ODE TO TONY: How his influence changed my life

IMG_0650By BLAKE HEMPSTEAD

I hate doing this now, but it may be looking like it’s time. Jesse, Tony’s oldest, and best looking son next to Beth (sorry, I have to make jokes just to get through this), told me a year ago not to write anything that resembled a goodbye. I’ve held back from every inclination to publish a blog sharing some of my favorite memories of Tony because of exactly that reason.

But I can’t hold back any longer.

Tony died Sunday, July 20, 2014, comfortable and at peace with his fate. Why was that easy for him to obtain? Well, because he lived life to the fullest and made sure to pass on his infinite amount of knowledge and compassion to anyone willing to listen. I’m lucky to have been one of the chosen ones in this regard.

Tony is so much more than just a proud Anacondan with a poor sense of choosing professional sports teams, he’s, well, I guess, he’s just Tony. Always with a smile, his IMG_0699patented crippling handshake made you aware he meant business. I always likened it to being Tony’s light switch – with every salutation and handshake came his undivided attention, almost like the whole world was blocked out when he was locked in and hanging on your every word.

You can’t tell me that’s the primary reason why Tony has been able to fight this disease for so long. Cancer could shut down every vital organ in his body, but there was no way it was going to touch his mind, his heart or his soul. I’ve never met a man so mentally tough, so passionate yet so approachable. And what I love most about those qualities is he’s passed it on to every one of his children.

I say mental toughness and all I can think about is Lisa. The way she banged her hands on the floor during a basketball game when the team needed a defensive stop. Or most notably when she robbed current Montana State women’s basketball player, Kellie Durham, of the ball during the 2009 girls’ State A semifinal against Miles City in the Civic Center. Down after the third quarter, Anaconda needed a big run to return to the state title game after winning in the year before over Glendive. Lisa stripped the ball from Durham, the Cowgirls’ freshman then, at half court then hit a spot up trey in transition when nothing seemed to go her way all game. That play reversed a game heading the way of the Cowgirls and spring-boarded the Copperheads past their Eastern A archrivals.

As history would tell you, Anaconda won that game and went on to win their second–straight state championship.

Even with all that success, Tony never let it get to Lisa’s head. He famously, or infamously if you will, challenged the Copperhead volleyball team during their Blue-Silver scrimmage the next fall. Then head coach Joe Mehrens always had Tony give the girls a talk about the game he’d been officiating forever. He challenged them on the spot, telling them to forget about basketball. He told them they haven’t done a thing in volleyball.

The two-time state championship-winning collection of senior girls were not impressed, nor were some of the parents. But Tony wasn’t your typical parent. He had kids who played sports—that he loved. But unlike your run of the mill parent, he never lived through his kids on the playing field. Of all the things I adore about the man, that’s probably atop the list.

When I was a wet-behind-the-ears radio broadcaster, let’s just say I was a little more IMG_3156opinionated than I should have been. Our boys’ basketball team featuring the likes of Zach Parks, Zane Kenny, Rochi Estes, Tyler Hurley, Sam Corey and Steve Antonich were in the State A tournament in Butte in 2006. They lost a heartbreaking opener to Glendive with some guy named Derek Selvig – a future Montana Griz standout – running the point. On Friday in loser out play, Anaconda was roughed up by a physical Miles City squad featuring former Grizzly football O-lineman Terran Hillesland, a 6-foot-6, 300-pounder, at center.

I let my emotions get the best of me that game and called out the officiating, which is a big no-no in the state of Montana. Through my eyes, a homer with a grudge at that time, I saw a three-man crew giving every single call to the other guys—which I know now just wasn’t the case.

A few weeks later, I saw Tony in the stands during the Wayne Estes basketball tournament in Anaconda. He was there to see his daughter, Beth, play with some college buddies from Miles Community College for Laslovich Construction. And I’ll never forget the ass chewing I got.

He came straight up to me, shook my hand, probably a little harder than usual, and told me how wrong I was. He listened to that game on the radio and couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He lit me up for a good five minutes without taking a breath. He told me I was going to write an apology to each and every official I called out and also to the Montana Officials Association for even hinting at any impropriety. He had friends on that crew and felt offended I would do such a thing.

I felt ashamed. At that point I never knew how influential my position on the radio was or could be. And with every written letter, Tony’s words gave me a whole new perspective on the game. Sure, I’m the biggest Anaconda fan there ever was, but now I’m an even better one because of Tony.

The lesson he taught me was simple; don’t blame others for your own faults. Look in the mirror, own up to your mistakes and move on. Tony called me out for being a blubbering idiot that day, and I’m so thankful he did. I don’t want to imagine how my life would be dragging around that kind of baggage and hatred, just because of a game. Because of his direction, I think I enjoy my job even more. I now focus more on the attributes and dedication of the kids on the playing field, court, course or wrestling mat rather than on how many state championships they’ve won as if it’s their only redeeming badge of honor.

I pattern my youth basketball coaching after Tony as well. I’ve never blamed an official for a bad call or a loss, not because it wasn’t warranted at one point or another, but because that’s the last thing an impressionable child needs to hear. The last thing my players need is to start blaming losses or calls gone wrong on an individual who has no personal interest in the game. Instead, they need to look themselves in the mirror, pick themselves off the ground and move on. And if nothing else, use that as motivation in order to get better.

If I’ve never said it before I’ll do it now. Thank you for setting me straight Tony.

I look at his kids and I feel such joy of the people they’ve become. I’ve got to know Kathy a little better over the years and realized just how tough she is as well. Anaconda just wouldn’t have been the same without them.

As for Tony, he treated me like a son, a friend, a man. I don’t know if I’ve respected or wanted to impress anyone else as much as him. I like to think I’ve made him proud at one point or another, whether it was in my conversations about his children or in the past year trying my best to help out in their time of need while he was fighting for his life.

In the end, it was all done in honor of a man who would’ve stopped at nothing to brighten another’s day.

Year after year, conversation after conversation, Tony was always teaching, laughing and loving. It’s just a shame something like this could happen to such an influential individual.

A tip of the cap to Tony. May his Green Bay Packers continue to break his heart from now until eternity, his San Francisco Giants win every World Series the Mariners aren’t in, and may he look down on Melissa, my children and myself and see that I’m trying my best to be the man, father, husband and friend he wanted me to be.

Until we meet again …