Giving thanks to a fallen friend 10 years later

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. ••

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