“And now, back to basketball.” As the big-screen picture of Dan Rather uttered those words Saturday afternoon at Damon’s Restaurant in Ann Arbor, the people around me cheered.

J. Brady McCollough

But I didn’t join in. I felt something deeper. Those words took me to a different time and a different world.

It was a dark and painfully cold night, and the broad flat farmlands of rural Michigan surrounded me. I sat quietly at the back of an old, yellow school bus, a mess of sweat and tears. There was no sound. It was just a silent school bus rolling past snow-filled ditches and the occasional deer.

One boy stared at the ceiling; another watched the floor bump up and down. I was looking through the mesh of my jersey, which I wouldn’t take off that night. It was my last high school basketball game. We lost. It was a tight game, but not especially close. I didn’t play that many minutes.

But I still recounted each and every moment in my mind, looking for a way to cope with the loss.

If only I had made a big play here… If only my friend hadn’t picked up that foul … If only someone could have hit a shot in that key possession …

Eventually I ran out of ifs.

So I looked at the boy next to me. He never made eye contact. He didn’t speak.

We really didn’t have anything to say.

The game, and our careers, ended earlier than we expected.

After passing 60 miles of silent two-lane roads, we finally reached our high school. One by one, we picked up our Gatorade bottles, duffle bags and gym shoes. Then we drove home.

That night, I lost sleep because of a basketball game.

It was a dark and agonizingly hot night, and the endless sands of an Iraqi wilderness surrounded a young man. He sat quietly at the back of a high-tech mobile assault vehicle, covered in sweat and holding back tears. There was no sound. It was just a state-of-the-art war machine rolling past piles of sand and the occasional burned-out and abandoned enemy tank.

One young man stared at the ceiling; another watched the floor bump up and down. But this young man was looking at the end of his gas mask, which he wouldn’t take off that night. It was his first taste of war. Another young man died in the battle. His death wasn’t this young man’s fault. He didn’t even see it happen.

But he still recounted each and every moment in his mind, looking for a way to cope with the loss.

If only he had been a position to stop it… If only his friend hadn’t been watching something else… If only someone could have stepped in and saved a life…

Eventually he ran out of ifs.

So he looked at the young man next to him. He never made eye contact. He didn’t speak.

He wasn’t there. He was dead.

There really wasn’t anything left to say.

The mission, and one young man’s life, ended earlier than anyone expected.

After passing 60 miles of silent sand dunes, the survivors finally reached their camp. One by one, the young men picked up their canteens, rifles and helmets. Then they walked to their tents.

Tonight, I will lose sleep for those young men.

I still live in a yellow-school-bus world with trivial problems. Most of us here in Ann Arbor do, too. For that, we should all be thankful.

So I urge every one of you – regardless of how you see this war – to pray for the young men and women that are living in the mobile-assault-vehicle world. Pray for their safety and a swift return home.

And when the day of peace finally comes, we can all join that Damon’s crowd by standing and cheering those beautiful words.

“And now, back to basketball.”

This story is dedicated to Blaine Varner – my 21-year-old friend who left a wife and four children when his country called. We used to ride yellow school buses together. Steve Jackson can be reached at sjjackso@umich.edu.

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