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The AIDS Memorial Quilt has 743 panels connected to sports

On World AIDS Day, we remember those who played and loved sports.

Sections of The AIDS Memorial Quilt representing the San Francisco Frontrunners and the San Francisco Gay Softball League.
The NAMES Project Foundation

The name Robert W. Ellis is displayed in orange letters arching across a space of 3 feet.

Below the name, taking up most of the 6-foot length of cloth, is a sailboat that is heading away from the viewer. The sail in the front shows the seven colors of the rainbow.

The sail in the back lists the date Ellis was born and the date he died of complications of AIDS, acquired immune deficiency syndrome. Ellis died June 9, 1987.

This is the panel dedicated to Robert W. Ellis on The AIDS Memorial Quilt.

On the same 12-by-12-foot block as Ellis’ panel is a panel for Dr. Tom Waddell, an Olympian and founder of the Gay Games. Waddell’s panel includes his name, a pink triangle, a sconce with a flame, and the words “United States Olympic hero.”

The Ellis and Waddell panels were two of the first 100 panels received by The NAMES Project Foundation, which started in 1987. Now, The AIDS Memorial Quilt has more than 49,000 panels — the first 40,000 received during its first 10 years.

The panels for Ellis and Waddell show that sports have always been part of The Quilt.

On Friday, which is World AIDS Day, sections of The Quilt are scheduled to be displayed in 94 locations across the country.

In this, the 30th anniversary of The Quilt’s 1987 unveiling on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., Outsports looked at the representation of sports on The AIDS Memorial Quilt.

After viewing every panel on The NAMES Project’s website, 743 panels included images or text connected to sports.

When looking for sports representation on The Quilt, the parameters were the inclusion of prominent images or text representing auto racing, horse racing or sports that are part of the NCAA or the Olympics.

In most instances, a panel doesn’t reveal if the person was an athlete, a coach or fan of the sport, but it’s clear that his or her loved one felt the sport was important to the person.

Tom Waddell was an Olympic athlete who founded the Gay Games in 1982.

The Ellis and Waddell panels represent the diverse representation of sports on The Quilt. Waddell finished sixth in the decathlon at the 1968 Olympics and is among the most well-known sports figures to die of an AIDS-related illness. While for Ellis, his connection to sailing is unclear.

But for the Olympics with Waddell and sailing with Ellis, they are fundamental to how they should be remembered.

The Owls’ addition

While many corporations contributed panels to The Quilt in memory of employees that died as a result of AIDS, there is no evidence a professional sports team made any contributions.

There is only one instance that indicates a university’s athletics department supported The AIDS Memorial Quilt with a panel.

On a panel titled “Florida Atlantic University Remembers” are T-shirts from the FAU Owls golf and volleyball teams arranged with T-shirts from several other FAU organizations.

“It was a huge situation that I just didn’t think was getting enough notoriety or recognition,” said Jody Brown, the FAU women’s volleyball coach at the time. “We wanted to use our platform.”

Rosemary Dunbar organized the FAU panel, according to Brown. She worked in student health, and when Brown found out about it, he wanted to be involved.

Brown, who coached at FAU from 1995 to 2011, said the panel was created during his first or second year at the university in Boca Raton, Florida. He didn’t seek approval from anyone higher in athletics to submit two T-shirts — one from him and one from a player — to Dunbar for the panel.

“It was the right thing to do, and we didn’t do it for publicity,” said Brown, who is heterosexual. “My main initiative was to create dialogue within my team.”

At the time, Brown said his FAU team included South American and European players, who didn’t have the stigma attached to AIDS that existed in America.

Also a few months before Dunbar started the FAU panel, Brown had a friend die from an AIDS-related illness. Brown had known the man from playing professional volleyball together in Australia.

Brown said he’d also been influenced by a local doctor telling him about her experience working with HIV and AIDS patients in Miami.

“She kind of put it in perspective how big it was,” Brown said. “That is what created my thoughtfulness and wanting to help.”

So Brown talked to his team about HIV and AIDS, brought experts in to speak to the players, and took the opportunity to contribute to The Quilt when it arose.

“It was a great means of getting people to be more informed as opposed to just going off of rumors and what they hear off of the streets,” said Brown, who recently finished his second year as the North Carolina Central volleyball coach. “The more you educate the kids you work with, the better representatives they’re going to be in the community.”

Graphic by Erik Hall

Sports breakdown

Golf and volleyball received representation on The AIDS Memorial Quilt beyond the FAU panel. Panels include golf 18 times, and volleyball is depicted seven times.

