Vaught's Views: Death of a friend never easy to accept

December 28, 2004|LARRY VAUGHT

Death is a part of everyone's life. No life is finished without the experience of death. While it's not always easy to accept death, it must be honored with honest dignity.

That's what I saw Monday as family members and friends gathered at Lexington Avenue Baptist Church to say farewell to Mike Zirnheld, 49, of Danville. He died Friday in a Christmas Eve automobile accident in Lexington that left me counting my blessings when both of my children safely made long Christmas drives.

I saw the same respect on television when fans remembered Reggie White, a fearless defensive end with Philadelphia and Green Bay who died Sunday at age 43.

I'm sure it has to be the same for Kwane Doster, a junior running back at Vanderbilt who was shot to death while sitting in a car during Christmas break in his hometown of Tampa.


I saw the same love from Louisville coach Rick Pitino Monday night as he talked about the death of his mother Sunday.

Whether the death of a friend, relative or sports star is sudden and unexpected as these three were or gradual, the passing still hurts and it takes time to get over the grief.

White was someone I had watched play on TV. I admired not only the way he played the game, but the character he showed off the playing field. Doster was a player I had met once and also had seen play on TV. His teammates and coaches always had nothing but good things to say about him.

You could always count on seeing Zirnheld smiling

Zirnheld was someone I did know - and will miss. Even though we were not close friends, I saw him often and you could always count on seeing a smile on his face.

His wife, Rita, is an aerobics instructor who patiently put up with me in her classes for several years. His daughters - Blair, Lindsay and Halee - had their father's smile and personality, too.

While the Zirnheld family was not consumed with sports, they were sports enthusiasts. Zirnheld bred Belgian draft horses. The girls enjoyed soccer and swimming.

The family supported all Boyle County sports, but especially enjoyed basketball because of their friendship with former Boyle boys basketball coach Mike Pittman. When Pittman was coaching, Rita Zirnheld was almost always sitting near midcourt with Pittman's wife and Mike Zirnheld would usually be close by.

Yet what I liked most about Mike Zirnheld was that he had a better perspective on sports than I did. He understood sports were games and I can't think of one conversation we ever had where he agonized over a loss the way most sports fans, including me, did.

I'm sure he would have been a bit amused by all the fuss made over him Monday. He probably would have been shocked to know he had so many friends. But that's part of the healing process those of us left behind need.

I can see Zirnheld and White together today

Somehow I can see Zirnheld and White together today. Doster might even be with them. I also suspect my father, Bill Vaught, might have been one of the first to welcome Zirnheld to his everlasting place Friday while so many of us here were left to wonder why this happened, especially on Christmas Eve.

All of us are going to die. That's why every day should be cherished. The death of a friend or loved one is no different from the death of someone we admired from afar. It still involves grief, pain and sorrow.

Pitino showed that Monday as he talked about why he came back to coach the Cardinals in their easy win over Morehead rather than remaining in New York with his family.

"My mom was a big basketball fan. She lived and died with every possession with the Knicks, at Kentucky and with the Celtics," Pitino said. "She watched every game. She was a big basketball fan and would want me here.

"She is in a much better place than she was, but I am going to miss her."

Which is exactly how I feel about Mike Zirnheld because he was one of those good guys that just had a way of making you feel better about yourself.

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