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A ballfield was born in Rural Pennsylvania on a Saturday in early June, but it was no Field of Dreams. This field was rooted in reality and built with regret by 75 young men, including me, whose lives had been changed by the death of a friend.
On March 20, the last day of winter, we had buried our friend Greg Rowles under an oak tree in the back of the cemetery at Boehm's Reformed United Church of Christ in Blue Bell. At the age of 22, Greg had died three nights earlier in an automobile accident at an intersection less than a mile from his home in Worcester, which is just a couple of towns over from Blue Bell. Greg had been drinking that evening, and he was at the wheel; a young woman riding in Greg's car was killed in the crash as well, and a third passenger, a young man from the area who was a friend of Greg's, was badly injured. The driver in the other car involved in the accident apparently escaped serious injury.
Greg's father, Gary, would later express to me his dismay—his anger—at the stupidity of the accident and the terrible waste it had caused. Many of us, Greg's friends in life, were also very angry about his death, specifically about the way in which he had died.
I had first met Greg when we were sophomores at Penn State and I was rushing his fraternity, Chi Phi. Our first conversation was a heated debate at the frat house over who were better athletes, wrestlers or basketball players. In the end, it came down to a challenge: Greg claimed that he could pin me in under a minute (which he probably could have done), and I stated that I could shut him out in a one-on-one game to 11 (which I probably couldn't have). Over the next three years we must have argued about the topic a hundred times, but we never felt compelled to settle it with the prescribed duels. I'm sure that if we had, I would have wound up with carpet burns on my forehead. Greg was a big, strong guy—5'10", 170 pounds—and had been a member of the wrestling team in high school.
Greg was the type of guy who would shake up a room when he walked through the door. He was the center of attention, without ever trying to place himself there. People rallied around him, they followed his lead. He was known for his sarcastic humor and his boundless energy, and he had a one-liner for every occasion. Among his friends, he was known as the funniest man in North America.
Greg lived his life in overdrive. He had a fierce competitive spirit, and after graduation he was quick to land a job with the accounting firm of Ernst & Young. Once he was settled in Philadelphia, Greg continued to push himself, working late hours night after night.
At his funeral were more than 1,000 people. The crowd spilled into the vestibule of Boehm's church and onto the front steps. The procession that made its way to his grave site in the ancient cemetery, where some of the graves predated the American Revolution, stretched three abreast for more than 200 yards. It was certainly the saddest walk I had ever taken in my life.
For many of us, it was our first encounter with death. We felt the same perplexities that I'm sure other people in this strange new position experience. We thought: How could someone so young, so strong, be gone so quickly? And in such a violent and senseless manner?
Just before Greg's casket was lowered into the ground, perhaps 60 of us gathered around him one more time, hands reaching to touch the coffin, each of us knocking on the box and whispering goodbyes. The hardest thing for us to accept was that Greg was gone and that there was absolutely nothing that we could do about it.
A few days after the funeral, Steve Schmitz, a teammate of Greg's on the Boehm's church summer Softball team, came up with an idea for a memorial to our friend. We had already decided to hold a golf tournament in Greg's name and to donate the funds that we raised to a scholarship fund at his high school, Methacton High. Schmitz now suggested building a Softball field in Greg's memory. Schmitz himself had lost a brother 11 years earlier, and he knew the pain and the powerlessness that the Rowles family was feeling. He brought this ballfield idea to the church's pastor, who then approached Greg's father with it.