The years have passed, but the pain has remained. No, Victor Ugolyn doesn't break down as much as he once did; certainly doesn't mentally replay the events of September 11, 2001 with such gnawing regularity.
But pain? Victor Ugolyn lives with pain.
It was on that horrific day nearly eight years ago that Tyler Ugolyn, Victor's 23-year-old son, was killed with 2,973 others while at his job as a research associate for Fred Alger Management on the 93rd floor of World Trade Center Tower 1.
A couple of days after the disaster, I called Victor. His son had been a basketball player at Columbia University, and Sports Illustrated was looking to memorialize some of the athletes. It remains, in 15 years on the job, the toughest thing I've ever had to do.
"Uh, hello ... My name is Jeff Pearlman, and I work for Sports Illustrated. I was looking for a parent of Tyler Ugolyn ..."
Initially, Victor didn't want to talk. Understandably so. It was all too raw; too soon; too difficult. "I'm having a hard time," he said. "I'm sorry."
Ten minutes later, my phone rang. "Well," said Victor, "maybe I'll tell you a little about Tyler. Just to see ..."
The ensuing 45-minute dialogue led to a piece, PICTURE THIS PERFECT, that I consider to be both the most gratifying and most heartbreaking of my career. Though I never met Tyler Ugolyn, I consider him a permanent fixture in my life. Cliché be damned, through his prism I've thought often about the fragility of existence; of what it means to live richly and righteously and with the vigor our limited spans demand. Tyler was an endearingly confident kid from the upscale town of Ridgefield, Conn., who attended weekly mass, helped found Columbia Catholic Athletes and took myriad young basketball players under his wing.
He possessed about, oh, a half dozen nicknames ("Styles" seemed to be his favorite), and once helped accidentally flood much of the Trump Plaza Hotel in Atlanta City after he and his friends left the bath water running. In short, he was a really good kid. "Nobody's perfect," his father told me, "but he aimed high."
Through the years, I have struck up a friendship with Victor, a retired business executive who is now a private investor. We e-mail semi-regularly, and his letters are often an unorthodox mixture of dismay and resolve. He is eternally searching for meaning, for something to explain why this would happen to his beloved oldest son. Of late, however, Victor's e-mails have come to symbolize an attitude that blows my mind: Steely determination.
Victor, along with his wife Diane and son Trevor, is determined not to let Tyler's passing occur without purpose. That's why, on Sunday in Detroit, the Tyler Ugolyn Foundation, which was established in 2001 to provide support for youth basketball, will be unveiling the newly refurbished court at the Boll Family YMCA. It's the third inner-city court the foundation has either built or improved -- and far from the last. "It's a continuation of what our son wanted to do," says Victor. "This gives us a purpose to continue our son's legacy, and it helps us see the purpose when these crazy things happen in life. Tyler loved youngsters, and he loved basketball. This is what we should be doing."
In conjunction with last year's Final Four, the foundation refurbished the court at San Antonio's Davis-Scott YMCA, then held a youth clinic hosted by Texas coach Rick Barnes and Longhorns point guard D.J. Augustin. The goal, Victor says, is to eventually build and/or refurbish four courts per year. "The pain you feel with a death is directly proportional to the love you possessed for your loved one," he says. "Well, I loved Tyler as much as humanly possible. We all did. But instead of just giving up, we decided to try and do something meaningful. "Something for Tyler."
The Tyler Ugolyn Foundation is a tax-exempt, non-profit, charitable organization. All contributions are tax-deductible, and can be made to: The Tyler Ugolyn Foundation c/o Ridgefield Bank; PO Box 2050; Ridgefield, CT 06877-0950