Why I’ll Party This Weekend Like It’s 1985

31 Mar

For over five years, I’ve battled the questions that bounce back and forth in my brain like a pinball careening off the bumpers. Is Jeff’s spirit still alive? When will he contact me again and will I recognize the sign? Is he watching all these March Madness upsets? Is he helping them happen? Does he know about Villanova’s stunning run to the Final Four? Does he even know that his brother goes to Villanova? And on and on. The uncertainty is agonizing.

In the first year after he died, there was no question. Within days after his death, he communicated so clearly that it was impossible for us to miss. On Sunday, November 14th, 2010, the day after Jeff’s funeral, his beloved Giants were getting thumped by the Cowboys, down 19-6 at halftime. I stared mindlessly at the television, overcome by grief and the notion that I was viewing a Giants game without Jeff in the world. Dear God, it was unthinkable. But at the start of the second half, something else unthinkable happened. After the very first play, at exactly 6:00 pm, there was a flash, and several sections of lights atop the stadium went dark, leaving the new Meadowlands stadium in semi-darkness. The officials decided to let the game continue, and two plays later, the Cowboys scored another touchdown and took a 26-6 lead.

Had he still been alive, Jeff would have been beside himself with anger and would have launched a verbal assault on the television. Instead, five plays later, the remaining lights went out. The Meadowlands stadium was pitch black. Jeff had had enough, and I am fully convinced that he found a way to turn out the lights on this debacle of a game. The announcers Joe Buck and Troy Aikman could not recall something like this ever happening before. But if they had only known Jeff…

On August 13th, 2011, while at a Yankees game with Brett, Jeff spoke to me directly. With Yankee runners on first and second, Eric Chavez at bat and Jorge Posada on deck, Jeff’s voice in my ear was crystal clear:

“Hey Dad, Chavez is going to walk and then Jorgie is gonna juice one—a grand slam”

Jorgie was Posada’s nickname and my dead son had just told me what the next two batters would do. I shared this with Brett as Chavez strode to the plate.

I froze in my seat as Eric Chavez proceeded to walk on four pitches, and I jumped maniacally into Brett’s arms when Posada launched a grand slam deep over the right centerfield fence. It was one of the most incredible moments of my life, as well as one that I will never completely understand.

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But communication from Jeff became much more sporadic after that first year, and I became deeply concerned that even his spirit was losing its life. Within our family unit, though, Jeff continued to be at the forefront of our minds, particularly as it related to all his teams and his passions—the Knicks, Yankees, Giants, Barack Obama, great food and beer, and of course…

March Madness.

The most deeply profound moments occur during March Madness. With each extraordinary upset, each spectacular buzzer-beating finish, Jeff’s presence is everywhere. I am moved to tears when Drew’s and Brett’s immediate thoughts in the aftermath of any classic March Madness moment turn immediately to their fallen brother who lived for the excitement of the tournament. And we remain genuinely steadfast in our belief that somewhere, somehow Jeff has a role in certain outcomes.

How perfect it was that this year’s tournament began on festive St. Patrick’s Day, and on Day 2, I got to watch Villanova destroy UNC Asheville in its opening game at a pub near my office with a few friends.

I was in no condition to work deep into the afternoon after my long pub lunch, and so I took an early train home. During the ride I followed on my iPad as an upset of epic proportions was developing. Number 2 seed Michigan State had fallen behind 15 seed Middle Tennessee State and time was running down. With over 20% of the nation having picked Michigan State in their brackets to win it all, this would be one of the biggest upsets in tournament history. I believed it was THE biggest upset, and when it was over, I let out a yelp on an otherwise silent train, and all eyes turned to me.

I had to speak to my boys. I called Brett, who was at work at Philly Mag and should not have been following this game. He was, of course, and we roared together over what had just happened. I then tried Drew, who was also at work, but he didn’t answer, so I texted him in all caps. The matter-of-fact and poignant nature of his response struck a nerve so deep that I had to literally fight to maintain composure.

 

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Of course he did. We don’t know how and don’t even attempt to explain it, but we find it hard to believe that there’s ever been a bigger lover of upsets or champion of underdogs than Jeff. When a given year’s tournament didn’t have enough upsets for his liking, he made sure to let me know how he felt about it:

 

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The madness of that day wasn’t over yet. Hawaii, a 13 seed, took down #4 seed California, and late into the night, #11 Northern Iowa was giving #6 Texas all it could handle. I imagined Jeff in his glory days, flipping channels and screaming his lungs out with every crucial play. But I was exhausted and couldn’t stay up for the end of the Northern Iowa game. My night was not over, though. As a result of my post-traumatic stress, I leave my cell phone on the window sill next to my bed when I go to sleep. At 12:20 am, I was awakened by a text tone that I wasn’t expecting and jumped up in fright. It was Brett.

 

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Brett’s reference to Jeff having “called bank” meant that the winning shot luckily banked off the backboard and into the net, and that Jeff surely had directed the ball to its final destination. His text was eerily similar to Jeff’s Facebook post in March 2010 when Northern Iowa ironically won in an equally stunning upset in Jeff’s last tournament.

