To ease me of this power to think,
That through my bosom raves,
I’ll headlong leap from hell’s high brink
And wallow in its waves.
-Abraham Lincoln, 1835
This past spring, I was asked by a former NFL player to help him write a book about life after football. I was interested in the project, but I had two reservations. First, was there an actual idea to convey that hadn’t been adequately told before? After all, Mark Fainaru-Wada’s “League of Denial” did a really fantastic job of exposing the mendacity of the National Football league, as did the related documentary. (Initial reviews of the Will Smith movie aren’t encouraging, though) . More broadly, though, I had doubts about the capacity for sports biography to tell a meaningful story. Earlier this week, I mentioned David Foster Wallace’ review of Tracy Austin’s autobiography, and I have generally found his critiques to be true. Nearly every sports biography falls into one of three categories, none of which interest me much: 1) a dutiful recounting of various athletic accomplishments, 2) a “who-I-fucked” regurgitation of how great it is to be a sports star, or 3) the recollections of a minor athlete giving a sort of secondhand “who-they-fucked” account of how great it must be to be a famous athlete.
I was close to saying ‘no’ to the offer when, in an unrelated conversation, a friend urged me to read two books “Keeper of Dreams,” and “A Life Too Short.” Both were written by German sports journalist Ronald Reng, and both are, to varying degrees, about goalkeepers. “A Life Too Short,” is clearly the better of the two books; it focuses on the life and death of Hannover and German National Team goalie Robert Enke, who at the height of his career committed suicide by jumping in front of a train. Both books inform each other, and I benefitted from reading them both at once.
Reng had become good friends with Enke and the two were planning to write Enke’s autobiography together before the latter committed suicide. In fact, much of “A Life Too Short” is a recollection and processing of his moments with Enke and his struggles with depression. The book is most fascinating in its discussion of what it takes to be a goalie and how that intersects with Enke’s suicide. A goalkeeper spends most of the match alternating between long stretches of quiet isolation, dutiful observation, and just a few moments of intense game-defining action. This waiting and constant need to be at the ready despite inaction can be emotionally exhausting and stress-inducing. Making matters worse, to be a goalkeeper is the highest-stakes position on the field. Every player makes mistakes, but if a goalie makes one he can most obviously be singled out as the reason his team lost. This sort of pressure is different in kind and degree from what any other field player experiences.
Reng suggests that Enke’s depression made him particularly adept at managing these unique difficulties while also rendering him incapable of leading a healthy and happy life. Common portrayals of people suffering from depression can deceive us into thinking that people who suffer from depression are weak or unable to cope with pressure or hardship. As Reng makes clear, quite the opposite is true. Though it’s an important point for people to understand, it’s not necessarily a new one. In his essay on Abraham Lincoln’s depression, Joshua Wolf Shenk quotes Lincoln attempting to describe what it was like to be caught in a depressive episode. In his deepest moments of melancholy, our greatest President lamented “that intensity of thought, which will sometimes wear the sweetest idea thread-bare and turn it to the bitterness of death.”
Lincoln’s letters show how depression can bring a hyper-awareness of small things as well as long stretches of perceiving the worst possible version of everything encountered and projecting the worst possible outcome for every lived event. For everyday life, this can be crippling, but it also makes some people suffering from depression particularly capable of managing crises. After all, what often paralyzes people in critical moments is an inability to fathom the dire consequence of the impending; but, if your daily existence is a constant contemplation of –and inability to escape from- these horrible things you are freed from dread-induced paralysis. You are in your element.
It’s unfortunate that we view people with depression as fundamentally broken. They are often the perfect example of someone who is not disabled, but differently abled. This is not to say that we should not look to provide and improve treatments, but rather that we acknowledge that even in their suffering they can be powerfully insightful and socially useful. I accept completely Shenk’s thesis that depression prepared Lincoln for the Civil War and made him singularly capable of leading, waging, and winning it.
Reng’s biography of Enke sets a bar too high for me to clear, and that is a good thing. Two months ago, I wanted to know if it was possible to write a truly beautiful and meaningful sports book, and “A Life Too Short” answered that question powerfully.