Commentary

Repurposing tragedy

A Rhode Island teenager's legacy lives on thanks to his best friend's efforts

Updated: December 27, 2013, 12:54 AM ET
By Scott Barboza | ESPNBoston.com

Court LogoCourtesy of Todd MeleneyNarragansett High will unveil its new court, dedicated to the memory of Chad O'Brien, on Jan. 4.

Judy Vespia emerges from the kitchen with piping-hot dish in hand. Like any good Rhode Island, Italian grandmother -- or at least someone who identifies herself as such, despite her Georgian and French-Canadian roots -- she's prepared a full-fledged, five-course meal. It's all made from scratch.

Next up, seafood casserole, baked to perfection, with a side of broccoli; this is just course No. 3, following the Insalata Caprese.

Whenever there are guests, she cooks. She insists. And there are guests tonight. It's a relatively small gathering, though, and the plentiful portions are already weighing them down. Her two grandsons, Dylan, 17, and Tyler Gershkoff, 15, sit opposite her husband, Vin Vespia, who's at the head of the table. Her "adopted grandson," Todd Meleney, smiles at her from across the table as she lays out the oblong dish.

In the background, there's the crackling of muffled voices over walkie-talkies. Vin is off the clock, but he's always on-call. As chief of the South Kingstown police department, the constant squawking of dispatchers over the scanner is just part of the ambiance of home. Then there are the phone calls, many of which come at odd hours of the night.

"Whenever you get those calls, your heart skips a beat," Judy says. "It almost always is because something's gone wrong."

There's a certain duality that's inherent to police work -- or that of any civil servant. The job is to go about tidying up messes, helping out when others cannot. Although involved in the resolution to whatever particular situation, the job requires observation -- always a participant, but always a third party.

[+] EnlargeChad O'Brien and Todd Meleney
Courtesy of Todd Meleney Best friends and Narragansett Class of 2006 teammates Chad O'Brien and Todd Meleney grew up playing sports together.

Bad things happen around you, but not to you.

"You never expect that call is about you," Judy says.

Letting her fork settle on the edge of her plate, she begins her recollection of a dark night in November 2006. There are snippets of frantic moments, all coming to a confluence.

"I remember Tyler had such a bad earache that day. He was really in agony. I was upstairs with him, he was yelling with pain when Vin got the call. I just remember hearing Vin, he kept saying, 'Where is he?'"

(Silence.)

"'Where is he?' I knew at that point something was wrong. Usually, he'll say, 'I'll be right there,' and then he's gone. This call was different."

(Silence.)

"Then, he said, 'What kind of gun is it?'"

(Silence.)

"'What kind of gun is it?'"

Vin's gun case was empty.

***

On a Sunday evening this past February, Todd Meleney stepped into a coffeehouse in Newport, R.I. A tall figure with a fair complexion and striking blue eyes, the 25-year-old Narragansett native was a bit run down by the struggle he'd found in trying to memorialize his best friend.

When he talks about Chad O'Brien, Meleney's eyes are wide. When he talks about the project he and O'Brien's family have prepared in O'Brien's memory, he talks with a passion that's something of a religious zealot. But the process has worn on him, too.

He has done his homework. He came prepared with stacks of binders filled with PowerPoint presentations, testimonials, cost quotes and a comparative analysis of playing-surface options for a new basketball/multipurpose court.

"I feel like I've become an expert on these things," Meleney said.

In 2006, Meleney lost O'Brien, his "best friend and brother."

Meleney was childhood friends with O'Brien. They met each other in grade school, sharing bus rides together. They swam at the town beach, rode bikes and played hoops around the Pettaquamscutt neighborhood. They grew closer through high school, as they went on to play on Narragansett High's varsity basketball team.

It seemed everything O'Brien touched turned to gold. He was a four-sport varsity athlete (basketball, football, track and field and cross country) at Narragansett, and Meleney constantly found himself in awe of O'Brien's play on the court.

