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An Athlete Dying Young

Tony Dispense found release on the squash court.

Tony Dispense grew up small, which is how he gained the lifelong habit of trying harder than just about anyone else. This was especially true in sports. When he played tennis, he'd stay out late practicing his strokes. While mountain biking, he seemed to push just a little more than the other riders did. He grooved his golf swing until it was a thing of beauty.

He was more determined than he was a natural. He'd set a goal and then grind his way toward it. A couple of years ago, Tony told his father that he planned on biking from his home in Evergreen to the top of Bergen Peak in two hours -- a grueling ride. And then he did it. Hard work earned him a trip to the state championships as a high school tennis doubles player. He hit buckets of golf balls until he was shooting below ninety.

At age fourteen, he ran the Evergreen Town Race, and he bowled his first 200 game less than six months after he'd started. His tennis skills helped him pick up racquetball quicker than anyone expected. And when the courts at the local health club switched over to squash about ten years ago, he was able to learn that surprisingly fast, too.

His father, Phil, first taught him the game because he loved it so much himself. But it wasn't long before Tony progressed beyond his father's game -- a milestone that thrilled Phil. "The teacher became the student," he says proudly.

Tony was not a smooth squash player -- one of those guys who look like they're never moving faster than a stroll. But he was dogged, which can take you a long way in any vigorous sport. He rolled on the front of his feet when he walked -- ball, toe, UP; ball, toe, UP -- which gave him the appearance of always being in motion, not just forward and back, but vertically, too. He grew into a lanky man, with long arms and legs, and big feet.

It seemed like he could run forever. Five years ago, I played Tony in a squash tournament. The brackets had fallen behind and so Tony was forced to play two matches back to back. Mine was the second one, and I considered myself lucky; I thought he'd be too winded to offer much of a match. We went to five games anyway.

At our club, squash games are picked up as often as they're scheduled, squeezed between -- or, better yet, in place of -- workouts. As a result, Tony was the perfect opponent. He would play anyone, anytime. He loved to win, of course, and he berated himself (sometimes loudly) for missed opportunities. But for Tony, the pleasure came shot by shot. He kept a private score based on the joy the game provided him. As our club pro, Karen Kelso, puts it, "Squash allowed him to express himself without words."

An individual's love for a sport often translates into proficiency, and Tony became quite good at squash. Our club has five permanent trophies posted on the wall nearest to the three courts, and Tony's name appears on all of them. Squash rankings are numerical, like those of tennis, and anyone who lingers at the wall for more than a moment can trace Tony's progression in the engravings. He'd been a junior champion first, then a 3.5 champ, then 4.0. He was unstoppable.

Eighteen months ago, though, his game slammed suddenly to a halt. While driving down the hill to attend a college class at Metropolitan State College on a snowy February night, Tony was rear-ended by a young, uninsured driver moving too fast for the icy conditions.

The accident was devastating. At first, he couldn't even walk. His mother, Linda, rehabbed him herself. Over the winter and spring months, she steadied Tony as he limped to the refrigerator, then to the mailbox, then around the local lake. When summer arrived, Phil started taking him golfing. Phil would play nine and Tony would sit in the cart. Then Tony would walk nine while Phil hit. One day in mid-summer, Phil planned to play a full eighteen while Tony walked with him. But as he turned to head toward the first tee, he saw Tony hauling his clubs, ready to go.

Still, it was squash that really pulled Tony back into the world. He started playing again late last summer, hitting hundreds of balls against the wall in the empty courts. He flexed his hurting knees and adjusted the white braces he always wore. After a while, he started getting in pick-up games again. Before too long, he began showing up for the busy Thursday-night challenge-court scene.

Indeed, it became clear that, as much as he was playing squash to rehab his knee, Tony was also using the game to repair his mind. The accident had been isolating. Seeing and interacting with people at the courts was important. "He used squash as his socialization," Phil says. "He was a very shy kid. It was nice to see him calling people for matches again."

