Last week I was on Grand Cayman Island, a sub-tropical paradise of sun, sea and sand. But on Wednesday, the day darkened when I checked the online Enterprise and saw that Dean Naegele had died.
Dean was a big guy - a good measure - over 6 feet tall and solid. But beyond stature, he was big where it really matters -?he had a huge heart.
I've tried to remember when and how we met, but couldn't, which made me realize we'd never met in any formal sense. Instead, for years I didn't know Dean and then, suddenly, I did.
One day I was somewhere and there was this big guy - face covered in a broad grin - who started talking to me, calling me by name, and chatting as if we were buds from Way Back When. What did we talk about? Truth is, I don't know. Nor do I remember any of subsequent conversations, even though we had dozens over the years. But it doesn't matter. What does matter is that after our chats I always felt better than I had before them.
However, there's one time with Dean I'll never forget.
It was 2004 and I was watching the Mountaineers Old Boys playing the final game for the Can-Am rugby championship. Coincidentally, Dean was the team captain.
A note about me and rugby: For years I've gone to our local rugby games. Nevertheless, I understand almost none of the rules, strategies, or anything else. So why do I go? Simple. I like the players; I admire their spirit; and the least I can do to support them is show up and watch. Besides, it's rugby: No matter how poorly it's played, technically, each game showcases enough grit, guts and action to rivet my attention. And that Can-Am Championship game was the best.
It was a close, hard-fought struggle from the start to the final whistle and beyond.
The Mountaineers were ahead with almost no time left, when the other team scored a try. Now there was time only for the after-try kick. The Mountaineers were ahead by one point. If the other team made the kick, they'd get two points and win; if they didn't make it, the Mountaineers'd win by one point.
Everything was riding on that kick, and to me it looked like a sure thing. It also looked that way to the guy kicking it, who oozed confidence. He checked the ball; checked the goalposts; checked his audience; and then in one sudden smooth motion, made the kick.
But that's all he made. He shanked the ball off his foot and instead of it sailing straight ahead between the goalposts, it sailed way off to his left, way off the field ... taking his team's championship with it.
As far as the Mountaineers and their fans (including me) were concerned, it was the perfect ending to a perfect game, and I wanted to record it as best I could by taking a team picture. After some of the tumult had subsided, I asked the guys to pose. They obliged, and I took a bunch of pictures of them - all grinning ear-to-ear, like the overgrown kids they are. Then I left them to their much-deserved celebration.
When I was almost off the field, I heard my name called. I turned, and there galumphing toward me was Dean, that big smile of his plastered across his mug.
"Here," he said, handing me something. Then he turned and ran back to the pack.
It was a Mountaineers' Old Boys T-shirt.
That shirt. I still have it, and I wear it but not too much. It's a keepsake -?of that game, of everyone's joy, and especially of Dean's generosity: After all, he never had to give me it in the first place.
When I read Dean's obituary, I realized how little I knew about him.
I didn't know he had a wife and daughter, that he was retired from the phone company, that he was a guide at Litchfield Park. I didn't even know his first name was Wendell, not Dean.
So, ultimately, I didn't really know Dean. I only knew he was my friend.
And if that doesn't make sense, it's only because you never knew him at all.