Mexico star Dos Santos' decision to play after father's death shows strength can have more than one meaning

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If you watched Jonathan dos Santos stroll onto the field for Thursday night's CONCACAF Gold Cup semifinal against Canada, you almost certainly had one question in mind: How?

Just hours before kickoff, Dos Santos learned that his father, the footballer famously known as Zizinho in Mexico, passed away at just 59 years old.

But there Dos Santos was in the moments leading up to the game, which he decided to play in his father's honor. Alongside his teammates, Dos Santos stood with a smile as he took the field on the same day that his life changed forever.

Unless you've been through it, it's impossible to truly understand what losing a parent does to a person. It's something that I, even as a writer, often struggle to put into words, having suffered through the experience myself well before I was truly ready.

But it's not the act of playing that showed how strong Dos Santos was; the real strength isn't in how you handle those moments in life but rather in making the choice to handle them in your own way.

That choice, all too often, is stripped from athletes. From the moment that sports stars became our biggest celebrities, they've been put on this pedestal and been required to remain there. Their decisions are all too often taken from them, one way or the other, as the public demands of athletes what most would not demand from ourselves.

In moments of loss or depression or sadness, athletes are often required to put their heads down and play on.  And, when they decide to say enough is enough, when they decide to step away, it's seen as a sign of weakness.

They're criticized for putting themselves before the team, for taking a step away from an opportunity that millions all over the world would kill to have.

In choosing to take the field, Dos Santos didn't choose to do so to please people. He didn't do it because he feared criticism from those on the outside. He didn't do it as an athlete or as a footballer.

Rather, according to Mexico boss Gerardo 'Tata' Martino, he did it because it was what he wanted to do because he saw it as his own best way to cope with what he was feeling. That decision wasn't made by an athlete, but by a man.

"Only he knows what he's feeling in these sad moments," Martino said. "After communicating with his mother, he decided to stay and play because, in his words and his mom's, it's what his dad would've wanted.

"Whatever decision he would've made in this circumstance, he has all of our support. It's one of those days where you analyze whether or not football is the most important thing in life or if it's family."

That was Dos Santos' decision, and he should be commended for making it. But in an ideal world, an athlete would also be commended if they decide not to play if, for one brief moment, they opt to take a step back and look after themselves. As we've seen this week, that's definitely not the case. 

Simone Biles finds herself at the center of that discussion as critics from all over the world dissect and discuss her decision. Admittedly dealing with mental health issues in the midst of the Olympic Games, Biles, widely seen as the greatest gymnast of all time, decided to step away. She did so for her own safety, saying that her mental health issues could have a catastrophic effect in a sport as dangerous as gymnastics.

Biles' decision shows just as much strength as Dos Santos, and that's because she made the choice herself. She looked at who she is and what she felt and decided that stepping away was what she needed to do for her mental and physical well-being despite all of the criticism from people who couldn't last a day in her shoes.

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So too has Dos Santos' longtime international, and club, teammate, Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez, who has recently opened up about his own struggles with loss and depression. Having lost his grandfather at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, Hernandez chose to play on. When he continued to suffer, he chose to open up, to speak about all of the things that have bothered him and all of the moments that sucked away his strength.

"When that happened, in that moment, I was very, very depressed obviously," he told Goal, "and I was lonely. But I never felt lonely, in a way. More or less, it was like I was scared of being lonely because I didn't accept myself truly or love myself, but deep, deep in the core, like deep in the bones, because I knew when that moment happened, that takes a lot of responsibility."

"When I lived through the death of my grandfather, I gained a lot of weight," he added. "I was alone, I didn't accept myself. There was like an emptiness."

As people go through life, there are moments where we'll all feel that emptiness. There are times where we'll experience loss and sadness and frustration and anger, sometimes all boiled into one.

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But if there's anything we can learn from Dos Santos, Biles, Chicharito and plenty of other athletes that we see on TV all the time, it's that true toughness isn't based on playing on or even stepping back. Strength is defined by simply making a choice, by looking after yourself in those difficult moments and by doing what you believe is right.

I won't pretend to know Jonathan dos Santos, and I never had the pleasure of meeting Zizinho, which, judging by what those that did have said about him, is unfortunate for me.

But it's safe to say that Dos Santos made his father proud on Thursday night. Not by winning or even by playing, but by showing strength in his own way.