ONE FRIEND'S TRIBUTE TO THE LIFE OF DAVID HILDEBRANDT
By Justin Mokerzecki
Friend of David Hildebrandt
I hardly know where to begin.
As someone who works in college athletic communications, words are always supposed to come easy to me, but following the recent passing of my close friend and colleague David Hildebrandt, I am at a total loss.
To say I am shocked and heartbroken that a man as kind, caring and full of life was taken from us so suddenly is an understatement.
When I first received news 24 hours after David had last been seen, I was only slightly concerned. Afterall, David was young, healthy and familiar with the outdoors.
At worst, I thought perhaps he had broken a leg, an arm - maybe both - but that he was hunkered down somewhere hurt, but alive, just waiting to be found.
But as Sunday turned into Monday, then Monday night, I began to get scared for the first time - REALLY scared. Although I had heard news the search had once again been called, I found myself sitting alone next to my computer, helplessly reduced to clicking the ‘refresh' button on my internet browser over and over again in a futile hope to obtain news that David had been found and was safe. I did this until nearly 4:00 a.m.
It was Tuesday afternoon at 2:43 p.m. when a friend from New Hampshire called to inform me that David had been found dead just over a mile down river from where he fell in. I felt my heart sink the second I heard those words.
I was out at lunch with my girlfriend and immediately called our Director of Athletics Louise McCleary. From there, I rushed back to Elms College to meet with her and our marketing director to prepare the College's official statement of David's passing.
Once finished with all of the media requests that evening, I went to dinner with friends, then home.
I sat alone that night grappling with my emotions, trying to make sense of it all, I wanted to find a way to best pay tribute to David's life - not for Elms College, or Newbury College - but for David...as his friend.
As I spoke with friends, colleagues, mentors and former players over the next two days, it became clear that although David was taken from us far too young, he had lived more in 29 years than many do in a lifetime and was beloved by all who knew him.
After graduating from high school in 1997, David moved east from tiny Glidden, Wisconsin (located four hours northwest of Green Bay) to attend Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island.
While there, he majored in food service management and was also a four-year member of the JWU's men's volleyball program. As a freshman in 1998, he was named the team's Most Improved Player. During his sophomore season in 1999, he helped the Wildcats to the Great Northeast Athletic Conference (GNAC) championship, and the following year, a North East Collegiate Volleyball Association (NECVA) New England Division title.
Johnson & Wales assistant athletic director Jamie Marcoux, who has coached JWU's women's volleyball team since 1996, recalled her earliest memories of David.
"I first met David when he came to Johnson & Wales as a freshman in 1997," Marcoux explained. "He played for the men's team, but was an avid supporter of the women's program. He was always quick to help out on lines or with the scorebook.
"He was our school's first Student Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) president and it was a perfect position for him. He just had a leadership quality about him you don't see very often."
It was during his last two years in college, however, that David found what was to become his true calling - coaching.
In the fall of 1999, he met Alan Segee, who had just been hired as Johnson & Wales head athletic trainer.
The two met in the school's fitness center, where David was a work-study student. The two later developed a unique bond through the most unlikely of sports - ping-pong.
"We must have played nearly 1,000 ping-pong games when he was a student," Segee noted. "I'm not sure how we started, but we developed this rivalry."
"David was a very good ping-pong player, but he rarely could beat me. We'd play for at least an hour a day a lot of times, and I remember he could hit the heck out of the ball, but I was a very good defensive player. I always returned his shots and it frustrated him."
Segee, who had already been coaching as an assistant boys volleyball coach at nearby LaSalle Academy for two seasons along with head coach Kristin Hlady, brought David aboard as an assistant coach during his last two seasons as a student at Johnson & Wales.
During David's final semester as a senior in 2001, he, Hlady and Segee took over LaSalle's girl's volleyball program and led the team to the Rhode Island Division II state championship.
"We needed an assistant coach one year at LaSalle and I immediately thought of David," Segee said. "I saw he really wanted to get into coaching. He knew the fundamentals and had a special drive that not many coaches possess."
After graduating in 2001, David, who was just 22, applied for and was hired as the men and women's head volleyball coach at Newbury College in Brookline, Massachusetts.
Mike Tully, then the Athletic Director and Men's Basketball Coach at Newbury, remembered David's early years within the coaching profession.
"We were still transitioning to a four-year college at the time and it was a good place to give someone young and eager an opportunity," Tully noted. "David was referred to me by John Parente (Johnson & Wales Athletic Director). I remember John telling me ‘I know he's young and he's not going to have a lot of experience, but he's someone you need to talk to.'"