"The truest thing I can say about him is that he was relentless," Meleney said.

Aside from his athletic prowess, O'Brien was an All-American kid. The honor student signed yearbook copies for his classmates in the Class of 2006 with the motto "Love life."

When college came, the friends were separated by distance, as Meleney headed to Western New England University in Springfield, Mass., while O'Brien stayed closer to home at the University of Rhode Island.

Over the next few months, O'Brien had grown despondent enough to consider taking his own life. He called Meleney on a November night in 2006 to say goodbye, asking his friend to print a note to his ex-girlfriend as part of his final wishes.

[+] EnlargeChad O'Brien
Courtesy of Todd Meleney Chad O'Brien starred on Narragansett High's basketball team seven years ago.

Away at school, Meleney tried over the phone to quell the tempest of emotion O'Brien was immersed in.

"I was trying to get him help, but there was nothing I could physically do because I was away," Meleney said.

Meleney began racing east across the Mass Pike while simultaneously trying to find O'Brien, who left a family dinner gathering that night at the home of the Vespias (his grandparents), and informing the police of the situation. Back home, Meleney's mother, Kathy, scoured the streets of Narragansett trying to find O'Brien. When she came upon O'Brien by the side of a road, he had suffered a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He had shot himself with his grandfather's gun. A registered nurse, Kathy began attending to him.

At Rhode Island Hospital, O'Brien clung to life even as it seemed improbable. With the conditioning of an athlete and an avid surfer, his heart wouldn't give out even as the rest of his body failed.

"He was mentally tough, he was physically tough, he was a leader," Meleney said. "He was someone everybody looked to -- that's why it was so much more devastating. It's something like the stars falling right in front of your face."

Chad O'Brien was pronounced dead on Nov. 17, 2006, just a few months after graduating high school.

***

During the last conversation Meleney had with him, O'Brien had requested he print out the letter to his ex-girlfriend to deliver to her. It was on O'Brien's laptop at his mother's house, so he gave Meleney the password: "Nothingisimpossible."

The slogan, taken from a sneaker company's promotional poster that hung in O'Brien's room, has become Meleney's mantra.

In the years since O'Brien's death, his family and a group of his local friends sought to preserve his memory. The Chad O'Brien Scholarship Award has provided $20,000 to Narragansett High seniors for college over the past seven years. After the fund was established, a surfing competition was established to benefit the fund, drawing on O'Brien's love of the sport.

As the event grew, the O'B Surf Group filled up the endowment for the scholarship, and the group began to turn its attention to another need in town. Narragansett High's gymnasium hadn't been touched since 1975. Its multipurpose rubber floor, on which the school's basketball, volleyball and wrestling teams compete and physical education classes are held, was in dire need of replacement. In several spots, there were holes on the surface.

The group, led by Meleney and the Vespias, began to consider a project to fund Narragansett's gym and its anticipated renovations, with the understanding it would be named after Chad -- a former captain of the Mariners basketball team.

"The basketball court and renovations were on our list of items to be done," Narragansett Schools superintendent Kathy Sipala said. "When the group became involved in June of 2012, we knew we were going to do this anyway, but we needed to find how might this gift enhance our project."

However, Meleney's initial attempts to launch the conversation of giving the financial gift to the town were largely rebuffed.

The immediate hurdle was a longstanding town and school district policy that prohibited naming public buildings after people. To that, there were exceptions; for instance, the high school's athletic field is named after former teacher and coach Tom Ashley.

But when Meleney broached the issue of naming rights, and attaching O'Brien's name to the gym, there was immediate pushback.

When asked this summer whether the fact that O'Brien's death was a suicide was an initial deterrent to attaching his name to the project, Sipala said, "There were differing opinions. As is the case with any city and town and every decision you make, you're going to get somebody's differing opinion. There were some, and that was where we were at a place that we weren't coming to an agreement as to what was the appropriate honor."