Of the 743 sports-related panels, no sport is included more than sailing.

Braden Toan, founder of the Knickerbocker Sailing Association, a club for gay and lesbian sailing enthusiasts in the Northeast, said AIDS led to the loss of “many sailing friends.”

Sailboats are included on 228 panels — 26.1% of the sports-related panels.

“That’s really interesting. That’s new news to me,” The NAMES Project president Julie Rhoad said of the prominence of sailing images. “That might make some logical sense, because lots of panels think about sunsets, and the ocean, and sunrises, and beautiful places they have vacationed and memories they have attached to the place.”

Behind sailing, the sports with the most panels are football (142), baseball/softball (137), basketball (70), and tennis (63).

Five-time major tennis champion Arthur Ashe is the sports person included most on The Quilt. He is named on 20 panels — though only 10 of the panels include sports images.

In addition to Ashe, other professional athletes with panels on The Quilt include MLB’s Glenn Burke, NASCAR’s Tim Richmond, the NHL’s Bill Goldsworthy and the NFL’s Robert “Bob” Cobb and Jerry Smith.

Smith’s Washington Redskins are one of the pro franchises most represented on The Quilt with the logo used eight times on people’s panels. Of the 57 pro teams represented on panels, the original home of The NAMES Project is the leader with the San Francisco 49ers represented 15 times.

The NAMES Project, based in Atlanta since 2001, still receives about 400 new panels a year — less than 10% of what it received during the peak of its first decade. The Quilt continues to create awareness of a disease that killed more than 6,000 Americans in 2014, the most recent year with data available from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“To me, it’s the most democratic memorial in existence,” said Rhoad, who has been The NAMES Project president since 2001. “It is made by the people for the people they love. To me, that animates democracy in way that no other monument or memorial does. I think that’s part of its potency.”

Graphic by Erik Hall

Behind the panels

Sue Schectman said she still regularly thinks about Mark Metcalf.

Thirty years ago, Schectman made a panel for her friend, Metcalf, and it was included in The Quilt’s Oct. 11, 1987, unveiling in Washington, D.C. Metcalf died by suicide July 4, 1986, at age 37 after an HIV/AIDS diagnosis.

“My husband and I and he used to go [to the opera] — we were like a trio there,” Schectman said this week. “We would have these sublime moments of music and wine. Whenever I go to the opera, I think of him, and he’s there in my memory.”

The panel she created for Metcalf doesn’t include sports imagery, because that wasn’t how she thought of him. They met while working together for the Environmental Protection Agency.

But with the submission of Metcalf’s panel, Schectman included a letter, which The NAMES Project encourages people to do. She wrote that Metcalf attended California-Berkeley on a football scholarship. Her letter was excerpted in the 1988 book “The Quilt: Stories from The NAMES Project.”

In 1992, The NAMES Project published a second book, “The NAMES Project Book of Letters: Remembrances of love from the contributors to The Quilt.”

That 1992 book included the stories of Johnnie F. Herd and Jerry “Bud” Mullen, Jr. Herd won the Appaloosa World Championship horse competition in 1979 and 1981, and his mom wrote that he became sick in 1985 and died in 1989 at age 36. Mullen, at age 17, won the 1976 Rookie Driver of the Year for stock car racing in Lebanon, Oregon, but AIDS took his life in 1988.

Metcalf, Herd and Mullen are three of the 25 sports-related connections in those two books. The books share a few hundred stories total, but they offer a glimpse at the depth of the people behind each 3-by-6-foot panel.

“Mark was a dear friend, and he told me about sports in his youth, and he was a big, strong guy. He looked like a football player,” Schectman said of Metcalf, who grew up with his dad working for the Naval base in China Lake, California. “When he got to San Francisco, like a lot of men of our generation, he found himself, and he found a different life, and he was able to be himself. Sports was just part of that childhood that really had no interest anymore for him.”

Schectman said Metcalf identified as gay, and at the stage in his life that she knew him, his main interests were art, music, and opera.

“Talking about Mark is always nice,” Schectman said. “I would never have dreamed back then that The Quilt would be what it became. … It is wonderful to know it still is giving to people and in ways totally inconceivable when we were making our panels in our homes.”

Erik Hall is a member of the Associated Press Sports Editors and the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. He can be reached on Facebook, Twitter @HallErik, or by email at hallerik7@gmail.com

Mark Metcalf is not listed as earning a varsity letter for the California football team. California athletics was unable to provide information about if Metcalf was a member of the football team that did not earn a letter. Attempts to contact Metcalf’s family were unsuccessful.