"When I hired him, I saw somebody who was passionate about volleyball, and if you're going to coach in Division III, you have to be passionate," Tully explained.
Andrea Bertini, who was hired as the women's basketball coach at Newbury within a week of David's hiring in 2001, humorously recalled memories of their early years as coaching colleagues.
"During our second years, both of our teams were a little short on numbers due to injuries and I remember loaning him three of my players to sit the bench just in case any of his players got injured," Bertini explained. "It was the most comical college women's volleyball warm-up in the history of the sport."
Later, David returned the favor by serving as a practice player during the women's basketball season.
"His favorite NBA player was Dennis Rodman and he was exactly like him, right down to how he shot the ball," Bertini said. "He was always trash talking to my players too."
Bob Benson, who first became friends with David when both played in the Cambridge Volleyball Association, was hired by David as his assistant with both the men and women's teams at Newbury in 2004.
From there, the two developed an even closer bond, which Benson attributes much of Newbury's unprecedented success to.
"David always wanted to learn and improve and he was always willing to take others opinions into consideration," Benson explained. "I think because of that, our coaching styles meshed well. If we tried something new in practice or a match and it worked, great, and if not, we threw it away and tried something else."
Benson went on to explain what made David such a good friend to those whose lives he touched, particularly his players.
"If they needed help academically or feeling homesick, his door was always open."
What made David even more unique, according to Benson, was his passion for life.
"He was passionate about whatever he was doing in the moment, whether it was coaching a match, playing softball or reading a biography. He especially enjoyed reading biographies on famous athletes and wanted to know what made them tick."
Ken McNeeley, who David always called his first ‘big time recruit', played at Newbury for four years from 2004-2007.
McNeeley, who had several offers, including some from Division I schools, explained why he chose Newbury.
"I wanted to play for a younger coach who I could also consider a friend," McNeeley said. "He did really well in adjusting to different personalities who might want to be coached differently.
"What I also liked about him was that he wasn't necessarily set in his ways like a lot of coaches are. He was willing to adapt his style and try new ideas to make us successful."
McNeeley remembered a funny moment involving David during the team's Spring Break trip through the mid-Atlantic in 2007.
"We were all at my house in Maryland one night and David was trying to play Guitar Hero, which had just come out that year," McNeeley said. "I don't remember the song he was trying to play, but he had it on the easiest setting and was still doing a terrible job. We all had a good laugh about that."
Jadine Ferri first met David when he coached her junior varsity team during her freshman and sophomore years at LaSalle Academy.
Even after David left, she remained in touch, and eventually played for him at Newbury for four years from 2003-2006.
"He was always there for me all throughout high school and he knew I wanted to play college volleyball," Ferri said. "He knew how hard I worked and I knew how hard he worked as a coach. The choice was an easy one for me when it came time to select a college. I knew I wanted to play for him."
"He always kept in touch with me even after he left LaSalle," Ferri remembered. "What was so comforting for me about David was that he had not changed one bit from the time I first met him as a freshman in high school. He was always the same person."
David's life outside volleyball was just as passionate. He played for the Beantown Softball League in the greater Boston area, and also a recreational basketball league in the city as well.
I always remembered how his eyes would light up whenever he started talking about the regional and national trips his softball teams were going to compete in each year.
For me, however, it took his death to realize that for David, it was the friendships he made through softball, and not the sport itself, that made playing so special to him.
Two weeks before his death, David was here at Elms College running our girls volleyball summer camp. During his final evening, we got together and played nine holes of golf, as we had done several times throughout the last four years.
Neither of us shot well (I carded a 44, he "couldn't remember" his score), but we had fun for those two hours. We talked about everything - his plans for the upcoming season at Elms College, when he was finishing the big move "out west" to Springfield, and his upcoming camping trip to New Hampshire with his softball friends. I will carry the fond memories of that simple evening of golf forever in my heart.
Although I am still saddened by his death, what makes me even sadder is realizing all the lives at Elms College - and beyond - that he will never have the opportunity to impact.
After talking to so many of his friends and colleagues in preparation for this tribute, however, I do take comfort in learning just how many lives he DID impact in such a short life.
To all of David's family, and especially his mother: Please know that although he had moved far from home and had made a happy and fulfilling life for himself here in New England, David's heart also belonged to you...and his beloved Wisconsin. I pray that in time, God will give you the strength to somehow move forward from this unimaginable loss.