In reporting this story, attempts to reach Narragansett High athletic director Richard Adham, who was on staff while O'Brien attended the school, were not returned.

In August 2012, following the O'B Surf Group's first proposal to the school district, the South County Independent (the area newspaper) penned an editorial that took issue with the group's desire to have control over the design and their requirement that the town basketball program also have use of the space, cautioning the town council against breaking its policy of naming public buildings after people in this case. The piece concluded with this assertion:

"We think everyone involved ought to be wary, and should not begin to consider it unless the group becomes more transparent and less controlling. And even then, the Town Council should give hard thought to the precedent they would set in agreeing to name the gymnasium after a young man who was just starting out in life, as loved and missed as he may be."

***

Meleney keeps a reminder with him from the day his best friend decided to take his own life. When trying to talk O'Brien down, Meleney scrawled out "Nothing is impossible" on a strip of paper, as requested. He stores it in a safe at his home.

[+] EnlargeDylan and Tyler Gershkoff
Scott Barboza/ESPNBoston.comChad O'Brien's half-brothers, Dylan and Tyler Gershkoff, attend Narragansett and will play on the court bearing their brother's name.

"He told me to tell his parents that he loved them," Meleney said. "And he told me it wasn't goodbye, it was see you later."

That final conversation has prompted Meleney to make sure his relationship with O'Brien endures. He admits that, for a time, he wrestled with pangs of guilt over being far away from his friend in a time of dire need.

"I feel like I wasn't there when he needed me most, to be honest, and that really hurts," Meleney said. "In some ways, that has fueled me. It's not something that I could have ever changed or predicted, it was just the natural progression of life, but I wish things could have been different."

And so, Meleney embarked on his quest to make sure Chad O'Brien would forever be a part of Narragansett High School.

Working through the town political process, the O'B Surf Group finally hashed out the details of a meaningful gift. In September, Narragansett's school committee voted to approve the $150,000 gift of a wooden floor to the gym renovation project. In addition, the group gave an additional $10,000 to the school for the introduction of a mental health program, which will offer counseling services to students.

In return, the parquet will bear the name the "Chad Thomas O'Brien Court."

Its dedication is set for Jan. 4.

The donation and the amendment of the town's gifting process have also had a secondary effect. Recently, another group came forward with a $135,000 donation toward the refurbishing of Narragansett's outdoor track.

"It's crazy to even say this, but everything that happened, which is by far the biggest tragedy of my life, this has shaped my entire life -- my career, my mentality, the way I view relationships and friendships," Meleney said. "I don't know what I'd be doing if this had never happened."

Now Meleney looks forward to his men's recreation-league games on the new floor this summer. Also, O'Brien's half-brother, Dylan Gershkoff, will get to play his home games with the Mariners on the court.

"I remember doing dribbling drills with [O'Brien] in the garage, and it seemed like what he was doing was impossible," Dylan said. "Some of our closest friends remember Chad. I'm sure people know of him, and some people don't know that he was my brother. I think it'll take some explaining. I don't think kids will know what it's about at first, but once the floor's done, I think they'll understand."

While O'Brien's memory is alive, the holidays remain a difficult time of the year for his family. Vin Vespia said they've been "incomplete" since O'Brien passed.

A joyful time of the year has often brought introspection, and it has brought insight to life's ultimate questions as well.

"The Lord sometimes throws you curves and puts mountains in front of you," Vin said. "It's our job to climb them. We need to climb them because of his brothers and his best friend [Meleney] and his mom. It's helped us immensely to keep him a part of our lives."

Scott Barboza

Reporter, ESPNBoston.com
Scott Barboza joined ESPNBoston.com as a high schools editor/reporter in May 2010. He spent the previous three seasons working in the New England Patriots media relations department after a stint at the Taunton Daily Gazette, where he covered everything from Little League baseball to the Boston Red Sox.

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