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Rob Pavis' brain was still overloaded from a Tuesday of terror, his heart empty from rescue and recovery, as he stood outside a burning apartment building the other day in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. He stared blankly at the front door while three babies were carried out safe, sound, alive.

Two weeks earlier, he would have been celebrating life, a reminder why he became a New York City firefighter in the first place. Instead he felt dead inside. After all, he had been breathing death for a dozen days while sifting through the dusty remains of the World Trade Center. Ground Zero. It seemed a fitting name considering he felt nothing.

You probably don't remember Rob Pavis. He had an ordinary wrestling career for three years at the University at Buffalo before he helped turn the program around his senior year. He walked on campus standing 5-foot-3 and weighing less than 100 pounds as a freshman in 1991. He left UB a 5-7, 142-pound state collegiate champion in his weight class.

Wrestling was once his life growing up on Staten Island. He was a two-time state Catholic high schools champ in the early 1990s, back when the world made more sense and nobody could break his will. He was a model for motivation, how hard work can better us all. He's 28 now, and he's been stripped of his spirit, with no guarantees that it's coming back.

"Wrestling was exciting, and that's what I miss," he said. "The only time you get that rush is when you're going to a fire, but I think it's going to be a while before I get that rush again. That rush is gone. Sometimes, now, I could really give a crap. You know, 366 deaths in the fire department alone kind of took the starch out of everything. I hope this feeling goes away."

New York's bravest have taught us plenty in the last two weeks while indirectly reminding us about the value of sports and the athletes they attract. The firefighters have given the world a clinic on the importance of teamwork and sacrifice and perseverance, the very guidelines of how sports should be played. It has been a two-week exercise in mental toughness and determination, with months remaining before we know the final score.

Every year, we hear about high schools having budget problems that threaten their athletic programs. Too often, with so many stories about athletes involved with drugs and crime, we forget the benefits sports bring into the real world. Wins and losses mean nothing in the grand scope of life, but sports teach us how to perform under pressure, how to react quickly when the game plan falls apart. They are lessons for a lifetime.

The four passengers who called the huddle and thwarted a fourth attack aboard the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania were former college athletes. Police and fire departments across the country are littered with ex-jocks like Pavis, people who are successful because they learned how to channel adrenaline and remain composed under duress.

"Wrestling teaches you all the lessons in life," Pavis said. "The biggest lessons are being disciplined and developing mental toughness. There's a certain amount of mental toughness needed to be a good wrestler. There's a certain amount of mental toughness needed to be a fireman, too. To be a good fireman or a good soldier, there's no better sport to teach you."

Certainly, sports prepare you for life, but they do not prepare you for death. Pavis was sitting at home when terrorists slammed into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. He thought he was ready for the mass death and destruction before realizing he would be digging through a cemetery of cement and steel where his buddies were buried. Obviously, he has been struggling to overcome his grief. It has tested his resolve, the one thing no wrestling coach ever challenged. It has made him doubt his faith.

He came close to cracking Sunday after picking up the newspaper and seeing the pictures of the missing firefighters. He counted six good friends who were rushing inside the Twin Towers when everyone else was rushing out. Mark Whitworth, whom Pavis knew from wrestling circles, was among them. Whitworth's widow has twin toddlers. Pavis convinced a friend, John Tierney, to take the firefighters' test. He did. He's dead.

"Sometimes, I wonder if it should have been me," Pavis said. "That's not an easy thing to go through."

You wonder how many souls will be taken when all the bodies are counted and the counseling completed. He attended a funeral Monday and there are many more on the way. Pavis' friends and family have urged him to seek professional guidance, but he's planning to fight the inner battle alone.

It will be the biggest match of his life, man wrestling against himself. He often feels lost, a dead man walking. You wonder whether he can pull through with his spirit returned and intact. You wonder whether his will has finally been broken, allowing terrorists to succeed where everyone else failed. You wonder if he will ever again be the same man.

"How will I come out of this? Honestly, I don't know," he said. "It's a good question, but I don't have an answer."


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