For one writer, difficult assignment spawned a lifelong friendship
Tyler Ugolyn, a former Columbia basketball player, was killed in the 9/11 attacks
Ten years later, Ugolyn's story has remained fresh in the writer's mind
Writer also keeps in contact with family, who continues to honor Ugolyn's legacy
The worst day of my life was September 11, 2001.
The second worst day of my life was September 12, 2001.
The third worst day of my life was September 13, 2001.
I was -- and still am -- a New Yorker. My wife and I lived less than a mile from the World Trade Center. Shortly after the first plane hit, I saw the burning hole in the side of the building. What the hell is that? What the ...
I had no idea.
The aftermath was hell. The odor of burning rubble. The thousands upon thousands of "IF YOU SEE THIS PERSON, CALL ..." leaflets. The staggering disbelief. The need to help; the inability to help. The nightmares. The aimlessness. The desire to curl up under the covers and hide.
Hence, when Bill Colson, Sports Illustrated's managing editor at the time, informed the staff that we'd be putting out a 9/11-related issue, I was both dumbfounded and offended. What the hell could a tragedy that killed some 3,000 people have to do with sports? Why weren't we just taking the week off?
And yet ... I had a job to do. I was 29 years old, trying to work my way up the masthead. I started Googling the names of the missing, names that, a decade later, remain engraved on my mind.
Ugolyn ... Ugolyn. It was a unique last name. A one-of-a-kind last name. According to the flyer that featured his smiling picture, he was a 6-foot-4, 195-pound 23-year-old who worked at Fred Alger Management. According to the quick Internet scan that followed, he also happened to be a former member of the men's basketball team at Columbia University.
Which was exactly the kind of thing I was looking for.
That night -- three days after the worst terrorist attack in the history of the United States -- I dialed the phone number of Victor and Diane Ugolyn. I assume veteran journalists who do this sort of thing enough (obituaries, police blotter, etc.) harden to the task. I was not hardened. As the phone rang, I felt my heart pounding. What sort of person does this? Who was I to ask about ...
The voice was male. Older.
"Uh ... hello," I said, failing to conceal my angst. "My name is Jeff Pearlman, and I'm a writer for Sports Illustrated. I'm trying to reach the family of Tyler Ugolyn for a story ..."
"I'm Victor Ugolyn, Tyler's father."
Silence. Was it a second? Ten seconds? A minute? I'm not sure. But the silence hung there, until I worked up the nerve to ask if he'd be willing to talk about his son for SI's next issue.
"Honestly," Victor said, "I'm not at a point where I can do this."
That was that.
Until, about five minutes later, when the phone rang. It was Victor Ugolyn, and he wanted to talk.
"I'm not sure if I want you to write anything," he said. "But can I tell you about Tyler?"
For the next hour or so, Victor opened up about a young man who lived life with a uniquely joyful outlook. Tyler was a guy who, for his senior skit at Ridgefield High, wore a "WOMEN LOVE ME" T-shirt as dancing girls in slinky black dresses encircled him; a guy who, on a trip to Atlantic City for his 21st birthday, accidentally left the bathroom water running and flooded the hotel. In college he helped found Columbia Catholic Athletes and started a basketball program for underprivileged kids from the Bronx.
He was, to understate, a great guy.
The story ran. Unlike most other pieces I'd written through the years, however, this one stuck. As the months passed, I couldn't get Tyler Ugolyn out of my mind, couldn't stop thinking about his parents or his younger brother, Trevor.
Oftentimes in sports, a journalist reports a piece on an athlete and -- after enduring hours upon hours of cliché -- all he desires to do is run in the other direction. But here, I experienced a genuine kinship. The Ugolyns maintained (and continue to maintain) Tyler's website, and I found myself visiting it weekly. Victor and I exchanged regular e-mails, and I was blown away by both his strength and his desire to keep his son's memory alive. In those notes, he would talk about loss, about regret, about looking inward and wondering if, just maybe, he could have done something differently. There were always signs -- Tyler's uniform No. 34 popping up everywhere. Dragonflies in odd places. One day, I wrote to Victor that my wife was expecting our first child on August 7, 2003.
He immediately replied, "Oh, my -- that's Tyler's birthday!"
Were our daughter to be delivered that day, we committed to naming her Tyler.
Alas, she came a week early (Casey it is).
The Ugolyns and I continue to exchange e-mails and notes and meet for occasional meals. Two years ago, Victor and Diane invited me to Springfield, Mass., for the dedication of a new basketball court at William N. DeBerry Elementary School. That's the goal of the Tyler Ugolyn Foundation -- to refurbish inner-city basketball courts throughout the United States.
Victor asked me to speak at the event, and in the preceding days I struggled to find the right words. Though I never met Tyler Ugolyn, I feel like I know him. His goodness. His compassion. His values. But what could I possibly say?
As I approached the podium, looking out at a sea of children, I crumpled up my speech and removed the Sports Illustrated article from my back pocket.
The words returned me to September 11, 2001.
They returned me home.