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Keeping promises after many years

THIS IS to keep a promise I made two years ago, while sitting in a tiny Lambeth living room watching Connecticut beat Duke on television, waiting for "One Shining Moment" to come on and trying not to cry.

We were friends from first year, guys that lived the floor below me. Earl and Yubrenal were linebackers. Josh was the nice, sweet kid from Connecticut who could talk soccer, was involved in my greatest athletic exploit at U.Va. (ask him, he'll tell the story), who later turned into a folk hero after he walked on the basketball team and never lost his grace.

But that night, with Khalid El-Amin (to whom Yubrenal referred exclusively as "the little fat dude") and Rip Hamilton and Elton Brand and Trajan Langdon and everyone else on the television, we talked about our respective careers.

Yubrenal was about to start at middle linebacker, Josh had finished up his dream basketball season, Earl looked to be a pretty strong contributor, and I was then the sports editor of The Cavalier Daily, and soon to become a moderately successful freelancer.

We agreed that night that I'd write about each of them, and their future roommate Keith, whose apartment that year served as a refuge from my own, by the time we graduated together. Josh, Keith and Yubrenal were easy enough, I even wrote about Yubrenal twice.

But I never wrote about Earl.

Which is a shame, because with all due respect to the others, who are all as exceptional as people as they are as athletes, Earl Sims is perhaps the single most remarkable athlete I have come across in my four years. Injuries and bad timing robbed him of playing time and me the chance to write about him.

Earl always had something going wrong, a cast or a crutch or a sling. His teammates told me that was because he always threw himself at the ball without fear. He was a headhunter, they said, which is why they loved him, and why he spent more time with the trainer than the coaches.

His coaches, George Welsh and Rick Lantz, both said similar things: "Earl could have been a really good one, except he kept getting hurt."

Earl learned how to long snap because they said he couldn't play linebacker after an abdominal injury forced him to redshirt the 1999 season after he played in just one quarter against North Carolina in the season-opener. He had to drop out of school that semester because he was in the hospital so much. I said I'd visit him; I never did. He never held that against me or anyone else, always greeting his friends with the same weathered grin.

Then they said he couldn't even long snap last year, that his body couldn't handle even that. He dealt with that, not being able to do what he had done since childhood, with dignity, always smiling and making me laugh whenever I was around, which became less and less each year.

But that's not what made him special. Earl could noodle with his keyboard and pick up any song that came on the radio, or just come up with breezy riffs on his own, sometimes accompanied by Yubrenal's lazy West Virginia drawl crooning along spontaneously.

Earl wrote poetry, good poetry, and if you were ever lucky enough to catch him at a Lyric Coffeehouse (and you weren't, because there usually wasn't anybody there but people lucky enough to know a wonderful girl named Che Che who put them on), you knew he was pretty special.

"Here's one I wrote when I thought I was on my deathbed," he'd start out, and then beautifully express his feelings on a hospital bed, a poem full of strength and hope in the face of incredible pain.

I don't see as much of Earl these days, haven't since Lambeth. But I remember just before New Year's in 1999, we were all in Miami, his hometown, for the bowl game. He was injured, but he was staying in the team hotel. I wanted to have dinner with him, for him to show me where he grew up.

"I can't, Steve," he said. "I'm with the team. I've got curfew."

I said I remembered Anthony Poindexter being out and about in Atlanta before the Peach Bowl when he was injured, and he had stayed with the team, too.

"Yeah, well, I ain't Poindexter," the poet-linebacker said, smiling.

No, he isn't.

He's something far more special.

And he's playing next year.

(Steve Argeris was a 1999 Sports editor.)