 

No one was surprised when Tony seemed to bounce back after the terrible crash sooner than expected. This past January, not quite a year after his accident, he won the 4.5 club championship. "To come back to the level that he did was simply amazing," says Kelso.

He returned to his old style of play, too. Tony was a retriever, a guy who ran down everything. A squash court can suddenly seem very small when you play against a chaser. Points go on forever, and when you played Tony, it was easy enough to give in to frustration. He won plenty of games when an opponent, irked at trying to catch him out of position, tried to cut short a rally with a premature dink or ill-advised boast.

Tony went after every ball. No shot -- a drop just above the tin, a lob into the corner, a nick that caught the dead spot between wall and floor -- was ever a gimme. He was one of the few players at our club willing to dive for a shot. One of his regular opponents says he got Tony to dive for four shots in a single rally. "He liked to throw himself at every ball," says Kelso, who tried halfheartedly to convince him to save his dives for tournament matches. Tony simply never gave up.

Which made it all the stranger when, on June 15, Tony committed suicide. It was a Tuesday. On Thursday and Sunday, he had played golf with his dad. Monday he went to work. Sometime over the following 24 hours, he acquired a gun. The next morning, he drove his car to a nearby interstate overpass. He sat down outside the driver's-side door and put the barrel into his mouth. He was 24 years old.

Like many suicides, Tony's was a mystery. He left no note, and he confided in no one. His death represented a difference of opinion with cataclysmic results, and his friends and family have spent the last two months struggling to understand how Tony saw his world.

After all, when we looked at Tony, we saw only a vibrant young man with a loving family. With his long face and close-set eyes and perpetually mussed hair, he could appear mournful. But that wasn't his personality. He was gentle and polite. His closest friends say he was a persistent jokester. He had girlfriends.

In short, Tony seemed normal -- a regular guy just beginning to make his own way in the world. Following his convalescence, he'd buckled down at school. He knocked off the last of his courses, and in May he finally earned that elusive college degree his father had been bugging him about. He'd just signed a year lease on his apartment. "We thought he was at the top of the world," Phil says.

But Tony glimpsed something very different from the rest of us. For reasons no one will ever know, he viewed the world though a lens so black that, ultimately, he couldn't stand it. The experts insist there are always signs if you just tune in, but honestly, none of us saw it coming. "No clue," says Phil. "No clue. Just out of the dark."

News of his death moved quickly through our small town, and it hit hard. His family, of course, has been devastated beyond words. ("He was just the best," says Phil. "My son. My buddy. My best friend.") I don't know anyone who wasn't shocked, though. We approached each other slowly, at the supermarket and coffee line and health club, searching for the missing piece of information that might bring some order to the world again. Could it have been the accident? With the exception of his family, no one really had any idea that the crash had been so serious. He'd suffered seizures and poor vision.

"From that time on," Phil admits, "Tony was never the same." In hindsight, other acquaintances say they noticed it, too. Yet no matter how we tallied the bits and pieces, we couldn't help thinking that Tony's brutal end was a response disproportionate to the sum of those setbacks. In a way, his death seemed more like a homicide: Who was this person who'd killed Tony? It certainly wasn't anyone we recognized.

When a young person dies, it is always a tragedy. To me, it is especially sad when that person is an athlete. Sports celebrate our physical existence at its most basic. Athletes live honestly and vigorously inside their bodies, taking a willing pleasure in the most fundamental signals of life -- a pounding pulse, a deep breath, the exquisite feeling of moving through space.

 

For all his ability, Tony wasn't good enough to win a state or national title. Yet sports are kept alive not by their elite athletes, but by the players who walk onto the court or field day after day for the simple reason that they're having fun, breaking a sweat and, with enough work, slowly getting better.

Tony was one of those thousands of occasional players who breathed life into squash. He loved it fiercely and he took it seriously. In late June, when he was buried, his parents placed his racquet next to him; three of his playing buddies helped bear his casket. These days, on our courts, the game seems a little less vibrant, and things are moving just a little bit slower.


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