 

Jeff 2015 March madness 19

The emotion I felt after receiving Brett’s text on the heels of the one that Drew sent after the Michigan State loss was almost overwhelming, but in a really wonderful way. They each so clearly carry Jeff in their heart, and in these amazing moments, he becomes integral to what is happening. The madness, though, was only beginning.

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If you had told me five years ago that I would one day regain my unbridled passion for my favorite sports teams, I’d have probably responded with an incredulous blank stare. That seemed like a ridiculous notion in the aftermath of losing Jeff, the greatest sports fan of them all. Yet there Carey and I were, side by side on our lounge chairs in West Palm Beach on March 20th, iPads in our hands, watching Villanova’s demolition of Iowa in its second round tournament game. We had structured our day around watching this game in the sun, and it was tough to contain my desire to scream in public each time ‘Nova scored. With Carey and my boys as fully engaged as I am in the tournament, my passion is back, and then some.

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Streaming Nova-Iowa in West Palm Beach

On the following Thursday with Brett home for Easter break, all four of us watched Villanova startlingly dismantle the University Miami in the Sweet 16 round. What an amazing experience it was to be with my family, screaming ourselves hoarse for Brett’s school in his senior year. It was raucous, and I think we scared the crap out of our greyhound Dobi who had probably not yet seen us quite like that.

While Carey was at work the next day, Good Friday, Brett and I took a ride to Jeff’s grave to bring him some flowers that Carey had bought for the spring. We drove there in the pouring rain. As we stepped onto Jeff’s grave with the flowers, I told Brett how amazing I thought it was that both he and Drew had independently texted about Jeff’s involvement in the prior week’s huge upsets. His response took me aback:

I think it’s even more amazing that the rain stopped and the sun burned through the clouds the second we stepped foot on the grass just now.”

I looked up at the blazing sun that had in fact shone down on us just as we arrived. This was the kind of unmistakable sign that we used to receive in those early days after Jeff left us. It surely was meant to show how happy he was to see Brett visit him after so long. We wondered aloud if it was also his way of letting us know that Villanova would pull off a stunning upset of Kansas the next night in their Elite Eight showdown.

The next night Villanova did just that. They took down Kansas, the overall number one seed. It was almost unbelievable. During the game, the network camera showed a fan wearing a T-shirt that said “I Wanna Party Like It’s 1985”, in reference to the year of Villanova’s one and only March Madness championship. I stared at the shirt, and it had a profound impact on me, which I didn’t completely understand until the next day when I could analyze it in a more sober state.

 

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The basketball parallel between what is happening in Brett’s senior year at ‘Nova and what happened during Jeff’s senior year at Middlebury is striking. In 2008-09 Jeff was fired up over Midd’s historic run to its first ever NESCAC league championship. He texted and emailed me constantly with the blow by blow description of what was happening, and he clearly appreciated the timing of it all.

 

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Seven years later, in his little brother’s senior year, Villanova is in the Final Four after having not even won two games in the tournament in any of the previous six years.  For me, experiencing this with Carey, Drew and Brett, either all together as we were for the Miami game, or via text for the others, has been absolutely joyous.

 

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In April of 1985, Villanova won its first NCAA tournament championship in a shocking upset of Patrick Ewing’s Georgetown Hoyas in the final game. I was barely even aware of what March Madness was back then, as I had yet to meet the son who would teach me that it was the greatest sporting event on the planet, and I obviously had no idea that I would one day have a son at ‘Nova.

As the Wildcats were celebrating their unlikely championship, Carey and I were planning our wedding that was less than five months away. On August 24th of that year, we were married and partied the night away at our reception on the 107th floor of the World Trade Center, unaware that years later the venue for the happiest night of our lives would be taken down by terrorists and that everyone occupying the floor on which we were dancing would die. And as we enjoyed a most amazing honeymoon in Cannes and London, we were blissfully ignorant of the unimaginable fact that our firstborn son would one day take his own life.

The point is that the future is always uncertain, and we’ve got to enjoy every last drop of the moment that we’re currently in. I don’t know if Villanova is going to beat Oklahoma in their Final Four game on Saturday, and at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. The first quarter of this year has been a wonderful time for us, and the ‘Nova players have already provided our family with more joy, excitement and bonding time than we could have ever asked for, and the current weeklong anticipation of their next game is energizing.

And so this weekend I’m going to party like it’s 1985, the most glorious year of my life, the year I married my soul mate.

I’m going to party in celebration of the fact that Brett is having the kind of senior spring semester that all college kids hope for. I’m going to celebrate the fact that Drew is living the dream through his sport management and coaching career, and I’m going to revel in watching Carey’s sports fandom continue to grow through the Villanova Wildcats. Last but certainly not least, I’ll be toasting Jeff, who finally communicated with us again on Good Friday and who has been such an important part of our exciting March Madness journey, as always.

While celebrating, I’ll be thankful that, despite having a big hole in my heart, I can again feel the joy in life’s greatest moments. And I love the fact that times like this still make me want to party like I did in 1985.

–Rich Klein

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One Response to “Why I’ll Party This Weekend Like It’s 1985”

  1. Lisa St Johm March 31, 2016 at 8:13 am #

    My takeaway from another heartfelt and honest post Rich Klein post is gratitude. Thank you.
    Big hug.

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