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I cringe every time I hear someone talk about courage in relationship to sports, especially now with the nation at war. Does it really take courage to drop a 20-foot jumper at the buzzer? Is bravery really a factor on a downhill putt with the Buick Open on the line?

To me, such incessant babble minimizes the real heroes in the world such as the cops and firefighters, the nurses and teachers. At least that's what I thought before I started reading obituaries about soldiers killed in Iraq. True bravery doesn't belong in sports, but the two are not mutually exclusive. Sports teach us bravery. Character revealed on the playing fields has, in fact, strengthened our battlefields.

Look past the number of dead, ignore the stats, and investigate the people. The common denominator among most was that they were ex-jocks. They were our football players and wrestlers, our track stars and swimmers. They played basketball and baseball, soccer and lacrosse. And they were our cheerleaders, too.

David Roustum wasn't the best player on Orchard Park High's varsity club hockey team. He started playing later than most kids do, but it's never too late for guys like him. He had all the immeasurable qualities, the ones coaches and platoon leaders embrace just the same. He was selfless and passionate, tough and competitive. His teammates were drawn to him because they knew he was there for them.

That's what made him OP's hockey captain in 2000. The honor is often given to the top player, but in his case it went to the fourth-best defenseman based mostly on leadership and commitment. He was the same way in football and wrestling. He was always about winning the battle.

I never met Roustum, but I wish I had. There aren't enough people like him in the world, but we don't hear about them until it's too late. He was a proud, tireless team player. It's how he died in Iraq at age 22, too young with too much to offer. You wonder why war takes the good kids until you recognize it's the good kids fighting the war.

That was Roustum. It was no surprise to hear Tuesday that he sacrificed his life so three others kept theirs.

"Call it loyalty, call it bravery, call it whatever you want," OP football coach Gene Tundo said. "He had it. He always had it."

Pat Tillman had it, too. He's become a symbol for sacrifice and bravery after giving up his career with the Arizona Cardinals and dying in Afghanistan. Thousands of others didn't play professionally, but they played. Kids who compete in high school sports are in the minority, but it seems every other soldier was an athlete at some point.

Equate sports and war? No way, but nobody is going to convince me that heroism displayed in Iraq wasn't partly cultivated by playing sports over here.

The Southern Tier just buried J.C. Matteson, a star running back at Southwestern High. A few days before Matteson died, former Iroquois football and lacrosse player Mark O'Brien arrived home minus an arm and leg. You know why O'Brien was most upset? Because he was forced to leave his unit, his teammates, behind.

Sports are not life and death, but they are life. Athletes are taking their best qualities into a world in which the stakes get no higher. They understand sacrifice and teamwork. They are disciplined and instinctive. They adjust on the fly. They focus under duress. They lead, and they know how to be led.

And to think school districts across our obese nation have actually considered reducing physical education requirements. Every year a school threatens to cut sports programs because it's easier to dump them rather than find better budget solutions. We don't need fewer sports. We need more athletes.

We need more like David Roustum. And J.C. Matteson. And Mark O'Brien.

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