Bob Padecky: Callan tournament keeps alive a memory and a message

By BOB PADECKY

PETALUMA— One by one the boys on the Petaluma High School basketball team rose from their bench seats Saturday afternoon. Inside a locker room at Casa Grande High School they walked slowly but purposefully toward L.J., Julie and Heather Callan. This wasn’t necessary. They certainly weren’t told to do so. But what they just heard, however brief, pulled them.

No pushing or shoving here. One by one they shook L.J.’s hand. One teenager hugged the man. Others hugged Julie. Others nodded to Heather. They didn’t say much, if at all. What could they say? Teenagers are full of verbal torrent but not this time.

“Silence,” said Julie, the mom, “usually there’s silence.”

The Callans had just told the team why this Christmas basketball tournament was named after their son, Brett, a Casa basketball player. A car crash took their 16-year-old son’s life in 2004. They didn’t tell the kids they had to move from their Petaluma house within two years of his death, the memories coming from his bedroom, right there on the left, just after one entered the house, were too fierce.

“We want all of you to come home every day to your parents,” said L.J., the father.

In the quiet of that locker room another moment of therapy took place for the family. Every year they speak to each of the eight tournament teams after it plays its last game of The Callan. If the school hasn’t been to the tournament before, the head coach gets a DVD which describes Brett’s personality and the crash, with a suggestion he could show it to his team. There’s a Callan at every tournament game. Each kid gets a key chain in the shape of a basketball with Brett’s name, birth and death and the encouragement to “Drive Safely.” Counting speeches to schools, CHP presentations to throttle-happy youth and other public affairs, L.J. estimates 20,000 key chains have been distributed in the past nine years.

“This tournament is our Christmas,” L.J. said.

The Callans never know who is listening, who takes it in, who, at that critical moment, pauses, and takes the foot off the gas pedal. They can surmise it matters — if only for the looks they see on the faces. Like the ones Julie saw seven years ago.

Paul Cronin, the football coach at Cardinal Newman, called the Callans. Seems like he had four players in need of a reality check. Could you come to the school and talk to them?

“Have them meet me at Brett’s gravesite,” Julie responded.

Julie and the four boys stood over the grave at Cypress Hill Memorial Park in Petaluma.

“This is my son,” she began.

At first, there was silence. Then tears. Then silence. Then tears. On and on it went, this dose of reality bouncing back and forth between one of two emotions. There’s no in-between reaction like “OK, I’ll think about it.” This is not like sending back a bottle of wine because it tastes too fruity. This is no middlin’ moment. Then again, this was no middlin’ kid.
Any parent who loses a child has that rock-hard pit lodged permanently in the stomach. And every one of those parents knows he and she are not alone. Every one of those parents has an Alex to walk beside them.

Alex met Brett when they were sixth-graders at Sheppard Elementary School in Santa Rosa. They became so close that Alex would come to Brett’s home to help him finish his chores — “because Brett didn’t want to do them,” said Alex. “So yeah, I washed dishes and vacuumed the carpet and did laundry.”

Makes the bro’ hug seem a faint compliment.

Both boys ended up at Casa. Alex would see first-hand why he loved his buddy, and why so many others did as well.

“Brett was never judgmental,” Alex said. “He took people as they were. He was the kinda kid you wanted to be around because you felt safe.”

An example: One day at school a girl was getting a bunch of adolescent sarcasm dumped her way. Brett only knew her by sight but stepped in and said firmly, “Knock it off!” The shrillness stopped. The girl shuffled to a luncheon table, slumped over, by herself, the weight of a teenage world on her shoulders. Brett saw it, walked over, sat down next to her and started talking. To a girl he didn’t know.

“Brett had empathy,” said Alex.

You may be wondering right about now why I have referred to Alex only by his first name. That’s because of what happened to his last name.

He was Alex Webb at Casa. Now 26 he is Alex Callan. He changed his name to honor his friend. He and his wife, Rochelle, are expecting. If it’s a boy his name will be Brett.

Alex has a Brett tattoo on his arm. As a seventh grader Brett went to a convention in Washington, D.C. A souvenir of that trip is a metal dogtag with the date and place stamped on it. Alex hasn’t taken it off since the day he put it on 10 years ago.

“To me,” Alex said, “Brett is my angel.”

That’s the kinda kid Brett was. That’s the kinda kid who inspires other kids — L.J. estimates at least 20 — who have Brett tattoos on their shoulders.

This is the kinda story that grabs the room. The Callans began public speaking 10 months after his July 3 passing in 2004. They have spoken at every high school assembly in Sonoma County except Analy. For eight years they spoke every month at the “Every 15 Minutes” program at a CHP facility, their presence statistically relevant: Car crashes are the leading cause of death among teenagers. They can only guess but the parents think they have given around 200 speeches.

“It really gets to people,” said Jon Sloat, a CHP public information officer, said of the Callan’s presentation.

Julie, a bookkeeper, and L.J., a deli owner, have seemingly performed magic tricks to splice all this speaking with their day jobs. They go to every Casa home basketball game and to almost every Casa road game. At The Callan either the parents or Heather — two years Brett’s junior — are at every game.

“I wasn’t done being a mom,” Julie said.

At this rate it may never happen. Julie and L.J. are at the ready, any time, without charge. They decided 10 years ago they were going to face the rest of their lives not hiding behind a curtain. Each year they give a cash award to a Casa student to be applied to a college education. Casa’s basketball coach, James Forni, has assembled a virtual army of tournament volunteers.

“I try to say Brett’s name at least once a day,” L.J. said.

They know the consequences of hiding.

“The divorce rate is high,” L.J. said of bereavement couples.

For 10 years they have kept putting the message out there, putting it out there into the unknown, not knowing if it takes seed and grows into a maturity not always associated with adolescence. They do it because they feel they must, otherwise Brett’s name might fade into a grey footnote.

“We don’t want any parent go through what we went through,” L.J. said.

CHP’s Sloat said there is no hard data to determine if the Callans have made a difference. That statistic would require the apparently unfathomable: A teenager calling up and telling the Callans, “I thought of Brett the other night when I was tempted to show off to my friends. I decided not to do something stupid and reckless. Thank you very much.”

So the Callans live each day with hope, the hope which balances that stone pit in their stomach, the hope that they saved a life.

And if that phone call came, well, you know what would happen.

For L.J., Julie and Heather, it would be the best Christmas. Ever. Or at least in the past 10 years.

To contact Bob Padecky email him at bobpadecky@gmail.com.

  • Rex Faktor

    Important to note that Brett was not the one who made the driving decisions that caused his demise. I notice the driver’s name is not mentioned, and I will do the same…but a critical message to take from the incident I so clearly remember (though I never met the teens involved) is that not only must one control one’s own urges to drive too fast, but as a passenger in a friend’s vehicle, there may have been a moment that the driver should have heard, “Hey, slow down fool or you can let me out here.” A young, enthusiastic vehicle operator in a sporty car might take his passengers’ silence as condoning his reckless showing-off…

    In no way is this to be construed as derogatory towards anyone involved that day…it was a terrible tragedy and we can only hope to spread the lesson learned from that dreadful mistake.