It’s been 10 years since my best friend died, yet I can still remember how awful his jump shot was because it was nearly as horrific as mine.
It’s a funny thing, death. Over time, the faces of those who are lost will fade away, but memories of shared times remain steadfast.
I met Bill Rouse the summer before our freshman year at Penn Charter. We were both fish out of water. I was coming from a sheltered life in Northeast Philly, and he was from a rough and tumble West Oak Lane neighborhood. Elite private school didn’t seem to fit either of us, which is probably why we bonded immediately.
Like Bill, my skills as a basketball player left much to be desired, yet it never stopped us from shooting hoops every day at lunchtime, or blowing off study halls to horse around in the gym.
While I was an unconfident kid with pasty white skin and fiery red hair, Bill was the total opposite: a strong, muscular African American with a build that most athletes would beg for. To watch him throw up air ball after air ball in such a carefree manner helped me overcome my own fears, which was one of the many endearing things that made Bill who he was.
June 11, 2003, the day he died, was one that changed my life forever.
Worn down by Penn Charter’s rigorous curriculum, Bill had transferred to Cardinal Dougherty for his junior year and had dreams of becoming the school’s starting quarterback for his senior season. Instead, after a game of outdoor basketball (surprise, surprise) that afternoon with two friends from Dougherty, the trio went back to one of the other boys’ homes to cool off and play video games. At one point, the boy who lived there, the son of two Philadelphia police officers, disappeared upstairs; shortly thereafter, he returned with a handgun.
The boy, whose name I know but cannot bring myself to write, was trying to show off while holding the firearm. A lone bullet discharged, striking Bill in the head behind one of his ears. He died at the hospital about an hour later.
He always remained in my thoughts, despite how hollow his death made me feel. Last Tuesday, on the 10-year anniversary of his passing, I visited his grave for the first time.
A plethora of emotions coursed through me. First, there was guilt that it took me a decade to confront the fact that he was gone. Then, a familiar feeling of sadness that was just as powerful now as it was then.
Finally, I was overcome with relief, a calm, comforting feeling of knowing he’s been at peace all this time. Engraved on his tombstone was a photo that displayed a familiar smile that he always wore like his favorite pair of jeans.
Although Bill is gone, I carry him with me every day, trying to live my life to the fullest since he never got that chance. I know he’d be proud that I followed through on my dream of becoming a sports writer, one he always told me to pursue.
When I watch the triumphs of young people every week, I’m reminded of the joy that sports, especially basketball, brought to Bill. A lack of on-court skills never diminished his enthusiasm for life, and I see him all the time in the student-athletes I write about on a regular basis.
Visiting him brought back memories of last month’s Northeast Times sports banquet, where guest speaker Phil Martelli told the packed room about the power of “thank you” that we carry in our pocket every day.
Even though I know he knew how I felt about him, I never thanked Bill for being my friend. When you’re 16, you don’t feel the urge to say thank you, probably because you envision a whole lifetime to get there. On the eve of turning 27 and with his death just as painful now as it was 10 years ago, I see now the terrifying fragility of life, and how it’s never too early to thank the ones we love.
If I had the chance, I’d thank my best friend for always cheering me up when I was too tightly wound with my studies. I’d thank him for privately referring to me as his brother to his family, even though physically we were polar opposites. I’d thank him for calling my house on Mother’s Day a month before he died, asking me to hand the phone to my mom so he could wish her well on her special day.
Most of all, I’d thank him for all those bricks he tossed up on the basketball court. After leaving Penn Charter, he returned once to his former school during our junior year for one final game. His skills hadn’t improved at all, but it still didn’t stop him from being the happiest guy in the room.
Former Archbishop Ryan boys soccer coach and athletic director George Todt told me last year that your life is a series of memories, then, suddenly, you become one.
Considering the fact that something so small like a basketball clanging off a rim always makes me think fondly of a best friend lost way too soon, it’s safe to say that Mr. Todt couldn’t be more right. ••