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Princeton's Brendan Connolly makes father, late mother, proud

The best man I know is Patrick Connolly.

The best man I know is euphoric right now.

The best man I know deserves to be. His son, Princeton sophomore center Brendan Connolly, just helped the Tigers advance to their first NCAA tournament in seven years. In Saturday's 63-62 triumph over Harvard for the Ivy League title, he scored nine points and added three rebounds.

The best man I know is giddy. Ecstatic. On top of the world.

Which makes me giddy. Ecstatic. On top of the world.

He has lived through the depths. On Feb. 21, 2003, the best man I know lost his beloved wife. Her name was Cindy Connolly. She was 43, a native of St. Petersburg, Fla., who -- through a dogged work ethic and a high IQ -- wound up as a research assistant professor of molecular physiology and biophysics at Vanderbilt. Cindy was a luminous woman -- sweet, protective, a marvelous mother whose family served as her world. She was a deacon at the Vine Street Christian Church and a board member of the Middle Tennessee chapter of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. More than anything, she happened to be an unusually sweet, kind human being.

When she died after a six-year struggle with breast cancer, the best man I know found himself with three children -- ages 14, 11 and 7. "I'm not sure how," he once told me, "but I'll have to figure out a way to do this."

Too often, we anoint people and things as "the best" without giving the matter enough thought. The best hitter, the best dunker, the best ice cream, the best newspaper. My daughter Casey will breezily crown an IHOP flapjack as "the best pancake ever" merely because it sits in front of her, waiting to be eaten (Granted, she's 7).

Yet when I refer to Patrick Connolly as "the best man I know," it is stated without question.

Without one iota of doubt.

Back in the early 1990s, Patrick was my first-ever editor, in the features department of The (Nashville) Tennessean. At the time, I was a too-cool-for-school punk from New York -- a loud, obnoxious, take-advice-from-nobody jerk who insisted he possessed all the answers. Patrick (to his great delight, I'm sure) was in charge of putting up with my juvenile crap. It had to have been misery. Patrick was polite and soft-spoken, a product of the South who refused to raise his voice and who turned to confrontation solely as a last resort. Patrick never cursed and rarely complained. He found the good in every story, and addressed the bad with charming wit. When he had to hit me with a particularly lame assignment, he'd preface by saying something like, "Jeff, I know there are 8,000 things you'd rather do today than talk to the grandmothers of expert waffle makers, but they're having a convention here in Nashville and ..."

I'm not quite sure how it happened, but by the time I left for Sports Illustrated in the winter of 1996, Patrick was one of my closest friends. He taught me dignity and compassion, levelheadedness and understanding. If Cindy brought the kids into the office, Patrick lit up with excitement. He was goodness. Pure goodness.

In the aftermath of Cindy's death, I wondered how Patrick would respond. What happens when light is met with darkness?

Well, here's what happened: Patrick fought through the devastation. Fed up with newspapers, he decided to follow a long-held dream and become a high school teacher. He took his kids on trips to faraway locations. He insisted that life must go on, that Cindy would want her children to live with vigor and passion.

Though perhaps the world's least knowledgeable person when it came to organized athletics, Patrick attended every youth sporting event. He became a mother and a father -- eager to celebrate after the highs, willing to comfort after the lows. As Brendan grew taller and taller at Nashville's Father Ryan High (he's now 6-foot-11), Patrick watched with wonder. "I really think he might have a future playing basketball," he once told me.

"But Patrick," I replied, "you're his dad?"

"I know," Patrick laughed. "I don't understand how this happened."

Indeed, Brendan was recruited by a handful of Ivy League schools and when he chose Princeton his father was giddy with delight. It wasn't about basketball, but seeing his son find a place that felt right.

Now remarried to a wonderful woman named Diane, Patrick will almost certainly make it to Princeton's showdown with the Wildcats on Thursday.

The game is being held in Tampa, a mere stone's throw from Cindy's childhood home. Surely, throughout this week Patrick Connolly will think often of his late wife, of her hopes and wishes for the shy, quiet boy with the bright red hair who I vividly recall waddling through The Tennessean offices.

Brendan will step onto the court as a Princeton Tiger.

Brendan will step onto the court as Patrick and Cindy Connolly's son.

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