Andy Young

Andy Young

I felt no emotion whatsoever when I learned last Thursday morning three people had won more than $500 million each playing Powerball. I was neither pleased for nor envious of them. The three winning tickets had been purchased in California, Florida, and Tennessee, making it unlikely I’d be personally acquainted with any of the trio of new gazillionaires. Besides, I knew well in advance that no matter how high the potential jackpot climbed (it ultimately passed $1.5 billion) I wouldn’t be collecting any of it. I’ve been unable to justify paying to participate in statesponsored gambling since the day more than 40 years ago my father referred to our home state’s justinstituted lottery as the “Stupidity Tax.”

Then I remembered a news story that broke the previous day, though with much less fanfare. The one concerning Lawrence Phillips.

As a University of Nebraska student-athlete, Phillips helped the Cornhuskers football team win back-to-back national championships in 1994 and 1995. The St. Louis Rams made the 21-year-old the first running back selected in the 1996 NFL draft, subsequently signing him to a three-year contract worth a potential $5.625 million. But Phillips’s unwillingness and/or inability to keep his hands off others, particularly females, when he got angry got him released after just a year and a half, and after several truncated stints with other teams, Phillips ran afoul of the law one time too many. Convicted of felony assault in 2008 and given a ten-year sentence, he later got an additional twenty-five years for another domestic abuse case. Indicted last September for the murder of a fellow convicted killer, his prison cellmate, the now-40-year-old Phillips quietly terminated his sad existence last week.

When it comes to fouling up a charmed life, it’s tough to top the rags to riches to rags saga of O.J. Simpson. The fleet-footed product of San Francisco’s housing projects earned a college football scholarship to the University of Southern California, and as a 21-year-old won the Heisman Trophy as the nation’s top college football player in 1968.

The following year, Simpson was the top pick in the National Football League draft, and went on to a record-breaking 11-year NFL career. Elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1983 and the Professional Football Hall of Fame two years later, the seemingly always-cheerful Simpson made a seamless transition from gridiron star to actor and television sportscaster. Unfortunately, along with fame and virtually limitless wealth came a sense of entitlement that remains all too common amongst the athletically elite. Simpson’s fall from grace has been well-chronicled; after being acquitted of brutally murdering his ex-wife and one of her friends, he made a series of outrageously poor decisions, and today at age 68 is serving a 33-year sentence at a Nevada reformatory for multiple felony convictions, including kidnapping and armed robbery.

On Aug. 27, 2012 the New England Patriots signed their immensely-talented 22-year-old tight end, Aaron Hernandez, to a contract extension worth $40 million, including a signing bonus totaling $12.5 million. Today, as everyone in these parts who isn’t willfully shielded from television, radio, newspapers, and the Internet knows, Hernandez resides in a Massachusetts correctional center. Convicted of firstdegree murder, he’ll be incarcerated for the rest of his life.

In the introduction to October 1964, his impeccably-researched, eminently readable account of the background and circumstances that led to that year’s baseball World Series, the late author David Halberstam wrote, more than three decades after the events his book chronicled took place, “Regrettably, nothing unlocks the ego lurking within the young more than early, premature financial independence.”

The list of well-known elite athletes who, in their youth, reached stratospheric heights and then thudded ignominiously down to Earth is a lengthy one. Pete Rose. Lance Armstrong. Mike Tyson. Oscar Pistorius. Barry Bonds. Roger Clemens. Lenny Dykstra. Rae Carruth. Len Bias. Denny McLain. Tonya Harding. Michael Vick. And given the salaries today’s pros command (or more accurately, their agents demand for them) there’s no sign that the lures of fame, fortune, and entitlement are lessening, even with the inevitable pitfalls that come with them.

It’s not just superstar jocks that can neither resist nor handle the curse of too much wealth too soon. Think Michael Jackson, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrx, River Phoenix, Tupac Shakur, Marilyn Monroe, Kurt Cobain, John Belushi, Biggie Smalls, Fredddie Prinze, Chris Farley, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and Anna Nicole Smith. And that’s just for starters.

Today premature affluence is every bit the scourge it’s been ever since the concept of personal wealth originated. And a close re-reading of the precise wording of Halberstam’s 15-word sentence referenced above indicates he wasn’t limiting his sentiments to just athletes or celebrities.

Upon sober reflection I find, remarkably, that I now do feel something for those three Powerball jackpot winners.


Andy Young teaches in Kennebunk and lives in Cumberland.

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