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Old pal is in fight of his life

The news was horrifying, but part of me smiled when I heard the tragedy happened while Joe Dubreville was trying to make a play in Wiffle Ball. No surprise there. That's what we did for so many days and so many years in the 1970s, back when we couldn't decide whether to turn professional in football or baseball.

We played every sport imaginable and a few we invented along the way, literally and figuratively covering all the bases before noon and doing it all over again after lunch. We picked our own teams, made our own rules and solved our own disputes. We had our own Super Bowls, our own World Series and whatever else we drummed up.

We weren't stimulated by video games and camps designed to keep kids active, which have become the norm. We didn't have parents looking over our shoulders, thank goodness considering all the fights, name-calling and swearing over the score.

But looking back, we had it all.

We were friends starting around 7 years old, too young to understand the relationship we had, too naive to appreciate how much it would mean more than 35 years later. My connection to JoeDubes -- it was never just "Joe" or "Dubes" -- for decades was understood but unspoken.

Joe Dubes, his brother Jim, Jeff Mackey and I were regulars on their cul de sac in Hamburg, fantasizing about playing in full stadiums. Renee Dubreville, their sister, was the best athlete of the bunch. Where were you during the Blizzard of '77? I was with them.

JoeDubes was the kid who jumped off his garage roof simply to prove that he could, the daredevil who made you question your own courage even though his true goal was challenging himself.

His gift wasn't athletics but competitiveness, an all-or-nothing desire and honesty that eventually landed him a job with Homeland Security. We shared the same backfield in football, the same backcourt in basketball. He beat me in the quarter-mile three straight years in the elementary-school track meet simply because he stubbornly refused to lose.

Darned right I'm still bitter.

That was my relationship with JoeDubes. He was my boyhood rival and one of my closest boyhood friends. He was tougher than a steelworker. He bloodied my nose and fattened my lip but stood alongside me just the same. He helped me develop skills that kept me playing sports through high school and eventually contributed to my career.

For one reason or another but none in particular, we grew apart and took different routes in life. He loved football and lived for Notre Dame but stopped playing organized sports and turned his focus to academics. We had separate friends and rarely crossed paths. In fact, we've spoken less than a dozen times over the past 25 years. What a shame.

Kids, this is important:

No matter what happens in the years ahead, there will never be relationships quite like your ones from early childhood. For most of us, it's a small collection of friends who will always be important. The bond that's nurtured by the innocence of youth, often through sports, is stronger than you ever imagined.

About two weeks ago, JoeDubes was playing Wiffle Ball with his family when he collided with a baserunner. He was woozy but refused medical attention -- typical of JoeDubes -- before taking a downward turn and being rushed to the hospital. It was nobody's fault, just a mind-boggling injury during Wiffle Ball.

He has been comatose since surgery. His prognosis is uncertain. His family and friends are praying for the best and bracing for the worst, but the truth is nobody knows for sure if or when he'll recover. My money is on JoeDubes, who would surprise nobody if he regained consciousness and asked for the score.

JoeDubes, as usual, you win.