape. “You see that photo over there?” I remember Cutcliffe said, motioning behind me to an enlarged print equidistant from the window and the television and, in the process, rebuffing the tide.

It was the picture of fandom: Rows and rows of Duke students, their emotions bleeding through the canvas, cheering as if they were in Cameron Indoor Stadium. Except they were outside on a late summer night having just witnessed Cutcliffe win his first game, and the bliss that had been bottled up for an offseason of veiled expectation and years of futility finally surfaced. It was the essence of sport’s beauty, and Cutcliffe must have understood, even if he would never admit it, that he had inspired such splendor.

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