CHARLESTON, W.Va. — On a recent visit to Charleston Tennis Club's indoor tennis facility, Jane Shuman kicked a tennis ball into the wall. She was upset.
Shuman typically avoids tennis. It brings up memories. All the mother-son trips she chaperoned to tournaments across the United States. The images of an aggressive baseliner — her son, William A. Shuman, “Willy” — who had powerful groundstrokes and a heavy topspin forehand and, his mother remembers, “a little crooked smile that just lit up the room.”
Tennis is a reminder of a life cut short.
Willy Shuman was just four days from shipping off to the U.S. Air Force Academy when he was killed in the predawn hours of June 20, 2009. It was not an accident, Jane Shuman will remind you. Accidents happen. No, this was a crash — something preventable. The driver of the 2002 Chrysler Sebring, which slammed into a rock wall on Oakhurst Drive and tumbled into Davis Creek, was drunk. Willy, a passenger, was not wearing his seat belt. “He's forever 19,” Shuman said, adding that it's tough to watch Willy's friends, now in their mid-20s, going to medical school and getting married and having babies. That's the hardest thing, the source of the frustration: “He doesn't get to live his life.”
Willy got to see his newborn nephew days before the crash. He took one last picture with his parents, on their anniversary. And on June 19, 2009, he walked onto a tennis court for the last time — just hours before his death.
His hitting partner that day was a rising eighth-grader, to whom he gave a piece of paper. Ryan Massinople would later return the paper to Jane Shuman. And Shuman would later take note of Massinople.
A future forever on hold
“It's the only time I can really be around tennis,” Shuman said, referring to the round-robin tennis tournament that's part of the annual Willy Shuman Family Fun Night. This year's edition — the sixth — will be held June 5 from 5 to 8 p.m. at the Charleston Tennis Club and will raise money for The Willy Foundation, the nonprofit formed by the Shumans that funds local educational initiatives and emphasizes positive decision making and seat belt use.
You might have seen the decals and signs — often near schools — that look like blue tennis balls with silver lettering. “WAS,” they read. “Wear A Seatbelt.” Willy A. Shuman. The foundation's logo. The Air Force Academy's colors.
The academy recruited Willy to play tennis, and he wanted to go to law school and serve as a JAG officer in the Air Force.
Retired Army Col. Monty Warner, who's taught at George Washington High School the past seven years and whose daughter was close with Willy, said Willy's acceptance into the Air Force Academy was “the exclamation point on his high school career.”
The Shumans still sometimes fly the Air Force Academy flag at their Charleston-area home.
And Willy was wearing his trucker-style Air Force baseball cap when he played tennis for the last time, slapping shots back and forth and sliding around on the greenish-gray clay on Court No. 5 with Massinople.
Tennis goals carried on
“It's what he would've wanted in his last full day, out there sweating, working,” Massinople said.
Late afternoon June 19, 2009, was hot and sticky on Court No. 5, which sits on a hill at Edgewood Country Club. Massinople, then 13 years old, and Willy hit for more than two hours. Willy was “light-years ahead of my game,” Massinople said, the kind of player who would move you around on the baseline and force you out of position, then come in to put the point away.
“He was the classic American juniors player,” Massinople said. Not a “Spanish grinder,” a player who tries to outlast his opponent. Willy wanted to win points. And he could ditch the topspin and hit a flat flamer of a forehand to do so.
Willy was good, really good, and Massinople doubted he'd ever match him. But Willy encouraged him. During a changeover, as the sun began to set, he shared a piece of paper with Massinople. On it were Willy's long- and short-term tennis goals — he encouraged Massinople to make his own.
“Of course I tried to match them,” Massinople said.
Some of Willy's short-term goals were already checked off.
“Win districts.” Check.
“Win more matches at Nationals.” Check.
And the ultimate goal, “Play college tennis.” Check.
The lesson sinks in
Jane Shuman used to tell Willy that everything happens for a reason.
Willy quoted his mom when he addressed his classmates at George Washington's graduation ceremony. He'd started elementary school a year late, so he was a bit older, he reminded his classmates. But, he said, that meant that he got to graduate with the best class ever — everything happens for a reason.
Shuman is still trying to understand why Willy was killed. And she sometimes worries her son will be forgotten.
Through her work with The Willy Foundation, Shuman travels to local schools and, alongside law enforcement officers, educates kids on the dangers of drunken driving and not wearing a seat belt. She's even addressed classes that convicted drunken drivers have to take as part of their sentences.
A student from one of those classes later emailed her. During the class, Shuman had given him a business card adorned with the “WAS” tennis ball logo. He told Shuman that he always puts his keys on top of that card at the end of the day — it's the last thing he sees at night, he wrote, and the first thing he sees in the morning.
More recently, a stranger left a note on her car. The purple sticky note read: “I think what you are doing is wonderful!! I am so sorry for your loss.”
On June 20, 2009, later in the day, Massinople and his father were hitting tennis balls at Charleston Tennis Club when someone approached the court and whispered something to Massinople's father through the fence. The practice session stopped. Massinople's father drove him home, where the youngster's parents sat him down and broke the news.
Shortly after Willy's death, Massinople returned Willy's goal list to the Shumans. And he wrote them a note.
“Dear Mr. and Mrs. Shuman,” it read. “I was so lucky to be able to play tennis with Willy on Friday evening. We played for over two hours. In that … session, Willy gave me a piece of paper. This paper contained Willy's … goals. I hope that your family cherishes this piece of paper. May God be with you in this challenging time.”
Last June, Jane Shuman was near the courts at Charleston Tennis Club when she noticed a hotshot junior player putting on a show.
She's not one to linger around the game, she said, especially if it's a match involving a boy in his late teens.
“It's hardest to watch the kids play,” she said.
But something made her pause. The boy was good, really good, and she asked who he was. It was Ryan Massinople.
Doors to the past and future
“Probably if it wasn't for the foundation, I'd be in bed,” Shuman said. “I'm doing something in his name.”
Organizers of the Willy Shuman Family Fun Night hope to top last year's fundraising effort, which brought in nearly $33,000. Since August 2009, The Willy Foundation has raised around $180,000, according to Shuman.
And this year, for the first time, the foundation has given out six $1,000 college scholarships to students who matriculated through the Willy Shuman Leadership Club as eighth-graders at John Adams Middle School and who went on to spend four years in George Washington's JROTC program.
Willy's room in his parents' house is in almost the same condition today as it was in June 2009. Since he was going to the Air Force Academy and couldn't take much stuff, he'd made giveaway piles, intended for his friends. The piles are still there. The door stays shut.
Jane Shuman might open that door twice a year. She stays away from places he liked to frequent — Five Guys and Taco Bell and Dick's Sporting Goods. She doesn't watch professional tennis on TV. But she's able to be around the courts on Family Fun Night.
“I can't imagine what I'd be doing” without the Willy Foundation, she said. “He's continuing to make a difference.”
Massinople remembers watching Willy hit with one of the tennis pros at Charleston Tennis Club and being awed by his talent.
“Willy was the inspiration. … He was more than just a friend. He was a model for me in what I wanted to be in my tennis career, and as a person,” Massinople said over the phone, calling from Greenville, South Carolina, where he's a rising sophomore at Furman University — where he plays Division I college tennis.
Reach Wade Livingston at email@example.com, 304-348-5100 or follow @WadeGLivingston on Twitter.