The Joy And The Pain Of March Madness

18 Mar

I never knew that the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, commonly known as March Madness, was the greatest sporting event on the face of the planet until Jeff taught me that this was an indisputable truth. I was a fan of professional sports who had never paid much attention to this tournament until Jeff showed me the error of my ways. He taught me so many things during his 23 ½ years—including the importance of living life with passion, about how random acts of kindness can really make a difference in the world, and about how we must do everything possible to love and support the underdogs, both in March Madness and in life.

Jeff explained to me that March Madness was the single largest national forum through which college athletes could demonstrate to the world that nothing is impossible, and that teams can overcome the longest of odds if they believe in themselves and are committed.  He lived to see those moments, yet he died because anti-depressants took away his belief in himself.

With unbridled passion, the likes of which I had never seen before or since, Jeff celebrated those 3 to 4 weeks each year by devoting every ounce of emotional energy in his body to rooting for every single underdog and to railing against referees whom he believed were encouraged by the NCAA to officiate games in ways that would help the big name schools win, and thus maximize television ratings.

Jeff took his first vacation days from work to stay home on the first Thursday and Friday of the tournament in 2010 so that he could spend the entire four days through Sunday screaming himself hoarse as the upsets began to brew. I am actually quite thankful that many upsets did occur in what would be Jeff’s last March Madness, and that he documented the fact that he considered it the best tournament in his lifetime. And to top it off, Butler University, the ultimate mid-major underdog, came one Gordon Hayward half court shot away from toppling Duke for the national championship.

Jeff roared for schools I had never heard of before, such as Wofford, Belmont, Sam Houston State and Murray State. His excitement over this tournament was such that he couldn’t keep it to himself. And so in March 2010, he created his own sports blog to rant about the tournament. And he posted frenetically and passionately on Facebook to both release his own pent up excitement and to stoke the fires of his like-minded friends.

Jeff 2015 March madness blog announcement

The following string of March Madness Facebook posts will give you an idea of what it was like to experience the tournament in our house with Jeff. I was not a Facebook member then, so I have only discovered these recently while going through his timeline, but we all heard these same sentiments loud and clear as it was happening, and our neighbors probably did too…

 

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Jeff Butler status

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And with that last post, Jeff’s final March Madness tournament concluded.  Can you imagine If I had gone up to Jeff on that day and said something like:

Glad you enjoyed the tournament, Jeff, because it’s the last one you’ll ever see. And you know why? Because 7 months from now, you’re going to jump off a bridge and kill yourself.”

He would probably have called an ambulance and had me rushed to the hospital, in fear that I had gone off the deep end. He would have been completely baffled by such a statement and such an absurd thought. On April 6th, 2010, Jeff was as happy as a young man could possibly be.

THAT is why I have not been able to pull the knife out of my heart.

And THAT is why I couldn’t watch the 2011 tournament, which took place just four months after Jeff died. And it is why I wrote a blog post that March entitled, “Call Off March Madness.” I was so out of my mind back then that I actually called the NCAA’s headquarters in Indianapolis and asked to speak to someone in charge about canceling the tournament. They put a very nice middle management type guy on the phone who patiently listened to me rant that they couldn’t possibly hold March Madness without Jeff watching. It was unfathomable to me. He gently replied that while he was sure he spoke for everyone at the NCAA in saying that they were sorry for our loss, calling off the tournament was not a viable option.

It is the cruelest of ironies that Jeff’s youngest brother now attends Villanova, which has legitimate aspirations this year to advance to the Final Four. I can’t even imagine how out of control excited Jeff would have been about that, and I firmly believe he would have put his love of upsets on hold as it related to Villanova’s games. It is outrageous, frankly, that Jeff is not here to see how his brother’s school fares in the Big Dance.

All of this explains why March Madness is probably the most difficult and bittersweet time of year for me, even more so than Jeff’s birthday, his death day, or any other day or time period. The tournament and his exuberant support of the underdogs defined who he was and what he stood for.

But I will not allow the 2015 tournament to be bittersweet.

Our family’s mania for basketball is greater than ever, as Drew’s coaching career began as Assistant Coach at the Hackley School this season, and he is now coaching three AAU Nor’East Lightning teams this spring.

And as this is Brett’s time at a basketball powerhouse school, we are going to enjoy it to the max. His school is poised for a strong run, and as a family, we intend to celebrate every second of it, however long it lasts. The four of us began by attending ‘Nova’s Big East Championship winning game at the Garden on Saturday, which was an awesome experience.

 

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In his April 11, 2007 sports column in the Middlebury Campus newspaper, Jeff closed by writing:

“Oh, and one last thing: a 16 seed will knock off a one-seed in my lifetime. It’s gonna happen.”

In the fullness of time, Jeff’s proclamation is certainly bound to come true. However, with one impulsive and irrevocable act, he ensured that it wouldn’t happen in his lifetime.

Villanova is the one-seed in the East.

The least that Jeff can do, as the loving brother he was, is to use his spiritual influence to make damn sure that Lafayette doesn’t become the first ever 16-seed to pull off the miracle he longed for when it plays Villanova tomorrow evening.

 –Rich Klein

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2 Responses to “The Joy And The Pain Of March Madness”

  1. J. Philip Faranda March 18, 2015 at 8:09 am #

    Richard this is a beautiful tribute. I want to buy you a beer and cheer for the Wildcats now. God bless Jeff.

  2. J. Philip Faranda March 18, 2015 at 9:14 am #

    This is a beautiful tribute. When my late brother passed I couldn’t watch the yankees for the longest time. I relate to the complexity and depth of your feelings about Jeff and his connection to the tournament.
    I hope to buy you a beer sometime soon and cheer for the Wildcats together. I am Villanova class of 1989 and I am smiling that Jeff’s brother Brett is there now. It is a wonderful community.

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