Rock & Fire

Earlier this month I attended a concert in the Princeton University Chapel. It was the first time I had been in that famously soaring, awe-inspiring space since February 2015 when we gathered there for Bob Callahan’s funeral.

Thinking about Bob, still sorely missed nearly nine years after he left us, made me think about his counterpart, Dave Talbott, very much sorely missed three months after he suddenly had a heart attack following the death of his wife Ann. I’ve had so many conversations this fall with people who played for or against Dave, other coaches, friends. It has been a constant theme.

Recently, I was forwarded a vast email chain of correspondence amongst former Yale players. There were dozens in the chain, some of whom just graduated and others, like Sam Chauncey ’57, who knew Dave from when he was a youngster. Scrolling through the many comments, I saw in writing what people were saying in person. They remembered the long stories he’d tell in the van and the many hours spinning tales in his office, which was crammed with totemic items like a ball in a Ziploc from a special match. They remembered a young Dave being able to out-run everyone on the team on early-season training runs. They remembered his penchant for nicknames, the jargon and slang he used. They remembered how he stacked the ladder for matches (one extra-large player said that once Dave moved him up just so he could face another team’s very small player).

They remembered the van and bus rides—in the spirit of an earlier era, Dave sometimes allowed alcohol on board for return trips. Once a policeman tried to arrest Dave, and and a player took the cop aside and said, “look, we’re squash players from Yale and this guy is a crazy alum who loves the team and is harmless.” One alum mentioned that he and another teammate, a few years after graduation, hopped on the team bus after attending a match:

Someone from the athletic department who was onboard was questioning us if we were allowed to be on the bus. Coach just shushed him and sent us to the back of the bus because of course it was perfectly normal for two alums to just hop on the team bus completely unplanned and ride from Princeton to New Haven.  

One alum wrote:

He was so effective at making an impression on everyone he met because he led from a place of love—love of the game, love of the team, love of the individual—and that was infectious. He accepted who you were and that gave you the license to become what you’d be. And being around him, you trusted everything would be alright because he always had an absurd story of someone being in a tight spot and everything ending up just fine. 

One alum wrote about practice on the afternoon of 11 September 2001:

Dave didn’t cancel practice.  He had us circle up and hold hands on court one and I’m pretty sure we just talked for two hours. As always, it was a very diverse team, but looking back it was a simple gesture to have everyone listen to everyone’s reaction to it. 

One player, one of the greatest to go through Yale under Dave, ended the chain by writing:

Amazing to think how many players passed through with Dave who had such powerful formative relationships with him, and that he fostered such intense love and affection across so many years and with such a diverse group of people. As a coach now myself, I can see how much of himself he gave to each of us who passed through there, and how difficult it is to make that type of connection with each and every player. He was a master at that, and I think that was his super power as a coach. 

He concluded the way all the players signed off after they wrote their message: Rock & Fire.