No Man Is an Island (Not Even Revis)

Darrelle Revis (left) breaks up a pass

“No man is an island—except for Darrelle Revis,” a sports commentator said the other day. Revis is the cornerback extraordinaire for the New York Jets, a player who sparked New York’s win against the Miami Dolphins Monday night with a 100-yard interception return for a touchdown. Some people think he’s the best “shut down cornerback” to play football since the legendary Deion Sanders.

The literary allusion, of course, is to John Donne’s “Meditation 17,” the famous reflection on death that also features the line, “Ask not for whom the bell tolls.” It got pulled into a football conversation because Revis is often referred to as “Revis Island” because of how he is often placed in single coverage on the opposition’s best receiver. Not many cornerbacks can handle such a responsibility without defensive help, but Revis is so successful that some quarterbacks don’t even throw in his direction. Those receivers who receive passes on Revis Island often pay a price.

So does Donne’s meditation apply to Revis? Let’s have some fun and find out. The meditation begins with the image of a dying plague victim hearing the funeral bell but not realizing it is tolling for him. From this image Donne goes on to note that we are all connected. The bell tolls for us, even if someone else is dying, because we will all die eventually. In identifying with the plague victim, we acknowledge that God will eventually join us all together after death. We are a common humanity:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

So the quotation is misapplied. Revis may be very good, but a football team is, above all, a unit, not a bunch of individuals. In fact, a team is so interconnected that, if one player screws up, the team as a whole “is the less.” A missed assignment can lead to compensatory defensive action which can open up a hole in the defense which can result in a touchdown pass. Any Jet who stumbles diminishes Revis because the cornerback is involved in the general fate of the team.

And while we’re on the subject, let’s extend the meditation to our current political situation. Despite libertarian fantasies about going it alone or partisanship fantasizes about marginalizing the opposition, we are all bound up together in the same drama. Employers and workers need each other, as do businesses and customers, warriors and peacemakers, fiscal conservatives and Keynesian spenders, Republicans and Democrats, all Americans and immigrants. The Wall Street billionaire may think he wants to make much more money than other people, but what he really wants is a a thriving middle and lower class, which may come about by regulating him or taxing him more. A bad economy will, sooner or later, come back and claim him as a victim as well.

So as you witness other people losing their homes or being thrown out of their jobs—and as you see your fellow Jet defensive backs giving up touchdown passes to your hated rival the New England Patriots—ask not for whom the bell tolls.  It tolls for thee.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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